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City Ballet, 5/22, Firebird and a Debut

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Charles Askegaard and Ashley Bouder gave absolutely exquisite performances in Firebird tonight at City Ballet, with Ashley making her debut in the role in a last minute substitution for Margaret Tracey. It was a magical performance, one of those nights that happen only occasionally and which remind me just how powerful and moving an art form ballet is. Dena Abergel was wonderful as the Bride.

I wish I could convey how good Charles Askegaard was in this role -- his noble, attentive partnering of Bouder, his weighty step, his big and effortless jump and lovely soft plie both in his walk and in his landings; but, above all, the dramatic sense of spellbound wonder that he conveyed in his character. It was a commanding performance from start to finish, as good as I've seen from a man this year at City Ballet.

As for Bouder, I wasn't sure what to expect. The role is so different from the pyrotechnical demands of the solo in La Source with which she made such an impression in January. And she's so young, this being her first year in the company, after been singled out at last years SAB workshop.

But I need not have worried. After some initial jitters in the first few seconds, she settled into a performance which was remarkable for how she held the stage and for its full and compelling dramatic portrayal of the Firebird: The Firebird as the central character in the drama -- a vulnerable, magical creature that she made real, the fitting object of Charles Askegaard's spellbound wonder, and ultimately the joyful rescuer of Askegaard and his bride.

It was a dramatic reading of the role, an instinctive interpretation, that I had not expected -- not only because she is such a young dancer, but because I've never seen that sense conveyed before in a number of performances of this ballet. You could see Ashley "kick into" the character quite noticably when she met Askegaard's eyes, during their first pas de deux, with an achingly beautiful facial expression. Thereafter, she owned the part.

The series of jumps, circling the stage, when she entered to rescue the Prince, were breathtaking. And the seeming eternity on pointe at the end, when she is ultimately alone on the stage -- the long, soft series of pas de bourrees, interspersed with soft, occasional, brushing, pas de chevals -- were simply exquisite. There were some sketchy moments, but not more than one or two. It was not just a remarkable performance from a kid, it was a remarkable performance period.

Enough said. The rest of the program -- Appalachia Waltz with Somogyi et al. and Balanchine's One Act Swan Lake with Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal -- was also very good.

[ 05-22-2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

[ 05-22-2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

[ 05-23-2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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Great review. It's always interesting to hear about debuts, particularly ones that are last minute replacements.

According to Jennifer Dunning's review in the New York Times, Bouder learned the role the day of the performance. I realize that NYCB's repertory is extensive and that dancers are often performing three times in one night, but wasn't there anyone else understudying the role or are there that many dancers out with injuries already? I remember seeing Kyra Nichols perform Firebird and I haven't seen her name up for performances this season. (Not to detract from what sounds like an incredible debut, but I'm wondering if this season is a pivotal one in that the last of the dancers who knew or were picked by Balanchine are phasing out.)

I also know that this is a common occurence at City Ballet and that Balanchine was known for replacing an understudy last minute because he thought that another dancer would be better in the role. Just curious as to what people think and know.

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Originally posted by Bellepoque:

I remember seeing Kyra Nichols perform Firebird and I haven't seen her name up for performances this season.

Kyra Nichols is out on a maternity leave (Best wishes to her!).

Boy, do I wish I had been there Tuesday night. Instead, I got to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the character, not the show) die. Amazing, albeit in a different way. Having seen something else so powerful is the only thing keeping me from doing a lotta crying over spilt milk for not getting to see Ashley's debut. I wonder if she'll perform the part at Sat's matinee... I might just risk it, though it won't be the same as seeing the debut.

Ok. Enough babbling. Haven't been round these parts in awhile, so had to babble a bit.


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I've also seen Kowroski perform that role in the past.

Which I've been thinking about. Maria K is such a big girl, such a Danseuse Noble or Neoclassical type. Ashley Bouder is a different type entirely -- either Demicharacter or possibly Semicharacter Classique in the old classification; perhaps to be called a classical or romantic ballerina in the new, but definitely not of Kowroski's type.

