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2/24/00 NYCB -- going to the bench

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2/24/00 - New York City Ballet

Peter Martins must feel like a baseball manager contemplating his rapidly dwindling bench in a game's final innings. The almost-concluded winter season began with several oft-used dancers out with injuries and illnesses, and one of the season's themes has been the scrappy way the company deals with the recurent need to fill in for an incapacitated dancer at or near the last moment. While others may view this differently, I think it speaks volumes for this company's great depth and resiliency that it has managed to handle this adversity with such aplomb.

Two of the most memorable chapters in this saga have belonged to wunderkind Abi Stafford, who joined the company at the beginning of the year, and quickly distinguished herself by leaping into the killer allegro leads in Valse Fantasie, and, last week, Ballo della Regina. Although last night was marked by considerable juggling of casts, and several unheralded debuts (so many I utterly lost track), and Stafford did indeed grace the stage in Western Symphony, it was the chance for others in City Ballet's roster to shine, and shine they did, for the most part.

The evening began with Richard Tanner's Ancient Airs and Dances, set to some lovely dances by Ottorino Respighi, the best thing about which I can say is that it didn't conclude as badly as it began. When I expressed this sentiment to a sharp-tongued friend at the following intermission, he snapped back with, "Yes, it gets worse." I felt Tanner was more focussed in the series of duets than in the opening ensemble section, which managed to be both rambling and perfunctory. He does better with fewer dancers (I know what my friend's reply to that statement will be!), and I thought the lead dancers - Kowroski, Borree (filling in for the injured Weese), Whelan and Martins, Neal and Woetzal, all discharged their duties admirably, particularly Whelan, who has lately been seeming to live in a state of highly charged serenity. I would rather see her in something with some content to it, and, to paraphrase the billboard that appeared everywhere during the gas-rationing days of World War II, I kept on thinking (as I do too often at NYCB premieres), "Was this ballet really necessary?" (I have a sinking feeling that Arlene Croce wrote this somewhere, sometime, and I'm dredging it up from my subconscious - if so, I'm sure she'll read this and forgive me.) The only reason I could think of for all those people dancing up a storm onstage is that the music hadn't stopped yet. However, the audience seemed to like it, so perhaps I'm being too harsh on Tanner for the sin of not being Balanchine.

It didn't help Ancient Airs and Dances that it was followed by Balanchine's masterpiece, Leibeslieder Walzer. This ballet is so subtle and dense that I find myself yearning for some effective note-taking mechanism so I can adequately record one exquisite moment before it's crowded out of my admittedly limited short-term memory by another, and then another and yet another still. This cast had the look of something cobbled together at, or near, the last minute, but the newcomers managed quite well, for the most part. The cast was supposed to be Kowroski, Ringer, Van Kipnis and Weese, with Boal, Hübbe, Neal and Woetzal. Instead we saw Kowroski, Ringer, Rutherford and Somogyi with Hübbe, Marcovici, Martins and Neal. Ringer's debut was long-scheduled, Rutherford's and Somgyi's were not. Of the men, I believe Neal and Marcovici were making debuts as well. As the young-falling-in-love couple, Rutherford and Marcovici were stunning. I've long admired Rutherford, and her piercing yet somewhat untouchable beauty worked well with Marcovici's young-Brando glamor. I've never been more moved by that first duet they dance, which concludes with the two abruptly finding themselves face-to-face. The electricity passing between the two in the instant they locked eyes seemed almost palpable, and, though I was viewing this from the first row of the orchestra, I have no doubts it carried to the back of the fourth ring. Marcovici then stepped back and sank to one knee, face lowered, and it was the first time I've seen the man so clearly overcome with emotion, rather than gallantry. Their duet ended with Rutherford walking to him and resting her hand on his head - a perfect, telling moment, one of many Balanchine treats us to in Leibeslieder. I don't think I've ever seen the emotional lives of these two characters presented so clearly, and even searingly. I have not been a great fan of Marcovici's dancing recently, finding him far too aggressive and without nuance, but perhaps his outlook is maturing, or mine.

