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NYCB closing night in Saratoga


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#1 Manhattnik

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Posted 09 August 2002 - 10:56 AM

I know that almost two weeks have gone by since City Ballet closed its season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but, since there's always a bit of interest on this board for NYCB sightings, particularly as we're now facing the long, balletic equivalent of the Hot Stove League (scary thought for August!), I thought I'd throw in my two-cents worth. I'd actually spent most of the preceding week in Saratoga, visiting old haunts (such that remain), and bemoaning the ever-increasing cutesification of the town, which, of course, has its good and bad points. Although I have fond memories of whirling around on the old carousel at the late, lamented Kaydeross amusement park on Saratoga Lake, I really think the city's recent decision to install that carousel in what had been a quiet corner of Congress Park is a very Bad Idea. It's not as if there aren't enough hordes drifting around downtown in the summer, and one of the few areas of repose in that bustling business area just got, well, less reposeful. And perhaps it's hard for me to look upon the addition of a Banana Republic and Gap to the downtown scene as necessarily a sign of progress. On the other hand, it is a delight to simply wander around the residential side-streets near and far from downtown and The Track (ballet and racing seasons overlapping -- the horror!) and admire, not so much the occasionally ostentatious restorations, but gardens, gardens, gardens. Would that I could afford to move back here when I retired (would that I could ever afford to retire!) and tend to a garden. As always, it's a delight to sample the breakfast wares at The Bread Basket, near Congress Park, or Mrs. London's (a bakery from heaven, where, in an earlier incarnation of said store, Balanchine was supposed to have been quite enamored of the pastries), or the Adelphi, where the daquiris are as fragrant as ever, and the decor as plush.

But I digress. Back to the ballet. I caught a few performances, but not as many as I'd originally intended, as on Tuesday night there was such a downpour I just couldn't bear the thought of driving through Niagra Falls to get to SPAC, even to see Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal in Opus 19. I did see Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht dance a very perky Tarantella, but much as I adore Bouder and her ever-confident cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, she's not really a soubrette, even though she can clearly wield a mean tambourine. She oozes drama and authority in a role which is probably better suited to a dancer who's a bit more of a light-weight. I'm not talking about poundage here, but dramatic presence -- Bouder is a Diva in training, and this isn't a Diva role, but one which calls for a certain almost slatternly abandon. Bouder is both too much, and not enough. Too much drama, and not enough wildness. I'd really love to see Janie Taylor dance this, actually. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Bouder's performance tremendously -- she's got a leap to die for and, as mentioned, knows what to do with a tambourine (with ribbons, yet); I just don't think it's naturally her role. As for Ulbricht, he's clean, joyful and has an endearingly bouyant jump. I guess what I missed from him, as from Bouder, is the sense of incipient insanity verging on disaster I remember from really striking Tarantellas in the past.

I also caught a lovely Vienna Waltzes, made poignant by the thought of dancers who were about to depart (a nostalgic theme of the entire week), or who had just departed. In Tales of the Vienna Woods, we had Rachel Rutherford taking over from the dear, departed Monique Meunier, partnered ably by the elegant and soon-to-depart Robert Lyon. While she's certainly beautiful, and her familiar cat-like sensuality and luxuriant movement are well-suited to this dance, one of whose themes is how well the dancers fill out their dramatically puffy dresses, she also seemed a bit withdrawn and even self-absorbed. I didn't catch much sense of the relationship between Rutherford and Lyon (as always, ever-so-handsome and gallant); she certainly didn't seem to be distressed at the brief, poignant moment where she loses sight of Lyon; I remember both Von Aroldingen (long ago) and Meunier (more recently -- sigh) showed us a bit of this woman's hunger for her partner, and even fear that he might have somehow become lost to her. Rutherford seemed to off in some reverie until Lyon clicked his heels and offered his white-gloved hand. Despite this, she does curtsy magnificently.