Since this is, par excellence, Maria Talchief's role, what does that say about casting Bouder? I never saw Talchief dance, of course, and don't know how big she was. I've seen tapes but don't really know her style.

In casting Ashley (who did such a beautiful job) was Martins returning to the Talchief type, or casting against it?

Also, after two days the savor of this performance has only grown. I can't forget Bouder's "otherliness" in that last scene; how her character seemed to know what she had done but also not to appreciate it, being of another moral order, and how at the same time the character, during the last long bourree around the stage, seemed to be looking about nervously, sharply, as if there was some physical necessity, quite inhuman (of another order, once again) for her to be aware, to "notice" and scan her surroundings in that way. That was beautiful. The mood at the end was elevated, elegiac, catharctic and a little sad, like that at the conclusion of Wagner's Ring.

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Michael, Firebird was danced by so many different types in Balanchine's day he seems to have had a very broad idea (even different ideas) of the role. Gelsey Kirkland did it as a young teenager; she was called a "hummingbird." Karin von Aroldingen did it, with a rather fantastic costume -- not a tutu; lots of feathers (vague memory).

I never saw Tallchief dance, so I can't place her, but my idea of her was that she was a classique -- this may be laughable to those who did see her; I'm only going from photos, but rather like Makarova.

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Although, there are others who know the role of the Firebird such as Alexopolous. She was scheduled for Dances at a Gathering and couldn't do Firebird as well. The same sort of conflict apparently applied to the other dancers.

I enjoyed Carmena in Four Seasons recently and it is nice to see him getting some other opportunities. I was also happy to see Rutherford cast in Dances and La Valse. And hope to see more of her as well.

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I heard throught he grapevine about Bouder's debut, and I'm glad I made it. I can't add much to Michael's comments -- it was a very strong and moving performance by Bouder, who seemed to be on top of the character, from her striking makeup, floating leaps and her dreamy final bourrees.

It was interesting to compare Bouder's rising star with those of the soloists in Swan Lake -- Jennifer Tinsley and Pascale van Kipnis. There was a time we'd see Tinsley every night, and now her roles are rare. Same with Van Kipnis, who's been scarce since her return from a long layoff due to injury. It was nice to see them, particularly Van Kipnis, but Big Swans are not exactly glamor roles.

While Tinsley is growing stronger and more assured, she's still finding herself in the City Ballet repertory, or, rather Martins is still trying to find a place for her. And so she's a Big Swan. Van Kipnis is the sweet and glowing dancer I remember from before her injury, and I've missed her tremendously. It's good to see her back, even if in such a minor role.

I can't help but see a little morality play here -- the dramatic debut of the new up-and-comer coming right after a couple of former Martins darlings in a "flavors-of-the-month" graveyard. It doesn't seem to take long for Martins to lose interest in many dancers, and sometimes it seems like being made a soloist is the kiss of death.

Anyway, Wendy Whelan was sensational in Swan Lake. She's been having a wonderful season, and if I hadn't already consider her a Goddess of the dance, her recent performances would've left no doubt at all.

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From what I've seen of Tallchief on film and the roles created on her, she strikes me as a solid technician; small and strong. Not that she couldn't do adagio either (Scotch Symphony was made on her, as was Eurydice) but the Firebird variation made on her was considered very difficult. If I recall correctly, it is not done any longer. Firebird is one of Balanchine's ballets that has undergone the most changes since its inception; for a while in the seventies done by Karin von Aroldingen in a costume with a long train that made real dancing cumbersome.