That couple's story is the easiest to grasp, and the easiest for its' dancers to present, I think. I had some problems with the other pairs. Kowroski was appropriately gorgeous with Neal in the role I think of as the mature and grander lovers, yet I've been finding a kind of blankness to her affect lately that is just anathema to this ballet. I have no doubts she'll grow into it, but this seems clearly a role for a mature, well-seasoned dancer (such as Kistler). Neal, while often looking like he was having an ecstatic experience, seldom looked as if it had much to do with his partner. Somogyi and Hübbe were the somewhat-troubled couple (with the duet where Hübbe briefly hides his face from her behind his gloved hand). Somogyi had something of the look of the rural farm-girl cousin on her first visit to the big city, a bit unsure how to comport herself in a ballroom gown and desperate show she belongs in one. I suspect this was less by design than accident, though, and I wonder how much notice or rehearsal time she'd gotten. She's a strong woman who likes to dance with a big, full-out phrasing, a quality I usually admire, but it seemed totally out of place here, especially as she also affected an exagerrated posture, sashaying her hips forward and slouching her torso and shoulders behind, in what seemed almost a slouching parody of the unforced and urbane elegance of the other women. Sometimes one accomplishes more by trying less, and I'm sure Somogyi will relax into the role.

I'd been looking forward to this cast (well, what had been this cast), to see Jenifer Ringer's dubut, probably partnered with Peter Boal. Instead she danced with Martins, who was, as is his wont, as clean as a glass of distilled water, and about as flavorful. Ringer is a spellbinding dancer with a killer smile (and doesn't she know how to pick just the right shade of lipstick to show it off?). Here I found her beautiful, charming, a joy to watch, and yet, strangely, her character was somehow less modulated than I'd come to expect from her. She struck a lovely note throughout the ballet, but the same one.

Western Symphony, one of Balanchine's great "closing-number" ballets, was suitably exuberant last night, and with only one substitution, James Fayette stepping in for the hard-working Nilas Martins in the first movement. Fayette seems a bit overlooked these days, one of those dependable soloists who can deliver in a wide variety of styles and yet seems to be cast more as a stop-gap or filler, than as an appreciation of his own merits. Certainly he was quite fine last night, not letting the clarity of his jumps and double tours interfere with the gusto of a good ol' boy showing off for his buddies and the gals. Kathleen Tracey, who's been having a fine season, and looking sleeker every night, has also been cast, I think, in the same vein as Fayette, and, like Fayette, deserves more. She was also fine last night, quite appropriately boisterous and flirting, but never quite the floozy.

In the second, adagio, movement, Yvonne Borree hit all the slapstick bits dead-on, and made sure the audience noticed every one of them. I'm getting quite fond of Borree and her Kay Mazzo-ish demeanor, although it's not always right for everything in which she's cast. She was quite wonderful last night, however, and Albert Evans covered himself in glory as he's done every time he's set foot on stage this season, as the love-struck cowboy visited by a dance-hall Giselle. Unlike some of City Ballet's principal men who are cast more frequently and in more-rewarding roles, Evans' attention is alwaysfocused quite fiercely in the here-and-now, and on the matter at hand. I wish his kind of intensity and reverence would rub off on some of his coworkers.

I gather her appearance in the third movement last night wasn't a debut, but corps dancer Aesha Ash put her all into this role, which consists, for the most part, of wearing an astonishing hat (Karinska's dance-hall girl costumes for Western have to be among her finest achievements) and strutting outrageously. And doing some killer battements and arabesques on pointe, and fouettes. While most other dancers I've seen recently in this role tend to shy away from it a bit, Ash threw herself into it with almost-campy gusto, and managed the battements on pointe (alternating between écarte and to an arabesque penchée) quite well, although I've never seen anyone approach the power and abandon shown by Tanaquil LeClerq in the 1959 film of this ballet (oh how I wish I could find a video!). Ash motored through the fouettes like she was nailed to the stage. It was good to see her as something more than the third girl from the left, and I hope we'll see more of her in soloist and demisoloist roles. Hübbe was quite the elegant and dreamy cowboy here, and showed he knows how to show off his tennis-star good looks whenever it's required.

