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Flash Review, 2-10: Dance, Ballerina, Dance
Bouder too good, Mearns too short, Suozzi too long (haired): Another night at City Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- One of the under-rated factors which makes a ballerina is her direct relationship with her audience -- think of her as a kind of host. Perhaps this was not so important in classical ballet's real hey-day in the mid-19th century, when the style of what was going on onstage fit into the broader artistic discourse and cultural and social modes, but these days, when girls in tutus and men in tights can seem so removed from the gritty reality of, say, girls and boys marching for their rights in Cairo at the peril of their lives, it helps when ballet dancers can go that extra distance and reach beyond the footlights to make the spectators feel at home. While New York City Ballet certainly has a range of ballerinas and ballerinos, in the classical realm anyway it's truest ballerina in both ability and amiability may well be Ashley Bouder, who proved her case again Tuesday night at City Ballet dancing Balanchine's "The Source." Meanwhile, making their debuts as the leads in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," Sara Mearns proved too short and Sean Suozzi's hair too long, and both truncated some of the ballet's crucial moments.

Unlike fellow NYCB principal Wendy Whelan, who for all her timeless grace and smooth dexterity gets so involved with the music she can seem remote, Bouder's open-mouthed joy in the music -- for "The Source," Delibes -- and the choreography she gets to offer to celebrate it isn't merely contagious by proximity. Bouder has that signature ballerina gift -- generosity, really -- for making a point of looking directly out at the audience and smiling as if to invite us to marvel with her. She gets so carried away with her joy at dancing this music with this choreography, she sweeps us up with her.

This is not to say she doesn't have technique. Particularly when she is turning, Bouder is also the ballerina at City Ballet who most closely resembles the music box ballerina, so mechanically perfect are her swivels. Not that she can't change the rhythm at will, particularly with those phenomenally independent-minded arms; make no mistake, in this case it's the ballerina who holds the key to the music box.

Also like the great ballerinas -- San Francisco Ballet's Evelyn Cisneros comes to mind -- Bouder elevates those around her. Regarding my program to identify her stellar partner in Tuesday night's performance, I was astounded to see it was Andrew Veyette. If he'd previously seemed to me to play it safe almost to the point of immobility, working with Bouder Veyette danced on the edge of danger, playing with off-balance as the best dancers do. If some in the audience gasped when she fish-dived into his low-hanging arms late in the dance, at that point it was not surprising to me, but a natural outcome of the loose and limberness she'd been exhibiting all night and the confidence he'd been displaying.

Bouder's ease and warmth even seemed to infect the soloist, Ana Sophia Scheller, rivetingly lovely as I'd never seen her before, particularly in her silken dips of the torso, and who, Cisneros-like in her turn, transmitted that beauty to the corps which usually surrounded her. If I have one criticism of Scheller, it's exactly that she's difficult to see, or rather distinguish, because of what may be a make-up problem; that department at City Ballet needs to apply itself to making her face project more. She deserves to be noticed and we deserve to be able to identify and distinguish her.

The evening also featured Peter Martins's "Magic Flute," which will be reviewed in these pages later, and the debuts of Sean Suozzi and Sara Mearns, as, respectively, the Prodigal Son in the Balanchine ballet of that name and his Siren. My one sentence Flash of them would be that she's too short and his hair is too long. Before last night, I'd have cringed at seeming to criticize a dancer for a thing she can't control -- such as her height -- but here there's just no avoiding it. Mearns didn't have the stature to intimidate Suozzi's Prodigal and, worse, she barely managed to get that praying mantis's hand above her head in the several opportunities Balanchine gave her, and forget about the arm, whose reach was diminished by an elbow which didn't seem to want to flatten out. Other faults were within Mearns's control, as she simply swallowed some of the key gestures of the ballet, only making a token attempt to bar Suozzi's escape at one point, and also when she stabs his torso with her toe. A couple of respected colleagues I spoke with Tuesday begged to differ, pointing out that this was just her first time out in the role. I disagree: The first time is a time to make a splash, and this particular dancer is nothing if not splashy. And then there's the height factor; unless she starts chanelling Tina LeBlanc -- the recently retired Joffrey and and San Francisco Ballet legend who was never restricted by her shorter physical stature, always playing grand -- I can't see Mearns transcending her vertical limits.

Suozzi swallowed more, at critical junctures, including during his departure from the hearth at the ballet's beginning, and more critically, had his ability for expression swallowed up by his hair. Dude: the mop-top look may be cool on the streets of New York (I guess), but when your bangs cover your eyes thus obscuring the potential for your dramatic impact in one of the most pathos-filled roles in the ballet rep, it's time to get a haircut. Get that boy to Astor Place, Peter! Even another textbook-perfect outing from Ask La Cour as the father couldn't save this ballet Tuesday night.

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