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Guest Devoted2

In contrast to the rave reviews Ashley Bouder has been getting, I would like to point out some reservations I had with her performance. I must admit that I am a bigger fan of the American Ballet Theatre, and always prefer to see a well rehearsed, seasoned ballerina stepping on to the stage to perform a lead role, but this isn't to say that I do not have respect for emerging talents, like Ms. Bouder, to be pushed. Nevertheless, while I was impressed by her ability to execute the difficult steps, especially her impressive grand jete manege, I was left with one lasting impression of her as a young dancer: unfinished. For me it is not enough to have a massive leap and a photographic memory...I need to see a true "ballerina" who is one with the movements and can express herself through the steps, not simply execute them. And if one is to dance the principle role of the firebird, then one must know how to graciously accept the hand of one's Conductor and gracefully lead him on stage. To put a 17 year old into a role like the firebird is exciting, yet inappropriate. I would much rather see Ms. Bouder as one of the four little swans until she can understand the depth of what it takes to be the swan (or firebird).

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I agree with you absolutely. I also know that when your director says that you will do the role and gives you two hours of rehearsal in which to learn it....well, you do the best with what you have.

Two hours + seventeen years do not give one much chance for seasoning, no matter what ballet company you are with.....

I am sure that she is well aware of the need for refining this role ;)

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Guest devoted2

Not to drag on last weeks news, but I just wanted to point out one thing. When I saw Alexandra Ansinelli in her debut season with New York City Ballet, I never questioned her maturity as a professional ballet dancer...even at the age of 16! This girl has natural "ballerina" instincts. It's rare, but it's found. No doubt - Ashley Bouder will have a fabulous career and her talent will take her far, and I do believe that with the proper artisic coaching she will be able to blossom and develop as a true artist.

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Regarding Maria Tallchief's "Firebird"

About 4 years I ago I recorded the music of Firebird for Maria Tallchief's and Michael Maule's silent film of a performance. (This was in connection with the Balanchine Foundation, and the Dance Center at Lincoln Center. I was piano soloist at the NYCB for several years, and worked with Balanchine for about 15 years total. In rel-creating this performance, I worked with the silent movie - and painstakingly put the music with the movement - recording in the Sony Studios in NYC - with the monitor in my line of vision while recording. ) The choreography done for Maria was very different from the later version done for Karin von Aroldingen and Gelsey Kirkland. These tapes are in the Lincoln Center Library (Dance Center) of which Madeleine Nichols is Director. The later version of the dance was less technical - as Karin's costume was more elaborate complete with a long train. Mr. B re-choreographed the entire production at that time.

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Guest hit-5th

For city ballet it isn't about is there anyone to understudy the part. it is mr. martins testing his new company members that he knows has so much potential. i mean the really special young company member like abi stafforrd, andrew veyette, and like ashley bouder these are the dancers that mr. martins test there skills.

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Guest hit-5th

and for the dancers who think that ashley's performance quality was not up to pair this 17 year oold girl who has been in the core for less than a year was told 6hrs before curtain that she was going to be performing firebird. her technique was perfect and i definatley feel that if she performs this role again it will be even better she will be more comfotable about the steps and she will not be nervous and will be able to truly show her amazing talent of not just amazing jumps or pirouettes but her wonderful stage persence and her wonderful ablitity to make the audience happy.

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I certainly agree that Bouder was stupendous in La Source, but that doesn't mean that it is a good idea to push a talent by throwing her on stage in a leading role. I didn't see her Firebird, but have heard that it was very good--but it is still not an ideal or even a halfway decent way to groom a potential ballerina.

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Bouder substituted again for Tracey in Firebird last night. I saw Tracey earlier in the season in this role and frankly I prefer Bouder's commanding presence. There were no jitters whatsoever last night and the audience loved it.

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I was sorry not to be there last night.

It was Bouder's ability to "hold the stage" that was so striking in the first performance.

(I think that some of the talent for holding the stage can be taught, but that the majority of it is innate, simply a gift that certain dancers have, though I would be interested in hearing what dancers and teachers say).

I don't blame Martins for casting her in this. On the contrary, I'm grateful. And unlike other seasons and other dancers, PM is not overusing anyone this spring season. There's no "bit push upwards" for Ashley. She's being used judiciously and she's right for this role.

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