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NYCB Quadruple Bill at Saratoga

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This review is of the Saturday, July 16th matinee performance of four works: Circus Polka, Apollo, Serenade, and The Magic Flute.

Whenever balletomanes envision going into the ballet, it is typically inside are very large and glamorous theater, or an opera house, in which said balletomanes (hopefully) enjoy their time viewing a performance. Although a far cry from the Royal Ballet's unprecedented performances at the 02 in June, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center makes for an unusual facility for a world class ballet company. A literal "midsummer night's dream" of sorts, attendees walk through an enternity of greenery to finally reach the theater, which is sort of indoors and outdoors at the same time. There are no doors to the theater, but there is a roof which prevents any dramatic rainstorms like the one in the film The Company to affect a performance to a major degree. The nature of the venue isn't necessarily my ideal setting for watching a performance, but NYCB's quadruple bill last weekend didn't have much to complain about.

Circus Polka began and featured a ringmaster (Ask la Cour) with 48 SAB girls--some dressed in blue (the oldest of the three groups of girls), some in green, and some in pink (the youngest). The choreography was cute--each colored group formed a circle, with two groups dancing in one direction and the other group in the opposite direction, and at the end a dancer in pink would join hands with a green and a blue in one big circle. The work lasted maybe five minutes, and the curtain calls were met with standing ovations from the parents.

The performance truly began with Balanchine's "Apollo," one of Balanchine's iconic works that has eluded me up until now. Set to the music of Stravinsky (which he created especially for the ballet), the ballet depicts Apollo's maturation from boy to man in the midst of encountering three muses: Terpsichore, the muse of dance, Calliope, the muse of poetry, and Polyhymnia, the muse of mime. The ballet begins with Apollo's variation as a boy, and as the work develops the three muses dance with Apollo, then each dances her own variation. Subsequently Polyhymnia and Calliope dance together and Terpsichore and Apollo have a pas de deux, before the finale's ensemble of all four characters.

A signature Balanchine work, Apollo is a hauntingly beautiful ballet that always achieves its subtlety even when faced with moments of drama. Apollo's change from boy to man resonates through his life on his own and with his relationships with the three muses. The choreography for the three muses contrasts their similarities--at the beginning, each muse does a penchee facing a different area of the stage to form a triangle, one of many examples of them being in unison--with their differences--each muse's way of picking up her instrument from Apollo is distinctly different (in this cast, anyway)--Terpsichore is entitled to it; Polyhymnia is humbled to recieve it; Calliope is indifferent to it. Apollo's maturity is best found in a step he does in a lunge where his one his hand is behind him, and his extended hand goes from a fist to a stretched hand, a movement seemingly indicative of his newfound power. Nothing compares, however, to the final moments of the ballet, where Apollo begins to slowly walk across the stage, with each muse following him. The muses gradually reach him, each extending into an arabesque of a different height while holding onto him. The final music of the poignant Stravinsky score quiets as the lights dim and the curtain falls.

With no one else to compare to in the role, it is very difficult for me to evaluate how Chase Finlay danced, but I admit to being surprised at the amount of praise given for his debut. Finlay is a jack of all trades but an ace at none, and his dancing is a paradox in motion. He can be quite expansive--the simplest of steps, stretching his arms out up in front of him--are actually quite affective, but he seems to fade away whenever on stage with a ballerina--in this case: Maria Kowroski. Kowroski (Terpsichore) makes Finlay look short, as does Teresa Reichlen (Calliope), but not just in a height sense. On his own, Finlay dances with a fair amount of grandeur and musicality, impressive feats for a danseur in the corps, but during pas de deuxs (or pas de quatres) his dancing would vanish. Many Balanchine pas de deuxs require the man to be invisible, but Apollo, a rare Balanchine ballet in that it is focused on the man, is not such. He developed some sense of growing from boy to man, but it was as if he grew through his own intuition, his own experiences in solitude, and not through his relations with the three muses. He is a physically strong dancer but seemed to tire fairly early in the ballet, and his jump, whilst not terrible, could probably be outdone by Natalia Osipova. He has a nice lift on his supportive leg but can't find stability down into the ground with his plie. His partnering faired without incident, but Kowroski simply seemed too tall for him. The partnering had its occasional rough spots, but any shaky moments were covered well and forgiveable. His weakness was that the connection of Apollo maturing because of Terpsichore went missing because all you saw in the pas de deux was Kowroski. Finlay's line is clean, and it is a long line because he is tall, but yet the impacts created from the shapes of his legs, feet, and torso please but don't inspire. With all of this said, it was not a bad performance, and perhaps I am being harsh because it is a difficult ballet and one which I've never seen. Finlay is a talented dancer whose performance in this ballet suggests that a recent promotion to soloist is deserving. He did replace Sebastien Marcovici for this performance, and he wasn't scheduled to dance the role at Saratoga in any show that week, so perhaps the preparation for this show was meager compared to this performances in NYC. Although not a terribly long ballet, the role of Apollo requires a dancer of great technical and dramatic ability who can not only partner the muses but draw a story from them. At such an early stage in his career, Finlay can develop into a fine Apollo, but based on what I saw in this performance he was cast in this role prematurely.

