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New York City Ballet's Maria Kowroski in George Balanchine's "Chaconne." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- City Ballet broke with several traditions by beginning its new season with four weeks of early fall performances (September 14 - October 10). The traditional opening-night gala was delayed until the middle of the fourth week so seats that first evening could go for the special introductory prices of $50 and $25. Repertory included such novelties as the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied's recent "Plainspoken" on October 7 and revivals of Peter Martins's rarely performed "Grazioso" (2007) and "The Magic Flute" (1982).

Also out of the ordinary was an aggressive merchandising campaign built around a posh 9-by-12-inch booklet filled with studio portraits of principal dancers which was available for the taking in the theater lobby. Photographer Henry Leutwyler filmed everyone in casual poses and garb a la People Magazine. Most of the men are sporting the scraggly beards the guys insist upon growing between seasons. Daniel Ulbricht, however, is not only clean shaven, but the one dancer whom Leutwyler captured performing an actual step: a soaring 180-degree split leap, with ballerinas Teresa Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin and Sara Mearns seated on the floor behind him. (Yes, seated.) Letters to the editor and postings online promptly deplored the devastation such informality wreaked upon the dancers' images as golden, gifted beings, so unlike us folks out front. Frankly the only dancers' images that matter to me are those they create onstage.

One novelty this season definitely proved risky: During the first and fourth weeks, principals stepped out from behind the curtain to chat up the audience before the performance began. Reliable sources assure me that Jenifer Ringer on opening night spoke with the sophistication she brings to the stage. I saw Ulbricht, who is following a busy parallel career as a dance teacher, charm the September 18 matinee audience by asking them to stand and follow him as he repeated the lovely corps gestures that open Balanchine's "Serenade," which would follow, but first he said, "I want to answer the question I'm always being asked: 'How tall are you?' I am five feet six inches tall." The audience ate it up and greeted the four flawless double tours in succession he later performed in Robbins's "Interplay" with an instant ovation.

Joaquin De Luz, however, made such a mess of his October 9 moment before the curtain that, had he appeared opening week, future chats might have been either scripted or scrapped. Latin charm got him through an awkwardly ad-libbed opening. De Luz's admission that he doesn't really like to dance Balanchine's "Tarantella," which he was to attempt later that evening, can charitably be ascribed to "honesty." Next he pointed out that the evening's program was devoted to works by "our founders, Jerome Balanchine and ?."

"See the Music," two lively pre-performance lec-dems with orchestra, delivered molto brio by music director Faycal Karoui, earned laughs without being embarrassing. Each opened with the elevator that's built into the floor of the orchestra pit slowly bringing the musicians halfway up to stage level, a spectacle I never tire of watching. On September 17, Karoui analyzed Edouard Lalo's long-neglected score that Alexei Ratmansky used for last season's "Namouna: A Grand Divertissement." ("This is supposed to be a French ocean but it sounds more like a German one.") He got the audience to clap in the rhythm the corps women follow when they are wielding hand cymbals. Martins, standing before the curtain, attempted to clap along but soon anticipated the beat and earned one of the few laughs he's ever received in that theater. (Let's see, he was a riot in the 'Royal Navy' section of "Union Jack"...) He was a good sport about it all. Frankly, I laughed hardest at the urgency with which he and Karoui urged the audience not to clap along at that point during the performance. On September 26, Karoui discussed the much less rewarding score Thierry Escaich had composed for Millepied's "Why am I not where you are," which premiered last spring. No dancer chats are scheduled for the 2011 winter and spring seasons, but if "See the Music" interests you, the orchestra will rise to the occasion on January 20, February 1, February 19, May 14 (evening) and May 25 (a tribute to Broadway).

New York City Ballet's Gonzalo Garcia, Andrew Veyette, Ashley Bouder, and Daniel Ulbricht in Peter Martins's "Grazioso." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

An injury sabotaged the revival of Martins's "Grazioso." This joyous piece d'occasion set to short works by Glinka had been danced exactly once, at the 2007 opening-night gala. It returned on September 14 with its original high-powered cast of Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, Andrew Veyette and Ulbricht, but it didn't stay around long. Garcia was injured early in the run, and because he had no cover, "Grazioso" was dropped. A major loss. Everyone looked good, and Ulbricht could probably have generated hundreds of subscriber renewals with the "punctuation" of his already sensationally high floating leaps: a sudden split jump would occur at an exit like an exclamation point or a sudden reverse of direction in midair would be inserted as casually as a comma.