Like the dog that didn't bark in the night, what was perhaps most memorable about the pairing of Yvonne Borree and the ever-ebullient Nikolaj Hubbe was what didn't happen -- Borree didn't fall apart. As we shall see, would that this were a theme of the entire season. More than just making it to the end without a strange interlude or two, Borree actually looked quite nice; she can be charming and gamine when she's not tangling herself in a trap of her own ever-tightening tendons. Hubbe, who had great seasons in New York this year, just looked like he was having the time of his life out there.

Another debut came in the Explosions Polka, with Aesha Ash taking over from the just-retired Kathleen Tracey, partnering the timeless Kipling Houston. I'll admit that Tracey's recent high-energy outings here (and as the boots girl in Cortege Hongrois) are a tough act to follow, as Tracey was the closest I've seen onstage to a perpetual-motion machine, or at least the Energizer Bunny. She was so up, it was almost scary. Ash camped it up a bit more than Tracey (hard to avoid given the inherent silliness of this dance), but I was a little surprised that she didn't sparkle as migh as I'd expected and that she seemed to flag a bit towards the end, considering the fine job she'd done a few weeks earlier as Hippolyta at the State Theater. Speaking of perpetual motion, Houston seems to have found the secret for that, as well as perpetual youth. I gather he will be back for Nutcracker, and, perhaps Winter season, which is fine with me -- there have been enough farewells at NYCB lately.

Borree's casting in Voices freed up Jenifer Ringer to dance the Merry Widow section with Charles Askegard. I've grown less and less fond of this section as time goes on. Unless you have two dancers who are Presences, it seems to drag on forever, with little differentiation in the actual steps the the principals do ("Oh, look, she's grabbing the hem of her skirt again!"). When danced by Von Aroldingen or Mazzo with Peter Martins, it was a study in how two strong, somewhat self-absorbed personalities collide like romantic lodestones. With lesser dancers, it becomes, well, tedious. While Helene Alexopolous (who owned this role lately, and danced it at her farewell performance) was suitably lush and sensual, she always, for me fell a bit short of what the role really needed. Now, I would've crawled over broken glass to see Meunier dance this, but it's not to be. As for Ringer, well, she's just miscast. Yes, she's beautiful, and that black dress looks just killer with her clear, pale skin and glossy, midnight-black hair (who was it who said she looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor?), but she's too ... nice. And this woman is many things, but nice isn't, or shouldn't be, one of them. The tall, lanky Askegard looks to die for in that white jacket and red sash, but is himself a bit too much of an "aw-shucks" nice guy in a role where Peter Martins was originally such a handsome chick magnet (and well aware of it) that his connection with Mazzo or Aroldingen seemed just inevitable. Anyway, nice try, but no cigar here.

As for Kistler in the Rosenkavalier section, well, with the memory of Nichols' recent sublime, understated performances still fresh in my mind, Kistler, though still a dancer of almost mystical presence, seemed to be overdone and punchy, telegraphing to the audience "Yes, I am indeed having a dramatic memory here!" when I might've liked it better if she'd just cut out the posturing and danced. In her last exit before the lights come on, Nichols arched her back as she whirled offstage as if she were still in grip of a reverie; Kistler's punchy nailing of the backbend reminding me of nothing so much as a spear-fisher impaling dinner. It's as if she doesn't trust herself to deliver the steak these days, and has to sell the sizzle instead. Of which we'll see more in Symphony in C.

Anyway, on to closing night. Really.

Over the final weeks of the State Theater season, and even more so in Saratoga, I've noticed an alarming trend -- most of the women in the company seem to be starving themselves, especially the younger, newer corps dancers. But even established principals, like Maria Kowroski (especially Maria Kowroski), also seem to be striving to be as thin as Ally MacBeal (remember her?) or Wendy Whelan, for that matter. I have no doubts the recent exile (self-imposed or not) of Monique Meunier, who never was, and never will be a beanpole, to ABT is a lesson which has not been lost on anyone at City Ballet. In the real world, Eat or Die is a unchanging rule, except in NYCB it seems to be Starve or Die. This unnatural emphasis on thinness (even for a ballet company) seems to have contributed to some demoralization in the corps. It wasn't that long ago I thought the company was in magnificent shape, but now seams are showing at all levels, mostly the result of questionable decisions by Martins. Promoting Fayette and letting Ritter get away? Sitting down Meunier and letting her get away? Putting Borree onstage night after night in roles she can't handle? Making Stafford a soloist then forgetting she's alive? Working some dancers to death and ignoring others?

