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Flash Review 2, 6-7:
The Aural Muse
Getting the Music Connection at City Ballet
By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick
I've gotta tell you,
seeing more dance is also providing me with opportunities to learn
about music -- both in reading about each work's background and
in the tantalizing differences I detect in the choreographers' relationship
to music. I'm becoming more attuned to the way some choreographers
have their own rules or habits or tendencies in hearing their chosen
aural muse...and in a larger sense it is sometimes delicious to
note the differences that emerge when disparate sensibilities encounter
a piano piece, a symphony....
My theatre experience
last night at the State Theater provided lots of provocative departure
points, and the musical diversity was interesting to me in itself.
This was not lightweight stuff, and I felt I was actually rewarded
for doing a little background-checking before the performance(see
also past reviews containing disgust over excessive pre-show program-note
rhetoric). I enjoy reading the program notes at New York City Ballet
performances, for they DON'T tell me why I ought to respect or revere
Balanchine, Robbins, Martins, et al, and they DON'T paint esoteric
pictures and fuel unreal expectations of Pertinent Social Commentary.
They DO, however, give some interesting nuggets of info on the choreographers'
musical choices, composers' backgrounds, and some non-threatening
(or is that non-threatened?), non-cryptic notes on the dances themselves.
This info is available free to all on the NYCB
web site, in the Stagebill itself, and at a volunteer-staffed
booth in the lobby at the State Theater. If ya go, it's worth your
while to check out these resources!
Tonight's program began
with Jerome Robbins's "2 & 3 Part Inventions," the accompaniment
for which is solo piano. Eschewing the familiar onstage down-left
piano, this Kawai was parked nicely on the extended stage-apron
beneath the first boxes: seen, heard, important, and not in the
way of the dancing. Pianist Nancy McDill gave a spontaneous feel
to these dozen J.S. Bach selections that surpassed mere accompaniment
and seemed intuitively co-operative with the dancers' tasks. The
dance itself is so charming! Janie Taylor, making her debut in this
ballet, is the first on the scene (in a light hazy-day atmosphere
before a brownish background, courtesy Jennifer Tipton.) With a
flick and a curtsy Ms Taylor shows us a riff of technique (wonderful)
and a gentle heart -- all the dancers (eight of 'em) enter thus
with regards for their comrades and us. It is sweet, concise, pleasantly
foretelling. I believe (caveats here: I'm mentioning something I
read today but don't have on-hand) that this is one of the last
works by this Old Master -- perhaps revealing some distillation
of so much seen and done? Regardless of that, the dance is a devilishly-technical,
intensely-musical treat: a dozen episodes of canonic slaloms, clever
pas de deux/trois/quatre, and witty solos. Lovely performances from
all eight dancers, and I found outstanding experiences through Ms.
Taylor, Alexander Ritter, studly James Fayette (a friend whose ascent
at NYCB I've happily watched since our Chautauqua days of old) and
totally-charming/wickedly-clean Carrie Lee Riggins. And in a big
way, Benjamin Millepied (who was, I read, in this dance's original
cast in 1994 at the School of American Ballet). Millepied (ah, that
name!) was simply wonderful, from the opening "dialogue" with Ms.
Taylor through and-beyond the moment he flicked out what may be
the most exclamatory tour jete I've ever seen. Wow.
The time arrived for
Merce Cunningham's "Summerspace," and until then I had been a little
surprised at its inclusion in the NYCB repertoire. Oil and water?
Even more surprised to discover that "Summerspace" had its New York
City Ballet premiere in 1966(!), eight years after the piece first
played (on Cunningham's company) at the old American Dance Festival
in New London, Connecticut. Very forward-thinking of Kirstein/Balanchine,
eh? Tonight's incarnation was staged by Carolyn Brown, Mr. Cunningham,
Robert Swinston, and Jeannie Steele... I do hope they were proud.
