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Late Works (2/6, 2/8 Matinee, 2003)

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Apologies in advance - this was so long I thought it best to not dam up the Week Five thread with my verbosity.

Late Works – February 6 and 8 (matinee), 2003

Injuries and illness caused Ballade to be substituted for Burleske on Saturday matinee, resulting in a nearly identical program to Thursday night (Kammermusik No. 2 on Thursday was done as opposed to Chiaroscuro on Saturday matinee.) Interesting that all the Balanchine works were among his latest, the earliest being Who Cares, made in 1970 when Balanchine was 66. They give us the portrait of an artist as a very young old man.

Mozartiana, made in 1981 in Balanchine’s 77th year, was, like other works here, a return, but only of a sort. Balanchine worked with the Tchaikovsky suite for Les Ballets 1933, and revised that version for his dancers from the School of American Ballet the year later and the more than a decade later for the Ballets Russe. The work he made for Suzanne Farrell partnered by Ib Andersen in 1981 does not visit familiar territory; there are children in the cast, and the order of the movements has been altered to suit his purposes. For those of us hoping to grow old well, it offers tremendous encouragement – there’s no diminishing of craft or inspiration. It’s a ballet that encompasses so much in its small cast, we get every stage of life and so many of its activities set before us; youth, flirtation, maturity and even ruminations on the unknown, what is to come and what we cannot know. It’s rich enough to show us new details on every viewing in its smallest corners. These times, I pondered the relationship of the children to the ballerina. When she leaves the stage after the Preghiera, she leaves first, and then the children follow her. Is it because they’re not children to be protected, but her attendants to protect her rather than the seeming opposite, or is it simply like a mother duck trailed by her ducklings?

Kyra Nichols gave a fine performance on Thursday night, but on Saturday matinee gave us as good a Nichols experience as one can ask for, a match of musicality and control and one suffused with womanly authority. Even when flirting with her partner as he presented her for the variations she did so graciously; it was a ritual of charm, not a moment of mischief. Philip Neal also had a particularly good consistent performance at the matinee, but the current cast of children looked under-rehearsed; they were having trouble with both the spacing and the timing. In the Gigue, Daniel Ulbricht has a good mental understanding of the role, but Balanchine made the role on Victor Castelli with Christopher d’Amboise as his understudy (he performed it first due to an injury to Castelli). The man in the Gigue balances the partner in the theme and variations, and I object to the Mutt and Jeff casting tradition here that started with Gen Horiuchi after Balanchine’s death. Ulbricht is a talented dancer, but I worry that his muscularity and proportions (even more than his height) may back him into a corner in the repertory.

Balanchine never used Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2 before 1978 (he had just turned 74 before the premiere) but there’s a sense of review in it as well; to quote Arlene Croce as I have many times about this work, he created “a modern antique”. Balanchine is revisiting the 1920s, an era of physical culture and Futurism, jazz and eurhythmy. There are links to his earliest works like Prodigal Son in the male corps de ballet and in the contortions of the two enigmatic pas de deux.

The work got a crackling performance on Thursday night and I got my first glimpse of Sofiane Sylve, a French guest artist currently at the Dutch National Ballet. From a single viewing, she bears promise of fitting in nicely. Kammermusik is an excellent ballet for her; she’s strong, broad shouldered, loose-limbed and healthy; a “physical culture” ballerina. She takes the role Colleen Neary originated and Monique Meunier was given in her final season with the company, but where Maria Kowroski and Meunier looked like they belonged in different ballets, so different was their mental approach to the ballet, Sylve and Kowroski look like they’re thinking with similar brains.

Ballade was made in 1980 for Merrill Ashley at a time when Balanchine was more physically infirm than others (he was recovering from heart surgery; Ashley’s book Dancing for Balanchine describes the circumstance and creation in detail). It was considered problematic and negligible in its time and has been out of repertory for a decade. One can see Ashley and “her steps” in it, the soaring jété to enter, the iconic balance à la seconde he gives her in the pas de deux that slowly turns to come off balance, but never really goes off balance as it might have for a dancer like Suzanne Farrell. All these appear previously in Ballo della Regina, even the first entry of the corps two by two to begin is a whiff of the earlier work’s coda. You can see how the slipper was made to fit her, and how it was shaped on her last.

Jenifer Ringer’s performance on Thursday (disclaimer - I was starting to succumb to sleep deprivation when watching at that point) seemed more imitative of Ashley though her challenges as a dancer come from the opposite end. Ringer is an adagio dancer who has used allegro roles to firm up and sharpen her dancing; Ballade seems made for Ashley for the opposing reason. Still, even in her first jété in, you saw her springing into it the way Ashley would have. Wendy Whelan has her own conception of the role, and deliberately softened the jump on the matinee. Her performance was very fine; it’s an exhausting but rewarding ballerina role and its compact length would make it a great piece for each woman to turn into her own vehicle. I hope they spread the role around and give it to dancers like Weese, Somogyi and Ansanelli to see where they place the balance between technique and drama. At both performances, Robert Tewsley partnered and danced well. He’s not completely in the style yet; he gets stuck in quick changes of direction, but he is truly a welcome addition to the company, and may offer a fresh outlook on repertory we find familiar. On a more sensitive subject, Whelan is looking painfully thin onstage. There can be any number of reasons for this, but she and the company need to take good care of her; she’s far too valuable to be looking so frail.

