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Archetypes and Authority (2/13, 2/16, 2/19)

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Wendy Whelan performed two of her major roles on Thursday night (2/13) and on Sunday (2/16) matinee, the leads in Agon and Mozartiana respectively. She’s performed the pas de deux in Agon now for several years, the role in Mozartiana came only about a year ago, and she’s not a natural casting choice for it, but then again, she’s not a simple casting choice for any of the classical roles if only for the proportions of her attenuated, extended limbs. She probably knows this better than anyone; interviews with her have shown a self-assessment that allows little illusion, and her performances have this same sort of honestly to them. She is no dissembler. But there is dissembling, and then there is fantasy, and fantasy is part of what makes a ballerina.

Of the ballerinas at NYCB, Whelan is in some ways like Merrill Ashley; she’s the one who pays for everything in hard currency. She won’t come to fantasy the way dancers like Allegra Kent, Darci Kistler and now perhaps Alexandra Ansanelli have. It’s instinctive for them. None of these dancers are artificial performers, in their own way they are just as honest as Whelan, but her honesty seems more a matter of tangible things than any of theirs. Whelan is here with us when she dances. It’s not an abstraction or imaginary; it’s this place, these steps, right now. And yet, in both Mozartiana and Agon she gave performances that took her a few steps further to fantasy. For the first time that I have seen in the pas de deux in Agon, she looked vulnerable. It could have been simply that fatigue made her stop trying to control her effects, but it made a difference. Her Mozartiana also showed more projection and inner fantasy: the same moment at the end of the Preghiera when Kyra Nichols leaves and the children follow her – Whelan is consumed enough by the experience that is seems that she and the children leave separately. They didn’t follow her; she left to the front of them, in the pull of voices only she heard. Both of her performances were excellent.

There were other notable performances in Agon from Peter Boal and Jennie Somogyi; Boal’s interpretation of the role is studded with angry wit and Somogyi manages to have a glamorous femininity and still take no prisoners. The ballet looks taut right now. Interesting that the corps is so young and new in it; they are only in the ballet for the beginning and end sections, but the musicality is fiendish. One young lady was biting her lip onstage from the counts. In contrast, the Mozartiana corps had three dancers (Dena Abergel, Saskia Beskow, Eva Natanya) who looked enjoyably mature with a fourth (Rebecca Krohn, also in Agon) who looked touchingly like the teenager among them. Even though the music is easier to dance to, the corps part is in some ways harder than Agon; Balanchine inserted several “blind” moments for the corps that have to be done in unison, but without being able to see each other. No small feat.

Whelan had less success with the first ballerina in Concerto Barocco on Wednesday night (2/19). Seeming rushed, she wasn’t able to get her arms under control and into any sort of curved position. That’s never easy for her; they are so long, and she usually needs to figure out unorthodox solutions. At times, they almost seemed inverted with the elbows facing in rather than out. Somogyi was the second ballerina, and gave a commanding performance. She has the authority at this point to have a shot at the lead.

Fantasy is one element to a ballerina, authority is another. From a note I wrote in 1997 –

Around 1993 Paris Opera Ballet was in New York doing a season, and some dancers came earlier, and were taking class at David Howard's.

During a pirouette combination I noticed one woman (her bearing said she had to be French - a certain hauteur . . .) who was the only one who knew the combination.  After all, she was doing it in such a finished and elegant manner, and everyone else was tentative about details.  About half a minute later it came to me that a) that was Isabelle Guérin B) that I had in fact remembered the combination as given and c) that she was wrong and the rest of the class was right.

Isabelle Guérin is so polished a dancer that she can take the wrong steps and convince you they are the correct ones.

That’s the best demonstration of ballerina authority I can give. It’s technique, bearing, experience and confidence. History too. Watching Darci Kistler in second movement of Symphony in C, I realized she’s been doing that part now at least two decades. It doesn’t render one infallible, but there’s an authority in that. She’s not just herself on that night; she’s a timeline of the role. Kistler had a particularly nice Sunday matinee performance and a more sketched one on Wednesday night (2/19 – most of the cast was the same as Sunday matinee). Her movements don’t have the snap or stretch they did, and she doesn’t work her shoes all the way out to her toes, so an echappé to second position ends up looking like a wide first. And when amplitude of movement fails her, she relies on authority, and yes, a bit on perfume especially when things get shaky. Still, no one bourrees like she does. Her long curved feet, including the toes, ripple. Jock Soto provided secure and caring partnering on both occasions.

