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NYCB Tchaikovsky Festival - 5/25

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My apologies to Alexandra about cross-posting this. It seems that people have a problem getting to alt.arts.ballet - but I will only post long reviews there if that's your preference.


Bodies and soul - NYCB Tuesday May 25, 1999

The curtain opened for the Tchaikovsky Festival on a group of students in simple blue tunics where we are used to the corps de ballets in Serenade. Students from the School of American Ballet performed the beginning of the first movement up to the point where the "Dark Angel" (Helène Alexopoulos) entered. This has been done before by the company, and it's quite effective, and even poignant. Those simple tunics do not produce the gasp from the audience that the long blue tulle skirts, gently fluorescing in that almost lunar light, do. They emphasize the touching youthfulness of the students, and the transition from student to dancer is a very large part of what Serenade is about. There are the stories of love, loss and destiny within, but there's more. It's about the sisterhood of the corps, it's about training and it's about classical ballet. The students were rehearsed punctiliously, (by Suki Schorer, I think) and though they look so very young, they look quite ready to dance professionally. It's a good, but varied crop, they're not all a single body type or proportion, but as one might guess, they all have beautiful legs and feet.

The company took over the duties from the students seamlessly, and one could see the soul of the company as they danced. The Festival made me realize how relieved I was that Swan Lake is over and done with. Here is the company in Serenade, Mozartiana and Suite No. 3; here they are in their birthright. The soul of the company resides in their legs and feet; in their fleet avidity of movement, in their speed in extending and retracting their legs both à terre and en l'air, in their full tilt attack. It doesn't look like other companies and it needs to be accepted on its own terms. It's not an acting company, it's not a uniform company (although there is a uniformity of style, it just isn't the Petipa style of Swan Lake) but the commitment they bring to dancing Tchaikovsky lets you, as Balanchine said, "see the music, hear the dance."

Jenifer Ringer debuted as the "waltz girl." It is heartening to see her keep recovering her form. She's at a good performing weight, and this is a wonderful role for her. As the dance went on, more and more we got to see again the fluid port-de-bras and breath in the upper body that made her special. She also hit the right balance of drama without "acting" that works for this ballet. One only hopes she is cast frequently, the worst thing for her right now would be inactivity. Her partner, Charles Askegard, also debuted and treated her with his usual solicitous care.

When Darci Kistler was slated to do Mozartiana, I held my breath. It's one of her great roles, but after the Swan Lake episode, one wondered if she would actually be back onstage this season, one felt surprise and apprehension even as the curtain rose to reveal her standing benevolently among her four child attendants. Watching Kistler, one is pulled this way and that. Her body is racked by injury. She can no longer go deep into her lower back in arabesque, it's all in her upper back and torso, and it looks as if she's in pain. Turns are hit and miss. But there is something about her, something in her soul that communes with Tchaikovsky and Balanchine in the opening Preghiera. She arches her torso heavenwards and one senses the shaft of light illuminating her. The variations in Mozartiana are often done with a very emphatic phrasing, especially at the end of a phrase. Kistler never bothers; she just does it absolutely on the music, never giving a fake value to any phrase. She is subtle, and deadly accurate. And she can fill a stage, even when she is standing still and we see nothing but the internal motion of her broad, expressive back. Even in her limited state, there is no mistaking her for anything other than a ballerina. Besides the new crop of children (they are always good, and they are used with mastery in this ballet), I find the Menuet for the corps ladies to be one of the most fascinating elements of the work, and usually overlooked. The dance isn't that different at first glance from other Balanchine dances, but there is something slightly sinister about its black costumes and its imperturbable politeness. One senses that these ladies (and they are ladies, not girls in this dance) would not pause in this courtly dance even if disaster were threatening; they simply couldn't possibly be bothered.

The Élégie from Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 is not a great piece of choreography, although it is certainly a heartfelt one, but it pulls a great performance out of Monique Meunier. The role is not danced on pointe, and is more of an acting role, one that is usually done with a certain dusky glamour, but Meunier invests far more. She turns around to reveal herself to her partner (Rob Lyon) from among the crowd of identically dressed women and even from the fourth ring, one is shocked by the vibrancy of her presence. One feels as if one is looking at more than a dancer, it's a larger than life theatrical presence, a great actress, a tragedienne, a Star. The sense of tragedy and abandon that informs her performance is what she brought to her performance of Odette, and what made it so moving. Although the choreography isn't demanding, Meunier makes it so, she's fully committed to every moment, right until she backs away from him to leave. She isn't just leaving, she goes from being a specific to an archetype, she's standing in for every woman who's ever loved someone and had to leave him.

It's interesting to see how Tchaikovsky bares the souls of the dancers, and exhibits the essential variety of temperaments that make up the company. Ringer is atypical of the company, and the more special for it. Meunier's recent performances make me think Joan Acocella's arguments for Meunier's potential as the "spiritual queen" of the company have far more potency than I originally allowed them. But I don't know if she can inhabit the center of the Balanchine repertory, not because she isn't capable of it. The one element that distinguishes her from dancers like Farrell or Kistler is that she isn't passive, and that is much more part of the mystique of Balanchine's women than anyone would like to admit. Meunier doesn't inhabit the choreography, she shapes it. She's nobody's muse.

