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NYCB, 1/19/02 -- La Stafford in Theme...


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#1 Manhattnik

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Posted 20 January 2002 - 10:35 AM

Well, it was another great night at NYCB last night, or at least a very good one. The great anticipated moment of the night was Abi Stafford's debut in the Theme and Variations part of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, which was the last thing in the program.

The current run of La Sonnambula has been written about a lot lately. Watching Wendy Whelan, whom I adore, make the most of a role for which she isn't ideally suited, I was struck how greatly what used to be a key element of the Sleepwalker's duet with the poet has changed. I remember from Back When, a dancer like Kent or Farrell would make a big deal out of the passage where the Poet throws himself to the floor and tries to stop her progress across the front of the stage by obstructing her path with his arms. I remember the Sleepwalker would hesitate a bit at each such moment, then, with a dramatic flourish of her beautifully arched, toe-shod foot that would be cruelly deliberate were she actually conscious, step over the Poet like he wasn't even there. Which, of course, he's not, at least for her. When he finally tries to stop her by putting his arms around her, she would step out of the entanglement with exactly the same step, and presentation of her foot, as she'd escaped him two or three times previously. It was very delicious, and the power of the moment's almost completely lost now. I don't fault Whelan, who has a gift for hitting every target with which she's presented, but rather the somewhat scattershot coaching this production seems to have received.

You can also see this in how Ringer approaches the Coquette, as a nice sweet courtesan-next-door, except for the part where she gets the Poet stabbed, anyway. But as much as Hubbe plays the Poet like James (and Hubbe's a magnificent James), the Coquette isn't Effie in sequins, and the Sleepwalker isn't the Sylphide with her hair down. Both women are deadly, and in this sense, Hubbe's poet is like James on steroids: he makes not one, but two really terrible choices in women, all in a short one-act ballet, no less. The Coquotte is a toxic viper (or should be), so of course the Poet throws himself at her. When the Sleepwalker appears, you can practically see his eyes light up: "Aha! Here's a woman who's even worse for me than the Coquette. I must give myself to her immediately!" It is an exercise for the armchair psychologists among us to enumerate the ways in which the Poet's relationship to the Sleepwalker might mirror Balanchine's own relationship to his various ballerinas. (Part of the Sleepwalker's appeal to the Poet, which gives this ballet a bit of a kinky appeal even today, is that she's utterly available physically, and utterly unavailable spiritually, emotionally and even mentally -- the perfect mate if you don't want your Superbowl disturbed. It is, of course, a litmus test of the filthiness of one's imagination when the Poet follows the Sleepwalker into the tower. I'll assume they're not playing pinochle.). I'll just note that I'm always struck with what the Poet does the first moment he touches the Sleepwalker -- he pushes her thigh so she can swing her leg back into an arabesque, the signature balletic position. I know that's not probably what I'd go for when presented with a beautiful, pliant gal in a nightie -- just what is Balanchine getting at here (did he even really know?).

For the rest, James Fayette continues to have a great season (he's clearly been working hard), and Adam Hendrickson was wonderfully bouyant and comic as the Harlequin with the bad back.

Four Temperaments continues to get a sparkling performance from the company. I remember there was once a time I thought the ballet stodgy and archly "expressionist." What was I thinking? It grows on me every time I see it, and the final moments have to be among the finest conclusion to any ballet ever made (right up there with the Polonaise in Theme!). I thought Sebastien Marcovicci was very well-suited to Melancholic -- his eyes were searching the stage for invisible obstacles from the moment he entered, and he had a good sense of the plastique required for the role. My only problem with Marcovicci is that he just doesn't have the upper-body flexibility to properly droop into the many deeply arched backbends the choreography calls for. I can't expect every dancer to be another Bart Cook here, but I worry that this movement is being leached out of the choreography for good because dancers today just aren't up to it. Askegard and Somogyi were marvelous in Sanguinic. She has really become the personification of this role: strong, secure, unflappable, serene. And fast! Evans gave a strong rendition of Phlegmatic, and, again, Katherine Tracey was game, but not quite there enough, for Choleric. Kudos to the corps for how strong and together they looked -- has that invasion of the Hipthrusting Harpies into poor Mr. Melancholic's personal space ever been quite so menacing? I'll give Quinn credit; the orchestra sparkled, although I think there were moments the dancers looked a bit taxed to keep up.

