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Fine Tuning - NYCB 1/7/00


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 08 January 2000 - 03:09 AM

Repertory at NYCB is always a juggling act. One ballet comes into focus, another falls out of view. Usually at the point of disrepair, the ballet gets an overhaul and a tune-up (and another ballet suffers – there is never enough rehearsal time)

Piano Concerto #2 needs a tune-up right now. Individual performances could be commented upon, but essentially the ballet looks very underrehearsed. There is a dangerously large number of new dancers in the piece (including some very talented apprentices, Abi Stafford was mentioned on alt.arts.ballet previously, and also Sarah Ricard looks promising). But even from where I was sitting in the back of the house you can see the indecision and the nerves. The dancers are all good, but Piano Concerto is a corps part that looks deceptively easy. There’s a long adagio and a lot of standing still, and the corps work is basic technically, arabesques and bourrees. It may be easy to conquer it technically, but stylistically, it’s one of the most exposing pieces in the repertory, these young ladies would have far less trouble with Concerto Barocco, because at least they know where that ballet comes from. Even the anonymous numerical labeling of the ballet is opaque to them, where its former name, Ballet Imperial, might have given them some clue as to the Petipa references of the ballet. The young gentlemen and ladies know the steps (although they don’t know their traffic patterns, and one can see it terrifies them) but they don’t know what they’re doing when they are standing still. They don’t know why they are out there in the slow movement with the male lead, they haven’t made sense of the abrupt changes of mood in the ballet. I don’t think a story line is necessary, merely a sense of repertory – and oddly enough, their full length Swan Lake doesn’t prepare them for Piano Concerto even though the Petipa Swan Lake is the key to the ballet. It’s a work that needs more time in the studio, or on stage, for the corps de ballet to get a sense of themselves as a corps – and for the principals to locate themselves within it.

Mozartiana is an easier ballet to maintain than Piano Concerto, because of the minimal corps work. It’s also a deceptively simple ballet, especially from the audience’s perspective, yet one keeps seeing more and more. I have been watching Bournonville recently (I’m in training for the Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen later this month) and certain secrets in Mozartiana become unlocked by Bournonville.

It’s poignant that for Balanchine’s last major work he went back in time, even farther back than his own roots, back to the 18th century. The link to Bournonville within the ballet itself is the placing onstage of not merely a corps de ballet, but a world of “types”, an entire diverse community, from children to demi-caractère dnacers to a heroine. The first movement (danced to the Pregheira based on Ave Verum Corpus) contains both the ballerina and four small children. Every ballerina who has done the role has defined herself with the children slightly differently – alas, my viewing does not include Suzanne Farrell, the role’s originator – but Kyra Nichols was more of a gentle mother superior, Darci Kistler, an older sister. Miranda Weese assumed the role, and I went in fearing the worst – I am a confirmed Weese fan, but did not feel this role was natural to her – if Kistler was the dancer who made me cry, Weese is the dancer who makes me smile, and I didn’t know if her wit was appropriate in this corner of the repertory. I knew she was cast because of her ability to do the final variations, but this is a role that needs to be cast on the Pregheira. Weese knows how to turn, but did she know how to pray?

I left the performance duly impressed by just how good Weese’s instincts are. I don’t think she’s a model for an approach to the role (for me, that’s still Kistler) but, as for Ballo della Regina, she figured out an approach to the role that allows her to be accepted on her own terms. She did the most unsophisticated Pregheira possible for this most sophisticated of dancers, kept it simple and innocent, and kept herself as youthful as possible, firmly linking herself as a sister to the children, their companion, not their protector. It’s against Weese’s instincts as a dancer to be passive but she kept her focus heavenward and allowed herself to be guided, and it’s the key to the movement – perhaps it teaches us that the most effective prayers are the ones where one trusts enough to allow for guidance.

The next “types” we see in the ballet are the demi-caractère dancer of the Gigue and the four ladies of the Menuet. I prefer these ladies to be more specific in character than they were danced at this performance, more patrician and deliberate in their black dresses, here, they were just Balanchine Girls in black tutus. Again, this felt like a matter of a rehearsal or two extra in the studio.

When Weese enters with Damian Woetzel for her set of variations, she’s on familiar ground, virtuoso repertory, but even here, her instincts were bright enough to distinguish it from her attack in other ballets. True, she smiled radiantly (I find it welcome, and to me, she didn’t just smile, she smiled for her partner, and for us) but she scaled down her attack in the movements, hitting poses gently rather than with emphatic punctuation, to respect the Mozart. Her musical timing (which is the soul of her wit) was delicious in her first variation, but as delicate as the orchestration.

Moving back to Bournonville, a tape of Ib Andersen dancing the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges unlocked a mystery of Mozartiana. Andersen originated the male lead in Mozartiana, and I had always wondered why the choreography seemed so dense. I knew his specialty was petit batterie, derived from his Danish training, but only upon seeing him dance those intricate lace-like steps with a quality both quicksilver and angelic could I see what Balanchine might have been trying to do in Mozartiana. My guess is that he had seen Andersen do Bournonville and was looking to assimilate Andersen’s uncommon gifts into his own repertory. Thin and deer-like, Andersen was a “type” genuinely rare in Balanchine’s world. He had almost no gravity to him – the density of the choreography is Balanchine’s way of grounding him, of adding weight. Woetzel can do the steps, but he’s not that type – he adds punctuation where Andersen would have skimmed through. Like Weese, I can accept him on his own terms, but because I’ve had recent glimpses of Andersen, I regret the absence of that rare quality in the role.

