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Flash Review 2, 6-21: A Little Hokum, a Little Magic
Mahdaviani Premieres "Appalachia Waltz" at City Ballet

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

I'll confess that, in the privacy of my own apartment, I've been known to do a little jigging to "Appalachia Waltz," the 1996 album of Texas fiddle/Celtic/classical compositions for violin, cello, and double bass by Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, and Yo-Yo Ma. I know I'm not alone in this case of happy feet; it's lovely stuff, full of bluegrass rhythms and classical mournfulness, those dusky strings brushing right up against the skin of human emotion. Miriam Mahdaviani must have found this music danceable, too, so much so that she decided to make a whole dance out of it -- it premiered last night at the New York City Ballet as the last work in the company's Diamond Project 2000. Strangely, Mahdaviani's new ballet, also called "Appalachia Waltz," has some of the same qualities that make the music, for all its loveliness, a bit confused about itself, and a little lightweight.

The trouble begins when, as the curtain rises, we see the three musicians (Paul Peabody, Fred Zlotkin, and Ron Wasserman) on the stage making their lovely music and wearing the most hokey suspenders-and-loose-pants outfit you've ever seen. I was hoping Mahdaviani would avoid the predictable hoe-down business and try to find something running deeper in the music; the beginning of the ballet did not bode well for that outcome. The dancers start in stillness in front of a lavender scrim shadowed with large and beautiful tree branches; they unfreeze slowly with a little log-chopping, brow-wiping slow-motion pantomime. Then when they really get started, with more of the dreaded suspenders and flexed feet/bent knees stomping, it becomes clear that they just don't know how to play it. The women, with their hip little sundresses in pretty bright colors, look especially conflicted: is this country or urban/casual or Balanchine? The whole first movement jerks along among the genres, never really finding the rhythm of the strings.

Jennifer Ringer and Niles Martins tried to have fun with their pas de deux after the first group section, but their choreography had none of their music's tension, and didn't give them any foundation to spring from. They were nonetheless wonderfully playful with each other; Martins was sweetly coaxing, while Ringer flitted like a leaf and draped herself over his shoulders with abandon. Albert Evans had a slinky solo, complete with dapper straw hat and onlooking women and a little jump-roping action to start it out. He got to do some basic jazz moves and some fun partnering work (the women took turns trying on the topper, which finally ended up on the head of one of the musicians), but not much that did justice to his particular velvet elegance. But he was, not surprisingly, smooth and serene and fleet of foot, making up in style for what the steps lacked in originality.

Everybody seemed to think Evans and his hat were going to steal the show -- until Jennie Somogyi showed up to join him. Their pas de deux is set to a piece called "Schizoozzy," and here at last the music and the moves started falling into line: This dance is full of swishes and squiggles and syncopations, and with a name like that you can just imagine what the score sounds like. Somogyi and Evans were channeling those big tree limbs behind them, flinging their legs and arms like willows in a rainstorm. Somogyi especially -- her branchy body perfectly attuned to the winds of this music -- danced with an intensity that showed she knew, despite her giddy whirling, where she was rooted. Evans was right there with her; when the music slowed, they shared a quiet transformation, a tenderness and knowledge of depth beneath their swishing. Mahdaviani filled this pas de deux with marvelously inventive lifts and shifts of direction, mirroring in a wonderful way the music's moods and patterns. The thing was brimming with something we very rarely see: genuine surprises. The audience literally wouldn't let the ballet go on; they applauded so long that the next movement just had to wait.

The wait was worth it, for a while. The penultimate section had four couples -- Samantha Allen and Jared Angle, Aesha Ash and Jeroen Hofmans, Eva Natanya and Arch Higgins, and Rachel Rutherford and James Fayette -- all dancing gorgeously. Ash and Hofmans were especially lyrical, and Rutherford continues to radiate her peach-fuzz warmth. Martins got a few moments alone to show us his far-too-cautious turns; a Martins/Higgins contest ended in a draw; and the whole gang came back for one more rousing bit of county-fair hokum. And that's it! I sat there with my mouth open for a few seconds after the curtain closed, unable to believe Mahdaviani had ended it so dumbly, after all those sweetly singing moments she gave us just before.

Except for the beginning and the end of the piece, then, Mahdaviani has done some nice things with this odd music. Those opening and closing full-cast numbers are packed with too many disjointed steps to leave room for the dancers to play (which they seemed to want to do), but the smaller, slower sections -- and especially that enchanted pas de deux for Somogyi and Evans -- get beyond the cutesy folksy business that some of the other music encourages. (During the intermission I heard several people saying, "I was touched!") The very genre-mixing that made "Appalachia Waltz" (the CD) so charming and so popular is precisely what denies it, in the end, much of any claim to depth; nonetheless, when it finds its groove, it speaks powerfully to the part of us that can't help dancing. The same is true for Mahdaviani's version: Her ballet can't decide what it wants to be and therefore isn't much of anything, but when it just settles down and sings, it touches magic.

Surrounding the premiere were two very different beasts: Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations" and Peter Martins' 1990 "Fearful Symmetries." In the former, a veritable Godiva Chocolate of a ballet, Yvonne Borree continued to perplex me: She is tiny and sharp and punchy, but her smallness of scale is brittle instead of tender, and she dances as though she doesn't trust the music. Only a couple of times did she take advantage of the surprises in Balanchine's choreography. Philip Neal was the lovable galoot in this Italian village dance, adorable and corny and fun to watch. Alexandre Iziliaev gets better every time I see him, while Ryan Kelly just gets to be more of a ham; he's a fine dancer, but he needs to watch a videotape of himself.

"Fearful Symmetries," set to the fierce synthesizer-plus-orchestra beats of John Adams, is surprisingly likable for all its aggressive monotony. This was an especially driven performance -- every single dancer was totally committed, even though there's not a lot to be committed to here except propulsive movement itself. The whip/stop, dash-and-crash momentum of the ballet keeps the attention, and last night the dancers repaid that focus with incredible energy and precision. Something very cool is happening to Kathleen Tracey, she who worked such wonders in "Summerspace" two weeks ago. (See Flash Review 2, 6-7: The Aural Muse, and Flash Review 1, 6-10: Ballet Lives!) Her duet with James Fayette here was utterly concentrated; "this, my dear," we saw her saying, "is for real." Fayette was excellent in response, jut-jawed and angst-y.

Maria Kowroski was little less than astounding as the second lead, melting in Charles Askegard's arms like blown glass, bubbling hot and full of colors. In a lift across the stage, her giant developpe a la seconde offered much-needed expansiveness amidst all that symmetry (fearful it truly is). She was warm and alive again, at least for one night, if a little ahead of the music toward the end. (See our previous Flashes of Kowroski by typing her name into the search engine.) The real stars of this performance, though, were Samantha Allen and Benjamin Millepied, who seem to have been born from the same grasshopper-womb. They are perfectly matched, his pouncing jumps with her bang-bang triple pirouettes. A marvelous pair.

So goes the end of the NYCB Diamond Project for another season. Nothing, I thought, was terribly bad, and there were a few moments that were terribly good. What intrigued me most of all was the extent to which some of these ballets, in their oblique ways, weren't afraid to be about real life -- what are we like together as human beings? What do we do? How do we respond to one another? They're questions we might not immediately look to ballet to have answered. But maybe we should. And maybe, with the next crop of premieres, ballet will have a little something more to tell us.

For more info on the NYCB season, visit NYCB's web site.

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