So, the first item on the program was the ever-welcome Who Cares?, which had been given some memorable, sensational renditions at the State Theater not long before. This performance continued in the same vein, with familiar casting: Ringer ("Fascinatin' Rhythm"), Ansanelli ("My One and Only") and Stafford ("Stairway to Paradise") with Hübbe. The lead corps roles were cast much as at the State Theater, and, while I've adored most of these dancers individually, as a group they were rather pallid, perhaps because they were hitting the end of a long season (pretty much without a break since Nutcracker), or perhaps it was part of the general air a brittle, surface energy covering a deeper unhappiness I kept on sensing throughout my visit. And, yes, it's very subjective; how can you say that a corps of kids who are smiling as if their lives depended on it looks "unhappy?" Mabye the frenetic tension I sensed was just to cover exhaustion and not anomie, but it's hard to say. I did notice that after the mens bouncy rendition of their piece, the last man to dash offstage made an enthusiastic gesture towards the audience which looked, at first, like a simple cheery wave. But then one hand met up with the elbow of his upraised arm in a surprisingly familiar gesture which I'm sure Balanchine knew, but never choreographed, and I thought, "Did I just see someone flip us the bird?" I noticed one of the men was the soon-to-be departed Stuart Capps -- was that him? I don't think I imagined this, but I have a hard time believing a professional dancer, even a disgruntled one, would be so, well, unprofessional.

Of the leads, Ansanelli stole the show. Yes, she looked great in this at the State Theater, but she looked even more strong, daring and, well, happy here. And, oh, the fouettes in her solo: all doubles, neat as a pin. I think Ansanelli must respond well to Saratoga -- I remember she was starting to dance wonderfully well up here in '98 or '99, making debuts in Tchai Pas and Valse Fantasie, just before that injury put her out for almost a year. When Ansanelli's having an on night her musicality, charm and bravery (her slightness of build and demonstrated fragility give a piquancy to her fearlessness) are a truly overwhelming combination. She's sweet, but never saccharine. The same can't always be said for Ringer, who reprised her portrayal of the Patricia McBride role as a bit of a nice girl gone slumming, toying, gently, with the idea of having one too many rum-and-cokes and seeing what it feels like to cut loose, even if a bit self-consiously. I'm not sure how much of this is Ringer's portrayal, and how much is just Ringer's own personality, but it works well enough here, and it's easy to warm to the fun Ringer has playing a bit with her own nice-girl persona. I do miss, a bit, the cannier and more experienced woman McBride portrayed. As for Stafford, well, in another field of endeavor, two adages are indelibly associated with Saratoga: "Horses for courses" and "Graveyard of Champions." If the former might apply to the glittering Ansanelli here, I remembered the truly awful outings Stafford had in Ballo here last year with her flat and weak performance here (was she trying to demonstrate that one can, in fact, do brise volees without both feet leaving the ground?), and think the latter might well apply to her and Saratoga. I am not surprised to find Stafford unmusical, affectless and stiff, but technically weak and underpowered? I was as surprised and disappointed this summer as last. Hubbe looked as cheery and suave as ever (he's been having a great season) and if he's not quite the Cheshire cat Jacques d'Amboise was here, he's clearly enjoying himself, and having more fun with the role than I recall at his debut.

