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Leigh Witchel

The Kids are Alright: First Week, NYCB Spring Season

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For Balanchine addicts, the first week of the NYCB spring season was a gluttonous feast, with gorging mandated. There were other works, but Balanchine formed the bulk and bedrock of Friday and Saturday nights and all of opening night's program, which was choreography on such a profligately high level that one almost forgets that the ability to attain that level is the blessing of genius, not the norm. The opening night, all works to Hindemith and Stravinsky, began with a very solid performance of The Four Temperaments. I had seen another good performance of this the month prior given by Miami City Ballet; it's a pleasure to see more than one company giving credit to this masterwork. NYCB's was exceedingly well cast; they were fielding their best current interpreters in almost all sections. Pascale van Kipnis was a notable second theme. Peter Boal's Melancholic remains a surprise to me for the contradiction of him being such a careful dancer with an absolute need for the spontaneity of the stage. No decision seemed final until the notes were played and we were there to watch it. Miranda Weese's Sanguinic was victory personified; she did the pas de deux as an unstoppable force. The final soaring jetés circling the stage were an incantation; she was marking off her territory, a magic circle. Albert Evans' Phlegmatic was an exotic, theatrical creature; perhaps not languid, but his activity seemed to be in search of a way out of indecision. The final magic circle of the evening comes with Choleric's three rond de jambes à terre in the finale. Interestingly, the very fine Choleric from MCB only does two at the same spot. My guess is both have textual justification from performance; my instincts would be to add the third, if only because three is a number associated with magic. It is always wonderful to see Monique Meunier onstage; her ferociously avid Choleric was as it should be, towering and glorious in the center of the final dances.

Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra are always paired in repertory, yet were choreographed three years apart, 1960 and 1963 respectively. Neither covers new ground for Balanchine; they both seem to be continued experimentation with issues that interested him in 1959's Episodes. Monumentum is the same sort of modernist commentary on classical tradition as the final Ricercata; Webern orchestrating Bach much as Stravinsky did with Gesualdo. Movements expands on the vocabulary of the Symphony and Concerto movements.

I've seen Monumentum before but I never recall loving it the way I did on these viewings. Stravinsky orchestrated three madrigals of Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, celebrated composer, lutenist, a brilliant harmonist and suspected of causing the murder of his first wife and her lover. Stravinsky's arrangements capture Gesualdo's rich, acid harmonies combined with an economy of means and Balanchine choreographs their complement; he gives us a line drawing where we might have expected a baroque oil painting. The work is brief, probably under 10 minutes, and it moves at the grave tempo of a pavane. There is a lead couple and six couples within their court; their relationship to one other remains traditional and courtly with brilliant flashes of the unexpected. The men offer their hands, the women receive them. The couples whisper and they kiss. At the end of the first madrigal, the lead woman walks alone in a slowly diminishing circle only to lean against the man's leg and ends on her knees as he kneels facing away from her. She looks like the passenger in a tiny ferryboat being inexplicably asked to traverse the seas. In the second madrigal, she is joined by her six male courtiers who, in groups of two, toss her in arabesque into the waiting arms of another duo; she remains a still figure of triumph throughout. The third madrigal joins the entire court on a single diagonal. The women bend over in arabesque penchée; they flex their feet in unison, and then swing back down in twos like the closing of a portcullis. At the end they fall to a split while the men stand over them but then bend both legs slightly as if a split were immodest. They offer their arms in salute to the unknown future. This tiny masterpiece is an eau de vie of the Italian Renaissance, a distillation of all that is humane, yet sinister of that time. It's heady perfection; something so concentrated and pure in expression that on both times I saw it I wanted to leave immediately after to retain the taste.

A rarefied sentiment, but Movements for Piano and Orchestra comes immediately afterward to shock the eyes and the palate back from the Ideal. Again, the work uses a lead couple and a sextet of women, but this time without their skirts or their partners. The women are deployed primarily in two trios, and they have gone from being a court to being a swarm; a hive of buzzing insects. Stravinsky referred to Balanchine's "bee-like" women in Movements and provides serial music to match; relentlessly active and inscrutably purposeful, at once mathematically logical yet seemingly without logic. It is harder to parse the action of Movements than Monumentum, harder still to describe it.

