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New Look - NYCB 5/6/00

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 May 2000 - 11:25 PM

One of the most interesting things about Christopher Wheeldon’s new Mercurial Manoeuvres is a quality it shares with Wheeldon’s previous work set on the School of American Ballet, Scènes de Ballet, a sophisticated and slightly acid chic quality that isn’t immediately familiar but somehow seems like it should be. Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the score used here, was composed in 1933 and has a major part for a solo trumpet, recalling Stravinsky’s setting for the pas de deux in Scènes de Ballet. Stravinsky’s music was commissioned by Billy Rose for a tony Broadway revue, The Seven Lively Arts (note to myself and reader – I need to fact check this) in the 40’s and that’s the feel we get from Mercurial Manoeuvres. It’s tony and swank, like Dior’s New Look or a photograph by Horst. It’s not in the costumes particularly; they are effective but simple and have almost no “couture” references either in their cut or in their coloring. It’s in the music and in Wheeldon’s response to it.

The ballet opens with the male soloist, Edward Liang, seen in forced perspective through a series of hanging scrims (the effective scenic design is uncredited). He turns, comes towards us like a model on a runway and begins to dance. The lights come up to reveal the female corps concealed behind the scrims, in dresses of an almost nautical blue (the male corps’ Union Suits in the same color are a less fortunate choice) Liang and the corps scissor through the first movement of the concerto, entering, passing across the stage, exiting, entering again. The movements are angular, but classical. It’s here one keeps trying to place why the feel of this ballet ought to be familiar. It certainly doesn’t look like Balanchine or any of his progeny. Wheeldon’s lines are less open and extended, he doesn’t hesitate to close off the body or show us elbows rather than wrists in an arm pose, as if the ladies were modeling long gloves rather than bracelets. The voice in the vocabulary is unfamiliar and not without its quirky moments that just skirt awkwardness, but stay deft and assured. Wheeldon’s freshness is also in how he moves groups onstage. Movement often crosses the stage, rather then heading out and then moving front and back as they might in Symphony in C, the ballet that preceded it in the program; the corps is deployed in fans or attack lines rather than a V or square. The front of the stage is not always the front of the movement. The pathways aren’t rigorously symmetrical and grid-like as Balanchine’s but even so there’s a sense of planning and architecture in them. It’s like finding oneself in a semi-formal garden, though of grand proportions, when one is accustomed to Versailles. The ballet I vaguely recall using groups similarly was a David Bintley work to a Walton set of variations performed in NYC by the Royal Ballet about a decade ago. It makes me wonder what I need to look at in British ballet to find the common ancestral link. Mercurial Manoeuvres makes me even more curious than Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet to see Ashton’s take on the same music.

Jenifer Ringer has been performing the central pas de deux since Miranda Weese’s injury. Ringer is absolutely back in physical form, the announcement of her promotion to principal the day before seemed justified and a heartening reward for the road she’s walked. She dances the part with great security, but the role itself as choreographed and conceived is better for Ringer than she is for it. What’s most surprising is how much Wheeldon’s has caught Weese’s qualities as a dancer right in the steps. There is Weese’s precision in foot work, her épaulement and angled hauteur, even the tilt of the head in arabesque. Seeing Ringer in the part and yet seeing Weese’s shadow surprised me. Much as I like Weese, I hadn’t realized how specific her qualities were, until I saw someone else start to reproduce them. In the solitary male soloist role, (Jock Soto is Ringer’s partner) Edward Liang returns to the stage after a season’s absence and very nearly steals it.

Wheeldon deals with the Shostakovich well both on a metric and more deeply on a structural level. It’s immediately apparent what he sees in the Shostakovich, and it gets you thinking. Wheeldon also has a good handle on the overall structure he’s building, the relationship between solo dancers and the corps is well established, but he also establishes their relationship thematically to each other. It isn’t a question of a narrative solution, Wheeldon is consistent in their use throughout the ballet; Edward Liang is the soloist male figure, the two demi-soloist females (Elena Diner and Aubrey Morgan) are attached to him choreographically and used as attendant figures throughout (to give an example).

Mercurials Manoeuvres isn’t perfect; its most grating aspect is the enforced jollity of the final movement, but its virtues well outweigh its vices. It’s a very solid addition to the repertory and shows that Scènes de Ballet was no accident.

Other observations from three consecutive days at NYCB:

I’m quite happy to eat my words on Robert Tewsley from last summer’s Tchaikovsky Festival performances (I called him static). In third movement, Symphony in C on Saturday night, Tewsley delivered a fleet and kinetic performance. The part looks good on him and he looks good in the part. I hope to see more performances like that. His partner was Jennie Somogyi who is cutting a conquering swath through the repertory. My only wish is that she not get injured from overuse. She’s a musical, interesting dancer with a durable body and a quick study who has gotten thrown into more than one emergency situation. The temptation to cast her until she breaks is great, I would imagine.