The four female/two male sextet (half of whom -- Samantha Allen,
Michele Gifford, and Benjamin Millepied, were in their first-ever
performance of it; Jennifer Ringer, Alexander Ritter, and Kathleen
Tracey made their debuts in the piece last summer with the Cunningham
group, last night marking the first time they performed the piece
with their home company) transformed themselves...deliberately and
thoroughly. This wasn't ballet-dancers wearing somebody else's clothes,
but a cast who had obviously absorbed some careful teaching and
coaching. It was an ensemble that has risen to a tough challenge,
dancing a piece with such a unique and peculiar logic. It is obvious
that they have all put a lot of work into it -- they dance fully
and with a daring to "think outside the box," as Mr. Cunningham
himself so obviously does. I applaud their visible devotion to the
integrity of this interesting work, especially in light of the ever-mystifying-to-conventional-me
relationship Mr. Cunningham forges between what we hear and what
we see. (But this latter issue is certainly well-covered by eloquent
writers and Cunningham himself -- thank the gods he is not taciturn
or stingy when it comes to sharing his thoughts on the processes!)
As the orchestra navigated through Morton Feldman's "Ixion" -- the
musicians themselves do apparently have some degree of self-determination
here, per Feldman's methodology -- my eyes were throbbing pleasantly
from the optical effect of Robert Rauschenberg's matching pointillist
backdrop-and-costumes (so simple, striking, and effective!).
This dance truly is about
space, about Going, and the acre of stage space here is clearly
only a slice of the pie. It is Nature and Society, seen in glimpses
of arresting dynamic examples, and in a sense the dancers create
the music too through their evocations. In my opinion "Summerspace"
is a must-enclosure for an inter-stellar satellite... I think we'd
encounter some positive reactions from afar as well as from this
planet. Subtitled "A Lyric Dance," it proves so in several definitions,
for it does indeed speak. I loved seeing the female dancers in soft
ballet shoes instead of pointes (though "Summerspace" has been done
by the NYCB en pointe before.). Kudos to the cast for rising to
this task, through Cunningham's twisty steps and unconventional
phrasing and shapes...and for dancing so damned cleanly and clearly.
A special brava to Michele Gifford, rock-solid and daring the frontier
between stillness and motion (to paraphrase Ayn Rand: a stillness
so full that it was like the dynamic moment when sword meets sword....)
and the seemingly-tireless Mr. Millepied, whose voracious appetite
for covering space and beautifully-buoyant jumping have won him
another fan. But this really is a full-cast piece, and I do declare
that they all made it live out there tonight. Clear, bright, poetic,
Closing last night's
program was Balanchine's "Symphony in C," dating from the late 1940's.
Incidentally, the first NY performance of this ballet was in the
City Center theater, which astounds me, given it's cast is 48-strong!
What a population -- they filled out the State Theater's space pretty
well -- I can only imagine them all crammed onto the CC stage....
"Symphony in C" is nothing
new to City Ballet audiences, and I have also seen it excerpted
and presented partially in other circumstances, to no ill effect
in my opinion. It is classical in look -- tutus, toe-shoes, tiaras
on the ladies, hint-of-puffy-sleeved tunics for the gents -- all
by (of course!) Karinska. Each of the four movements of Bizet's
"lost" score presents us with a different pair of principals out
in front, four different demi-soloists, and a different octet of
corps-a-rinas. There is much symmetry and classicism, but the die
had already been cast regarding Balanchine's pushing the envelope
of the form... We see hints of his later brilliant rebellions from
the tried-and-true. Amidst this stock structure, the odd-within-conventional
does manage to peek through....
I particularly enjoyed
the Second Movement, a new take on partnering that had Charles Askegard
squiring Wendy Whelan with great spaciousness and strength. Having
seen both of these artists only in other "types" of repertoire before,
I was very pleased here with their strength and soft lyricism, respectively.
It is a strong section architecturally too, a bit more so than the
For the ballet's finale,
all four-dozen come out to play, and if it isn't the most innovative
thing around it is certainly striking in the power of numbers. Again
though, Carrie Lee Riggins continued to shine as if it were her
birthday, no matter where she was.
Guest conductor Andrea
Quinn led the Bizet charge in the orchestra pit, and I thought it
was a terrific symphonic performance in its own right. The score
drove forward strongly, and was a breathless pleasure.
Friday with most of the same cast. For more info, visit the NYCB
web site at www.nycballet.com.
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