|New York City Ballet's Darci Kistler in Peter Martins's production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Copyright 2010 Harris Green
NEW YORK -- The final five weeks of City Ballet's spring - summer season were
particularly newsworthy. Along with premieres of the four remaining
works commissioned for the "Architecture of Dance -- New Choreography
and Music Festival," the company offered farewell performances by principal conductor Maurice Kaplow and four principal dancers. I passed up the opportunity to bid good-bye to Kaplow and Yvonne Borree but the salutes to the departing Philip Neal (June 13), Albert Evans (June 20), and Darci Kistler (June 27) could
not be missed.
There's a crescendo of appreciation at these farewells that never
fails to move me: Much of the audience gets to its feet during the final curtain call for
the cast. Everyone else rises when the curtain opens on the honoree
alone onstage. Female principals enter one by one bearing
bouquets for their colleague. Male principals bearing a single rose
come on single file. In some cases, spouses, relatives and offspring
join in. Finally, ballet master in chief Peter Martins makes grand,
commanding gestures to the wings and scores of dancers, the rest of
the roster of New York City Ballet, stream onstage, applauding as they
enter as everyone in the theater has been doing and will continue
doing for some time as confetti and glitter strips swirl down.
Balanchine ballets dominated these farewells. Neal's elegance was undiminished in his partnering of Jenifer Ringer in "Serenade" and Wendy Whalen in "Chaconne" until his beats in the latter's second pas de deux started to look a bit underpowered. His decision to step aside, like virtually every move
this superb partner has made over the years,
was taken at the right time. Kyra Nichols returned to the stage to
join the parade of grateful bouquet bearers.
|New York City Ballet's Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal in George Balanchine's "Serenade," at Neal's final performance. Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Evans struck a merry note by opening his farewell with William
Forsythe's hokey-jokey 1992 "Herman Schmerman (Pas de Deux)," in
which he wore a yellow skirt to match the one worn by Whelan. "The
Four Temperaments" that closed the afternoon afforded him the
opportunity to atone for the unfortunate 'Phlegmatic' he had danced at
the start of the season with the same worthy cast (Sebastien
Marcovici, Jennie Somogyi, Jared Angle, and Teresa Reichlen). The
awesome formality of this Balanchine masterpiece was firmly
established when the curtain came down, but it didn't last long. Evans
declared war on solemnity. He briefly jitterbugged with Whelan when
she presented her bouquet. When the floral offerings reached the
dimensions of a pile, he rolled around on top of it. Then he took off
his shoes and threw them on as well. Before the
curtain closed, he was gleefully tossing
nosegays that had been lobbed at him from the audience right back out
into the house.
Kistler's farewell performance opened with "Monumentum pro
Gesualdo," an eight-minute Stravinsky-Balanchine masterpiece that is a
minefield of exposed movement for a ballerina concluding a 30-year
career. Kistler's arabesques and extensions were often matched by the six corps women behind her with more clarity and ease, through no fault of her unflappable partner Charles Askegard. Thanks to
similarly attentive support from Marcovici, she brought more authority
to Balanchine's "Moves for Piano and Orchestra," but this arid appendage
to the far superior 'Monumentum' is ballet's equivalent of the
vermiform appendix. (Surgery, anyone?) Kistler insisted
both men come forward with her during their curtain calls, and she did
not let go of the hand of Henry Seth, her Bottom in Titania's pas de
deux from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where she was her most charming.
The finale of Martins's "Swan Lake" was an ideal -- sorry, I
cannot resist it -- swan song for Kistler. Fiery pointework,
180-degree extensions and 32 fouettes are not required in this scene.
Movement is centered in the upper body, where her still supple
line could express Tchaikovsky's tremulous symphonic power. Martins's Odette and
Siegfried do not escape Rothbart's curse by hurling themselves off a
little crag upstage (to belly-flop on an unseen mattress, I can never
help thinking). Instead, Odette must remain a captive to
enchantment because Siegfried has broken his oath of devotion. As
the music swells, she is gradually, inexorably drawn into the ranks of
the undulating corps, lost to him as Darci Kistler, the last ballerina
chosen by Balanchine, is lost to us.