The first movement demands a ballerina with authority. She’s the first principal dancer we see, and Balanchine shields her entrance; she comes on only after the corps has built up our anticipation. Her steps are touchstone steps (Balanchine even cribs a series of arabesques into passé from Petipa’s Sugar Plum Fairy variation). She has all types of cameo moments designed to frame her alone and unsupported where the second movement ballerina’s most indelible moments are partnered. Abi Stafford negotiates the steps with ease, the authority is what she’s working on. She came closer on Wednesday than Sunday. I think it’s simply her age; she’s around 20 or 21 and looks younger; she’s also small. Both can be overcome; Somogyi projected authority (she demanded it, and I think consciously mimicked senior ballerinas in the company) well before she had earned it, and she’s also not one who can rely on physical stature for presence. It’s a risky business, but it paid off for Somogyi. Stafford isn’t Somogyi; she’s got to find the route that suits her personality. Her stage temperament is sweet natured, not spicy, and marked by a cleanliness of technique and moderate proportions. She’s doing Judith Fugate’s roles and there are similarities in their approach. Perhaps there’s something to be learned there for her.

I had not gotten to see Antonio Carmena in a major role before this point; his third movement was impressive. Janie Taylor is an impulsive partner and really needs someone about four inches taller who can muscle her around when things get out of hand, but by Wednesday he had gotten her more under control and was able to keep the signature penchés from looking like suicidal dives to the floor. Carmena is warmhearted onstage with a very clean technique that has an agreeable foreign accent. If it were in repertory at present, I’d like to see him in the Emeralds pas de trois; I think it would suit his youthful elegance. Pascale van Kipnis did the fourth movement as if it were of the same magnitude as the first, with sparkle, wit and pinpoint accuracy on that treacherous pirouette that snaps out to the side and flashes to a kneel. Nobody does it better. Right now, I think she’s the most underrated soloist in the company. Her partner on Wednesday was Jason Fowler, who’s also underrated. He’s got one of the cleanest techniques in the corps, but he tends to fall into himself when he’s dancing; it’s as if he can’t get beyond wanting to be correct, but he already is. It would be wonderful to see him reach out to us.

On Thursday night, the audience laughed at Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir, which makes me wonder if that’s the effect Balanchine intended. Looking at Repertory in Review for contemporary accounts, camp and comedy are mentioned in passing. This may be one time where Balanchine’s musical acuity got the better of him. What makes the ballet seem funny is the literalism of the musical response; the door squeaks and the woman’s arm moves right on cue. The fact that Maria Korowski is often most vivid on stage when she’s at her silliest (Titania with Bottom, Variations Sérieuses) only miscues the audience further, even though she’s playing the role straight, and so is Tom Gold. Looking past the Silly Symphony issues, there’s more lurking here. Balanchine’s use of fabric as both set element and décor goes back as far as Errante, which was designed by Pavel Tchelitchew for Les Ballets 1933 and included a massive white silk drop that floated down at the end, as well as a woman’s costume with a twenty foot long train. Interviews in Repertory in Review with the original cast are illuminating. Karin von Aroldingen mentions she felt there was justification for Balanchine to make the woman the Door and the man the Sigh because of the genders of each word in French. John Clifford recalls watching Balanchine demonstrate what he wanted, for the Sigh to completely ignore the Door, and for his movements to be done with almost no energy whatsoever.

If the Door and the Sigh have nothing to do with one another, if this isn’t The Prodigal Son in abstract, what is going on here? My best hypothesis is that Balanchine was attracted his entire life by the theatrical potential of symbolism and expressionism, but not particularly interested in a philosophical meaning behind it. He was a man who had no difficulty living with contradictions; it makes choreography, which can mean anything, everything and nothing, a natural means of expression to him. The female symbol is an icon Balanchine would have seen often as a young man. Her black pageboy wig resembles both Theda Bara and Louise Brooks, quintessential femmes fatales of the silent movie era. Whether that character symbolizes Woman, Intellect, Industry, Technology or any of a number of devouring archetypes was probably less interesting to Balanchine than the theatrical potency for him of the image. The piece was meant to be ephemeral, that it was brought back to repertory a few years ago surprised me, but for me it joins works like Ivesiana, Kammermusik No. 2 and La Valse that round out the portrait of Balanchine that is not completed by Agon, Concerto Barocco, and Symphony in C.