In Suite No. 3, it was old-timer's day, with Houston and Alexopolous in the dreamy first movement. I'm glad to see the corps dancers have their hair long enough these days to make this movement really work. Balanchine, apparently, loved long hair on women, which lent quite a bit to the atmosphere here. After Martins took over, it seemed an entire generation almost immediately whacked their hair off at the shoulders, and Suite No. 3 became almost another ballet. Houston and Alexopolous were fine, although there could be a bit more emotional firewords. In the oft-neglected second movement, Rachel Rutherford made a lovely debut, with James Fayette. Rutherford made the best impression I've seen here since Zippora Karz. It's more agitated than the first movement, and the "lovers" are less star-crossed, although the tension is still so thick you could cut it with a knife. One lift, where Rutherford does a simple developpe en avant while Fayette charges down a diagonal was particularly stunning. In the third movement, Taylor was intense as always, and Gold as high-flying as always. I really do adore Taylor's bravura and attack, but she seems to be having an off season, as if she's trying (wisely, I might add) to modulate her affect, but hasn't yet found a comfortable setting on her own power switch (other than her wonted "eleven").

As for Theme, well, it was an OK but slightly iffy debut for Stafford. She is a tremendously strong and technically formidable dancer, gorgeously centered over her magnificent legs and feet, and, in some senses, she should be a natural for Theme. Yet Theme requires more than a technician -- those solos demand a bravura attitude as well as technique, and the adagio demands an instantaneous transformation into a grand ballerina. Stafford's not really there yet; I'm not sure if she ever will be there. I wish someone could tell her just to pretend she's Janie Taylor for a day. Control is good, but there are times when caution must be thrown to the winds, too. Otherwise Stafford might just as well wear a placard with "Soloist" written large upon it. Anyway, she was visibly nervous in her solos, but dance, for the most part, cleanly (but with no fire). I long to see someone do the gargouillades the way Kirkland or Ashley used to do them (Ashley in Theme... sigh), but I'm deciding that's a forelorn hope; they've probably gone to the Graveyard of Lost Phrasing along with those steps I miss from Sonnambula, or the backbends from Melancholic (OK, they're not gone YET!).

Anyway, it was a fine debut for Stafford. She certainly didn't disgrace herself, and I do hope she'll eventually show us in Theme the hints of a playful musicality she seems to be developing elsewhere.

When it comes to killer choreography like that for the leads in Theme, it's a given that the leads must not sell the hardness to the audience. I'd hate to see a Theme where a lead does the equivalent of saying, "Take a good look -- this next bit I'm going to do is really, really hard" (Dvorovenko, anyone?). But there is a fine line between saying, in effect, "La-dee-dah. Yes, this may be hard for SOME people, but for me it's as easy as brushing my teeth" and "Yes, it's as easy as brushing my teeth, and just as interesting." I fear that Stafford might fall too readily into the second camp; her probem isn't technique, it's temperament. Of course, Damian Woetzel is capable of crossing this line several times in the course of a single variation, although he was on his best behavior last night (he did partner a nervous Stafford very well, when called for). What can you say about a guy who adds variety to the big double tour/pirouette combination here by leavening his double pirouettes with a few singles?

I always love being sent home with that polonaise, even when it's into a blizzard.

[ January 20, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

[ January 20, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]



#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 20 January 2002 - 11:36 AM

I'm going to have to disagree a bit on this one. [On re-reading Manhattnik's posting, it's actually not a disagreement, we take the same details and add them up differently.] I was probably farther away and I thought Stafford's debut was one of the most technically adept ones I've ever seen - a friend and I met after and we were both astounded by it. I was farther back, but she was in the orchestra and both of us were marvelling at Stafford's calmness. So go figure.

In terms of her technique, I've never seen someone with such rock-solid placement, or who works her feet like that. You can see it in her entrechat-sixes, where her feet point all the way to the toes in her pointe shoes. At this point her performance resides primarily in her technique, but if that's what we're going to get, I'm impressed the technique is on that level.