This feeling of deprivation started to subside when a beaming Evans
in a voluminous green dashiki swept on to present his bouquet. It had
vanished utterly by the time Kistler's three burly brothers subjected
their kid sister to some affectionate roughhouse far removed from
the aristocratic partnering she's experienced for three decades.
Martins waved the corps onstage and the farewell moved to its close:
Kistler's final solo call, alone onstage amid flowers
The "Architecture of Dance" premieres were only intermittently
joyous. Ironically, Christopher Wheeldon's "Estancia" (first performed May 29) may have been the most popular of the final four, even though Wheeldon, like Alexei Ratmansky with his "Namouna: a Grand Divertissement" and Wayne McGregor with his "Outliers" had earlier in the season flaunted the festival's basic format: Choose a commissioned original score and work with a three-dimensional "scenic design" by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. Wheeldon ended up working within the format but in his own highly personal way. He selected music that NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein had commissioned from Alberto Ginastera for a 1941 tour of
Latin America by American Ballet Caravan that Balanchine had never
set, and in lieu of a new design by Calatrava, employed one of his existing watercolors for a backdrop; an impressive landscape, it proved ideal for a ballet set on an Argentine estancia (ranch).
I confess my heart sank when I opened the Playbill and found a ponderous synopsis awaiting me: "The plot follows a circular structure and at the same time tells a simple linear love story between a city boy and
a country girl." If the action is this simple -- and it certainly was
-- do we really need so "literary" a 300-word synopsis? And if it's been inspired by an 1873 poem
by Jose Hernández set on an estancia, must we brace ourselves
for more of the dude-ranch costuming that blight "Rodeo" and especially "Billy the Kid"? When I expressed this
dread to some of my peers, I was haughtily reminded that those ballets
were "American classics," safely beyond the reach of such criticism.
Under the circumstances I dared not suggest that Aaron Copland's
buoyant scores just may do more to keep both in the repertory than the
choreography of, respectively, Agnes de Mille and Eugene Loring.
Fortunately Carlos Campos's costumes for "Estancia" proved painless,
including the five for dancers cast as Wild Horses.
Wheeldon keeps the plot moving in his usual, smoothly professional
manner. Having a crowd of tourists enter and exit, pointing fiercely
in all directions, was a slick way to characterize the society that
City Boy (Tyler Angle) had abandoned for Country Girl (Tiler Peck);
having a corral represented by several corps men temporarily holding rails parallel to the floor was
a clever way to create scenery that "Estancia" could have used more
of. Fortunately, the risky anthropomorphism that had Andrew Veyette
and Georgina Pazcoquin doing prancey-dancey steps costumed
respectively as a stallion and a filly proved neither overly cute nor
overworked. An even more risky decision for Wheeldon, famed for
intricately entwined pas de deux set to spare 20th-century scores that
rarely achieve a fortissimo, was creating an ultra-romantic,
moon-over-the-pampas pas de deux for Peck and Angle; not
only was it set under a sprinkling of tiny stars, but it peaked with a
360-degree revolving lift. If People Magazine had
cared about the sort of romantic ardor these excellent dancers
generated, their performance would have kept Peck and Angle on its
cover for at least three weeks.
The major challenge Wheeldon faced was a distended finale that
Ginastera had built upon percussive Latin rhythms. Although assured
that the corps' insistent waving of handkerchiefs was an authentic Argentine
tradition, I had my fill of happy gestures and pounding repetition
fairly soon, through no fault of the orchestra or conductor Clotilde
Otranto. I should report, however, that this aggressive conclusion
triggered roars of approval. Many audience members dressed in
well-tailored attire instead of the casual-to-shabby garb of regular
balletgoers were apparently executives of a City Ballet corporate
sponsor, attending the performance in a group. After "Estancia" one
said as he came up the aisle: "That was great! I've never heard of
this guy before."
