featured photo

The Kitchen

Brought to you by
Body Wrappers; New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.
Go back to Flash Reviews

Go Home

Flash Review 1, 11-22: Looking at Love
Love for Sale at City Ballet Gala

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

Is it just a coincidence that the opening night gala of the fall season of American Ballet Theatre, held at City Center in October, and the opening night gala of the winter season of New York City Ballet, held last night at the State Theater, were both packed with pas de deux?

Maybe there's some sophisticated competitive marketing going on here. (E.g., "Love sells tickets.") Or maybe both companies are just feeling the need for a hug and a couple of fish dives at the end of Y2K. Whatever the motive, it's an interesting phenomenon. ABT gave us a rundown of classical ballet -- "Nutcracker," "Sleeping Beauty," "Black Swan," "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux," "Theme and Variations." The program, while poorly conceived, made sense for today's ABT: blockbuster classicism danced by blockbuster dancers, with a few moments of genuine depth from serious young dancers in the mix. At NYCB, crafting a gala program must be much more challenging. The next best thing to blockbusters, which NYCB doesn't have, is Greatest Hits -- some of the best by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the halfway-interesting things by Peter Martins, and the much-talked-about pieces by whoever else might be in the rep. The company put together snippets of 14 ballets for last night's party, purportedly to explore the theme of the varieties of amour. When you dub a program "Looking at Love," as the NYCB gala organizers did, you inevitably raise the question whether there's anything worth looking at. Love itself repays a thousand glances, even a lifetime of study or two. But ballet love?

Perhaps in an attempt to jump-start some answers, last night's program featured this quote from Cervantes: "'Tis said of love that it sometimes goes, sometimes flies; runs with one, walks gravely with another; turns a third into ice, and sets a fourth in a flame; it wounds one, another it kills; like lightning it begins and ends in the same moment; it makes that fort yield at night which it besieged but in the morning: for there is no force able to resist it." No force able to resist, perhaps. But to give in and fool around with love, and to give in and gaze at it deeply, are two very different things.

I don't want to make too much of what is probably just a marketing gambit. Most of us go to see ballet not for big ideas but for beautiful dancing, and it was good to see all these men and women back again. The women are very glamorous, the men eminently upright. The evening missed only the great Peter Boal, who was out with an injury. Monique Meunier, Miranda Weese, Alexandra Ansanelli, and Pascale van Kipnis, all of whom have been absent for a while, were especially welcome sights; Sebastian Marcovici was, too. These dancers seem to have benefited from their rests. Unlike many of their colleagues, they were vivid and grounded.

Unlike, for instance, Margaret Tracey, who in the Rose Adagio from Martins's version of "The Sleeping Beauty" (the first piece on the program) was a weirdly saucy and determined little woman who held onto her balances until she was swaying and quivering like the top of the World Trade Center in a gust of wind. It's hard for anyone to take a character out of context, but her bent knees -- everywhere -- and on/off smile betrayed a thin commitment. I wondered if the School of American Ballet children who danced with such joy and such a lack of affectation in the Garland Dance that preceded her adagio might end up, for lack of coaching, marking and gritting their way through parts one day as well.

After the pleasant "We are a real ballet company!" opening, the program began to get interesting. Janie Taylor stood out in her debut in "The Man I Love" pas de deux from Balanchine's "Who Cares?" Taylor had moonlight and the feeling of a girl's first gin & tonic in her eyes. She had thought about her character, and her dancing was a little bit risky, as it can be when a dancer is as assured as she was. Her partner Nilas Martins was so nondescript as to be invisible; it was as if Taylor was dreaming him. (Unfortunately, when Martins failed to deliver on a couple of catches, he showed he really wasn't there.)

Robbins made his first appearance on the program with the third movement pdd from "In the Night," on which Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette put their mark last season. They were utterly fascinating again last night. Ringer was at once loving and unruly, yearning and reprimanding, on that scary edge of giving in to Fayette's steady affection. She was captivating, and so was Robbins's look at a couple on the very verge of commitment. Next came the "Sneaker" pdd from Martins's "The Waltz Project." Jennie Somogyi was another unruly girl, this one not complex and captivating but cute and obnoxious. She joshed Jared Angle to death. (Both were making debuts.) Martins has one trick here: the sneakers. Give me a break. The contrast between this and the excerpt from "In the Night" was jarring, and the first hint of a not unpredictable worry: that the program's newer "looks at love" would be empty, vaguely crass, and cold.

Thankfully, Damian Woetzel soon came on the scene, reprising his hot-stuff role from last season in a bit from "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." This time he danced opposite none other than Helene Alexopoulous, making her New York City Ballet debut in the role of the Strip Tease Girl -- it is shameful that she hasn't been given this part before at NYCB. (Alexopoulous previously danced the role in 1995 in Suzanne Farrell's Balanchine program at the Kennedy Center.) She was stunning (if a bit unsure in those heels) -- shades of photos of Farrell in that role, a woman of class and warmth through all that vamping. Ansanelli, who was recklessly catapulted into soloist territory two years ago, was a startlingly subtle doll (alongside Tom Gold's noble soldier; again, both debuts) in an excerpt from Balanchine's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." Her positions were sure and strong, and not just because she was pretending to be made of wood. With too many other NYCB dancers, I sometimes wonder if they are capable of doing a solid unsupported double pirouette. Ansanelli has conviction in her body. May she be well cared for this year!

