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Flash Review, 2-23: Shall We Dance WITH THE MUSIC?
Divorce, New York City Ballet Style

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

In my Flash Review of Shared Experience's "Jane Eyre" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Flash Review 1, 2-10: Shared Experience), I dwelt on the movement. What also kept me on the edge of my seat was the way the actors inhabited the words, pulling them into the here and now. This is how it should be. One would never accept actors uttering dialogue without emotionally connecting to it. Similarly, for dance, and especially ballet, to resonate, dancers need to inhabit the music. (How they inhabit it--intellectually, emotionally, ironically, comically--is up to them and the choreographer, but they must inhabit it.) And yet, with a few exceptions, this is not happening at the New York City Ballet--the company co-founded by a man who learned to play the piano before he ever choreographed a step.

Slowly, sadly, but, it seems, inexorably--with a few exceptions--the dancers at New York City Ballet and the music they putatively dance to are looking more and more like a couple that may still live in the same house, but no longer love each other. They are going through the motions. They occupy the same house, and the same ballets, but no longer occupy one heart. The dancers are moving to the music, but, for the most part, they are not being moved by it.

I've already reported (Flash ALARM, 1-16: Robbins is Burning) how this mechanical response to beautiful music has eviscerated Jerome Robbins's "In the Night." Based on what I saw Tuesday night at the New York State Theater, the stiffness is not confined to the Robbins repertoire.

Let's start with the male corps, as witnessed in Richard Tanner's 1992 "Ancient Airs and Dances" and Robbins's 1983 "I'm Old-Fashioned." If I were a woman looking for love, I would not run into the arms of these men. If I were a man looking for a fight, I would not run from them. They dance neither proudly nor spinefully. As a body, they move by rote, often as if there is no music playing. The women seem a little more spiney and sure but, as my dancer companion put it last night (approximately), the dancers and music may be going in the same direction, parallel to each other, but they are not moving as one.

The problem is not confined to the corps. The strangest example of the musical sterility that seems to have infected the body NYCB has got to be Maria Kowroski. Like my colleagues in the critical cadres, I hailed Kowroski's arrival in 1996. She seemed as full a dancer as, physically, she is a woman. (Meaning she is not emaciated, but has a normal woman's body.) Enchanted by the music and the choreography, she charmed us with both. In her debut as Titania in George Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream," I remember how, even when she was not center-stage, her arms palpitated with the music. In his "Swan Lake," her leg shot up behind her as her hands held Siegfried's and she tried to resist Von Rotbart, the leg connecting us to this conflict--it was not just an empty extension. As the Girl in Green in Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering," she brought a refreshing sauciness to this somewhat placid (though lovely!) ballet.

But lately--or at least the last two times I've seen her--Kowroski dances with a strange stiffness. She is reaching at positions, not reaching into the music.

When Kowroski made that first splash in 1996, she made me think of the legendary Suzanne Farrell. I had never seen Farrell perform live, but, well, they had a similar austere facial beauty.

I did, however, see a film of Farrell performing, and what struck me most was how, even doing set choreography, she danced so freely, organically, and naturally, as if inventing the work then and there. I remembered this, sadly, last night, as I beheld Kowroski dancing so inorganically. It--and much of the other dancing--was more like a drill than a true dance. I suspect others might call this "dancing scared," where you're so worried about getting the steps exactly right, you can't free yourself to listen to and respond to the music.

The good news is that Yvonne Borree, substituting for the injured Miranda Weese in "Ancient," danced more freely than I've seen in a long time. Her arms floated, beautifully, up, in the closing moments of her duet, the hands softly cupping as the lights dimmed.

Less surprising was the saving musicality of Wendy Whelan, delightfully abandoned. And more: As quick as she is, Whelan's arms still leave an impression in the air, much like the white smoke that trails a jet airplane. She proves that one can be fleet without sacrificing definition, articulation and finish. I also loved the way her pony-tail bounced, happy to be along for the ride.

Like Whelan, Darci Kistler has been a constant: dependably musical and lyrical, understanding and conveying all the subtleties. The chance to see her--opposite Albert Evans--in Balanchine's 1963 "Bugaku" last night was one of the things that drew me back to the theater despite my previous experience. This is a very strange--the PC among us might even say, with misplaced modern sensibility, racially stereotypical--ballet. But although it's stylized, it's a stylization of a ritual, and Kistler and Evans underplayed that ritual last night, vague-izing if not vaporizing its meaning. Based on the last two times I've seen it, the narrative of this ballet seems to concern a mating ceremony which consummates in a devirginization. The extensions--and indeed leg-spreading--of the woman hit us over the head with this meaning. Kistler executed these actions finely, but what was missing was a strong sense of how this all affected her internally. For example, Muriel Maffre, dancing the role with San Francisco Ballet (opposite Ashley Wheater, if memory serves) exuded the pain that comes with this act. Her extended leg indicated a wrenched body and soul, as she was pulled, not entirely willingly, into womanhood. When Dance Theatre of Harlem presented the ballet last fall, the dancer (sorry, I can't remember her name!) in the lead played things coyly at the beginning, when the two are being formally introduced to each other by handmaidens and handmen. After the act has been consummated, she was pure (okay, slightly arch) joy. The point is, she showed that something had just happened to her, and how it had transformed her. Kistler, by contrast, cowered in a corner for a minute, but by the time she re-joined Evans, she didn't seem much different than before the life-changing act. As for Evans, he seemed unmoved by any of this; even when he clutched his partner round the waist, one doubted how much he wanted to hang on to her.

It might be clever to report that, appearing on screen at the beginning of "I'm Old-Fashioned," the larger-than-life Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth made the live dancers look small. But, notwithstanding the aforementioned limp-bodied male corps, some of the dancers here gave us transcendent moments. Helene Alexopoulos--another personal favorite--ALWAYS inhabits the music, mingling with it easily, her limbs co-existing with the notes. Her arms float, her wrists are angled but not inhumanly so, her fingers pointed but not rigid. And I love, just LOVE, the poised way her legs jut out (jut is not quite the right word--she's much more graceful than that) when she's lifted at the waist and turned by a partner. Her performance here was no exception.

The ballerina of the evening--okay, besides Whelan--was Pascale van Kipnis. One of the most magical qualities of ballerinas is to seem like they are coming to us from another world; or, a variation, that they have one foot here, and one in another, more mystical universe. Van Kipnis does this. I have to credit my colleague Susan Reiter for pointing her out to me way back in 1996. The inner beauty of van Kipnis doesn't stun you, but rather dawns on you slowly, a sun patiently rising. She gets better every time. She's not even at noon yet, and if anything convinces me to return to the New York State Theater, it will be her.

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