The only cast member shared by both ballets was Charles Askegard, who looks more and more accustomed to the black and white works that one might never have thought he'd do when he joined the company. Often one woman does both ballerina roles, removing her skirt in the pause, but they have been divided here, with Maria Kowroski taking Monumentum and Heléne Alexopoulos taking Movements. Kowroski is well suited to Monumentum; there is something both lush and virginal at once about her, and what might be pallid in other ballets is limpid here.

I've written more fully on Duo Concertant in the winter season, and like all Balanchine ballets, there is more to see on each viewing. One tiny moment that impressed itself on me is at the beginning of the first Eclogue, just as Kistler and her partner, Nikolaj Hübbe, begin to dance. I had a recent discussion in which someone quoted Sybil Shearer saying that Balanchine was influenced by the aesthetic of the 1920's and it never left him. It was the apogee of the mechanical age. In Duo, first the dancers' feet begin to move, pistonlike and accelerating. Then their arms. But Kistler's go from jerky motions to large painter-like curves, as if becoming animate while Hübbe's remained jerky and sectional. The Muse is born out of the Machine.

Duo got rejuvenated performances out of Darci Kistler. Hübbe tends to push very hard in the work, especially the Gigue, which contrasts with Boal whose instinct is to underplay it. Both are very effective in their own way at the end.

Stravinsky Violin Concerto has never been a work I've warmed to in the way I've warmed to works like Monumentum or Duo, but that's personal preference. Even so, I saw more in the work than I usually do, especially in the pas de deux; particularly the enigmatic ending of the Mazzo/Martins one that is part protective, part threatening. As a whole, I also appreciate the solidity of craftsmanship and structure of the work even though I dislike what I see as forced charm, but that could be easily a function of performance. I also note again how much Martins the choreographer seemed to have been formed by the Stravinsky Festival. The main choreographic device of the group sections, sectioning the corps de ballet, aligning them to principal dancers and switching them off, is one that Martins has returned to often.

Divertimento No. 15 got a veteran's cast on Friday and a crop of debutantes on Saturday with Miranda Weese partnered by Philip Neal benevolently presiding as den mother to the kids. It was the sort of performance one clucks over; the kids were all right. At one point in the final movement, it really looked (from the fourth ring though, where faces need to be filled in with one's vivid imagination) as if Weese, kneeling as the young ladies posed around her, was actually beaming with pride for them as well as for herself and us. The newcomers were (in variation order) Jason Fowler and Stephen Hanna as the Themes, Kristin Sloan (substituting for Alexandra Ansanelli), Janie Taylor, Carla Körbes, and Abi Stafford with Neal and Weese doing the final two solos. Fowler is an elegant, promising dancer, one of the ones coming up who looks like he may be a classicist. Sloan and Körbes provided the most pleasant surprises because we've seen them the least; both performed with grace and polish although Körbes needs to punctuate her dancing just a bit. Her hip twists in the coda were evenly accented, and they disappear when done that way. Sloan is a find; I really hope we see more of her.

In the Friday cast, it was a pleasure to see Jenifer Ringer reclaim the third variation and settle down to what looks like a long, fruitful career as a principal dancer. May the road remain straight from now on. Jennie Somogyi is also quite nice in the fourth, turning variation. The one new cast member to the ballet, Jared Angle, has real promise in these roles, with a creamy musicality and good lines and beats. He and Fowler did the same part, and look cut from similar cloth in terms of elegant style.

The Concert finished Friday evening's performance with Weese turning in a wicked performance in the ballerina role. Much of her artistry has always resided in her brilliance in timing and she showed tonight that it could be used to razor sharp comic effect. Her characterization isn't soft or passive, but neither is she; she's witty with a sense of mischief. Every joke was like a small dart perfectly aimed. I think Kipling Houston needs to rethink his characterization of the husband a bit, or at least cut down the number of times he tries to grab Weese's buttocks. The Husband is coarse, but he's not a pig; the ballerina needs to be able to feel affection for him. After about the third time he tried to cop a feel, if Weese were to act as she is wont to, she would have belted him.

Saturday's performance of Ash again showed us several newer dancers; Martins has made it a habit to put promising corps members into the ballet as it lets them be seen both as a group and individually. We saw Körbes again with Hanna; Abi Stafford and her brother John; Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette and Carrie Lee Riggins and Adam Hendrickson. Unlike Fearful Symmetries, the ballet hasn't aged well. It's gone from being fast and tricky to being frenzied and the variations, individually tailored to the original cast have not transferred well to new individuals. Hendrickson's part was done on Ethan Steifel and no matter how good a jumper Hendrickson is, Steifel did a beyond 180 degree split that no one has duplicated since. It would make more sense to rechoreograph it, because that unduplicatable trick was the point of the original choreography.