|Daniel Ulbricht and the New York City Ballet in Melissa Barak's "Call Me Ben." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Melissa Barak's "Call Me Ben" (premiered June 5) was described in
Playbill as "A Ballet Dramedy... based on the life of Benjamin
'Bugsy' Siegel and the birth of Las Vegas." Barak, who shared with
soloist Ellen Bar the blame for a "book" that includes much numbing dialogue,
cannot be faulted for lacking ambition. Where she fails
repeatedly is in answering such relevant questions as: How exactly does
one show "the birth of Las Vegas" as an oasis of vice & booty in a
ballet? A number featuring two showgirls bristling with pink ostrich
plumes mingling with innocently exuberant corps kids under a
"Flamingo" neon sign doesn't even come close. (This
dramedy also flummoxed Calatrava; his basic concept, that sign seen
from behind and flanked by two-dimensional palm trees, was easily the
most anemic of his contributions.)
Choreography suitable for gangsters and lovers is another hurdle
Barak fails to clear. Leading dancers outfitted with
body-mikes are stuck with dialogue so stilted ("You're going to regret
the day you ever met Virginia Hill") that James Cagney, Edward G.
Robinson, Mae Clarke and the great guys and molls in the Warner Bros.
stock company from the '30s would have gagged on it.
Surely a fiery pas de deux for Ben (Robert Fairchild) and Virginia
(Jenifer Ringer) is in order when he suspects she's helped herself to
2 million bucks of mob dough. As dancers, Fairchild and Ringer could
have seared the stage. Instead, Barak settles for having her betrayal
discussed by a mobster panel chaired by Meyer Lansky (Daniel
Ulbricht). Brought down to earth at last, Ulbricht
merely presides at a conference table while corps guys thrash through
what is essentially a musical comedy routine.
Actually, Gower Champion's choreography for the mobsters in
"Sugar," a short-lived 1972 Broadway musical based on Billy Wilder's
"Some Like It Hot," wouldn't have been a bad model for Barak. Because
Champion's gangsters imitated the staccato of machine guns by tap
dancing, the sound of their taps as they approached proved both funny
Two adorable School of American Ballet "newsboys"
(Kyrian Friedenberg, Joshua Shutkind) took the acting honors. Of
course, they had the best dialogue: "Extra! Extra! Bugsy Siegel shot
Composer Jay Greenberg, a wunderkind famed for getting an exclusive
recording contract soon after surviving puberty, blazed no musical
trails with his generic collaboration. Short on atmosphere and
nostalgia though it was and no challenge whatsoever for music director
Faycal Karoui, this score still upstaged the inadequacies of Barak and
Bar. One prescient comment overheard at the premiere: "It's not ready
to open but it's ready to close." The following week, one performance
of "Call Me Ben" was replaced by Balanchine's "Who Cares?" and for the
2011 winter season all have been displaced by Martins's previously
unscheduled "Chichester Psalms."
|New York City Ballet under Santiago Calatrava's design for Mauro Bigonzetti's "Luce Noscosta." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB..
Give Mauro Bigonzetti credit for the best-entitled festival entry, his gloom-enshrouded "Luce Nascosta" or "Unseen Light" (June 10). Calatrava had designed a stunning golden disk that hovered high over the stage like an immense moon, but it cast minimal illumination on the nine pairs of dancers that came and went in the murk below. Bigonzetti added to the deprivation by having the first pas de deux -- don't ask me who danced it -- performed in silence, and when Bruno Moretti's serviceable score did waft up from the pit, it began with a foghorn-like belch. The men, lighting designer Mark Stanley gradually allowed us to discern, were shirtless in loose-fitting black pants, and the women, their midriffs bared, were in tutus that designer Marc Happel seemed to have assembled from black ostrich feathers that turned most moves into a shimmy. Sometimes pervasive obscurity can be welcome.