The three women faired better and predictably so considering their rank and experience. Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns (Polyhymnia), and Teresa Reichlen are all statuesque, technically able, emotionally mature performers who fit in Balanchine repertory without defining themselves as a "Balanchine ballerina." Kowroski perhaps comes the closest with her 5'9'' frame, luxuriant extensions, pliable feet, and reserved aura. As Terpsichore, she was neither luscious nor dramatically detailed, but that was fine. For other ballets it might not be--her Diamonds I saw failed because of those reasons--but for this role, Kowroski fit the muse of dance with definite, quiet class. The fact that she upstaged Finlay was not her own fault, but rather Finlay's inability to confidently partner her and take it to the next level by drawing out what he could from Terpsichore to come of age. Kowroski's extensions--her "legs that extend to tomorrow," as a critic put it--are absolutely breathtaking and are so suited for Balanchine. Her penchees go to 6:05 and not 6:00. Her developees a la seconde stretch and breathe, and best of all, she has support on her standing leg which makes the impact of her working leg all the more poetic. Terpsichore has a section in the ballet where she is flirtatious in her relationship with Apollo, and this was a place where Kowroski's subtle expressions worked against her. She grasped the surface of this change (albeit a brief one) in her character but never lived it. Her sudden quick footwork in that section was a delight, but not the lack of change through her face. However, this minor foible didn't mare what was a subtle, mature performance from Kowroski. Her dancing had the ability to hold your attention even when you were curious to look elsewhere.

Teresa Reichlen is a diverse dancer, capable of a Rubies tall girl with tangible bite and a seductive Siren in the Prodigal Son. Her Calliope revealed a quieter side to her dancing which at times became too quiet. Like Kowroski, Reichlen has tremendously long limbs which extend to the sky, but at times she struggles to find the full extension and reach of the leg from the get go. A big dancer (meaning by the way she moves), Reichlen was impressive in dancing in a role that didn't cater to that. Promoted to principal in 2009 (and deservedly so), she tackled the fliratious nature of her own role better than Kowroski with hers, and Reichlen's newfound fluidity was a revelation through the first part of the ballet. It was during the finale where she was barely recognizable on stage--her emotion non-existant and her dancing workmanlike. Such weaknesses in a performance are rarities for this expansive, commanding performer.

Sara Mearns has, simply put, one of the oddest dancer bodies I have ever seen. It's difficult to explain, but what stands out is how broad-shouldered she is. Like Reichlen, Mearns is a versatile artist and can be both luscious and daring. As Polyhymnia, she had to be the latter but not at all the former. A strong presence on stage, Mearns oddly didn't have a ton of range in her performance here. In her later performance in Serenade she really built a powerful arc of her dancing, but for this ballet her relatively monochrome presence didn't serve the most committed, intriguing interpretation that she was capable of. Polyhymnia, being the muse of mime, is naturally the most communicative with her emotions of the three muses, and while her presence was engaging it lacked color. Not a ballerina who gives the impression of being capable of fast footwork, she surprisingly succeeds in this department, and this was pivotal as her role demands it. Mearns debuted this role last month (as did Reichlen with Calliope), and both women are at good starting points with their roles with sizeable room to develop.