I wish I could recognize more corps dancers on sight. I always feel a bit sorry for the man and woman in yellow who come out for the last movement to join the other lead dancers. They're all that's left of what used to be the third movement, cut long ago by Balanchine, and I'd love to at least mention their names. Like denizens of some ghost town, they flit in and out of the last movement, and don't return for the curtain calls. It would be unfair for them not to even get a mention in the program, yet, somehow, exquisitely apt.

Now I have to start pretending to earn a living.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited February 25, 2000).]

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Guest Intuviel

Fabulous review, Manhattnik! That moment with Marcovici and Rutherford did carry at least to the 3rd ring, where I was sitting, and I'm sure it went far beyond. In Liebeslieder, did you think Kowroski's extensions were a bit out of place? I remember thinking last night that while 180 is fine in a leotard, it looked positively indecent in a ball-gown. I would have enjoyed it more if she had reserved the high legs for the second section. They work better with the pointe shoes and tutus, and I think the contrast would have been greater between the two parts of the ballet.

Ash *was* wonderful, wasn't she? Last night, I thought that it would take quite a bit to erase Kowroski's long-legged interpretation from my mind, and it did. But it happened smile.gif. And she got up from that slip so fast that if I had blinked, I don't think I would have seen it! I wonder when she's going to be made a soloist; she's certainly quite talented.


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I'm going to second several of the observations already made.

By way of background, I found out Somogyi's debut was abrupt indeed, van Kipnis injured herself in class that morning. I think Somogyi really has something special, and similar to Eric, I was thinking "Lovely. All she needs to do. . .is less." Given the lack of time she had, I bet she decided a good defense was a good offense and just threw herself into the role. But she is very watchable; her scent is interesting. I also agree with Intuviel about the fact that not all of this cast managed to distinguish between dancing in a gown and dancing in tulle. Kowroski's extensions or Somogyi's aerial performance of her first duet (she positively flew with Hubbe - amazing, but in yards of satin?) But in all cases I thought they had promise and deserved a real crack at the ballet. It was a good performance for one done on grit and instinct alone. It's a good role for Rutherford (like Marcovici, also probably thrown in), along with La Valse, she delivered one of the strongest performances I've seen her do. Eric's comments on Ringer echo mine. Brahms is very kind to her; he's given her two of her richest roles (2nd mvt. Intermezzo in Brahms/Schoenberg is the other) but as sweet and lovely as the performance was, I still didn't *feel* it the way I did in her Intermezzo performances of a few years back. I’m also judging a performance where she wasn’t dancing with the partner she rehearsed with (Martins had to go in for Boal, who knows if they got any rehearsal), and like Brahms/Schoenberg, that role is one in which you rely utterly on your partner and on the rapport you have built. Still, it felt controlled, and even the abandon looked a touch calculated. That quality is not something one turns on and off like a faucet - it comes unawares, and frankly we could see it out of her full force at any time. You never know.

