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Flash Review 1, 6-10:
City Ballet Rocks My World
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
From the moment Jennifer
Ringer, making her debut in the quirky "Donizetti Variations," put
a little extra bounce into her exit after the first pas de deux,
to the moment where principals and corps alike froze, startled and
awed, at the end of "I'm Old Fashioned" at the apparition of Fred
Astaire and Rita Hayworth, ballet lived last night at the State
Theater, offering new proof that ballet can be a living, breathing,
contemporary art, which appeals to our eyes, speaks to our hearts,
and stimulates our brains.
"Donizetti" is one of
those Balanchine ballets that starts pretty traditionally and then,
about the time you're asking What's so Balanchine about that? it
goes south on you. The music helps here. It's all over the map,
from frilly adorned Romantic to stormy Russian (this divergence
might have something to do with it's being taken from an opera,
Donizetti's 1843 "Don Sebastian"), and Balanchine plays with that.
In a hammy sequence which begins with the corps women rushing on
stage and then, a la Petipa and "Swan Lake," incline forward on
a slant and cradle their eyes in their fore-arms tragically, he
even has a dancer stub a toe during her variation and then recoil
in shock to the misstep. Of the three corps men, Alexandre Izilieav
stood far above the rest, his alert eyes, giving smile, Puckish
eyes, warm attention to the women, proud bearing and prone body
a welcome change from the usual limpness that characterizes many
in the City Ballet male corps.
But Ringer, dancing the
lead in this 40-year-old ballet for the first time, was the real
charmer. In fact, by the end of the evening (she dazzled in Merce
Cunningham's "Summerspace" as well), it wouldn't have been too much
of an exaggeration to say that she owns City Ballet. This was one
of those instances where if you didn't know it from the casting
list, you wouldn't know she was dancing the ballet for the first
time. She was comfortable with the ballet, with partner Damian Woetzel,
and with us. Once again, Ringer was the welcoming committee for
a night at the ballet, setting the tone for the evening. Woetzel
helped; like Ringer's, although he's the more proven commodity,
his charm is not forced or flaccid but easy. In fact there was a
sequence here, starting with a Ringer solo and continuing into their
partnered dancing, where the feeling projected was not of prepared
steps but, well, of dancing for the sheer spontaneous joy of it,
like you might do alone or with a friend at a club or in your room.
As for Woetzel, he once
again impressed me with his solid attention to every movement. None
of the arm choreography is rushed through; even while his feet are
jumping, he gives equal deliberation to his arms -- and we're talking
pretty complex arm choreography here.
If Ringer is warm and
warms us, Maria Kowroski is, these days anyway, her polar opposite,
providing the only chill of the evening. She continues to mystify,
and not for the right reasons. I say "mystify" because when she
burst on the scene in 1996, hey, I was the first to trumpet her
virtues. Then, she was warm in "Midsummer Night's Dream" as Titania,
ditto as the Swan Queen, and hot as the Siren in "Prodigal Son."
Now, as my colleague Alicia Mosier suggested (see Flash
Review 6-8, Music and Muse), Kowroski seems almost to be relying
on her good looks, admittedly those of a female Adonis. Her dancing
in Richard Tanner's 1982 "Sonatas and Interludes," with Kowroski
and partner Jock Soto poured into tight tops and tights, certainly
accentuated her sensuous form, but that charm soon wore thin with
her mistakenly cold reading of the John Cage music. She seems to
think -- or rather, dances as if she thinks -- that abstract music
calls for soul-less dancing, and it doesn't, as proved right next
to her by Soto, particularly in a repeated bending back of the head,
stretching of the arms, and looking up to Heaven. The words I'm
thinking of to describe Kowroski's current dancing qualities aren't
nice, but I'll use them as it seems like, in the face of the praise
she's getting elsewhere (NYCB chief Peter Martins has said she's
better than Suzanne Farrell), a virtual slap in the face is needed:
Kowroski these days is dancing like an android, an empty vehicle
physically capable of anything but presenting as emotionally blank.
Harsh words? Perhaps. But I guess I don't feel entirely cruel in
this observation because I've also observed, and noted in print,
that she's capable of the opposite. And if she can dance this cold
opposite Jock Soto, that hot hunk of a dream partner, something's
As well, Ringer proved
in the evening's next piece that abstract work can be danced to
with emotional depth and probing. I wasn't going to write about
Merce Cunningham's "Summerspace" tonight because Tom Patrick pretty
much covered it, in Flash Review 2, 6-7: The
Aural Muse. But I can't help it. First, Ringer practically grabbed
my hand and forced pen to paper, causing me to write in my notes
here that...for one, she does the work to burrow into the non-simple
music, a Morton Feldman composition similar in approach and atonal
structure to the Cage. Plus, her eyes blink -- she's alive! She's
so full of wonder -- oh, the depths in that woman's palpitating
eyes and body!
Also in "Summerspace,"
I've never seen Samantha Allen look so tall, in body and as a dancer.
Like a slowly amplifying wine, she just gets better and better.
Even Michelle Gifford and Kathleen Tracey, who usually seem awkward
to me, are at home in their birdness (that seems to be the implied
creature in this dance largely to flutes). In fact, I had to check
my program to make sure it wasn't Margaret Tracey up there mesmerizing
me with an intense, possessed, beautiful gaze.
