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Child's Play - NYCB 1/14/00

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Child’s play – NYCB 1/14/00

It’s the stuff bad movies are made of, even today. Little Ballerina comes to big city and goes to school. Gets taken as apprentice with Big Ballet Company right before Nutcracker, is given a corps contract by the end. Suddenly, a few days later as repertory season begins, the entire company comes down with The Black Plague. Big Director comes up to Little Ballerina and asks “Do you know Valse-Fantaisie?” She says yes, thinking he means the corps de ballet. “No, I mean the principal part” he corrects her. Well, it turns out she learned it in the school’s workshop performance, but didn’t do it, so she says yes. “Good. You’re doing it,” he says. She’s been in the company two weeks.

Sounds like the script of a new dance movie, or even more preposterous? It just happened to Abi Stafford. What made Ms. Stafford’s debut in the principal role of Valse-Fantaisie at the age of 17 so charming is that she doesn’t go in for those sort of histrionics. She just went out there and danced the part; danced it musically, danced it with composure and focus and most importantly, danced it like she belonged there.

I’d first seen Ms. Stafford dance in 1995 in her home school, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. At thirteen, ostrich-like with a short torso, long, long legs, beautiful feet and extremely sensitive musicality, one could tell she was a young lady to watch (as were many of the youngsters in that 1995 performance. One is in Pacific Northwest Ballet, a second in American Ballet Theatre and four are now in New York City Ballet. Their teacher, Marcia Dale Weary, is obviously doing something right.) In June of this year I observed her in Suki Schorer’s class at the School of American Ballet. Younger than some of her classmates in a class of combined levels, Ms. Stafford had not been named an apprentice, assumedly waiting her turn at the right age. She worked quietly at the barre, and at center. But of all the young ladies in the room, none worked more intelligently, or with a more developed and still center than she. The style Schorer was trying to impart to her was assimilated into her childhood training, or more accurately, overlaid on it. Her back was strong, her hips calmly placed above her turnout. She didn’t work cosmetically; she knew what she was doing. It’s not really all that surprising that Martins named her apprentice, nor that he felt she was ready for the corps de ballet.

One could see the nerves in a few moments with her partner, Benjamin Millepied, a turn in arabesque en dehors where the catch almost didn’t happen. But only a few. For the most part it was impressive just how focused she was. Usually the debutantes go blank-eyed, one sees the nerves in the frozen stare, the smile that flickers on and off. Ms. Stafford projected out the whole time, and we saw a young lady dance *for* us. And a young lady in command of lovely and subtle rubato touches, an airy carriage in her upper body and beautiful arc in attitude. Her composure was not that of a 28 year old in a 17 year old’s body, it was that of a well-trained and calm girl whom someone happily forgot to inform that all this stuff was hard. If Ms. Stafford did anything wrong, it’s that she didn’t differentiate any of the dance for us, she made it all look easy. One can be confident that will come with time.

Her partner, Benjamin Millepied, danced well and with good elevation, but looks happier in Martins’ choreography than in Balanchine’s, particularly in choreography that requires a more staccato attack than Valse-Fantaisie with its long legato reaches for the man. Wasp-like, Millepied is impressive darting in motion, he doesn’t want to remain still. Behind the couple, the corps performed well, and one spotted Janie Taylor, compared to Stafford an old hand with perhaps one or two years in the company, and also being pushed forward by Martins.

It was an auspicious debut, the stuff fairy tales were made of, though one is happy for the simple realism of Ms. Stafford in the role. She’s not a principal dancer yet, she’s a talented, well-trained 17 year old girl. She’s been in the company two weeks, and I hope she goes happily back to the corps, to learn more about what the corps de ballets means. There will certainly be more roles for her, in their proper time, but I hope not the fusillade of role after role and the attendant serious injury we’ve seen one time too often. I think she’ll go far. But for now, I hope Ms. Stafford puts the program in her scrapbook, along with the flowers she undoubtedly got pressed into it as well, and I hope she treasures her memories of the day she got to be a princess.

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Since Maria was making her debut in In the Night, Wendy danced G Major.

I mean, because Weese is out, In the Night replaced Mozartiana. I guess they didn't want Maria to do two big new roles in one night.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited January 15, 2000).]

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Well, the evening I spent on January 14 at City Ballet was inauspicious at best, but I guess I still feel good about being there. Made a special winter trip to the City (driving 300 miles and through a blizzard the night before on the way down) particularly to see Mozartiana. Cold and windy in the street canyons too, but absolutely balmy compared to Montpelier, VT. We faced the windchill on our faces with happiness & anticipation as we walked the 10 blocks to Lincoln Center. NYC is excitement!!

I had done some homework on "Mozartiana", read about its making, etc. etc. Not to be... frown.giffrown.gif Arrived at our seats in the 2nd ring (best I've had for any ballet in NYC) and was all pumped up..opened program and then, gulp..., saw those first words in the program insert....due to illnesses "In the Night" will replace "Mozartiana".. Must be getting serious about this ballet stuff, since I felt a really, really VERY BIG letdown... frown.gif isn't there a saying that goes something like "THE show must go on"? in contrast to "A show must go on"! Don't big ballet companies have understudies in lead roles, etc, etc....??

Then we noted that Hubbe (I did like his performance a lot actually) would replace Martins, in "Concerto Barocco" and the principal dancers for "Valse-Fantaisie" would be Abi Stafford and Benjamin Millepied. Now I had seen Millepied at Saratoga and I liked what I had seen of his dancing...but "who is this Stafford?" The program insert says...*Joined the corps de ballet, January 1, 2000...well, must be some mistake in the date there, its only the 14th of January... or I'm really hexed and they've thrown the WHOLE program out, just letting corps dancers dance tonight.

I thought Abi Stafford looked like a very seasoned professional dancer! She was wonderful!! She certainly connected with us and we liked her presentation and the partnership of Millepied. As it turned out, Valse-Fantaisie with Glinka's music saved the evening for me. This was a very nice piece which had both my wife and I smiling broadly. I thought Concerto Barocco was just OK, primarily because I love the Bach double violins, although I had a hard time following all the dancing going on at the same time. I found it difficult to focus on anyone in particular for much of the piece, with the corps dancers all doing their part all around the stage, seeming to distract my eyes from the principals. It left me feeling somehow that I was missing it.

"In the Night" was also a positive overall, and I particularly enjoyed the middle couple, Kowroski(whom I have loved to watch since I first saw her dance at Saratoga) and Askegard. "In G Major" set me back down on earth again (or under it) as I just cannot begin to appreciate Wendy Whelan (who, in a final twist of fate, replaced my favorite, Kowroski).

The fact that there were two Robbins pieces that did not super impress me, and missing out on Balanchine's "Mozartiana" made this first visit to NYCB in the City somewhat of a letdown. ABT regains my prime attention next (I've seen them a number of times). But New York City won me back again on this trip. "Kiss Me Kate" (*****) made up for any disappointment at the ballet, and I almost collapsed in shock when a cabby stopped and politely (uttering not a single unprintable word) motioned us to cross 45th street without treating my overcoat as a matador's cape.

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