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City Ballet, One Last Nut, January 3d -- Sofiane Sylve

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At the State Theater, this Friday Night, some notes on one last Nutcracker. Before the performance, I was amused to see that the SAB Snowflake who poses for photographs with the audience had run out of trade. It has been a long Nut season this year and I'm nor sure I remember the company dancing five performances of this as late after the holidays as January 3d, 4th and 5th before.

The evening featured an amazingly good company debut by the French Ballerina Sofiane Sylve as the Sugarplum Fairy. But I'll get to that. First some other things to mention.

The dance of the two Toy Dolls, Harlequin and Columbine, has generally not been well performed this year. I've seen 4 performances, mostly by Alina Dronova as the female doll, and boy has it made me miss Elizabeth Walker in this role. Melissa Barak also used to be a wonderful boy doll. This year, all those whom I saw completely lacked the crisp and finished movements and "toy" characterization which the roles require. This little interlude actually seemed to get worse over the course of each viewing.

There were, however, some wonderfully detailed performances in character roles last night, notably James Fayette -- a very good Drosselmeyer who knew just what was expected of him -- and Ellen Bar as the hostess, although Ellen could take more care to actually dance with conviction in those passages where she is called on to do a few steps, as when she dances with Fritz in the first quadrille. That was something that Melissa Walter, whom I miss, always did very well. It is little details like that which carry a performance.

Melissa Barak gave a hilariously deadpan performance as the Grandmother.

Another most amusing moment was when Daniel Ulbricht -- as the toy soldier -- spun to his knee on his last pirouette and proceeded, while kneeling broadly in 4th position, to lose his balance and to keel over forwards, whereupon he stuck out his right hand and proceeded to bounce and balance in a three point stance, while holding his position frozen, looking exactly like a toy solder which has spun off center and is lying half on its side. Bravo. What Aplomb.

Tom Gold was the Best of the Year las the lead Candy Canes.

Re the Snowflakes, to my eyes the Corps de Ballet is at this point very uneven. Elizabeth Walker is still incredibly poetic as the first flake on the stage, and her more experienced corps partners -- Amanda Hankes, Genevieve Labean, as well as newcomers like Megan Fairchild, for example -- look beautiful.

But it seems to me that the the replacement, over the last year, of dancers like Chrissy Schultz, Jessy Henrickson, Melissa Walter, Elena Diner, and Aubrey Morgan with a great many apprentices from the past two SAB classes -- which SAB classes may not really have been that "deep" in talent -- has not exactly been a gain of strength for the company, At any rate, it has resulted in a situation where the corps is two tiered and, while you have some very strong dancers who perform beautifully at a professional level, you also have a few people who look tense and scared and overmatched, and some very few others who to my eye have not yet proven that they consistently belong on the professional stage at all.

The children in the Cast have, as one might expect, improved greatly over the course of these fifty or so performaces. Tonight's Marie and Nephew were Meiying Thai and Shimon Ito, who performed very well. Shimon Ito has now progressed from the Role of Fritz the past two seasons to that of the Nephew this year and he showed beautiful presence and elegance. I was most impressed by how the two of them actually "danced" their performance when called upon to do so, as in the Grandparent's dance. Thai and Ito were very elegant and musical. Balanchine's steps here for the children, as with his choreography for the Polchinelles, is very simple yet very beautiful.

But to Sofiane Sylve as the Sugarplum Fairy. The appellation "Ballerina" is quite correct here. She is something special. I find I have become an instant fan. It was a most memorable, indeed exciting performance which reminded me just how much Act II requires a strong, exciting rendition of the Grand PDD to succeed dramatically. Tonight it was alive and spontaneous, calling down the loudest applause at the curtain I've heard in the house this fall.

A thumbnail impression of Sylve: Tall, I would guess about 22 or 23 years old, of regular proportions, with strikingly big, warm eyes and a hungry (almost Russian) expression, very athletic and muscular (but not overly so), about the size and build of Jenny Somogyi without the bulked up shoulders, with thighs as strong as Ashley Bouder's, possessing very strong, long feet with high arches. Noticeably European in her training, with a beautiful forward placement, and especially a soft romantic epaulement and porte de bras. She uses her arms and hands very gracefully, holds the stage extremely well (even dominates it), is absolutely secure technically, is one of the most solidly centered turners you will ever see, seems to just sit up there and be able to choose whatever she wants to do and do it, has a sharp attack in allegro, finishes her steps, has a very big jump (perhaps as explosive as Bouder's), good musicality, striking stage presence, even Star Quality. A big extension and arabesque but does not indulge in Sylvie Guillem-like (or Maria K-like) abuse of it. Whew. That's quite a bundle. If she was a bit cautious in the two unsupported arabesques in the first passage, where her partner has to rush in and catch her by the wrists at the last moment -- actually she started them by reaching to Askegaard for support before she began the dive -- she was dancing an unfamiliar role on an unfamiliar stage. Go Sunday Afternoon, I certainly intend to. Where do they make them like this, certainly they don't breed them up here this way.