Who Cares again looks back to the jazz age, and the Broadway tradition that nurtured George and Ira Gershwin. It’s fertile ground for Balanchine, he had his first unqualified professional successes in America not in concert dance, but on Broadway at a time when ballet was the base technique for show choreography and ballet dancers performed on Broadway to make ends meet.

The company fielded two casts of principals. They greatest compliment I can pay is I couldn’t recommend one over the other, I’d just suggest seeing both. Miranda Weese makes a welcome return to her demanding roles. Her body is more curved than it was before her injury, and she seems to be working with this instead of against it. Her sophistication and intelligence is feminine, she might as well look like a woman. There’s experience and sophistication in her approach, in “The Man I Love”, when she falls back towards her partner across the stage she does it like a woman who has been looking for The Man I Love before and knows that not every affair has a happy ending. But along with the sophisticated femininity there’s still the sharp timing she has always had and the alacrity and looseness in turns. I can’t say how delightful it is to have her back. Ringer, in the same part, just keeps getting better. Her take on the role at the matinee was goofier and more delightful than ever, and her timing and control had the audience smiling and laughing knowingly. I have never thought of her as a witty dancer, but here, she acts like Margot Fonteyn caught in a Harlem boîte. She knows jazz is not her natural habitat nor is its timing natural to her, but frankly my dear she couldn’t give a damn. She throws herself into the part and wins us over on her sheer delight in the situation. Between Janie Taylor and Pascale van Kipnis in “Stairway to Paradise”, I marginally prefer van Kipnis’ warm confidence and authority to Taylor’s avid physicality, but to place Alexandra Ansanelli and Jennie Somogyi in the same role is to get a bonus, because it becomes almost an entirely different ballet. Somogyi’s take on “My One and Only” is based on her unnaturally confident aplomb in turns; you never worry for a second she might not make it and neither does she. Ansanelli is also a turner and does crisp, quick double fouettés; her natural turning style seems faster, sharper and closer to her axis than Somogyi’s. Somogyi radiates confidence and strength; Ansanelli is also a warm dancer, but vulnerable both emotionally and physically. If the two become doppelgangers in repertory that’s not such a bad thing for all concerned, including the audience. We’ll learn a great deal from seeing these two interpret the same roles.

There’s been talk of female weakness at the company, I admit I’m not seeing it. With Weese back and Whelan consistently forming the backbone of repertory (and suddenly Nichols making an Indian summer return right to the center of repertory – with Chaconne, Davidsbundlertänze and Mozartiana we’re seeing more of her than we have in years) and with dancers like Ansanelli, Somogyi, Ringer and others to back them up; the company will regret losing Kistler and Nichols painfully when they leave, but I’m not worried about the future.

Chiaroscuro is now nine years old and one of the most durable of the Diamond Project works for several good reasons. The work is soundly crafted and the dancers seem to love doing it. Its emotional darkness helps to enlarge a repertory more tilted towards sunlight, and it gives the dancers another side of themselves to explore. Its dramatic lighting and beautiful décor (a series of panels by Michael Zansky) give the audience something different to look at as well. And yet, I think it’s a flawed work at the core, because it doesn’t walk the tightrope between dance abstraction and narration sure-footedly. As beautiful and emotionally pungent as the La Follia concerti are (by Geminiani after Corelli) Lynne Taylor-Corbett wants to cram more narrative into her choreography than it can hold. We get emotional sketches painted with a broad, bold brush; this man is conflicted, this woman is sad, and so on, but we have no idea how, and further we have no conventions or traditions she’s referencing to help us fill in what she doesn’t give us. When Balanchine sends a man alone in a loose-sleeved shirt to circle the stage, we’ve seen him before and we say “poet” to ourselves. When a woman comes out, the situation can continue from there, we don’t need backstory. You can accept the situation of Chiaroscuro for what it is, a landscape of the situation of these dancers on this stage at this time, but it’s impossible to take the gestural choreography she gives and look at it abstractly if the emotions are insufficient. For me there just isn’t enough. The dancers however, including all the men (Jock Soto, James Fayette and Tom Gold) from the original cast, made a committed and inspiring case for the ballet.

[and warm wishes for a speedy recovery to our homebound Ballet Alertnik!]

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I was also struck last week when I saw Kammermusik and Ballade back to back. Neither is top drawer Balanchine but his minor masterpieces now look like major works.

