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Performances - 5/31 through 6/14

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Ashley Bouder debuted in a major role, the second ballerina in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, on a Saturday matinee (5/31/03). Her debut wasn’t life-changing (the awful truth is I realized that’s exactly what I was expecting from the kid) but it was certainly promising. What’s still with her even after her absence from the stage is her jump and accuracy in turns, her power as a dancer and most importantly her zest for being out there and in front of us. She’s easy to connect with on stage. Her impetuosity is still there as well; she nearly went down skidding twice, once going into a piqué, once coming down from an assemblé if memory serves. I watched her from the edge of my seat.

Bouder pushed the role very hard, and her ear-to-ear Cheshire Cat grin didn’t leave her face. If there’s anything to refine first in her interpretation, it’s that. It isn’t a soubrette part; it takes more sweep than sparkle. Seeing the second ballerina grinning in this role is like expecting an audience with a Countess and being introduced to her chambermaid. I’d never want Bouder to be cold, but that part needs a little calm reserve. This could easily solve itself; when Jenifer Ringer came back from a lengthy absence, her dancing had a forced, artificial quality for a little while. It was part of the process of finding her way back to the stage. In the lead, Miranda Weese looked even more secure than she did on earlier performances, Philip Neal looked at bit more hectic.

I saw Abi Stafford do Square Dance on the same matinee and also the following week (6/8/03). Stafford is developing in the role; she reaches out to the audience more and the cover girl poses she makes during the women’s dance don’t stymie her as they once might have. She doesn’t look as exposed when she’s standing still. Her partners were Sébastien Marcovici at the first and Nilas Martins at the second performance. Marcovici also looks better in the role. He’s acquired some gravity on stage so what once looked like excitability now looks more like drama. Martins looked more committed to that performance than he’s looked in a long time.

Wendy Whelan has been giving big, committed performances all this season. She acts her way through Ballade (6/8/03); interesting when you think of all the admonitions Balanchine gave to Merrill Ashley not to act. So which is it? I have nothing to base this on but intuition, but I assume that certain corrections Balanchine gave were for that specific person only until proven otherwise. If he said, "Don't act!" it was because he didn't want Ashley to act. Balanchine also gave several intimations of a hidden narrative in the choreography. The man leaves and the woman buries her face in her hands. It's certainly a movement ripe with narrative pungency, and here is Balanchine having Ashley make this movement and telling her not to act.

What to make of it? There’s a term from literary criticism, topos, derived from Greek denoting a literary convention. The idea of Cupid shooting an arrow that wounded the heart is a topos. The month of May being spring like and green, even if the poem is written in Iceland and the ground is frozen solid in May is another. Balanchine has his own topoi, conventions that have meaning as much for their effect and the audience’s recognition of a convention as they do for meaning on their own. A man leaves the stage and the woman buries her face in her hands. Is she sad? Not necessarily. Sometimes, it's what women do in Balanchine's world when the man leaves, and sure enough less than an hour later Alexandra Ansanelli did the same action at the same instigation in the Frühlingstimmen (“Voices of Spring”) section of Vienna Waltzes. When watching Balanchine, it’s often more illuminating to think of in terms of theatrical effect rather than hidden meaning. Even so, Whelan shades Ballade with narrative meaning. By the end of the ballet when she bourrées off upstage alone, you feel what she’s been through, and why she doesn’t leave with Neal. But you never lose the ballet.

Daniel Ulbricht and Megan Fairchild gave a prodigious performance of Tarantella (6/8/03), but one that verged uncomfortably for me on cheap. Ulbricht is vivid on stage, but he’s using role models easily available to him, and they’re from television. It's incongruous. It's an Italian peasant dance, not an episode of The Love Boat Sails Again with him starring as Cruise Director. Still, the technique was a phenomenon, and his leaps soared. The audience ate it up, but there's got to be a compromise between Adam Hendrickson's too-subtle performance in the part a few months ago and Ulbricht's over-the-top one. With a little coaching, either of the two could get there. Megan Fairchild kept up with Ulbricht, impressive in itself. Fairchild is a natural for the role, she doesn't look forced even when she's being cute.

