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'Modern Masters'


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the spring mixed repertory program at Houston Ballet--

Merrill Ashley must have slightly mixed feelings about staging 'Ballo della Regina.' She knows of course that no one can ever be what she was in this ballet (and having seen lots of 'Ballos' including several with Ashley, I say this with some confidence.) and she, being intelligent, knows that one cannot ask that of anyone. However, the brilliance and joie de vivre required to give even a good performance of this ballerina role are rare enough that some of the dancers Ashley herself has coached in the part were utterly unequal to the task (most recently Natalia Arja at Miami City Ballet, who left out several steps and simplified others---which it is hard to believe Ashley countenanced or approved.) No company director, and certainly not Ashley, gives a killer Balanchine role to a complete weakling, but for every Elizabeth Loscavio and Marianela Nunez and Lorna Feijoo (all sublime) there have been just as many dancers whose inadequacy was extremely embarrassing.

Fortunately, on this occasion, the dancer was more than equal to the task and seemed to have absorbed every iota of Ashley's wonderful coaching. Allison Miller, a soloist with HB, had such palpable delight in virtuosity--such lovely open carriage--such huge jumps--such marvelous Balanchinean angles and placement-- and such a scale to her dancing, that her wonderful performance was up there with all the aforementioned goddesses. Her opening pas de chat set this tone, and she continued it through her entire performance; the horrendously difficult hops (and turning hops) en pointe were scintillating, the double pirouettes into pique arabesque were great, and she conveyed happiness in every step. All the dancers were good in this 'Ballo'; Oliver Halkowich was elegant and poised in his beats and supportive but discreet as a partner (he and Miller gave the impression that she didn't REALLY need his support but it was such a pleasure for them to dance together that it needed to happen) and the four demis all had tremendous verve, particularly Soo Youn Cho and Katelyn May, another big jumper.

I am pretty much of Alistair Macaulay's opinion on 'Jardi Tancat': why? As he says, the vein was mined out years ago, and I find this ballet tedious and derivative at best and soporific at worst. The hideously over-loud and distorted sound precluded sleep in this case (Catalan folk singing really does not take to over-amplification....) The cast here was excellent, particularly the sterling Christopher Coomer who shines in every part, large or small (and should have been a principal years ago) so instead of snoring I admired their strong dancing and commitment.

"Etudes." well. This ballet is nothing if not schtick: the cutesy lighting scheme showing only the dancers' feet and then legs for some time before finally revealing their entire figures, the score which is entirely Czerny (and orchestrated, shall we say, peculiarly...), the black and white tutus, etc. I guess it's a great workout for a company (everyone has to DANCE, and jump, and turn--there is a passage where half the company does grands jetes on the diagonal, one at a time.....) and of course audiences love it because it's flashy. The principals (Katharine Precourt, Aaron Robison, and Chun Wai Chan) were never less than good, sometimes excellent, but did show the strain of the constant ludicrous technical demands (the passage where Robison's role has to do multiple double tours alternating with double sauts de basque with zero preparation or rest in between, for example) In ballet, the stuggle to appear effortless in difficult physical feats is titanic even when the choreography has other ends beside display; in something like 'Etudes', cruelly, any slight appearance of effort or strain is even more glaring because there sure ain't nothin' goin' on but technique. Precourt is a wonderful dancer who has been superb in everything from 'Faune' to 'Paquita' to 'The Concert' to the Tall Girl in "Rubies'; her carriage and aplomb are naturally regal and she will no doubt improve with successive performances (this was her first). She had a couple of huge jetes which looked like Bessmertnova or Kolpakova. Robison has a heroic jump and huge determination and tenacity in difficult passages, and Chan an ease and nonchalance which are very promising. The company acquitted itself more than honorably in a lot of hard dancing and it was a pleasure to see them all.

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abatt, I did see Bouder do Ballo (sadly, she does not seem to be doing it of late--another acquisition for Megan Fairchild which does not suit her) and thought she was excellent. The dash and sparkle imperative here are Bouder specialties. Of course, in the present NYCB, I'd cast Bouder nearly exclusively in every technical role Balanchine ever made, alternating only with Tiler Peck and perhaps Ana Sophia Scheller on occasion--Ballo, Square Dance, Rubies (she's good in Verdy's role but the company HAS no other Rubies ballerina but Peck, who almost never dances it), Raymonda V., Donizetti V, Tschaik Pas, Valse-Fantaisie, Tarantella, the allegro ballerina in Divert, Theme and Variations, etc. ad infinitum. It's a shame, for example, they do not do the third movement of Western now--Bouder's jump was made for that. and of course, imagine her in Minkus PdT, GLINKA PdT (both of which Martins has not bothered to put on since the Balanchine Celebration over twenty years ago, though they are among Balanchine's most dazzling and perfect showpieces.)! I realize Bouder has at one time or another performed all of the aforementioned roles but she usually alternates in them (most glaringly in Square Dance) with dancers extremely unsuited to such demands, which forces invidious comparisons. It's like seeing (which I did) the lapidary Frances Chung in Theme one night and Maria Kochetkova the next--horrifying.

Sorry for the excursion, lol, but it *was* in response to a question... bingham, not even the sublime Kyra Nichols compared to Ashley in Ballo, nor did any of the goddesses I mentioned, though every one of them was superb. Ashley had a technical faultlessness combined with not brio but FIRE which in person was slightly frightening and completely breathtaking.

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Thanks for the report. I never saw Merrill Ashley in Ballo. However, I was wondering if you have seen Ashley Bouder at NYCB do the role, and how you think she compared to Merill.

I don't think anyone can compare to Merrill Ashley, IMO.

I haven't seen Bouder do Ballo but judging from Square Dance (where I saw both Ashley and Merrill) I,too, don't think anyone that quite tops Merrill. Ashley comes pretty close though (as SZ says, it's Merrill's great turnout and legs like sharp scissors that distinguish her), as well as her proportions (longer looking legs).

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