'Luce' proved to be what we've come to expect from the
Bigonzetti-Moretti team: a serviceable facility well short of
greatness but shot through with audience-bestirring results. Dancing
ranged from vigorous to ardent to violent, apparently under the
influence of Calatrava's moon. After it began extruding so many
smaller disks of all sizes it resembled a mobile, partnering became
sullen, lifts became grapples and the women were scooted across the
stage while on pointe. Reichlen and Tyler Angle made separate,
enigmatic entrances, each with one hand raised with all five fingers
splayed apart, a cabalistic gesture that had recurred often enough to
become a motif. Moretti's orchestra fell
annoyingly silent once again, possibly to catch its breath. It resumed
with a harp arpeggio, followed by a soothing passage for strings that
set a new, lighter mood. By the time the moonlets had retreated, the
golden mother disk had acquired a silvery surface with a rosy ring
running around on it and the dancers were at peace. Let's just say
there wasn't a weak link in this very hard-working cast and leave it
|New York City Ballet in Peter Martins's "Mirage," with the design of
Santiago Calatrava. Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
There's a wicked irony in the fact that Calatrava's ever-shifting
construction for the festival's final premiere, Martins's "Mirage"
(June 22), quite upstaged the ballet of the man who had brought the
architect to NYCB in the first place. Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin
Concerto, which the company had co-commissioned with the Chicago
Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Salonen had been
music director, also proved as formidable a chore to choreograph as it
must have been to perform. Violinist Leila Josefowicz had to saw away
against a wall of sonorities that sounded more like a concerto for
violin and percussion than for orchestra (which Salonen led with total
authority). The score also proved an unlikely inspiration for one pas
de deux after another. Erica Pereira and Anthony Huxley on stage right
and Kathryn Morgan and Chase Finlay on stage left coped with Martins's
stern demands like the hardy young pros they are -- I regret I missed
Robert Fairchild's two performances of Finlay's part -- but in the
competition for our attention, they proved no match for Calatrava's
looming scenery, a huge circle that had been sliced almost in
two but held together by a mere hinge (company nickname: "Pac Man").
Starting at floor level, it slowly began to rise, assuming a series of
increasingly striking multicolored shapes as it did so. (The one that called up a
giant supersonic paper airplane most intrigued me.) Four corps couples
didn't stand a chance competing against such protean ingenuity.
Somogyi and Jared Angle, two of the company's finest dancers, could
have held their own, had Martins put her distinctive elegance, his
aristocratic efficiency and their fluent musicality to good use. He
fell back instead on the driving vigor he can always dredge up,
and "Mirage" became more an exhibit of kinetic sculpture than a
For admirers of Balanchine's 1970 "Who Cares?," its return was a greater event than any festival offering. Premiered a year after Jerome Robbins's triumphant return to City Ballet with
"Dances at a Gathering" and Suzanne Farrell's tempestuous departure,
it demonstrated that Balanchine's creativity remained second to none
when matched with worthy material, in this case 17 classic George
Gershwin songs. (Admittedly, doubts were raised the next year by the
evanescent "PAMTGG," set to variations on the Pan American Airways ad
jingle that the catalogue raisonne helpfully described as "a
futuristic fantasy on airport procedures," but the spate
of masterpieces for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival swept those
This season two casts of mostly newcomers to "Who Cares?" added to
the excitement. Ideally, Robert Fairchild, a boyish but dependable
successor to Jacques d'Amboise, would have
partnered Tiler Peck, who was triumphant in Patricia McBride's role,
Sterling Hyltin or Sara Mearns, either of whom filled out Karin von
Aroldingen's part to bursting, and Reichlen, who matched Marnee Morris
step for step. Seeing this dream cast in the same performance proved
impossible, unfortunately, and it turned out that seeing a complete
"Who Cares?" was no certainty, either. An early performance
restored 'Clap Yo' Hands,' the often cut pas de quatre danced to a
scratchy but precious recording of Gershwin himself at the piano,
however subsequent ones dropped it. At Philip Neal's farewell, "Who
Cares?" was scheduled, after "Serenade" and "Call Me Ben," but then a
flurry of ballet shuffling broke out. The Barak was dropped,
"Chaconne" was added for the finale and "Who Cares?" was eviscerated
after the opening ensemble of corps & demis. For reasons of overtime