Vienna Waltzes ended the matinee on a popular note; in the fourth ring, you can always hear someone humming along. In “Tales from the Vienna Woods” Rachel Rutherford does not project with her face. I was a bit surprised; it is darkly lit, and you realize why NYCB uses a follow spot when they don't. However her body and the costume dance. I recall a diagonal of tour jétés like the unfurling of a parachute silk. Ansanelli substituted on short notice in “Voices of Spring” for Weese. I like her paired with Boal even though their personalities are so opposed. It's an interesting match, and he comes blasting out of the wings scuffing his feet like the King of the May. Unlike a few others, I liked Ringer in the "Merry Widow" section, she actually seemed more acid to me than she usually does, so go figure. I’m farther back; faces read differently. In the same way, it was fascinating to see Bouder’s performance in Piano Concerto from the first ring; I’m usually never there. It’s a great vantage point, but it takes getting used to. I kept wondering why Bouder seemed to have her chin lifted oddly, and then I realized she was playing to the upper rings. Maybe that’s why we love her so up there. There are other differences among the rings as well; there’s a constant buzz of low talking in the First Ring, and it’s different than in the Fourth. In the Fourth, the whispers are questions, and sometimes evaluations. In the First, it’s commentary.

There’s a final mystery for me in the Rosenkavalier section that’s just a craftsman’s curiosity. At the end of the ballet, the male lead in “Voices of Spring” has to cross the stage to reach his final pose. Everyone else is waltzing along and he’s walking across the stage. I keep wondering if there was a blocking dilemma there that was easier left alone then trying to play a domino game to solve it.

I’m an interested party at this point, but the 6/12 performance at NYCB was an awfully nice night for Ansanelli. She’s a principal de jure as well as de facto now, and she's turning into a diva before our eyes, in a good way. When she steps out on stage in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) , everything is at full fantasy for her right down to the curtain calls. Like Vishneva as Juliet, she enters and the stage vibrates; a theater becomes an Opera House. The ballet itself is an agreeable enough pièce d'occasion that gets roars because the audience is overjoyed to know the music.

Robbin’s Piano Pieces to Tchaikovsky follows the same structure as several of Robbins’ other works cobbled together from a composer’s smaller individual works. The corps sets the stage then withdraws to allow the principals to dance for several central pas de deux and a few variations. Everyone returns for a finale and it all somehow seems longer on first viewing than Ives, Songs and The Goldberg Variations put together. All the individual parts are quite agreeable, but the pieces seem quite portable and it could have been trimmed with no violation to the integrity of the structure. Still, it’s a nice opportunity to contrast Ansanelli and Jennie Somogyi. We see them alternately rather than at the same time until the end of the work; they are doppelgangers, not twins. It doesn’t hurt dancers to have their doppelganger; they’ve been piquing our interest since Camargo and Sallé or Taglioni and Elssler. During my viewing there’s been Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler or Damien Woetzel and Boal among the men. Nichols and Kistler often took the same roles; Boal and Woetzel rarely overlapped. In both cases the imaginary pairing enriched the repertory rather than detracted.

Somogyi looked regal with Neal in the first movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, Dena Abergel had a shaky debut as the soloist that looked like nerves. Jenifer Ringer has been doing the Intermezzo for nearly a decade, and she is a totally different dancer in the part then the one she was in the early 90s. Paradoxically, it seems she's gotten younger in the role. In the Rondo alla Zingarese, Nichols relied felicitously on age and treachery. No super long balances, no multiples of multiple turns. No matter, it was witty and she looked like she was having a wonderful time and so did we. Woetzel does all the d'Amboise roles as if they were made on him.

