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Flash Review, 2-25: Symmetry Rules
Walzing in Time With City Ballet

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

An observant and thoughtful dancer once quipped that she'd heard that a stubborn insistence on symmetry was the sign of a troubled mind. Food for thought, huh? In the golden décor of the State Theater Thursday, the New York City Ballet could be forgiven for giving us a larger dose of the mirror-image picture. It's just programmed that way. Um, I mean it was in the program set-up, not that they're programmed any more than the rest of us.

The rapturous music of Respighi (drawn from three suites based on Renaissance and Baroque compositions) is the impetus for Richard Tanner's "Ancient Airs and Dances," a 1992 Diamond Project commission. Were there really eighteen dancers out there? Tanner chose to use his ensemble in smaller numbers most of the time, keeping the bursts of large-scale dancing as punctuation rather than camouflage. These lovely musical treatments held sway over all, and I felt Mr. Tanner's choices were good in that respect as my audio-visual experience became true stereo when the corps would burst in at the appropriate times. The place fairly vibrated, in the midst of all those thrumming strings being bowed, the whole cast synchronized in some snappy petite allegro sequences. A lot of symmetry, but that was ok. Nothing stood still for long, and by-and-by the instrumentation and the personnel diminished to reveal a pas de six, duets, and some nifty transitional passages. I enjoyed some of the themes danced-out there, God knows they looked like some tough sequences, but were pleasing in their clarity. I was tempted to roll my eyes only a couple of times when I thought I caught a whiff of "The Four Temperaments" in there, either by design or in the inevitable tendencies of dancers with a second-nature grasp of a style to link it into another choreographer's work.

The partnering held some fresh things, too, and even at great speed was very clean and synchronized. On the whole, "Ancient Airs" sails along on the Respighi quite pleasantly, though I would get a yearning soon enough for someone up there to take a really long step, for a sequence to really propel people across the stage with the same sort of sweep and surge that I was hearing in the music. Far from disappointing, though, it was a crisp piece, smartly done, and I liked the simply-black costumes(no program credit claim for those; presumably by the choreographer?). There was no set, and really only two interesting lighting cues, intimate little attention-getters, but for all of fifteen seconds.

After intermission the curtain rose and I thought I was next door at the Opera house, confronted with a lovely "Viennese" hall: mirrors, large double doors, sconces, chandelier, and other sundry furnishings, all suspended in front of a blue-sky cyc. Truly lovely, these opening moments of George Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer" (to music by Johannes Brahms, Opus 52 and Opus 65). The pianists (Richard Moredock and Susan Walters) and four singers clustered in the "downstage right" corner of this salon, yielding the floor to four very elegant couples. All were dressed to the nines in beautiful gowns and tail-suits by Karinska (of course!) Yes, this was to be white-glove Vienna, a century and a half ago, and according to program notes it is meant to parallel Brahms's "overwhelming interest in the rhythm and sweep of the dance movement itself." Indeed, it was a powerful case for time, and it was fairly dripping with symmetry. The waltz is a lovely thing, to be sure, but there are limitations, mainly that it is classically a two-person, man-woman thing. Generally, y'know?

There was beautiful dancing, really, and anybody who's done any of that gloved partnering, gowns/heels sort of thing knows it ain't easy to look so smooth. Heavens, a lot of kneeling and kissing of ladies' hands! Oh certainly, there were gliding waltzes, swooping ones, tender and hypnotic ones, and parts that looked a little courtly (maybe based on some of the older social dances hanging on in 1850s Vienna?) Our couples of dancers stayed mostly coupled, apart from those brief spells where partners are spun away, only to return again on the other side of the room. But it's all very proper, remember it's olden times in this salon, and I have to say I admire more in retrospect how the dancers maintained this civility beautifully---with the wrong touch, it could look arch or comical. They were terrifically poised throughout what turned out to be a very long ballet. So long, in fact, that it has it's own little intermission!

Eventually in Part One, the couples exit through the huge scenic doors (all by David Mitchell) and the curtain descends. Pause. Part Two reveals that our four ball-gowned ladies have traded (up? down?) for some more theatrical dresses or tutus, and they've put on their pointe shoes. The gentlemen are still duded up in their tails, but have jettisoned the gloves. Now we're getting into a Balanchine ballet that bears more of his stamp, for on pointe and in the sure hands of the cavaliers, these ballerinas are in for a much more expansive time. A not-too-subtle illustration on the "evolution" of dancing, a matter dear to Mr. Balanchine from what we're told. Anyway, their partnering so liberated, we are treated to a slightly looser embodiment of the waltz, less of the proper sort from before and now composed in Twentieth Century style. A woman floats in a jete lift, straight upstage, then straight toward us, a big no-no for the classical school. He breaks the rules, and yet it's still ballet, it's still waltz. (I'm always amazed how uncomplicated it looks sometimes: do the step to the East once, the South, West, North. There goes a few bars of music---wow! They said Mr. Balanchine worked fast, and I can believe it.) Ultimately the couples' more private dialogues bring us back around---like a good waltz would---full circle, and one by one the couples reappear dressed as before. They stroll back in through the doors two-by-two, regard each other and the musicians with a satisfaction, before alighting to chairs or loveseats for a painterly tableau. Charming, a little perplexing, very long.

Vocally, I thought the performance of the Liebeslieder Walzers to be two for four. I was really disappointed in the male voices' lack of power and poor blending. The ladies--soprano Elissa Johnston and mezzo Teri Medley---fared much better, sending their voices out like a braid of Brahms.

I'd like to send out big dance kudos to the lovely debuting-in-this-role Jennifer Ringer, breathtaking Maria Kowroski, the eager gentility of Sebastien Marcovici, and to the formidably-talented Nikolaj Hubbe. Always a pleasure.

And after awhile, the symmetry didn't bother me so much.What do you think that means?


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