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Flash Review, 1-27: Dance is a contact sport*
NYC Ballet week 2: 'Symphony' in 2D; Ringer makes Robbins never lovelier

Jenifer Ringer and Robert Fairchild in New York City Ballet's production of Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old-Fashioned." Photo copyright Paul Kolnik.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- As I tap danced my way along Broadway last night in my best Fred Astaire imitation -- not easy on a 'floor' of slush and ice -- following Thursday evening's performance by New York City Ballet of Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements," Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia," and Jerome Robbins's homage to Fred and Rita "I'm Old-Fashioned," three indisputable facts could not be obscured even by the driving snow beating at my eyes: the women's corps at City Ballet, and its ability to do justice to Balanchine's magisterial musicality, is in trouble; Jenifer Ringer is not only the purest interpreter of Robbins's choreography I've seen in two decades on two continents and three great companies (San Francisco and Paris Opera Ballet, plus NYCB), but of his intentions; and Alastair Macaulay is the greatest waste of critical space ever to disgrace the pages of the NY Times.

The opening of "Symphony in Three Movements" should be as driving as the Stravinsky music to which it is set. Last night, the women charged with this task looked like they would have been more at home in an aerobics class, except that they were behind the music. Things didn't pick up until Abi Stafford and Sebastien Marcovici cleared the stage for a duet that pushed and pulled, although a colleague pointed out that it was not enough; it might have been the under-impression left by what preceded them that left me over-impressed. The piece -- the pace, really -- picked up after that but it was yet another demonstration of how erratic this company has apparently become. Stand-out performances seem to be the exception rather than the rule, the result more of individual dancers' dedication and/or native talent than a steady hand at the wheel enforcing corps discipline and choreographic fidelity..

Jenifer Ringer and Robert Fairchild in New York City Ballet's production of Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old-Fashioned." Photo copyright Paul Kolnik.

I apply the same explanation -- lowered expectations -- to why some over-rate Christopher Wheeldon; in a dearth of new ballet choreographers -- or at least the failure by company directors to unearth and cultivate them -- choreography that is simply serviceable has been hailed as original, which it's not. Serviceable "Poyphonia," set to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, is, providing an apt showcase for, last night, Wendy Whelan to demonstrate those scissory legs (never mind that the choreography seemed heavily, er, inspired by similar things she's done by Robbins), and the exquisite Sara Mearns to amplify her dreamyness (never mind that the choreography seemed right out the ballet scene from "Fame"). (I should note that my dancer-choreographer guest had a different view, appreciating the work as a "continuation" of Balanchine.)

In "I'm Old-Fashioned," set to Morton Gould's variations on the Jerome Kern / Johnny Mercer tune from the Astaire-Hayworth vehicle "You Were Never Lovelier," an extract of which and whom opens the ballet, it was Ringer's turn to amplify that dreamyness, even as she underlined why Robbins resonates with ordinary people in how he amplifies their ordinary dances and dancing. If Balanchine played with the geometry of dance, Robbins played with its poetry, and played on its common touch, or to put it another way, on how dance touches normal people, bringing the attitude of regular people dancing to the concert stage. Ringer, partnered by a suave Robert Fairchild, painted the whole canvas of this, from an adult discovering a new partner (Fairchild), and consequently awkwardly bumping into him a few times, to a girl discovering a dance and being exhilarated by it -- I could swear I saw Maria from Robbins's "West Side Story" -- to a woman discovering how dancing can elevate her exaltation. Physically, she played this out at every level, from her genuflecting head to her expressive torso, merry-go-round arms (aptly turned at one point by Fairchild), gossamer legs and, finally, feet that anticipated the Mambo turn in the last minutes of the dance.

If I have a quarrel with what was otherwise a perfect dance -- Rebecca Krohn left you wanting more, Maria Kowroski was sophisticated and sassy, Tyler Angle did a great Gene Kelly, shadowed by the male corps, and the corps of both sexes was impeccable -- it's that the lights went down too fast at the end, obscuring that the live dancers were waving so long to Fred and Rita, returned to the screen. Otherwise, these dancers, like Fred and Rita, were never lovelier.

But of course, ballet is about more than being lovely. It is about lovely (or otherwise compelling) dancing. And if Alastair Macaulay, the Times's dance critic, had his way, it would apparently not be just about lovely dancing but about whether dancers fit his twisted beauty standard. At the end of last year, Macaulay gave Ringer and Jared Angle a nice little Christmas present by saying that as the Sugar Plum Fairy in 'Nutcracker,' she "looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many." When I and others called him on this, he pompously defended this school-yard garbage as legitimate criticism. Seeing Ringer last night again exceed her own standard, I marveled that if Macaulay had his way, such beauty would have no place at City Ballet. And seeing what the corps did to the opening of the Balanchine work, essentially reducing "Symphony in Three Movements" to two dimensions, I wondered why the NY Times isn't more concerned with emasculated ballets than what its dance 'critic' considers plump dancers.

*With apologies to Joe Mazo.

Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" provided a perfect showcase for the pristinely clean lines of Teresa Reichlin and the ebullience of Amar Ramasar, above, with Reichlin making a debut in the work at New York City Ballet last night. Photo copyright Paul Kolnik..

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