"The Magic Flute," revived on September 30, had an injury-free run. An adaptation of the Riccardo Drigo-Lev Ivanov ballet that Balanchine had danced as a Maryinsky student, it retained the ingratiating naivete it possessed when, at Mr. B's "suggestion," Martins re-choreographed it for the School of American Ballet's 1981 Spring Workshop. 'Flute' became part of City Ballet's repertory long enough to be aired on PBS's "Dance in America" in 1984, then disappeared. While its plot -- set somewhere in a generic Central Europe -- about a village romance escued by supernatural intervention may repel some connoisseurs, David Mitchell's sets and Ben Benson's costumes possessed a storybook charm, the village was aswarm with adorable SAB kids and the lovers, Lise and Luke, looked especially convincing danced by principal couples who just happened to be either engaged (Megan Fairchild and Veyette) or "items" (Tiler Peck and De Luz). The affection in the pas de deux was palpable.

Adam Hendrickson, a soloist who is carving out a promising second career in character roles, would have been funnier as Lise's unwanted, accident-prone wooer, the Marquis, if Henderson hadn't chosen to play him with a game left leg. Not even filmmakers as anarchic as W.C. Fields and Preston Sturges dared to get laughs out of a cripple's repeated pratfalls. Corps dancer Doug Hay, City Ballet's original Marquis, took one hilarious tumble after another for the right reason: This archetypal pest, whose ancestors go all the way back to Roman comedy, is a klutz.

New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette in Peter Martins's "The Magic Flute." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Corps members were plainly delighted by the opportunity to act a role. Henry Seth gave a robust performance as Lise's ruddy-cheeked farmer father, wearing a padded paunch and more makeup than some may think acceptable for an African-American performer today, but necessary for one to play a European peasant. On Broadway it's considered not only "politically incorrect" but even racist to question "colorblind casting." I still believe that creating an illusion, which you'd think essential to theater, requires performers to at least look like the parts they play; makeup has helped actors achieve this feat for centuries. Overstressing "ethnicity" has its limits, of course. It was a relief when City Ballet junked the blatantly ethnic makeup and costumes for the Blackamoors' Dance in the "La Sonnambula" divertissements in 1979; now called Danse Exotique, this charming pas de deux no longer looks like something from a minstrel show.

Devin Alberda set aside his scrupulous concern for precise dancing to skitter about hilariously as the Marquis's finicky footman. Ralph Ippolito, another hyper-conscientious corpsman, was killingly deadpan as the judge's solemn, slouchy Chinese clerk. (Please don't ask me what a Chinese man is doing in this little European village. I never question delightfully inappropriate illogic. Why shouldn't the lovable old Jewish family friend in Sturges's "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" be named Mr. Rafferty?) Everyone gets an opportunity to dance as well as act; when Luke plays the eponymous flute, no one's feet can keep still.

As you've probably guessed by now, Martins's "The Magic Flute" has no relation to Mozart's opera, except that the hero of each is given an enchanted instrument, in Luke's case by a wretched beggar he befriends. The beggar turns out to be Oberon. A female Oberon. I don't want to go any further with this and you shouldn't want me to either. I told you, it's a naive little ballet.

New York City Ballet's Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle in Benjamin Millepied's "Plainspoken." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB..

The operative term for Millepied's "Plainspoken" is "provincial." It looked so unworthy an assignment for eight NYCB principals that one might have presumed Millepied had been forced to make do with local talent for its August 6 premiere at the Center for the Arts in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was made in New York, however, on Hyltin, Reichlen, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, Sebastien Marcovici, Amar Ramasar and the Angle brothers, Tyler and Jared, and then it and they were transferred to the Hole. It should have been left there.

David Lang's minimalist score for piano and string quartet was provincial as well, considering how banal that inescapable procrustean style has become. Arid reiteration certainly provided no inspiration for the pas de cinque in which Hyltin, as gracious a ballerina as City Ballet has ever fielded, was passed around like a beach ball or a slab of meat among the guys without ever getting an opportunity to relate to any one of them. She was doing good to look them in the eyes during handoffs. When the score assumed a jauntier form of ecolalia, Ramasar and the four women sat on the floor in single file, like a choo-choo train or a rowing crew, and bounced forward on their bottoms. Later, something like melody appeared to be struggling to emerge from Lang's thicket of sound, but Millepied, whose forte is creating maneuvers for the corps, failed to make much of pas de deux built around dancers as distinctive as Taylor and Somogyi.