The Weese-Woetzel partnership has always been physically and technically a good match. It is a terrible shame that it no longer seems to be psychically. Even as they dance one can feel the absence of rapport, they look like they just don’t like each other. I hope it was just an off night, she’s the ballerina in the company who really looks good with him, and can stand up to him technically.

There is a point in the pas de deux where the corps women reenter to separate the couple in a whirlwind rush. As the man and woman stand at each side of the stage separately, two ladies circle around each – a companion leaned over to me and stated the obvious parallel to Swan Lake Act IV, and I was surprised I hadn’t seen it before. I always think of the ballet as Mozart, and his remark reminded me it’s Tchaikovsky’s ballet too, something Balanchine never forgets as he travels among the centuries.

Agon closed the program last night, and again, I’d recommend some time in the studio, but not because the cast looked unfamiliar with the dance – most of them are long veterans of the dance. Agon is again getting obvious. It’s an easy road to travel, and I’ve seen Agon go this way and back several times already. Strongly danced as it is, Peter Boal is now practically doing the first pas de trois as a dance of alienation – and though it may be that in some interpretation, it’s not only that. It’s a sarabande, the audience will get what’s implied. In the same way, Wendy Whelan doesn’t need to dance the power struggle in the pas de deux and Kowrowski doesn’t need to try to be sexy in the second pas de trois. An obvious Agon is not an unwatchable Agon, (and for first time viewers, it might even be preferred) but I’ve seen a subtle Agon (watch the 1960 tape from the CBC L’Heure de Concert broadcast.) To see an Agon where the dancers are innocent athletes performing feats of skill is to see the Agon Balanchine made originally – not a comment on modernism and alienation from mid-century to the present. I think the broadcasting of meaning in Agon comes from the dancers digging below the surface of Agon and wanting to share with us what they’ve found. And much as it helps them to find these things, paradoxically, it doesn’t help if they tell us. They all know what they’re doing, and all they need to do now is keep things simple and just dance.

#2 Guest_rrfan_*

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Posted 08 January 2000 - 06:55 PM

Leigh I went to the same performance and your review was pretty much right on. I have yet to figure out NYCB's rehearsal schedule and why some pieces do not get enough rehearsal.
I'm not sure the corps girls would necessarily do that well in Barocco though. I must admit, it's my favorite ballet and I'm extremely protective of it. I still stick to the belief that it should be a privilege to dance that piece that is reserved for dancers that have the maturity to pull it off. They're quite exposed out there and it really does require a certain sense of confidence and musicality. As well as a sense of placement.
I too vote for new casting in Agon, tired of seeing the same old (not literally) people do the same roles. There's enough to go around. Maybe they feel it's less rehearsal time needed since these dancers have done it so often!

#3 Nanatchka

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Posted 08 January 2000 - 09:00 PM

Very interesting Leigh, but: do we have any reason to believe Balanchine saw Ib dance Bournonville before making Mozartiana? When ? Where? The Danes gave him many wonderful dancers (although in turn the homegrown crew doesn't take well to Bournonville, from the scanty evidence), and long before Ib had knew what they could do, I suspect. Note: Maria Calegari was absolutely beautiful in Mozartiana, taking over from Farrell. In her first performance, she evoked Suzanne so powerfully you could see both ballerinas at once. Onward to Liebeslieder! Please, may it be what it should be.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 January 2000 - 12:45 AM

RRfan -

In the course of an interview for an article on Agon I wrote Pat Neary said the Balanchine was loath to have more than one cast do the ballet because it was so complicated to rehearse. The same cast (with the exception of the main pas) would do it year after year. Probably the same holds true today. (Thanks for inspiring me to re-read those notes, by the way - it brings back those amazing discussions with those dancers)

I also agree with you that Barocco is a ballet for the senior corps. I meant more that they would at least comprehend where the ballet was coming from - its "world" is more familiar to them.

Nanatchka -

I guessed about Balanchine and Andersen - I assumed he had to see him do *something* to hire him. I also think that Andersen came to NYC with a small group of Danes shortly before he joined NYCB. (Alexandra - would Ib have mentioned in any interview you did with him for Dance View whether Balanchine had seen him do Bournonville?)

And yes, Calegari was lovely, but I don't think I ever saw her do Mozartiana.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 09 January 2000 - 07:31 AM

Leigh, I know that Balanchine saw several rehearsals of "Folk Tale," both in Copenhagen and at the Met in 1982 (after Ib Andersen was already at NYCB). There was a New York rumor that he was seriously considering getting it for City Ballet, but then he became ill. I never asked when Balanchine saw Andersen before he joined, unfortunately, so I can't help there.

More importantly, though, I agree that Andersen was a very Mozartian dancer -- light though substantial, musical, etc., and there's something "Mozartian," (i.e., 18th century neoclassical) about Bournonville dancing, of which Andersen was a superb exemplar. So I don't think that's a stretch at all.

#6 Manhattnik

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Posted 14 January 2000 - 06:27 PM

In 1979, Ib was one of a bunch of Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet who played a short season at City Center. Not long after, he joined City Ballet.


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