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New York City Ballet's Tyler Angle in Balanchine's "Mozartiana." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The first post-"Nutcracker" week of City Ballet repertory included an all-day salute to Balanchine on Saturday, January 22, his 107th birthday. Two all-Balanchine programs were performed, separated by a 6 p.m. class for scores of advanced SAB students, conducted onstage with authority and flourish by ballet master in chief Peter Martins. He seemed to know every student by his or her name as he called upon the best to demonstrate, say, the Balanchine way to open up one's arms or perform a tendu or take a bow, a demonstration as eye-opening as it was charming.

Before the matinee performance, principal dancers Amar Ramasar, Robert Fairchld and Sterling Hyltin appeared in front of the curtain to ad lib comments about the ballets they were about to perform. Hyltin, who suffered a slip of the tongue, immediately won her audience back by confessing she was more nervous talking about "Duo Concertante" than she's ever been about dancing it. Her subsequent performance with its abundant subtleties of line, timing, continuity and charm proved she had no need to worry about any comparison with Kay Mazzo, who created the part. Fairchild, however, looked slightly flustered, up against the standard for deftly darting movement I saw Martins, Mr. Cool himself, set at the 'Duo' world premiere in 1972. (Fairchild is in good company; of all the great NYCB artists of the past, Martins is the one I miss the most.)

Ramasar would put his elegantly long legs to excellent use when he debuted as 'Phlegmatic' in "The Four Temperaments," magisterially conducted by Faycal Karoui. Sebastien Marcovici's further refinement of the falls and footwork in 'Melancholic,' Jennie Somogyi and Jared Angle's ever-cooler authority in 'Sanguinic' and Teresa Reichlen's fiery 'Choleric' brought this epic seminal work very close to its peak. "The Four Ts frissons" were in play as the Themes' gestures returned in the mesmerizing finale.

That evening the three principals who would dance "Stars and Stripes" came out before the curtain in uniform to address the audience. Ashley Bouder chirped like a birdie and Andrew Veyette spoke like an aw-shucks guy, but when they danced the pas de deux, their go-for-broke derring-do seared the boards. Daniel Ulbricht, coolest of the day's speakers, and the only one who never began a sentence with "Uhh," seemed to spend half his time in the air when he took command of the men's regiment, landing either softly to the knee or in an exceedingly tight fifth.

Some of the Balanchine masterpieces performed this first week had been burnished close to their original luster by at least one of the double casts offered. Maria Kowroski, Tyler Angle and Ulbricht restored "Mozartiana" to the glow it possessed after Martins replaced Ib Andersen over 36 years ago. Kowroski and Ask la Cour worked similar magic on the lesser "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," right up to the finale; much as I treasure Kowroski, I must report that Suzanne Farrell's scythe-like sweep of her right leg after she had mounted to Adam Luders's shoulder remains so unique in its daring I cannot find its equal among dancers for comparison. Operagoers will know what I mean, though, when I liken the impact of that move to a searing high note by the great Wagner soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Sara Mearns bestowed her imperious authority on ballets by Jerome Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky as well as Balanchine. I second my DI colleague Paul Ben-Itzak's perceptive comparison of her with the much lamented Monique Meunier; although neither were ever considered underweight, few ballerinas could dominate space with their riveting authority by simply raising one leg with ever-decreasing force. You really have to be good to phrase with your foot. Mearns repeatedly transformed Balanchine's "Cortege Hongrois" with such invariably musical phrasing. In this panoply of tsarist Russia mirrored in Glazunov's grand score, she would reign as tsarina if only her handclaps could go off like pistol shots.

"Dances at a Gathering" gained distinction by Mearns's presence among a strong cast that showed remarkable coherence on an evening when three of the 10 dancers were last-minute replacements. Pianist Susan Walters phrased Chopin's aristocratic subtleties with more rubato than is usual on these occasions. I don't blame Kowroski for being unable to make something worthy out of Green Girl; Violette Verdy, upon whom Robbins originally imposed it was defeated, too. Joaquin De Luz, with technique to spare, energy to burn and the best will in the world was still not wholly up to Edward Villella's old role because he lacks that ultimate in amplitude that Villella radiated like an atomic pile. Watching De Luz in 'Dances,' "Prodigal Son" and 'Rubies' I am reminded that American Ballet Theatre rarely, if ever, cast De Luz in lead roles. New York City Ballet constantly does.

Most of the original cast of Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH" -- Wendy Whelan, Benjamin Millepied, De Luz, Gonzalo Garcia -- were outshone this winter when it was danced by, respectively, Mearns, Tyler Angle, Ulbricht and Veyette. (Ana Sophia Scheller danced up a storm but could not displace imprinted memories of Bouder.) The new cast's domination began immediately when Ulbricht popped out of the circle of seven corps men, biceps on display and presence turned up high. The energy level never sagged, but this welcome change of personnel couldn't counter the raucous banality of the score, Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto. Occasionally Ratmansky's spunky ingenuity sank to the occasion. The second movement, mercifully scored for a discrete horn and murmuring strings, did permit a pas de deux of comparative tenderness. Mearns and Angle made the most of it, even if doing so required one lift after another. Their going their separate ways at the conclusion was actually touching. The fun and games immediately got underway again, pushy as ever with sensational solos of insistent glee. Ulbricht mounted Veyette's shoulders on the last beat. Anyone know the Russian for "Enough already"?

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