Then came, I think, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, with Borree and Woetzal. I remember Borree's debut in this a couple of years ago was a real white-knuckle experience, and was really dreading another crash-and-burn performance. In the adagio, she looked fine, and Woetzal was partnering her with tremendous sensitivity, as if she were made of eggshells, reminding me that he can be an excellent partner when the mood strikes him. Woetzal was really on in his solo, and Borree started out her own looking fine, as well, but as it progressed, I could see the familiar stiffness as it seemed her nerves started asserting themselves, with her arms noticibly stiffening from elegant curves to matchsticks, tendons tightening in her neck and chin thrusting forward. I began to think, "Uh oh." Despite this stiffening, she made it through her first manege in the coda well enough, but then came the fouettes. After seeing the first few, with her arms flung stiffly and wildly around and her working foot extending more to a downstage corner than the side of the stage, I had to avert my eyes. It was like seeing an out-of-control car fishtailing on an icy road. You know the crash is coming long before it arrives; the question is only which tree will the car get wrapped around? So let it just suffice to say she fell out of them, and fell out badly, without even a pretense of saving it with some pique turns, or an "I meant to do that" time-killing pose in a big fourth. In her first big fish-dive in the coda, she faltered badly -- legs out straight, not even close to a fish position, and so off-balance she had to push herself off the stage with her hands. I don't fault Woetzal for this, as Borree was clearly out of it by then, of which everyone in the audience, it seemed, had become painfully aware.

I just wonder, does Martins think he's doing Borree a favor by putting her out in things she can't get through? It's certainly no favor for a paying audience, which is entitled to see at least a competent rendition of the works on the program. I wish the best for Borree, but she's turned in so many of these frightening performances that she's long since crossed the boundary from tragedy into farce.

Martins' Hallelujah Junction (I can't remember if it came before or after) is a nice enough piece in his "Fearful Symmetries" mode -- all energy and elevation and more energy. It's not a particularly engrossing ballet, but there's a kind of honest energy and lack of pretention here which I find far preferable to Martins' heavy-handed approaches to Wit or Romance. I enjoy anything which lets me see Janie Taylor flying over the stage, although I do think the sight of her draping her ever-so-flexible back over the knee or arm of a partner (usually Marcovici) has become a bit of a Martins cliche by now. I liked seeing the contrast between Marcovici and Millepied, particularly in the brief "duelling Bluebirds" section. It was interesting that Stafford, in a supporting role here, looked strong and secure and relaxed. Does she do better out of the spotlight?

The season finished, as should every City Ballet season, with a rousing rendition of Symphony in C, looking much as it had in the great performances we saw in NYC this spring. It's always interesting in Saratoga which dancers end up sporting a summery tan, and which have taken care to maintain the requisite ballerina-alabaster complexion (well, among the Caucasian dancers, anyway). I didn't see many signs of dancers having overdone it by the Victoria Pool, except Rachel Rutherford looked as if she'd forgotten the sunscreen a few times too many. Ouch!

In the first movement, Somogyi and Neal were just about perfect. Somogyi has a strength and authority which belie her years, and exudes confidence, grace and modesty without drifting into the realm of ballerina mannerisms into which too many dancers bring this part, wittingly or no. As for the second movement, well, as much as I've enjoyed Kistler here in the past, she seemed clearly too weak to really dance here and only survived thanks to the ballerina's version of smoke and mirrors: Jock Soto. Soto's the best partner I've ever seen, or could ever imagine, and his self-effacing physical and spirtual attention to Kistler's needs (and there were many!) was inspiring. What wasn't so inspiring, I hate to say it, was Kistler's dancing, especially when Soto wasn't there to haul her around. In the allegro sections, particularly the fourth movement, she was really just marking the choreography -- in that tricky turn where you fling your leg out all the way to the side before landing on one knee, for instance, her own working foot barely made it six inches from her ankle, it seems. I mean, really! An evil voice in the back of my mind kept on providing a running narrative of the performance in Kistler's voice, of which I'm sure she wouldn't have approved.

"Here come the balances. Good thing I have Jock here for this arabesque. Ooopsie, that didn't quite work, did it? Let me just swing my leg back down and do it over. There, that's better. Here comes the big penchee. Wish me luck, Jock, and if I don't come back up, it's been nice working with you. Oh, here are the bits I have to do myself. Well, back when I could do the steps, they looked a little something like this. C'mon, use your imagination. If I get very dramatique with my arms, maybe you won't pay so much attention to what my feet aren't doing. Is it working? Is it working now? I asked Peter if Jock could partner me for my solos, just a teensy bit, and he said no. Something about how he'd have to let everyone keep their partners. Can you believe it?"

