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Flash Review 1, 6-10: Ballet Lives!
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 clearly amiss.

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 back.

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 site.

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