Adam Hendrickson debuted in Tarantella with Ansanelli on Sunday although I’m pretty certain this is not the first time he’s danced the ballet – I recall him dancing it at a gala elsewhere in the summer of 2001. He seemed to be searching for a personal and subtle approach to the ballet but ended up looking underpowered. I think I understand what he was aiming for, but I don’t think it will make it the back of the house. The hard fact is it’s an extroverted ballet, and there’s little room to do it any other way. It’s a tarantella, after all. Ansanelli understands all about projection, and even the competitive aspects of the role. It was almost unsettling to watch her laugh with delight when she realized she had turned more than Hendrickson had in the contest of turns at the end. It’s understandable to cast Ansanelli in Patricia McBride’s roles, and she can certainly turn, but this one didn’t feel like a perfect fit, or at least I wish she wouldn’t try to tin-plate the role. Right now the company seems to value the capable, rustproof dancers. But not everyone is going to, or needs to be the tin-plated ballerina. Even when Ansanelli pulls off a prodigious balance (and she certainly did after a series of attitude turns), she hasn’t got that sort of stainless-steel body, and she isn’t going to have full strength for several years. Her delicacy needs to be accounted for; she needs to be strengthened, not toughened.

The male character in The Steadfast Tin Soldier is quite literally tin-plated, and his doll ballerina made from paper. It’s interesting to see how Balanchine handles the concept of the ballerina as something other than human. As with many of his roles, it’s an overlay; she’s a doll, a woman and a ballerina all at once. In that way, it’s similar to Door and a Sigh; Balanchine has no problem with contradictory impulses residing in the same role. As the soldier on Sunday matinee, Tom Gold has a sweet sad moment at the end when the ballerina (Yvonne Borree) has been blown into the fireplace, leaving only his tin heart. Balanchine only allows seconds before he brings down the curtain, but then again, he’s only made of tin and she was only made of paper. Right?

Soirée was performed last Thursday and this Wednesday (the other ballet on Wednesday was Chiaroscuro with the same cast as I have written on previously). Its purpose in repertory (like many of the ballets made by the satellite choreographers) seems to be to show us dancers we might not have seen in lead roles. Carla Körbes has gotten a few lead roles, but it’s nice to get a good look at her. She’s a rich, lush dancer; the creaminess of her movement is such that she needs to guard against being uninflected. Still, she’s a beauty and a talent.

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Regarding the liberating element of self contradiction, my attention was lately called to Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then, I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes)

Switching topics, your comments on the use of Alexandra Ansanelli are very correct. She has been used it seems to me (almost by default) in a series of "cutsey" lighter roles this season, as in Western Symphony 2d Movement (although her rendition of the role that took it even more in that direction), as well as Tarantella. She is, however, very capable of (she even has a striking gift for) deeper emotional effects on stage, something that Chris Wheeldon showed us about her so beautifully in Polyphonia, and which we saw in her long solo in Piano Pieces this year, and in Firebird last spring. She is a gifted serious dramatic ballerina and I wish the powers that be at NYCB would remember this and not display her quite so predominantly in her thousand watt smile, look at me now incarnation. But then, who else can they use for those soubrette roles? (Yvonne? -- Opinon on this board will not thank them for that).

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I think another example of a "just because she can do it, do we want her to be that sort of dancer?" role for Ansanelli is Fall in The Four Seasons. Miranda Weese can do whiz-bang without losing anything; it just adds to the wit and the fizz. When Ansanelli does whiz-bang roles, I feel like we're missing out on other possibilities.

There are other soubrettes in the company. Weese looks very good in a lot of the McBride roles, though she is no carbon copy. Somogyi can dance like a soubrette, but she doesn't think or act like one. Ditto Ashley Bouder although I think she can fit the mold better when needed. Imagine her Swanilda. Dr. Coppelius' laboratory might be unrepairable by the time she got through trashing it. Also in the corps, I think both Megan Farichild and Carrie Lee Riggins could be put in those roles.

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In general I have been satisfied with the female casting at NYCB this winter season. But I do feel that sometimes Peter Martins lacks insight into individual dancers abilities and temperments and reverts to casting into sterotypes of dancers he has worked with in the past.

You can just see him saying to himself "well, abi stafford has Merrill Ashley like technique, so lets put her into Merrill's old roles." Sometimes it works, square dance and Ballo, and sometimes it just doesn't .... first movement Symphony in C.

Or, Yvonne really looks like Kay Mazzo ... thus we have her in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Square Dance and Duo Concerant.

I could go on for a while in this line, Maria is his Suzanne Farrell. Jeny Ringer and Miranda Weese are his Patty McBrides. Jennie Somogyi is half Whelan and half Nichols.

Its for his personal favorities (Taylor and Ansanelli) that he is bothers thinking about how the would really fit into each role. Its only the rare dancer such as Whelan who dances with such conviction and passion that she is able to break is sterotypes. I feel it may be a reason why so many men just seem to lag in the Soloist role. He just doesn't seem to take the time to see what would fit them and they don't get roles

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