In the leads, Jennie Somogyi showed her versatility in a good way and Jared Angle showed the opposite, also in a good way. Angle can do every step in Ash and do it well, but the musicality, with its feints and jabs, is not natural to him, he smoothes it all out. What seems absolutely natural to him is Divertimento No. 15. Could the company have a rising prince on its hands? I'd happily settle for that kind of specialty act.

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Leigh - I also saw the "kids" cast of Div. No. 15 -- Kristin Sloan, Carla Korbes, Janie Taylor, and Abi Stafford (together with the "mature" Miranda Weese) -- this past Friday night (their second performance) and loved it. I totally agree with you about Miranda Weese looking like the proud parent. I think she conveyed that, although I'm not sure how.

Each of these kids was extraordinary.

Carla Korbes impressed me very much with the beautiful use of her arms and the way her movement flows. What I mean is how, when she extends her arm, for example, you can follow the impulse of her movement like a ripple to the last flourish of her hand. It's a beautiful way of moving and you don't see it that often. (Among NYCB dancers, Saskia Beskow in particular does this very beautifully -- you can see it especially well at the end of the first section of Symphony in Three Movements, when the entire corps ripples into that posture --which is the point).

Korbes was the least known of this crop of kids before the last two weeks, so it has been particularly good to see her in the spotlight. I thought her also very striking in Ash last Saturday afternoon. But the rest of them deserve just as much praise.

Kristin Sloan was just beautiful in a role in which she showed a degree of restrained, chaste, classical technique I did not know she had. Christopher D'Amboise made a principal role on her last year, her first in the company, in one of the Diamond Project ballets, and with every one of her performances we see more and more what he spotted in her. Also, Martins has been casting her in solos and prominent side girl roles in his own ballets. Always a good sign for a young dancer's future in the company.

As for Taylor -- I think of her as Peter Martins' muse right now. In both Burleske (his new Barber Violin Concerto-like ballet from February) and in the new work, set to German Lieder, which debuted Thursday night, he has made the most beautiful choreography on her. In her adagio in Div. No. 15, I loved the way she engaged with her partner. There was a particular passage, when the two of them "pushed" away from each other on a series of reverse diagonals, backing across the stage, that I am thinking of.

And as for Abi Stafford -- It seems to me that each time I see her, I am shown something about certain basic movements or steps that makes them appear with a clarity as if I had never really seen them before. This sounds obscure -- but what I mean is very specific and concrete. That I see her execute, almost any time I watch her dance an extended solo, a series of elements like passees (I'm thinking of a particular Sugarplum Fairy last fall) or coupees (I'm thinkng of Ballo Della Regina) so clearly -- they exist in such a pure form and also frozen in time -- that it's as if I had never really "seen" that step before or as if something about its essence has been disclosed. And I also come away from the performance amazed at how happy and alive she seems when she does this. On Friday, the images she seemed to freeze were those of a series of perfectly symmetrical, turned out leg positions (bent at the knee, kind of a plie in the air, if you know what I mean) at the top of series of pas de chats(?). The way she seemed to be able to find the time, within a rapid variation, to just hang there and to create those pure images was just amazing.

[ 05-14-2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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Those are good assessments, Michael.

I think one of the things most loveable about Divertimento No 15 is that you get to see five very distinct ballerina types in it. People's responses will be very personal. I always think it's a good sign when no one person or thing in a program is the clear favorite; most people I talked to informally about that cast had different favorites from the cast.

There seems to be a casting tradition at least during the Martins era of NYCB for Divertimento, I'd like to know if Balanchine cast it differently at all:

1st variation - the ingenue or soubrette (Hlinka, K. Tracey)

2nd variation - the risk taker and big mover (M. Roy, Whelan, Taylor)

3rd variation - the elegant dancer (Saland, Fugate, Ringer)

4th variation - the reliable turner (Lopez, Somogyi)

6th variation - the fastest feet (Ashley had a rightful lock on the role from Balanchine days, and I believe Nichols did too, then it went to Fugate, M. Tracey and Weese)

The newest cast played nicely into these stereotypes with the exception of Sloan, who did the first variation more like it was the third; with an elegant rather than perky charm. It was why I enjoyed her in the role.

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