Serenade followed after the intermission and it was fascinating to see these two works back-to-back. Apollo, created in 1927, is the oldest surviving Balanchine ballet, but Serenade bears the distinction of being his first work created in America. Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" is brilliant but nonetheless quite un-Tchaikovsky--it's a rich, almost frenetic score which bounds in every direction. It's subtle and quietly cheerful in places, but the majority of the score is full-toned with endless speed, drama, and passion. Balanchine put the final touch on the score by switching the third and fourth movements; thus the work ends on a dark, far more poignant note than it would have if the more festive fourth movement concluded the ballet. Serenade is a mysterious, almost incomprehensible work, but therein lies its beauty. While it starts with iconic clarity: the 17 corps women in sixth position with their palm stretched outward, almost as if there was some greater force pulling them, the dramatic conclusion of the principal woman held aloft with hair down and arms curving toward the sky cannot be analyzed through words. Balanchine affirmed that the ballet is really about the dancing and not about some hidden plot or motif, but one can't help but try to draw one, particularly with the cast responsible for it Saturday. The only other company I've seen dance Serenade is Houston Ballet. While Houston Ballet's Serenade was a polished, professionally produced work of dancing, New York City Ballet, spearheaded by Janie Taylor and Sara Mearns, made Serenade a far more haunting work of art.

Sara Mearns and Janie Taylor have been labeled the two most mysterious ballerinas of New York City Ballet, and never is that quality more suited for a ballet than Serenade. They are a world away from the technical spitfires of Ashley Bouder, Megan Fairchild, and Tiler Peck, and they even set themselves apart from the more mature crop of women. None of the other principal women have developed the art of meshing their extroverted and introverted qualities of artistry quite in the manner that Mearns and Taylor did in this ballet. Mearns and Taylor were comparable in that their roles in the ballet were that of passionate but tormented women trapped in an unexplainable predicament.

Taylor, the first of the three principal woman to appear on stage, bursts out and dances in a frenzy--her inbalanced emotion continued even when motionless. Taylor was never happy, never shallow in her feelings, but always in the moment and in the music. The moment she arrives "late for class," when all the women repeat that iconic opening pose and she finds her place only when the women begin to move on, she is filled with trepidation but a certainty that she will find her place and begin. The moment while she stands in sixth position, arm stretched out, while the other women continue, is a rare moment of calm for Taylor in a ballet of which she drives the drama. Taylor's performance wasn't error-free, she had a fall center stage, but it was a completely forgiveable mistake--in fact, it was a welcome one. Her fall, occurring during an ensemble section with the corps, oddly made sense in her performance. Mr. B respected falls--he always loved dancers who dared. While daring isn't the first adjective that comes to mind with Taylor's dancing, what can be said is that she is immensely engrossed in her work. In Serenade, Taylor was such an unsettled character throughout the ballet you almost believed that her falling would happen. Taylor's defiant moment of pulling her hair out of the bun seemed natural. She had developed the rebellious, ambitious yet vulnerable sides of her character so much that once again, it was believable she would break the dance and make her stand to be different.

Mearns was much more sure-footed here. She, too, evoked a mysterious, passionate aura that intensified as the ballet progressed. Her arabesque is unspeakably beautiful--the leg goes well above 90 degrees at its peak but it is never controted. Additionally, the leg, arm, and the back reach, reach, reach to eternity, and her arabesque comes across as dancing even though it is merely a position. Her womanly presence on stage was befitting of the ballet, and she truly seemed to live in the transformation of her character in the final movement with her hair down as well. She, unlike Taylor, doesn't have the moment on stage to create the change in her character by literally going from bunhead to woman, but nevertheless it was seen all the same. The arc of her character built as the ballet went, and she and Taylor both on the same stage made for a chilling rendition of one of Mr. B's finest ballets.

