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City Ballet Nutcracker, 12/8

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Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder were the story today, with Stafford dancing the Sugarplum Fairy and Bouder debuting in the role of Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers.

There was some criticism of Stafford's being cast as the Sugarplum Fairy last year, when she was the Janice Levin dancer honoree. But what a difference a year makes. She has grown immeasurably as a dancer since the spring, both technically and in personality. Personality might well be the most incalculable and the most interesting thing about a dancer, but it's something which can neither be described nor accounted for. A kid changes a great deal between seventeen and nineteen and that only gets more striking as you push them on towards, say, twenty-five years old. Abi Stafford is developing nicely in this way and, on the technical side, showed some pretty astonishing things yesterday --a rock-steadiness and balance on point of Paloma Herrera's class; a vastly improved porte de bras and full, almost Russian use of her arms; and the strongest, steadiest, yet liquid, pas de bourree. The Sugarplum Fairy's initial variation is all about pas de bourree and I've not noticed one in this company as beautiful as Abi's in a long time.

Ashley Bouder's debut as Dewdrop was emotional and memorable because (all at once) of this young dancer's unforgettable dramatic presence, a very bad fall she took, and an even more unforgettable recovery after that fall.

Ashley Bouder is an extraordinary dancer. She has no problem holding the stage, her performances as the Firebird last year demonstrated that and a lot else beyond dispute and she began her variation yesterday very much as she did her big variation in La Source last winter, with a series of those big grand jettees that Mary Cargill last year said made the audience collectively "gasp." (Except that now, like Stafford, she's grown, showing a more elongated line and body than she did last spring). Then, at the end of the first series of big jumps she took a very bad tumble indeed when jeteeing forward into arabesque on point with her front arm upraised, hitting the floor hard with the full length of her body and no ability at all to cushion it with her hands. This was a different sort of collective "gasp" and what was particularly frightening was a split second when she didn't get up and you didn't know if she would. But then she did and when she did, and then continued her variation, at first tentative, but then jetteeing off stage left with another big, soaring jump, the packed house (the matinee performance was NYCB's gala family Nutcracker benefit) simply exploded into the most prolonged applause I've heard this fall, and after that you should have seen her take fire, with every entrance and exit building in intensity and drawing an even more pronounced burst of applause from the audience. This was family day at the ballet, folks, kids and moms and a few balletomanes like me, but what a moment Ashley Bouder made of it. It's not a performance she or the audience will forget for a while, for a number of reasons, good and bad.

Strangely enough, Abi Stafford -- returning to the stage for her grand pas de deux, partnered by Sebastien Marcovici -- seemed more shaken up by what had happened during Bouder's variation than Bouder was. It was an impossible act to follow and the beginning passage of the pas de deux was distinctly the weakest part of her performance. I blame this on Sebastian Marcovici in large part, however, who is surely one of the tensest dancers above the waist of any principal you are going to see. It was noticable how Stafford really began to dance whenever Marcovici gave her some space. The more he got away from her, the better she moved. He was simultaneously (and this isn't easy) not there for her when he was supposed to be but had literally to be pushed out of the way by her when he did get there, so that she could continue to move.

In the end, however, about half way through the pas de deux, Stafford's performance also lit up and concluded with a musicality and dramatic intensity, and a reaction from the audience, to match Bouder's that had preceeded it.

Other things to mention: Lindy Mandrajieff was very good as the first Marzipan Shepherdess, indeed, this entire little divertissement was very well cast, as she was backed by Elena Stein (Diner), Faye Arthurs, Melissa Barak and Jamie Wolf -- a dream cast. Mandrajieff's is a name I've been seeing since last spring, but now I can finally put a dancer to it.

Ellen Bar was a fine Frau Stahlbaum in Act One, miming well and using her arms very beautifully. And Stuart Capps was a superb Drosselmeyer. Eva Natanya made more out of Coffee than anyone else I've seen this year. Antonio Carmena, however, was a bit disappointing in the Toy Soldier variation, it was an off night for him. And Polchinelle and Harlequin are not being well peformed. Megan Pepin has promise as the toy doll, but lacks the precision and crispness of movement right now that Elizabeth Walker used to bring to the part.

[ December 09, 2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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