The most satisfying movements in this generally gloom-enshrouded affair, which Penny Jacobus's lighting did little to relieve, were made by the inky black backdrop when it rose to reveal the cyclorama lit in strips of green, yellow, red or blue. Christopher Wheeldon has put this idea to better use, but it never looked more welcome than when the backdrop's final, slow descent, like a tired guillotine, meant "Plainspoken" was coming to an end.

The company premiere of "Plainspoken" at the October 7 Fall gala contributed little to the festivities. Fortunately, the evening had opened with Karoui leading a suitably lively performance of the overture to Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," with the orchestra in view once more, and peaked with a barn-burner of a "Tarantella" by Ashley Bouder and Ulbricht. Robbins's salute to Fred Astaire, "I'm Old Fashioned," never a favorite of mine, looked about as good as it could get, thanks to uniformly winning efforts by Ringer, Maria Kowroski, Rebecca Krohn, Tyler Angle, Jonathan Stafford and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Fervent dancing and the broadest possible grins from all concerned could not reconcile me to the fourth movement and finale of "Western Symphony," that most unrewarding of Balanchine's "applause machines." Essentially classical steps for dancers dressed as clichés, often set to Hershy Kay arrangements of such cowpoke ballads as "Oh Dem Golden Slippers," "Good Night Ladies" and "Camptown Races," it proved the usual cloying embarrassment. Not even Mearns, Charles Askegard and a beaming corps could prevent its looking like a starry-eyed immigrant's impression of the America West gained from watching Roy Rogers movies.

New York City Ballet's Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old-Fashioned." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

"Who Cares?" and "Stars and Stripes," two treasurable collaborations with Kay, were masterpieces because Balanchine had fully absorbed the music before setting to work. He had already revolutionized the Broadway musical when he commissioned Kay to orchestrate 17 Gershwin songs for the former and had come to love John Philip Sousa marches before he assigned Kay to arrange six of them for 'Stars.' Last season "Who Cares?" was danced with 'Clappa Yo' Hands' restored, then dropped (as it usually is), and whole sections were shamelessly slashed to avoid paying overtime. This season, only 'Clappa' was cut but Robert Fairchild was sidelined by knee trouble. As a result, Ramasar had to assume the great Jacques d'Amboise role which he had danced last season to partner the stellar team of Tiler Peck, Hyltin and Reichlen or Ana Sophia Scheller. No, he could never have been mistaken for Big Jacques but at each performance he took greater strides toward making the part his own. What more can we ask of our younger generation?

<>I admit that Jo Mielziner's setting and Ben Benson's costumes for "Who Cares?" take some getting used to. 'Stars,' however, sweeps you up immediately into its special world of brassy militancy. Kay's swirling orchestration for the prelude is more lightshot and agile than anything Sousa's concert band could have ever achieved, and look what awaits us when the curtain opens on David Hays's setting hung with red, white and blue bunting: a regiment of adorable corps girls in bobby socks and white gloves wearing kepis bristling with plumes that duplicate the cherry red of their gauzy Karinska tutus, the endearingly perky Erica Pereira in command. Surely the most grim-faced pacifist would crack a smile at so benign a display of belligerence. Salutes break out. Bourrees become marches. The men's regiment attacks in manege formation while their top sergeant -- ideally danced by Ulbricht -- executes a la seconde turns in the center. All the while, Kay is not so much orchestrating Sousa's melodies as creating variations on his themes, setting off fireworks in the percussion and issuing marching orders to the lumbering tuba. Bouder and Veyette were the most impressive couple in command, pompously demonstrating their four-star authority. (But I do miss the crisp little salute the great Violette Verdy used to give; she told me it was that of a Parisian traffic cop.)

The gradual upstage assemblage of Old Glory for the finale is being greeted with mixed emotions just now. The Cold War was being fought harmlessly in outer space when 'Stars' premiered in 1958. Today, when God's Country is mired in two unnecessary conflicts, I particularly resent any chauvinistic encroachment on the joy the dancers have created and the gratitude due their performing this demanding froth. The only time I ever felt impelled to applaud during Our Grand Old Flag's materialization occurred back when the Vietnam war was grinding on, and a great dancer, Edward Villella, transformed the spectacle by becoming a caricature of "America Right or Wrong!" militancy. As he left his post at the proscenium to rejoin the troops for the finale, all his considerable presence, authority and wit were crammed into a hilarious embodiment of John Wayne-style machismo so muscle-bound he swayed as he strutted. At least I like to think that's what Villella was doing because I certainly applauded him for it.