Whelan and Tewsley led Ballade. I didn't find much chemistry between them. And as Leigh said, Tewsley doesn't yet have the ease in transitions that marks some one completely comfortable in Balanchine's choreography. I was surprised by Whelan's performance - it was one long breath, almost too uninflected. But she has discovered how to make herself a convincing adagio dancer.

Croce’s review talks about how everything in the ballerina's role is presented to us obliquely and one could certainly see that in Whelan's performance.

Kammermusik looked great, I enjoyed the contrast between Kowroski and Sylve. But I felt that Sylve missed some of the wit of Colleen Neary's original performance.

It was great to see both of these ballets again. The other ballet's last Sunday were Jeu de Cartes and Piano Pieces.

Piano Pieces's return is welcome. Robbins may not be the genius Balanchine is but I enjoyed the graciousness of this piece, something that is missing from some contemporary choreography. Kowroski looked great in the role originated by Calegari and Millepied was terrific. I was rather disappointed in Ansanelli's performance in her pdd with Marcovici - she didn't look her best, seemed a little awkward. Somoygi was lovely and commanding - as always.

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Leigh, on Who Cares?:

They greatest compliment I can pay is I couldn?t recommend one over the other, I?d just suggest seeing both.

Perhaps among the women, but there was all the contrast in the world between the men! Nilas Martins (in the Weese/Somogyi/Taylor cast), who continues to prove himself a cypher in both senses of the word, once again looked to be waiting to punch out his timecard at the end of the day. To say he phoned in his solo would be an insult even to Verizon -- perhaps he was using two tin cans and a string. Martins is puzzling. He's clearly a well-trained dancer and a strong and careful partner, yet I wonder if he has figured out what he'd like to be when he grows up, 'cause it sure ain't being onstage.

Charles Askegard's debut (with Ringer/Ansanelli/van Kipnis) was so delightful, I had to wonder why he hadn't been cast in it long before. He was very much the giddy Midwestern lad thrilled to be on the town with such a trio of big-city ladies, and responded to each in turn with the attention and appreciation so missing from Martins' workmanlike partnering. Askegard, a formidable turner under any circumstances, brought down the house with his ebullient solo, and, if his portrayal was occasionally as broad as Park Avenue, well, so was d'Amboise's back in the day.

When I get rich I'm going to give NYCB an endowment just to bring back "Clap Yo Hands," the very Apollo-esque penultimate number (One man, three women, get it?) to a recording of Gershwin on the piano. I only saw it performed once (and not by City Ballet, more's the pity); I can't understand why such a sweet and funny bit of Balanchine playing with his own history is just never performed anymore.

Nichols' Saturday-matinee Mozartiana was indeed stunning from beginning to end (she seemed to take awhile to warm up at her first, on Thursday), and all the more impressive in that it came on the heels of her equally magnificent Chaconne on Friday night. Her swoopy, hair-down Elysian Fields duet with Martins left me almost unable to breathe from beginning to end, and her exit, carried by Martins with that unforgettable "swimming" circling of her front leg, will stay with me for a long, long time.

It's interesting that Nichols doesn't try to ape Farrell. Where Farrell would move large, jazzy and sexy, with hips and pirouettes far out of plumb, Nichols is quiet, effortlessly and perfectly placed, joyfully living in the steps and the music, a world, indeed, a universe to herself (and those of us fortunate enough to witness this amazing coda to an amazing career).

Nichols' Chaconne and Mozartiana were all the more remarkable in that she wasn't getting much help from her partners. While Nilas Martins (Chaconne) and Philip Neal (Mozartiana) were both adequate mechanically, neither showed any hint of a rapport with, or even appreciation of, the magnificent ballerina with whom they were dancing. Martins was dutiful with Nichols, and painfully low-octane on his own. The sad thing was that here it looked as if Martins really did want to be there in his solos, and make an impression, but it seems he's lost the knack, and the ability. Sometimes it is indeed possible to put the genie back in the bottle, but at the risk of not being able to get him back out when you really need him.

You never know whether Philip "Excuse me while I have a strange interlude" Neal is going to turn like a top or a draedel. He exhibited the latter Thursday night, and the former Saturday afternoon, where, with his elegant long line and soft jump, he danced Mozartiana about the best I've ever seen from him. But even at his best, Neal is a strangely detatched partner; as with Martins, he was supportive of Nichols physically, but gave her very little emotionally. While Martins just looked absent, Neal often looked focussed, but, as is his wont, not on his partner, his spot, or, indeed, anything on the stage, in the theater or, perhaps, on this planet.

The weekend ended on a perfect note with Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan giving an intense and heartbreaking rendition of the pas de deux in Agon. I hope we'll see these two dancing this many times more together, but there was something of the nature of a loving farwell in their profound, almost spiritual connection, so utterly opposite from that of Martins and Neal with Nichols.

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