The Valse Mélancolique is as healthy a role for Kathleen Tracey as the Élégie is for Meunier, but for a different reason - the Élégie plays into Meunier's inherent sense of drama, the Valse brings out of Tracey a darker side we usually don't get to see, and it's attractive. She seems to sense the difference between it and the rest of her repertory, it shows in the attack she gives it, she differentiates it from her other role, there's more she does with her back. Within a company of dancers with gorgeous legs, one learns by its rarity just how magical an expressive and powerful back can be. It anchors the performance, it's what displaces space, while the legs cut through it. It's how we know the dancer was there.

Miranda Weese exhibits a different side of both Tchaikovsky's and Balanchine's soul. It isn't as dreamily romantic, but it's part of the bedrock of the company and the repertory; the virtuoso triumphant. To shortchange it is to misunderstand the repertory. Miranda Weese is such an allegro dancer that she tends to keep her back very slightly rigid, but oh, those magnificent surgical legs. Those accurate needles are the best around; no one can match her for speed and intrepid courage. She took both of her variations at dangerously fast tempos, and we can see the risks she takes, and that she's got the technique and the iron will to prevail. It's not a legato performance, but that's not the nature of Theme and Variations, even in its adagio, which is studded with fiercely technical steps. She gives the legato elements their due, and doesn't ignore them, but they're not her natural bent. She gives a watertight and imperious performance. Damian Woetzel gave one of his more decadent performances as her partner, he looked as if his preparation for this treacherous role might have consisted entirely of a shower. But he still pulls technique out from nowhere, even when he looks uninterested. One senses that at that level of ability, the difficulty lies not within doing the steps, but in keeping one's commitment. It's easier when there are still obstacles to overcome. One senses the links to Sleeping Beauty in Theme, the lead role, like Aurora, is a princess. Still, as Weese etched out another beautiful attitude line or petit rond de jambe like acid on a steel plate, one sensed in her performance the thought. "OK. I'm not queen yet, but when she goes, I'm in charge. And let me tell you, things around here are going to *change*."


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Beautiful!! Leigh, more reviews like you've written above are not only welcome, they will now be expected! Please don't just post them on alt.arts.ballet!! I have resisted trying to get to that site because my day is just too short as it is. Can we put in orders for the next review? Maybe "Snow Maiden" !!

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No apologies necessary, Leigh. My hesitancy about the crossposting was simply because of the bandwidth consumption problem. We have a lot of long, long, long posts and, in web language, that's bandwidth. It's not a problem now; we're not near the limit. If it does become one in the future, I'll let you all know smile.gif

Can't wait for your review of the "Snow Maiden"!


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Wonderful review. You tell a reader everything he/she wants to know. I do have a question about your use of "passive" to describe the Balanchine muse, and Farrell and Kistler specifically. Farrell "passive"?

I can think of a lot of adjectives to describe her, but passive isn't one of them. It's true that a muse's relation to the artist is by definition passive -- the muse inspires, the artist creates -- but within that definition there's a lot of room for the right muse. In many Balanchine ballets , the woman's independence is magnified -- she's not manipulated, on the contrary the man has all he can do to hold on to her. I may be taking you too literally. Thanks again for the review!

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It's harder for me to talk with any authority on Farrell than on Kistler - my real viewing of the company began in 1983, I only saw Farrell at her peak on tapes.

If this makes any sense, I meant passive in reference to their position in the act of interpretation of choreography, and more obnoxious of me still, it's a subjective call. To me, Kistler looks as if she isn't thinking at all about what she does. I know that isn't true, but it seems as if the choreography possesses her, she merely channels it. It's that sort of rare and strange passivity - like an ecstatic vision of a mystic - to which I refer. Actually, Catholic literature on recognition of beatific visions as opposed to those of satanic origins states that holy visions are accompanied by a passivity as the body is filled with the holy spirit, but I am going WAY off on a tangent here! However, in a less grandiosely religious way, I'm talking about that type of possession.

Regarding actual passivity, my main experience watching Farrell is watching her do Agon on tape (a 1965 tape (Dance:USA - she did the pas in a truncated version with Mitchell and a tape from the late '70s with Martins) Agon can give one a false impression of a dancer because she's supposed to be passive in the pas de deux (Balanchine to Mitchell during the original setting of the work, "She's like doll. You move her.")

In the 1965 tape, the younger Farrell had a similar innocence to Kistler (Meunier is also not an innocent, and I do think that's also a quality of Balanchine's Muses - I think another exemplar of the type I'm thinking about might be Allegra Kent?) But Kistler can be actually physically passive. In Agon, she tends to seem unaware of her partner, and it makes her seem as provocatively remote as fog. Farrell seemed aware of Mitchell, but innocent of the effects she could cause. A lot of this child-like quality was lost by the late '70s.

Does that explicate things or muddle them? I'd love to hear more about Farrell and Kent from those who saw them live. I can only write about them through extrapolation. Their special qualities even come through on tape, but they must have been something to see.

Hmm. Balanchine's Muses. Perhaps this is another thread?

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited May 27, 1999).]

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