apparently, we were whisked directly to the pas de deux and solos of
the principals, then to the finale and on to intermission. This butchery -- one can hardly call such wholesale excision
"cutting" since that implies surgery -- crippled the audience's
delight in a truly all-American classic. Although Balanchine never worked with Gershwin on
Broadway, "Who Cares?" was one master's salute to another through
their shared medium of the musical show, which they had both
transformed. Balanchine introduced choreography as well as the term
"choreographer" to show business and freed the chorus from numbing
ricky-tick repetition. He slyly reminds us in "Who Cares?" of how
formulaic such stuff was when, during the pas de deux for five demi
couples, the four demi women who are not being partnered gather
upstage to resurrect the stances and gestures and poses he had
banished. The blissful idiocy of the routine where, with a flourish,
they point Here and they point There and they point Here again has to
be seen to be believed. All this was lost, along with the excellent work by demis
Rebecca Krohn, Ashley Laracey, Faye Arthurs and Sean Suozzi (easily
the best of the guys) seen in other performances where their segments weren't cut. If the George Balanchine Trust
cannot prevent such desecration, maybe the Landmarks Commission
For the most part, the season proved encouraging. Too
many current City Ballet corps men lack aggression, but the corps women are so disciplined that when the inevitable
last-minute replacement gets thrown onstage, she immediately stands
out because she is imprecise. The orchestra, now fully
at home in its new acoustically-panelled pit, is sounding better than
ever under conductors Karoui, Otranto and Andrews Sill. No major role is beyond this
generation of principal ballerinas, and the lower roster is graced with several potential successors.
Robert Fairchild, Jonathan Stafford and Jared and Tyler Angle have
already become invaluable partners in the Balanchine and Robbins
repertory. Ulbricht could restore the Villella repertory to its
original splendor if he ever gets the opportunity to follow
"Tarantella" and "Prodigal Son" with 'Rubies,' "Donizetti Variations,"
and Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Fairchild, excelling in every challenge heaped upon him, embodies
the growing assurance of the City Ballet's new generation. Consider
the added glow "Scotch Symphony" acquired after he and Morgan replaced
Ringer and Benjamin Millepied. (Is there a simpler, more effective
finale in all ballet than the flawless way Balanchine matched
Mendelssohn's plangent coda with an ensemble of partnered arabesques,
growing in complexity as the music swells?) Fairchild's
regular partnership with Hyltin guarantees an exciting performance, as
in the breathtaking lifts and dangerous catches in the 'Intermezzo' of
"Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet." I suspect they could also transfuse the
'Quartet' finale, 'Rondo alle Zingarese,' with the sultry zing it had
originally with Farrell and d'Amboise and, most recently, Maria
Kowroski and Damian Woetzel; but presently it's been passed on to
Mearns and Amar Ramasar. Mearns, thanks to her gorgeous back and
commanding presence, already possesses the tantalizing allure of
Farrell, the one muse who kept Mr. B at arm's length. Ramasar seems
content to substitute sunny charm for well-honed technique here and in
that other great d'Amboise role, "Who Cares?"
|New York City Ballet's Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in Balanchine's "Who Cares?" Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Hyltin was virtually on her own the last evening of the season
because her nominal partner, Gonzalo Garcia, proved of limited use
when she made a major debut in Balanchine's 1969 "La Source."
Obviously lacking the technical assurance and personal certainty of
predecessors Villella and John Prinz, Garcia also managed to
diminish the effect of Hyltin's gutsy, headlong plunge into his arms
by holding her parallel to the floor after he caught her; tilting her
downward so she looked as if she were continuing toward the boards and
about to break her pretty neck would have been more like it. This jolting glitch could not mar the glittering
musicality Hyltin brought to a particularly demanding role, made on
Violette Verdy and set to lilting excerpts from Leo Delibes's "Naila"
and "Sylvia." In keeping with his affectionate, flowery concept of
French ballet music, Balanchine had assigned the ballerina a wealth
of piquant technical demands that make a pirouette an occasion for a
battery of subtleties. Often a musical phrase would travel through the
arm to linger in the fingertips -- a Verdy trademark! Hyltin achieved
all this with her usual gracious authority. There was only one regret:
We would have to wait until January 23, 2011, before City Ballet
schedules "La Source" again.