Projection is a problem for Stafford, though I feel like she's improved over this season, but I doubt she's ever tempermentally going to be the sort that projects without effort and I agree that's the hurdle for her. I think the issue of Stafford's projection has elements in it only time can fix; part of the problem is the fact that she's 19 or 20 and for all the world looks like she's 13 (and she's small, to boot, which makes her look young as well). It's hard to take someone so babyfaced seriously in adult roles but there is very little she can do about that except grow older.

I'm going to try and write formally about this performance, so I'll save other impressions for later.

#3 Manhattnik

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Posted 20 January 2002 - 06:27 PM

I was farther back, but she was in the orchestra and both of us were marvelling at Stafford's calmness. So go figure.

Well, if I'd been any closer, Stafford would've been dancing in my lap. Perhaps there's something to be said for not sitting in the first row for debuts!

#4 BW

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Posted 20 January 2002 - 07:50 PM

I was there too, and although I cannot possibly speak about ballet on the same level as you two, I figured I should chime in as one of the less knowledgeable in the audience and, yet, one just as interested.

Sonnambula - a bit of a gothic tale it seemed to me. I couldn't help but think of Leigh's post about the sleepwalker coming out with the deadly weapon, her nightgown spattered with the Poet's blood... I wish I had seen the version Manhattnik saw long ago... I still enjoyed seeing it.

As for The Four Temperaments, it is just not my kind of piece - I admire their abilities but I didn't care for it...maybe it's because according to the Dead Russian Test I am the real Pyotr Chaikovsky!

As to the final piece - I loved the first two movements. I was quite surprised that in the first one, no one had pointe shoes on! eek.gif I found it beautiful and moving...However the next part really made an impression on me - was it the dancing, was it the costumes, the hair, the music - or all of it as it was woven together? Rachel Rutherford was mesmerizing...to me, more so than Janie Taylor in the third movement.

As for Abi Stafford and Damian Woetzel, I enjoyed their performances but I did feel that her personna was not as intense or magnetic as I would have expected...But hey, who am I? She was still absolutely incredible! Damian did a great job by helping to balance things out...and I have to say that I thought the corps did a very good job...I especially liked the men and thought they did a great job both with timing and energy.

A night well spent.

[ January 20, 2002: Message edited by: BW ]



#5 Dale

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Posted 21 January 2002 - 02:51 AM

I'm afraid I'm in the minority here regarding Stafford's performance and I hesistate to saying things too strongly against her as I feel she's being put in situations beyond her status at the moment. Looking at it from the standpoint of a dancer a few years out of SAB, her work in Theme and Variations was admirable, as it was in Ballo and Valse Fantasie, but I just don't believe she should be dancing parts such as Symphony in C first movement or T&V now. She appears to be working on Allegro Brillante as well, as is something of Merrill Ashley's protege. I agree with Manhattnik about the type of dancer one has to be to dance T&V -- technically astounding during the variations, other wordly during the reverie with the corps dancers, and a meltingly beautiful adagio dancer during the pas de deux.

I'd rather see her work through the soloist rep before taking on the heart of the "ballerina" parts. She was very good as one of the demi-soloists in Cortege Hongrois and I liked her last year in Appalachian Waltzes.

About La Sonnambula -- Manhattnik, I miss that one little moment when the ballerina hesitates before stepping out of the Poet's circled arms after he had done the backbend too. I don't believe it is lost, I saw it when the Suzanne Farrell Ballet presented the ballet at NJPAC. Your comment on the coaching is dead on. When I interviewed Ringer for Ballet Alert, she had said that the ballet was scheduled late in the Spring season and they did not have much time to work on it at that time. Ringer said she didn't want to play a one-dimensional bitch

#6 Manhattnik

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Posted 21 January 2002 - 07:37 AM

Well, then she should play a two-dimensional bitch. Or even a three-dimensional one. (Are ballet dancers allowed to have three dimensions?)

Did I say it was Askegard and Somogyi? Ooops. I think it was Neal.