One other thing -- Carrie Lee Riggins has developed into a wonderful Marzipan Shepherdess this season. Her performance too was worth the evening. She was not only very detailed and clear in the fine footwork, but concluded with, I must say unleashed the rangiest, most explosive series of Gargouillades you ever want to see.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, much to my disappointment Miranda Weese did not dance and was replaced by Ansanelli. (Not that I mind Alexandra -- she was fine -- but I was so looking forward to seeing Weese again. Did she dance last Sunday by the way?)

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Thank you , thank you for the wonderful report, Michael -- for those of us 3000 miles away, it's fantastic to get such a vivid portrait of the evening, and of the ballerina in particular....

I certainly agree with you about hte importance of characteristic dancing in the first act (which I think is one of he greatest things Balanchine ever did -- it's so poetic, so deeply imagined, and in all hte smallest, finest details -- such as hte mother's dancing with Fritz, and getting caught when hte arches come down, and the Prince's cutting off the Mouse-king's crown and crowning Marie with it, and then hte bed's begining to move like an ice-floe in an invisible river and carry them into the white white crystalline world)

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Sylve was indeed big, strong and refined. I did find her entrance, bourreeing in behind the angels, and much of her solo to be very impressive technically, but with a flat affect, and in many places throughout the act she seemed a bit stiff and ill-at-ease, relying on her beautiful, Russian-style technique to carry her through places where a bit of wit, charm or drama were called for. Perhaps it was opening-night nerves, but she didn't seem to really blossom to me until the coda of the pas de deux, where her space-devouring turns around the stage were a marvel. Suddenly the State Theater looked too small! And, although she didn't have an opportunity to replicate that fouette/pirouette combination from the Internet video clip which has made so many jaws drop, she's clearly a very, very strong turner. I also thought she (and Askegard) handled the jumps to the shoulder-sit better than I'd seen them so far this season (although I won't soon forget Taylor's amazing suicide-leap towards Marcovici anytime soon!).

She works well with Askegard, and I can only imagine the look of sheer delight on his face wasn't entirely characterization. Sylve looks much, much easier to partner than Kowroski: Sylve's tightness and strength, compared to Kowroski's looseness and comparative weakness.

It will be interesting to see how well, or, rather, if, Sylve's very proper and precise European stage manner will blend with NYC's more uninflected and spontaneous style. Certainly the difference in deportment between the ultra-controlled Sylve and the effervescent and quite fearless Ansanelli couldn't have been more marked, although there's no doubt Sylve has much greater technique and polish.

I have been depressed to notice how often too many of the corps girls seem bored out of their minds, or perhaps just exhausted, throughout this Nutcracker run. The ballet's finale has been the rather flat and joyless, not at all the "applause machine" Balanchine built so cleverly so many years ago.

I have been seeing way too many Nuts this season -- I should just make a scorecard or something. I happened to think Ulbricht's Candy Canes were the best, although Gold's can't be faulted except that he should smile a teeny bit more. Although I'm fond of Riggins in many things, it was only the front leg of her gargouillades that impressed; the back leg just sort of trailed behind like an afterthought, and I don't think Riggins even tried to sketch out the little rond de jambe that trailing leg needs to execute -- remember how big Merill Ashley would make both legs' circles in Theme and Variations? Or Gelsey Kirkland?

While the corps didn't exactly cover themselves in glory in Snowflakes, I can't really fault them -- I have to lump last night's performance with too many of the Nutcrackers I've seen which have been mauled by conducting which has been just plain indifferent or downright oblivious. I remember Fiorato just plain ruined Whelan's first Sugar Plum with his rushed tempi. The adagio was all hurry, hurry, hurry, and with Whelan, that lyrical dancer par excellence, you need to give her the time to make each step blossom. (Just like Quinn ruined Whelan's Swan Lake a few years ago, or Boal's first Oberon last Spring.) I don't think Fiorato was even looking at the stage! Compare this with Cleve's sensitive handling of Whelan in Mozartiana last year, where he actually watched her, and slowed down parts of her solos and adagio appropriately. It've very rare these days that one senses that there's much of any partnership between the dancers and the conducter at NYCB.

And last night! Maybe we should all pitch in and buy Andrew Quinn a Tivo so she doesn't have to rush to make it home in time for whatever 10 pm show that seems to be on her mind. Last night's was certainly the most "quick-before-it-melts" Snowflakes I've ever seen, and the Flowers were waltzing under a very high-intensity grow-light indeed. Does Quinn notice how horribly she rushes the dancers? Does she care? Poor Ansanelli, whom I saw in a terrific Dewdrop the second night of the run, never had a chance. You could almost see her realizing at the height of one of her big saute de chats that she'd be late by the time she landed, and that to keep up with Quinn's manic tempi (perhaps she was giving us John Philip Sousa's long-lost Snowflake's March and Mazurka of the Flowers?) she'd just have to make everything smaller, quicker, and, unfortunately, sketchier. This was the Devil's choice too many dancers had to make last night, and I'm frankly rather impressed that the Snowflakes girls held it together as well as they did last night.

After the curtain calls were over and I'd emerged onto the very rainy plaza, I looked at the big clock across the street to see it was still a minute short of 10 pm! Yikes.

Anyway, I will probalby see Sylve again Sunday afternoon, and I'm sure there will be a lot of eyes paying very close attention to her fouettes when she does the last movement of Western Symphony next week.

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