At the end of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" pdd, we see Gold ever-so-gently give Ansanelli his red-paper-cutout heart; she receives it with sweetness, honor, and graciousness. Seconds later, in a pdd from William Forsythe's "Herman Schmerman," Albert Evans, apparently trying to find a point of contact with the (again) unruly Wendy Whelan, puts on a copy of the yellow skirt she's wearing. One boy gives the girl he loves his heart; the other boy puts on a piece of the put-on identity of the girl he's hanging around with. Forsythe's steps here are cool and obvious, full of self-consciously casual slaps and wiggles, a lot of "hey man" come-ons. The questions come rushing. Is this a richer view of what love is? Of what it ought to be? Of what we'd like to try to do with it? Can we, as we look for an "updated" language of dance, say things as subtle as Balanchine said? Big questions, old questions, but here they still are, no longer very potent, at NYCB.

One critic has suggested that Monique Meunier might turn out to be a sort of spiritual center for this company. I can see it, and God knows the company needs something to keep it animated. Her performance in the "Walk" Waltz from Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering," with Woetzel, Nikolaj Hubbe, and Marcovici, pulled me up short -- by the time she was leaving the stage I was starting to think my heart was beginning to beat again, after the ugly runaround of Forsythe. She was like those kids in the Garland Dance: simple, unaffected, and deeply affecting. It's going to be a whole different experience, having her around this year.

I was struck, watching the "Bottom" pdd from Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," by the subtle understanding of male/female relations there: somehow Balanchine knows that donkeys, like men, need women to lead them in the right direction, and it's right there in his choreography. Titania is powerful, even in her magicked state; she teaches Bottom to be what she needs. And what's more, Balanchine says, love is sort of fun. Kyra Nichols was a girlish queen last night; Kipling Houston, as Bottom, affected an endearingly wobbly donkey walk. Martins's "Them Twos" (from which we saw the "Horror" pdd) has all the advantages of most Martins ballets -- namely, interesting music and interesting costumes -- and the one major flaw: it requires nothing from the dancers. Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard slam-danced each other primly; Kowroski's "get your hands off me" actions were vaguely scary; then Askegard stalked off in the most hopeless imitation of an angry man's walk I've ever seen. He didn't even seem to be trying. With that stuff to do, who would? But never fear: Kowroski's Alain Vaes gown was spectacular! "Them Twos" was followed, mercifully, by the short "Husband Fantasy" from Robbins' "The Concert," featuring a tour de force by Robert La Fosse as the goofy/creepy husband with the knife. Melissa Walter was totally convincing as, let's say, the teacher's pet in a society ladies' music appreciation class.

Excerpts from "Duo Concertant" and "Liebeslieder Walzer" came next on the program -- Balanchine to Stravinsky and Balanchine to Brahms, and both pieces with the patience in and precision about the heart's movements that belongs to the composers and the choreographer alike. Yvonne Borree and Hubbe sliced it to the bone in the last movement of "Duo Concertant," in which two spotlights focus in on the woman's hand, her face, and the man crouching in amazement at her fingers. These lights, unlike Martins's sneakers, are not a trick. They illuminate, and what they illuminate is something resembling hurt, desperation, and new trust. (Can you imagine if someone were making dances like this one today? We would be blown away. This piece is still breathtakingly new. And what a nice, odd challenge for the dancers!) Darci Kistler and Philip Neal, in "Liebeslieder"'s "Whispering Pas de Deux," and Miranda Weese and Jock Soto in its last pdd, were as meticulously calibrated as they could be outside the magical world of that whole ballet. Like Meunier, Weese now brings her own perfume back to this stage. That thinning top tier will be able to use a lot of her depth.

The gala ended with "Somewhere" from Robbins's "West Side Story Suite" (very weak without the rest of the ballet) and the court scene set to Mendohlsson's wedding march from "Midsummer." Everybody came out at the end in their various costumes to take bows, and as I was trying to figure out what, if anything, the organizers had in mind when they conceived of "Looking at Love," something occurred to me. We're all familiar with Balanchine's proclamation that "ballet is woman." To us it sounds like it must mean something terrible. But the ballets in NYCB's look at love in which women were honored, respected, intelligent, beautiful, gracious, strong-willed, and recognizably, interestingly human were not the ballets made by those who would carry the mantle of the twentieth-century masters into the twenty-first century -- and they were not, in the end, the ballets that were boring to look at (except, perhaps, when boringly danced). That is a big matter, too big for an overnight review, and far too big for a fancy gala at the New York City Ballet.

NYCB begins its performances of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" on Friday. The winter repertory season begins in January. Please visit the company's web site for more information.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home