#7 cargill

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Posted 23 January 2002 - 09:54 AM

I saw Stafford in Theme last night, and have to say I thought she was completely miscast. Theme to me is one of the holy ballets--all the grandeur and majesty and power of Sleeping Beauty in about 20 minutes, and all I saw was a decent technician with a not very classical body (short arms, short neck and large head)who just concentrated on the steps, not on phrasing or music or her partner or anyone else in the ballet. I don't think I have ever been so depressed at a performance, just thinking of the waste of talent and lack of understanding that casting her showed. One the other hand, Jenifer Ringer in Raymonda danced the role just about as beautifully as I have ever seen it done.

#8 Michael

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Posted 23 January 2002 - 10:01 PM

It's a fact that the most controversial casting this winter has occurred precisely in two of the more "holy" or "sacred" Balanchine works, Theme and Symphony in C. If you didn't know better, you might suspect Martins doesn't care much what they look like, or even takes a certain sly satisfaction when they look diminished.

For certainly the casting of Bizet Symphony was also very poor -- Stafford in 1st movement when she's more suited to 4th; Van Kipnis in 4th when she's more suited to 1st. Ringer in 1st, where she appeared flat and one dimensional. Jennifer Tinsley also in 4th. Enough said. While Somogyi, who could dance either to make you die for, was curiously absent. The entire work was carried more by the corps de ballet than the principles, although as usual I was happy for the scraps I received.

I'll see Stafford in Theme Friday night but I must say that in general I rather like her. In Nutcracker she grew very noticably as Sugarplum in the year after her debut. I do think, however, that a lot of the hostility that has surrounded her, both inside the company and outside of it, properly understood, is actually hostility to Peter Martins and not to Abi Stafford at all. For a gifted director who has carried the company now for a long time, he seems to have quite a genius for provoking it. He's his own worst enemy in some curious way, and his dancers often take the heat for it. (But then he rewards them so well, and sometimes for doing so little!)

[ January 23, 2002: Message edited by: Michael1 ]



#9 cargill

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Posted 25 January 2002 - 10:51 AM

Michael, as someone who was very disappointed in the recent T&V, I don't know if "hostile" is really the right way to describe my, or other people I have talked with, reactions. Someone once said of a librarian that to him "every decimal point was a moral issue", and I think that sort of passionate response to what to a realtively normal person (!) would think utterly trivial turns up in some people's reactions. I was so upset at that T&V I couldn't sleep, and I know I should get a life, but to a large extent watching ballet for me is a life, and Sleeping Beauty and its descendants, like T&V, for me, are the ultimate art form. To see it treated so cavalierly, so badly cast and so misunderstood, doesn't provoke hostility as much as rage and despair. A slight case of overreaction, I suppose, but I don't think people are criticising Abi Stafford because of Peter Martins, I think they are criticising Peter Martins because of cases like Abi Stafford, where dancers are given deeply loved and revered parts too young and too unprepared, which means ultimately that the ballets will become watered down and meaningless.

#10 Dale

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Posted 25 January 2002 - 12:23 PM

I guess I need a life, as well, because I feel the same way Mary smile.gif

Sometimes these things happen by circumstance because I don't think we'd be seeing Stafford in Symphony in C or Theme if Weese were not injured (maybe in one performance, but not the whole run). The casting appears geared more towards having Woetzel do the male role and giving him a partner small enough for him.

I saw Tuesday night's performance and Ringer was lovely in Raymonda Variations. She is the perfect example how technique can be at the service of artistry. It was such a gracious performance too.

I remember a few years ago, the last time it was in the rep, that Natanya was given the first solo (hops on point). She was much too weak for it and would fall off point. But she has grown and improved and I felt like a proud aunt watching her sail through the part, especially with such graceful arms. It's a moment that reminds me why I come to the theater to see ballets I've seen tons of times before. Neal, Riggens and Edge were also excellent. And Bouder -- wow, such beauty in her legs and passion on stage.

On Hallelujah Junction all I have to say is that I'm totally over Martins choreographing to John Adams. All the same. Driving, driving, driving...dancers coming on, going out in that same relentless way as Fearless Symetries, Ash etc (all the same right down to those cut-off tights look and the women's skirts)... One ballet like that is interesting, the rest reduntant. Only Bouder and Millpied kept me awake.

Zakuski was Zakuski. Stafford had a nice moment in Theme when she is with the winding group of women, but I found the rest correct but dull.


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