Heading into the final movement, both Mearns and Taylor seemed controlled by the men who they were fearful of (the way they would barely look at them) yet who they also felt protected by (the way they tightly hugged them). Once passionate and searing, Mearns and Taylor became colder, quieter, in the final movement seemingly as a response to the music. One doesn't know how Taylor and Mearns arrived at making this ballet so dark, but the thing is that certain is that they both drew heavily from the music, particularly Taylor. Both women are not the types to dance to the music, but more through it. They don't hit notes sharply but seem to allow the music to be the the foundation of their dramatic auras. The music is rich, grand, even frantic and at times pleasant before ending in a somber, elegiac manner. Both women formulated their dancing based on the tones of the score, not so much the specific notes, a sharp but interesting contrast with what Megan Fairchild deliver as the other principal woman. Indeed, the score is not lightweight in spite of a few places (many of which occur when Fairchild is dancing and not Mearns and Taylor), and both ballerinas extended on the dramatic foundation the music presented. Intensely full-toned, musical performers, Mearns and Taylor are both first rate dancers with the right ballet. Perhaps they don't have the star quality or the virtuoso technical ability of some, but their musicality reigns supreme. Drawing the tones of the music into a performer's body is the sign of a deeply mature performer, which both women showcased here.

Megan Fairchild was the weakest of the three women, and yet she has never looked better. A yawntastic pas de deux girl in Rubies and yawntastic in other works I've seen her in, Fairchild danced with spark and vitality in this ballet which provided a sharp contrast to Mearns's and Taylor's more haunting interpretations. Fairchild is the type to hit notes, but once again, the contrast was there and it worked. Her role is much more independent of the other principal women then Mearns's and Taylor's are with each other and the corps de ballet, so her differences in character and musicality were fitting. Unlike in Rubies and other works, Fairchild danced Saturday afternoon. She didn't just execute steps. She approached the ballet with calm, personable luminance. As mentioned earlier, many of Fairchild's phrases are in the lighter parts of the score; thus the differences between her and Mearns/Taylor were welcome. However, at times the rich parts of the score couldn't be found through Taylor's body; her movement quality, however easy to watch, didn't change throughout the ballet. Unlike Mearns, her hair down in the final movement seemed the consequence of a task and not of a dramatic arc. The score's elegiac undetones didn't transport to her body in the way it did to Mearns and Taylor. Yet it was still a surprisingly elegant showing from a sometimes bland ballerina.

The corps had moments of imprecision--the inclinations of the head were all different at the beginning; the turns of the wrists were similarly varied in speed. Yet when the dancers danced they were quite together, but what was more valuable is that many of the women danced with soul. To have a Serenade that has imperfections but possesses true, tangible soul, is very much an ideal recipe for this ballet, and audiences got it Saturday. The criticism I have of this performance of Serenade is no fault of Mr. B., no fault of the dancers even. It was actually the venue. A dramatically riveting work (especially with this cast), the theater is what really makes this ballet come alive. A setting with birds, sun, and trees detracts from the mood of a ballet which needs a setting in which the stage is the only thing you see. However, the casual setting of the SPAC would work nicely for the final work of the afternoon.

The Magic Flute (done by Martins) is an uncharacteristically fluffy ballet for NYCB. Basically the story goes like this: guy loves girl, but girl's parents don't approve of guy and want her with this Dr. Coppelius reincarnation. Then this mysterious old woman (think Fairy Godmother in Ashton's Cinderella) tells guy he will be with girl if he finds this magical object that will drop from the sky. It is--you guessed it--a magic flute which causes everyone to dance uncontrollably when used. The townspeople become angry at his use of the flute, but a mysterious old woman reveals herself to be a goddess and she informs everyone guy and girl are destined to be together. While the ballet possesses a cheesy plot, Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz were completely believable as the ballet's ruthlessly determined lovers.

I saw Tiler Peck dance Swanhilda two years ago at Saratoga whilst a soloist. Since that time, Peck has been promoted to principal and has truly become a principal dancer. Peck isn't the model of a tutu ballerina--she isn't blessed with long limbs, high-arched feet or a luxurious body line, but what Peck is developing is the mastery of illusion. She has her technical weaknesses, and yet she constantly draws your eyes away from them. Considering her extensions and feet are her weaknesses, qualities in a dancer I'm a sucker for, this is no shallow feat.