In the same performance, the second movement was led by Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard. My response to Whelan seems to vary from role to role and this says more about me than it does about her. I had reservations about her Diamonds last year, but have liked her very much in second movement, Symphony in C, in the past and did again. I’m not entirely sure why I’d feel differently about two rather similar roles. Discounting my own inconsistencies for a moment, I think that it’s a question of the focus she takes. Whelan doesn’t look at Askegard for most of the movement, though she always senses him. She dances the role privately, where she danced Diamonds publicly; aware of not only her partner, but of her audience and it’s a role that demands intimacy and privacy. Also, musically, she gets the legato quality of the second movement and gives it value, especially in the beautiful swoons and penchées in the center of the movement. Or as much value as she could, Maurice Kaplow’s conducting, especially in the finale, was brisk. Whelan made her final partnered turns in the finale reprise at the tempo Kaplow took, but almost had to give Askegard whiplash to do it.

Friday night was an all-Robbins evening, and additionally Fancy Free was performed on Thursday evening and West Side Story Suite reprised on Saturday night. My heart will probably never be in the Robbins pieces but they’re expert pieces of theater, and anyone interested in choreography benefits from studying them. Robbins was a master at using choreography to propel narrative. The steps are integral to the story, nothing’s wasted or decorative. A small example. In the Dance at the Gym in West Side Story Suite, there’s a series of crossings the Jets girls and boys do. It could have been merely decorative or to further the design, but Robbins made it so that it had a narrative purpose, the Jets don’t just cross the stage, they walk over to the Sharks, insult them and return to home turf. The same in Fancy Free, a small series of paddle turns by the women becomes almost the ticking of timer indicating the necessity for selection. Robbins not only selects his steps expertly in both these works, he paces them perfectly. West Side Story Suite is excerpts, so talking about overall pacing is specious, but the build of each of the individual dances is expert.

Leigh Witchel -dae@panix.com
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#2 Jane Simpson

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Posted 08 May 2000 - 06:49 AM

Leigh, quite a lot of what you say about the new Wheeldon piece could apply, word for word, to Ashton's Scenes de Ballet!

#3 Michael


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Posted 08 May 2000 - 07:47 AM

Another resemblance between the two works is that in both of them Wheeldon has used a lot of off-balance dancing for the woman principal in the central pas de deux (Faye Arthurs in Scenes de Ballet and Jennifer Ringer in the new piece) -- the two pdds reminded me a lot of each other, with the woman either draped over the arm of her partner or spun on point well off balance. Those pasages are very lyrical, old-world feminine, romantic, and a little Ginger Rogers-ish.

[This message has been edited by Michael1 (edited May 08, 2000).]

#4 Dale


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Posted 08 May 2000 - 10:18 PM

Leigh, did you see Weese in the Wheeldon ballet? Because if you hadn't, she and Ringer dance the part, in my opionion, different from each other. Weese was much more mysterious in the pas de deux, and chic in the last section. The pas de deux looked like a man trying to hold on to an elusive vision. Whereas, Ringer was much warmer and womanly. The duet was a woman telling a man how she loved him. At the end, she wasn't as crisp as Weese but jazzy.

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 08 May 2000 - 10:39 PM

I didn't see Weese, Dale, but I'm sure you're right.

I was talking less about how Ringer danced the role then certain choreographic elements that Wheeldon put into the role that seemed to be from his assessment of Weese as a dancer. Various poses and moments in the role were things one recalled as being very suited to or typical of Weese.

This gives me a chance to say that on reading what I wrote that it seems a bit disapproving or harsh on Ringer. I thought she did a very good job. She looks great right now. I thought the role looked like it was made on Weese, and given the short time Ringer had to assume the role for stage (she was understudying it, though? I'm not sure. . .) it didn't look like it had been tailored to suit her, but that she was still dancing someone else's part.

At this point, I'm quite sure someone will tell me that the role was worked out on Ringer and Weese only learned it for the premiere! It would serve me right.

Leigh Witchel -dae@panix.com
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#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 May 2000 - 07:51 AM

Historical note of incidental information already sent to Leigh:

The Seven Lively Arts was indeed a smart and very of-the-moment Broadway revue of 1944. My first teacher danced in it. Her name was Ella Lauterbur, and she later danced on Broadway under the name Lee Vincent. She was Billie Burke's niece and was a student at SAB at the time she was selected to perform in "7LA" - I can place the year by recalling Stravinsky writing that he composed the finale to Scenes de Ballet while listening to the news of the Liberation of Paris on the radio - hence the "Grand Processional" effects in this section that make it rather tricky to choreograph. Paris was liberated in August 1944. The revue is covered in the Burns-Mantle series of "Best Plays of..." for 1944-45, with a complete cast list.

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