You know me, I tend to
hone in on the women and Damian, so I'll let my companion chime
in here: She liked how Alexander Ritter seemed to have trouble deciding
which "bird" to flit to!
City Ballet dancers'
training is so specific, even within ballet, that their bodies don't
always respond smoothly to modern dance vocabulary, but last night
there was only one party awkward with the Merce moves, and that
was the State Theater audience, atypically stingy with its curtain
calls for this dance masterpiece, masterfully performed.
I also wasn't going to
write much about Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old-Fashioned," which starts
with a clip of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth from the movie "You
Were Never Lovelier," followed by Robbins variations on the Astaire/Val
Roset choreography and Morton Gould's variations on the Jerome Kern
music. Alicia pretty much covered it, reviewing the mostly identical
cast in the above-referenced Flash.
I was just going to cover
the one debut, that of Rachel Rutherford. And I'm happy to report
that Rutherford and partner Arch Higgins got things off to an appropriate
start, ably echoing the way Astaire and Hayworth only had eyes for
each other. I also liked her dips and the way she threw her head
But it seems Ms. Whelan,
as in Wendy, drives all of us to put pen to paper, and now I'm eager
to join the fray. Alicia in the above-referenced
Flash, and Wendy Perron in Flash Review
1-8, Seeing Balanchine, Watching Whelan, have pretty much captured
Whelan's specific gifts. To this I can add after last night that
she was also suddenly sexy. Alicia gave me the heads up on the adultness
of Whelan's relationship to Nicholaj Hubbe, and maybe that's one
reason why I noticed, for the first time after several of seeing
this ballet, a through-line of a story, specifically in this couple's
relationship. Their first pas de deux riffs on the part in the film
where Astaire and Hayworth awkwardly bump each other as they both
try to enter a doorway at the same time. There's lots of bumping
of shoulders, and "After you, I insist"s. The feeling is of a man
and a woman who, sure, want to dance together, but are very much
individuals. The overhanging question: Can they create a third being,
a relationship? When they come back later, it's not quite that they've
surrendered themselves, but rather that they are at peace with each
other, dancing in harmony. It was as if the first go-around they
were a couple perhaps in love, but still getting to know each other
-- you know, a pair that moved in together and then found they had
a tough time actually fitting in together, adjusting to each other's
habits, patterns, and idiosyncrasies. But by the second time, we
saw that they'd worked it out. They still hadn't given up their
own selves, but they were confident enough in those that they could
dance together. Wow! There's an actual story here, I thought. And
there's Robbins's for you: continuing to unfold new twists in his
ballets, abetted by dancers smart enough in their bodies and minds
to be able to reveal them.
As for Helene Alexopoulos
and Philip Neal, well, let's just state this first: She continues
to be my favorite. It's her sheer unadulterated joy in the music
-- expressed in singing lips and ardency in just about every limb
and inch of skin -- and also the way that, well, it's not just the
way she can extend her legs, but that they never jut out, but always
float, riding the waves of the music. And she IS so ardent! With
the space, with her partner, with the music. Two moments lingered
last night, towards the end of their second pas de deux. After they
are re-united (there's a semi-comic moment where Neal twirls Alexopoulos
upstage left, only to watch in dismay as she twirls into the arms
of and off with another man who has suddenly appeared) when she
wanders back in, and he lifts her and spins her slowly, even as
she spreads her legs she softly nestles her head in his shoulder.
Then, as they exit, her aloft, she, in a gesture of gentle exhilaration
in her love for him and how it's lifted her heart, brushes an arm
slowly and caressingly up her chest and to the Heavens.
The chill for me came
when, in the finale, dancing below a final clip of Fred and Rita,
principals and corps suddenly freeze at this apparition. The chills
ran up my spine.
In effect, as this moment
indicated, these dancers had, throughout the evening (and with the
one exception noted), surrendered themselves to the music and delivered
me to another world. As I sit here finishing this at 1 in the morning,
trying to ignore the sounds of the revving motorcycles and their
reveling riders on 8th Street, I want to go back to that world,
and I will. I am infinitely grateful to the dancers, choreographers
-- oh, and did I mention the fiery conducting (Hugo Fiorato and
John Kennedy) and playing (particularly solo pianist Elaine Chelton)
which surely helped ignite one and all? -- and company director
for providing this respite. I will return to their world, and so
will you, if you know what's good for you!
Post-script, 8:15 a.m.
Saturday: Running to the Hudson this morning, I still couldn't get
that bouncy music -- the part for the bumping duet - out of my head.
And it's pretty annoying music, so if the little DJ in my brain
keeps wanting to play it, that tells you something: Whelan and Hubbe
made it live, and made it about life, or rather brought out Robbins's
probable intention in this direction.
As for as the ballet
as a whole, it occurs to me I should provide some perspective for
those of you who may not have seen "I'm Old-Fashioned." Normally,
this ballet is a curio at best, most interesting for the novelty
of the Astaire-Hayworth film clip. The live dancing is at best a
pleasant tribute, at worse a pale imitation of the celluloid giants.
But last night, man, these dancers rocked my world! This ballet
rocked! In fact, this company right now is rocking; see it or weep!
For more info, visit
the New York City Ballet web
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