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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, evergreen.

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 others.

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.

"Summerspace" repeats Friday with most of the same cast. For more info, visit the NYCB web site at

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