Ratmansky's "Namouna: A Grand Divertissement," the acknowledged triumph of last season's "Architecture of Dance" festival (despite Ratmansky's refusal to accept architect Santiago Calatrava's designs), returned this fall in mint condition. I stand by my praise of this singular triumph for its "idiosyncratic jollities" and take some pride for having spotted just one of Ratmansky's borrowings from another's ballet: The dozen 180-degree splits Ulbricht performed that duplicated the three in Oberon's solo from Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Very good, Harris.

Now I have learned that colleague Tobi Tobias spotted a host of such echoes in "Namouna." On further viewings this fall, I saw she was correct and some were so blatant I'm ashamed I missed them. The corps enters in single file? Hello, "Bayadere." Their subsequent swirling exit? Good-bye, "Swan Lake." And when the women recoil as Tyler Angle confronts them? Some of their alarm could be attributed to his wearing a little boy's sailor suit, but I suspect this scene recalls Prince Ivan's meeting the princesses in "Firebird." More such treasures are stowed away, I do not doubt, but we cannot go looking for them anytime soon; this intriguing ballet is scheduled for neither the 2011 winter nor spring season.

Tyler Angle's triumphant assumption of new roles was one of the recurring delights this fall. He assumed Fairchild's role in "Namouna" and performed its heavy partnering chores with aplomb. In Balanchine's "Chaconne," he and Kowroski met the demands of this great Farrell and Martins showcase with such seeming ease and command of line that they not only managed to be awesome and gorgeous simultaneously but witty when required. At least I believe Balanchine was having fun when he had those icons Suzanne and Peter mock the pomp of Gluck's little march before the dueling solos of the second pas de deux. "You want to see what they look like behind?" Mr. B seems to have asked. "Look. I show you." And they turned their backs on us as he lifted her and set her right back down again with killing deadpan efficiency.

Hyltin brought her modest, unforced authority to bear on two new Stravinsky-Balanchine roles, both created for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival but neither a major work. In "Duo Concertante," Jared Angle didn't stand a chance at banishing memories of Martins, but Hyltin would have disappointed only the most besotted fans of Kay Mazzo. In passing, I overheard one of those elders snivel piteously that he "missed Kay." By an exercise of sheer will, I refrained from intruding: "Kay Mazzo? Didn't Arlene Croce say she looked like 'the greatest dancer in the world from the neck up?'" Hyltin's unfailingly supple line ran from toe to brow.

The tedium I felt throughout "Danses Concertantes" was not the fault of Hyltin, Garcia, a dozen corps members, conductor Clotilde Otranto or, for the most part, Balanchine. He did what he could with the ponderous playfulness of what originally was a 1942 commission for a West Coast chamber orchestra, first choreographed by him for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo two years later. 'Danses' didn't enter NYCB's repertory until the festival when, according to the catalogue raisonné, it was "entirely reworked." Because even I don't go back far enough to have seen the original, I can't say what improvements were made, but more were definitely needed. Astonishingly, there is nothing that qualifies as a major pas de deux, however Balanchine put the extended bumptious stretch of the Theme Varié to clever use by breaking the corps up into four pas de trois (one man flanked by two women in each). The recreation of the original Eugene Berman quasi-Renaissance style production held some "historic interest." Otherwise, "Danses Concertantes" is the Sargasso Sea a great partnership sailed into.

Of the several worthy soloists now on the principal track, Rebecca Krohn proved consistently reliable and and ever more promising. Having to make one's entrance in "I'm Old Fashioned" immediately after the screening of a film clip of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth must be one of the most unwelcome assignments in the company repertory, yet Krohn with her eloquent line and assured presence looked so good one wished she had done more than merely rejoin the cast for the finale (when Fred and Rita are now on a screen four stories high). Krohn easily held her own with formidable principals Ringer and Bouder in "Serenade." Her performance with Craig Hall in the second movement of Robbins's "Glass Pieces," the most rewarding section of that venturesome work, sustained its eerie stillness with mesmerizing authority. Those choreographers who insist on working with minimalist scores should study the ingenuity the old master brought to Philip Glass. If they have a Krohn, a Hall and a corps as skilled at following counts as City Ballet's to work with, all of us can consider ourselves among the blest.

New York City Ballet's Ask la Cour with, left to right, Rebecca Krohn, Jenifer Ringer, and Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine's "Serenade." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

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