I applaud the energy of Western last night, but you can tell we're getting to the end of the season when the dancers start taking liberties - you don't whoop and holler in the finale, I don't care how energized you are, but it seemed like an end-of-season prank. It was a very broad performance in general. 1st movement is a very good role for Fayette, it's a classic "guy" role, which is what he does best. I’m also in agreement on Evans. I like the fact that Borree has obviously given thought to the second movement, it's got more details than almost anything I've ever seen her do. I'd like it more if it looked like she had gotten direction as well, the same with Aesha Ash. Ash did a lovely, strong job, I also think she merits more use (If we've ever seen really *solid* fouettés at NYCB, we saw them last night). But since no one seemed to tell her how the woman in 4th movement might act, she was left to figure it out on her own, and she went with what she knew – which looked more like television sitcoms than ballets. She’s got presence, she just needs direction. Frankly, it’s also good to see the ratio of African American dancers in the company increase; the company should be commended for this and encouraged. There are enough so they look like part of the community onstage, not a soloist accidentally in the corps. I hope the company keeps hiring talented dancers of all races. I know the run-on man from the vestigial third movement was Jason Fowler, I couldn’t see the woman. And on Ancient Airs, I do agree with Eric on Whelan’s performance.

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I wasn't as bothered by Kowroski's extensions or Somogyi's exuberance in Leibeslieder, possibly because I was sitting so close, I didn't have the proper perspective to see just how overly large they were dancing, or perhaps I was just focussing on the teeny things one spots from such a short distance. It's not the ideal place to see every ballet, every night, but it certainly is fun once in awhile.

I forgot to mention the whooping and hollering, which was even more pronounced when I saw Western a few days ago -- it's not something they decided to do just last night on the spur of the moment. I suppose this is where the shreiks that ABT's can-can girls lost in Gaiete Parisienne a year or so ago finally surfaced, perhaps unearthed by the recent reconstruction of Lincoln Center's plaza.

Considering that Balanchine's point was to make a full-blown classical ballet with Western overtones, certainly the whooping could be seen as either terribly inappropriate and distracting, or perfectly in character. I fall into the first camp -- there's so much energy at the finale it doesn't NEED embelleshment. Besides, they never used to whoop and holler. Did they?

Has Fayette ever done Fancy Free? And isn't it odd that Fayette, the "guy-role" dancer, is so often cast as the second man in Serenade?

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited February 25, 2000).]

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I dunno, it was less that they were dancing in a large scale, but without proper deportment at those moments, something you mentioned about Somogyi. A lady might dance *big*, but the ladies in Liebelieder wouldn't let their legs go so high as to let their gowns ride up, nor does a lady in a ballgown *jump* (she floats!). It's just knowing the etiquette of the ballet you happen to be dancing. As I said though, give Somogyi a proper crack at the ballet and I think she'd be quite wonderful.

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Manhattnik - I go way back with Western Symphony and no they never whooped or hollered in any performance I saw. I agree with you it's not needed.

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Watching Rachel Rutherford develop has been one of the delights of ths winter season. Not only in La Valse, but in Divertimento No. 15 early in January, and in pas de trois or pas de quatre variations in Swan Lake. You have to love how Peter Martins and Rosemary Dunleavy have brought her forward this season and every time she's had the chance, she has shown that she can dance with anyone in the company. A beautiful girl with a spirit like clear water.

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There were several casting replacements

at the matinee performance on Feb. 26

also. Damien Woetzel replaced Peter Boal

in Ballo, dancing with Abi Stafford. And

Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe replaced

Pascale van Kipinis and Sebastien

Marcovici in I'm Oldfasioned.

Abi's footwork in Ballo was amazing. She

seemed confident, smiling frequently at

Damien, although he wasn't always looking

at her at the same time to return the

smile. He seemed more serious at times,

concentrating on the partnering. They did

a great job and received a loud

sustained ovation at the end.

Also on the program was Ancient Airs and

Dances and I'm Old Fashioned-- and Aesha

Ash performed in all three, having a

demi-solo in Ancient Airs. Her arm

movemens are wonderful with subtle

accents that seem to enhance her

expressive style. The entire ensemble

really seemed to come alive in Ancient

Airs--Borree, Kowroski, Whelan,Martins,

Neal and Woetzel. But the most comments

heard afterwards during the intermission

were about Philip Neal's new haircut.

Very short, combed forward look. I was

in the minority for liking it, though.

But I think the new look suits him.

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