I saw Janie Taylor in the Andante of the Quartet and also two days later (6/14/03) as the second ballerina in Walpurgisnacht and the second movement ballerina in Western Symphony. I keep seeing more of her facility with each performance (I never realized what a jump she had before Walpurgisnacht) but I still find her to have one speed as a dancer: ON. This works for Western, where the binary flicks from stiff to active are quite funny, and she’s fearless when she hurls herself across the stage to Albert Evans. It wouldn’t hurt for her to rethink her makeup slightly; one of the reasons she looks like she doesn’t project is that we can’t see her features from far away. From the fourth ring, we can’t see her mouth and her eyes are only dark sockets. She doesn’t need more makeup, just more contrast so we can see an expression. In the lead in Walpurgisnacht, Whelan gave another big performance. She’s going to be the senior ballerina inevitably, and she looks like she understands the demands of the job.

It seems I'm one of the few unconvinced by Wheeldon’s Liturgy, his second premiere in the season. It's a valid work with solid craft, and it does bring a style of modern ballet ca. 1994 into the company that wasn't part of the repertory, but does that make it a masterwork? The music, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, is fascinating, deeply emotional and seriously overused. The ballet is a darkly lit, moody and contorted modern pas de deux with an ending straight from Susan Marshall's Arms (I'm not accusing Wheeldon of plagiarism; it’s more than likely he’s never seen it. I'm saying there's nothing new under the sun.) I admire Wheeldon’s craft and commitment to exploring the repertory; how many choreographers are out there showing the range that’s possible with classical ballet? But of all the avenues Wheeldon is exploring his work in modern ballet is the road that for him seems to lead to a cul-de-sac. The Coals to Newcastle award in costuming goes to Holly Hynes for making a unitard for Whelan that seems designed to be slimming. Some of my resistance to the work may be in its odd placement in the program. Having only a pause to separate it from Western is too jarring a contrast. In this program it would have fit best with a pause after Walpurgisnacht, but that was impossible with Whelan in both leads.

Western is always a friendly face and the cast acted up a storm, but there comes a point where I'd rather see the steps. I like both Pascale van Kipnis and James Fayette in the first movement, but we watch their little winks and salutes too much, I feel like I’m missing the ballet. The only one who gets away with this is Woetzel in the Rondo; maybe I have come to expect this sort of hamminess from him and find it endearing. I finally saw Albert Evans this season in the second movement. It could just be my viewing, but why are we barely seeing Evans? I understand if this is circumstances or his own choice, but if it is not, has NYCB got such a surplus of principal men that it can afford to sideline any of them?

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Leigh, very interesting insights above. I have not seen Ringer in Brahms since her early efforts in it, and then I found her promising, but too young. Has she caught the whiff of doom?

I can not recall any year when Evans was used as much as he could/should have been. It seems to me that he has never had a rep of more than three or four roles a season, and worse than being typecast, he has been niche-cast. So sad, he's such a knowing dancer. He always brings unexpected dimension to his work. Shame to see that talent not used to the utmost.

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Leigh, thanks so much for your wrap-up, particularly your take on Ashley Bouder's debut in the major second ballerina role in the Piano Concerto. I bought a ticket just to see how she did, and was not disappointed. Leigh, your insight that the role calls for "more sweep than sparkle" was exactly right. But so much was right with her performance that I forgave her too-smiling look and just chalked it up to her being so glad to be back on stage. I only hope that she gets more chances to perform in the spotlight. That performance was one of my very happy memories of the spring season.

Another highlight to get me through the long summer dry spell was growth of Janie Taylor in everything's she danced, but especially in Patti McBride's role in Who Cares. I now want to see her in all of Patti's roles. She has the pliancy to handle the Intermezzo in Brahm, the speed and capability to handle to directional changes in Rubies, and a sense of drama and phrasing to do justice to Baiser de la Fee.

Of course, other highlights (and in no particular order): (1) all performances of Kyra Nichols which I now treasure because more of her career is behind her than ahead; (2) all performances of Wendy Whelan, who for me anyway is now right up there with other NYCB great ballerinas; and (3) not to forget the men: Peter Boal and Damian Woetzel, both of whom can be ranked among the greatest male classical dancers.

We have only a little over a week to go (and I have three Midsummers to look forward to), but already I'm having withdrawal symptoms!! I hope that the Ballet Alertniks in Saratoga and those lucky enough to go to St. Petersburg do lots of reporting.

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