In the third movement, Bouder and Carmena were appropriately high-flying, and very evenly matched both in size and attack. Bouder doesn't mug as much as Carmena. She just has a ever-so-slightly smug "this is easy" look on her face, and it seems that for her, it is easy. They were exciting together, but Carmena, not a tall man at all, might want to work a bit more on his partnering. Some of the quick swings of Bouder into a deep penchee went well, some looked a bit less poised. Pascale van Kipnes led the fourth movement with Alexander Ritter, and all I could think was how lovely they looked together -- clean, witty, radiant -- and what a loss Ritter (who's left to join Boston Ballet) is to the company. Van Kipnes is another dance whose career at NYCB has become derailed -- certainly she seems to have no interest at all in turning herself into a match-stick (she's got a beautifully lush, but by no means overly ample, physique). She's also got a winning sweetness and limpid musicality which is all too often overlooked her; let's hope she doesn't end up following Ritter or Meunier to parts unknown.

Well, there it is. No more NYCB for me until the start of Nutcracker. I'm already going into withdrawl....

#2 dirac

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Posted 09 August 2002 - 11:12 AM

Thanks, Manhattnik, your posts are the next best thing to being there.....:(

#3 Farrell Fan

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Posted 10 August 2002 - 09:38 AM

Although I disagree with some of Manhattnik's judgments, I am filled with admiration and appreciation for this report. It is, pardon the expression, awesome.

I don't consider the overlapping of ballet and racing seasons a horror. Degas would have had a ball.

#4 Manhattnik

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Posted 10 August 2002 - 12:09 PM

I don't consider the overlapping of ballet and racing seasons a horror. Degas would have had a ball.

Was there still a Jockey Club in Degas' day? I'm sure he'd have been a member.

I don't think Degas would've enjoyed trying to get dinner at one of the local watering holes after the track lets out each day -- they don't take reservations, and for good reason!

There has always been a bit of a confluence between ballet and horses at Saratoga (Massine apparently made a very forgettable ballet called Saratoga, by the way). One of my first ballet memories was when, for a publicity shoot, I imagine, Suzanne Farrell posed in her Diamonds costume with some visiting Royal Lippizaner stallions at the practice track, not far from my home. The poses were lovely, but I'll never forget the moment when one of the horses decided to see if tulle tasted better than hay. The brief look on Farrell's face when she turned around and discovered where that tugging sensation was coming from was quite priceless.

#5 rg

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Posted 10 August 2002 - 12:42 PM

and let's not forget g.balanchine's horsey NATIVE DANCERS, which alas didn't last long.

#6 Farrell Fan

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Posted 10 August 2002 - 02:18 PM

Thanks, Manhattnik. I thought I remembered such a photo of Suzanne, but couldn't recall where I'd seen it. Naturally enough, it was in Holding On to the Air. Balanchine is also in it, as well as an unidentified rider in a top hat. It's described as a publicity shot for Jewels, and I'm sure appeared in other places.

There's another photograph I like very much, of Balanchine and Karin von Aroldingen attending the races at Saratoga. I bought a print of that years ago on the State Theater Promenade. And of course there was Robert Irving's horse, or was it horses? I also miss the way SPAC audiences used to be summoned to their seats -- with the call to the post.

I wish I'd seen Native Dancers, rg.

#7 bobbi

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Posted 10 August 2002 - 03:08 PM

I too want to thank you for your wonderful detailed report and especially for the use of the term "diva in training" for Ashley Bouder. That's great!! I've felt that way about her ever since her SAB graduation performance where she turned in a grade A Liberty Bell in Stars & Stripes. In my mind, I've been casting her for at least one of the Swanhildas in Coppelia in the upcoming season. But alas and alack, I assume the Swanhildas will be given to Borree and/or Stafford.

Thanks again for the report, and I think I'm on the same wave length with you for about 95% of the time.


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