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Flash Review 1, 5-1: So Why Don't They Clap?
Technical Excellence, Audience Apathy at NYCB

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

Friday's program at the New York State Theater showed City Ballet's characteristic American sangfroid and clarity of movement, even in large numbers, in a new work and two reliable older ones. "Mercurial Manoeuvres," a premiere by Christopher Wheeldon to Shostakovich as part of the Diamond Project, demonstrated how the company continues to produce handsome, well-danced works that shimmer and click and nestle within the canon of NYCB, yet its impact dissipates the moment the curtain comes down. It's oddly bereft emotionally, but that is part and parcel of the City Ballet experience.

Wheeldon, blessed with a deep, technically matched corps, leagues of red gossamer scrimmery, and Esther Williams-inspired tunics, assembled a satisfying work featuring Miranda Weese and Jock Soto but stolen by the radiant Edward Liang, whose clean footwork and confident presence commanded the eye. The corps passages were pleasing in a sort of marching band way, with lines stitching patterns to and fro, and a chain of fourth position quarter turns on pointe that were simple yet freshly inventive. The reduced male corps was oddly modern dance in feeling, and appeared overmatched in partnering sequences both in quantity and quality. Virtually an eminence grise, Soto -- with his seamless, reassuringly solid support for the wispy Weese in their quiet duet and partnering section -- made his case for continued star billing in this young man's sport.

Balanchine's "Square Dance" opened the program, both setting the evening's standard and reminding us why the standard exists. The simplicity of his choreography is jarring -- passages lifted right out of a class, the essence of basic ballet vocabulary stripped clean and presented to us -- and his ability to let us feel more deeply the music by illustrating it with dance is a small, periodic epiphany. What is also striking is the perpetual presence of stillness dotting the work, allowing phrases to resonate and hang in the mind's eye, giving it a moment's rest before asking it to absorb the next passage. Peter Boal's heartachingly measured port de bras was another reminder of the theatrical value of very basic elements executed perfectly.

Jerome Robbins's "West Side Story Suite" evoked mixed feelings. There's no getting around the power of the music and the hot-button songs -- close your eyes and you will likely be content to recall your own memories of the film or show. There are thrilling moments when the athlete takes over the dancer, particularly at the beginning, but the walks give it away -- those definitely are ballet dancers walking in that funny way and not gang members. It's when the unhinged fan kicks and multiple pirouettes come up that it's obvious we're watching a ballet company. Still, it feels a bit like fakery. Not to detract from Robbins's brilliantly snappy, jazz-blown choreography, incarnated in those Gap ads (you knew that was coming), but I might as well have been watching one of a number of serviceable dance companies performing. Notably, Helene Alexopoulos showed great Broadway charisma.

There's no question there were some true ballet-lovers in the audience, but they weren't expressive enough to rouse the lazy house, which couldn't find it in its heart to clap between curtain calls. Certainly, if you subscribe to NYCB and make it your dance habit, you may become immune to the technical excellence and come to expect it. But it's chilling to feel a perceptible groan when the curtain is pulled aside for the second soloist bow. The company is deserving of quite a bit more respect than that. What would it take for the house to reconsider its traditional bow policy in acknowledgement of the fussy audience it has carefully fostered?

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