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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 and confetti.

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 and ominous.

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 dead!"

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 at that.

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 ballet.

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 away.)

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 can.

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.

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