In one case, her weakness becomes her strength. Peck simply doesn't have the Sylvie Guillem feet with the massive curvature in the arch and ankle that can bend to "wing" the foot. Yet Peck takes advantage of this, as her inflexible feet give her the ability to stabilized over them during difficult hops en pointe, pirouettes, whatever it may be. Her pointe work has a strength to it that is appealing--it never looks difficult, strained, or choppy. She manipulates her feet to give the audience the sensation that her work en pointe is just as easy as if it were on flat. Peck has lovely pirouettes--on occasion they can be a tad shaky--but she has a nice lift on the supporting leg which again stems from that stabilization of the standing foot. She did these absolutely exquisite pirouettes in the pas de deux where she did two pirouttes in back attitude and the third in front attitude, with De Luz catching her only on the third turn. She was so "on her leg" that De Luz barely had to catch her--in fact, it looked as though he wasn't holding onto her at all. Yet Peck's ability to dance, truly dance, doesn't end with the steps. She has developed a strong sense of comedic timing in these last two years which can develop further but is impressive nonetheless. She is a brash girl in the Magic Flute, very much like Swanhilda. At one point she strikes a pose en pointe, only to duck away when the old man attempts to grab her, causing him to fall. Another time caused her to step back and push forward De Luz, so the old man would kiss De Luz's hand instead. These comedic moments were not merely funny for the sake of being funny, but also for what she brought to them. She was truly a girl in love willing to do anything for it. Her reaction to being with the old man was priceless. Her mother's orders for her to dance with the old man had her walking out of the house in not so much an angry manner but one of complete disbelief. Perhaps at times she was a bit too subtle with the comedy, but she is well on her way to becoming a real force in this department on stage. Add this to her assured technique and she is a dancer with her best years to come.

De Luz, formerly of ABT, almost seems misfit at City Ballet because he is not tall, regal, elegant, but rather a technical spitfire with a spark all his own. His pirouettes turn like a top and balance at the end--he did four or five pirouettes to a triple attitude that went back to passe, and he held that passe for a couple seconds to ecstatic applause. De Luz had strong showing in this performance, but some have said he is past his prime and I can certainly see that, even though I never saw him dance at ABT. His jumps don't have the elevation of some, and his back leg in his coupe jetes droopes considerably. He also doesn't have those immaculate David Hallberg legs and feet, but then who does? Yet he is a rarity among the City Ballet men in that he has an exciting technical vocabulary coupled with a surprising ability to partner. An infectious persona on stage, he assures the audience it's not all about the tricks. He is so short that Peck, one of the shorter principal woman, actually looks tall when paired with him, but he and Peck danced beautifully together. They had great chemistry and showcased a pas de deux with playful aplomb.

Overall, I have seen NYCB performances at Saratoga and a few others in NYC and this was one of the best NYCB performances I've seen. Bravo NYCB!

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MRR, I'm not sure if you've seen "Serenade" before, but in case you haven't, there is a choreographed fall, which precedes the dancer taking down her hair. Like the girl coming in late, it is based upon an incident during the early rehearsals. You can read about the fall and the incidents during Mr. B's choreography of "Serenade" in a number of books including "Balanchine Variations" by Nancy Goldner and "Balanchine's Stories of the Great Ballets," by Mr. Balanchine along with Francis Mason. The 1984 PBS filmed biography of Balanchine shows him discussing the creation of "Serenade" as well.

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MRR, I apologize for assuming that the fall described was the one in the ballet -- you mentioned it near your description of Janie Taylor letting down her (glorious) hair, which "happens" after the choreographed fall.

And thank you, MRR for your very detailed descriptions and critique!

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MRR, I apologize for assuming that the fall described was the one in the ballet -- you mentioned it near your description of Janie Taylor letting down her (glorious) hair, which "happens" after the choreographed fall.

And thank you, MRR for your very detailed descriptions and critique!

No worries, and you are very welcome!

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My comment is very unqualified in this matter (as there are many Tchaikovsky works I have yet to listen to), but I suppose I consider scores from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to be quintessential Tchaikovsky, perhaps because those are the ones I'm most familiar with. I love the score of Serenade, but for some reason I was surprised when I learned that Tchaikovsky had composed it.

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