New York City Ballet
Balanchine and Robbins programmes
March 15-16, 2008
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2008 by Marc Haegeman
Besides its treasure-trove of ballets, the most fascinating thing about New York City Ballet for European dance lovers is that the company looks so completely different from anything we are used to seeing here. The full troupe last visited London a quarter of a century ago, but even if it had been only five years it wouldn’t have made much difference. It still takes time to adjust to the different aesthetics and accents, but in the end the experience proves, if not always revelatory, at least absolutely refreshing. However, even when taken on its own terms, there’s no denying that in the mere three performances I caught at the London Coliseum, City Ballet left an uneven impression, depending very much of the leading casts. Or, to continue the delightful British analogy overheard in the theatre, this “exotic bird” not only has “striking colours”, it can also sing pretty much out of tune. Part of the problem was that there were very few ballerinas present who could act as linchpins. Maria Kowroski, Jenifer Ringer and Jennie Somogyi didn’t make it to London. We did have Wendy Whelan and Darci Kistler, although frankly, casting the latter in “Serenade” didn’t seem such a good idea at this point. Yet most of the other female principals look like kids, perky little teenagers, but not ballerinas. The only exception is Ashley Bouder, who is, with her star magnetism, her stunning technique and musicality, her communicative pleasure of performing, a tremendously gifted artist you would want to see over and over again. The men generally made a slick impression, but they too are young and you wouldn’t want to trust them very far with anything outside of their own repertory.
The Balanchine bill included three masterpieces, “Serenade”, “Agon” and “Symphony in C”. Exactly the kind of signature ballets we want to see performed by this company. But even if you managed to erase everything what you may have seen here in Europe, it’s clear that not all is well over there either. “Serenade” at the matinée was a pretty ropey affair by all accounts. Even the pickup orchestra under Fayçal Karoui sounded bad. A ragged corps, mistaking frenzy for speed, arms in every possible direction, and a girl falling over during the hustle and bustle. When at the beginning of the third movement the five girls are sitting down, one was so much more ahead of the others that I couldn’t help imagining where Jerome Robbins got his inspiration from for the sextet of ballerinas in his “Concert.” The soloists were none too interesting either: Yvonne Borrée as the Russian Girl was overly cautious and deadpan; Darci Kistler ran through it all in an unappealing, stentorian way, moving too much to her own rhythms instead of Tchaikovsky’s and turning the moment when she has to let her hair down into a farce; Charles Askegard looked tired and old. Sara Mearns, bizarrely, brought some hope by her musicality as the Dark Angel and Stephen Hanna partnered well, while the final part acquired dignity when all settled down.
That same evening it was like watching a different company. The corps seemed re-energized in the right way, mixing speed and lightness into ravishing expressivity and harmony. They instinctively caught the pulse from the music as very few ensembles this side of the Atlantic can, as if taking an example from the soloists, particularly Ashley Bouder and Janie Taylor, both in their own way tremendous. The imprecisions from the afternoon all of a sudden didn’t seem to be an issue any longer, because you understood this dancing is about something else. Bouder as the Russian Girl embodied the music and its changing rhythms as if they were a natural part of her, bringing them with such clarity you could almost read the score. Taylor was subtle, a bundle of light-footed energy but hiding something tragic underneath. Philip Neal provided excellent support, while Kaitlyn Gilliland as the Dark Angel also left a strong impression. The intensity of the opening scenes made the Elegy all the more mysterious and telling.
The two casts for “Symphony in C” varied considerably as well. The matinée had the most interesting soloists. Ana Sophia Scheller, who danced the first movement, is very young but her sparkling personality, her musicality and classical attitude made it clear she was something more than the surrounding dancers. Jared Angle was her attractively elegant cavalier, moving effortlessly and partnering with care. A mesmerizing Wendy Whelan dominated the adagio as a true ballerina, and not just because she was the one wearing a tiara. She molded the choreography with imagination and left no doubt she really owned it, and was well partnered by Philip Neal. Sterling Hyltin and Antonio Carmena swept through the third movement with mercurial speed. Tiler Peck brilliantly cued Karoui’s breakneck tempo for the final movement and managed to sustain it without ever looking uncomfortable. The finale was electrifying by the common sense of purpose and the devil-may-care drive of the ensemble.
The evening cast was on the whole less satisfying, and again this seemed to reflect on the ensemble. Abi Stafford and Megan Fairchild in the first and third movement looked like chirpy, beaming corps de ballet girls given their first big break. They can do the steps all right, but they deliver them without any imagination and disappear in the crowd. Neither one boasted the classical quality of Scheller. Moreover, Fairchild didn’t look really comfortable with the virtuosic Gonzalo Garcia in the allegro vivace. Sara Mearns, finding good support from Charles Askegard, brought authority as well as glamour in the adagio, but she too seemed still looking at which direction to go. Peck reappeared in the fourth movement this time with Sean Suozzi.
On the other hand, “Agon” looked absolutely great. As Andrew Veyette demonstrated in the Sarabande, or Theresa Reichlen in the Bransle Gay, it’s all about the idiomatic details, the tiny bits of articulation and demeanour, which only these dancers seem to have in their blood, but they make a huge difference in the overall plasticity and expressivity of the ballet. They get to the core of the work, strip it bare of all the incongruous varnish, just like Balanchine’s dancers appear in basic outfits. Wendy Whelan, angular and sharp, physically intriguing, was the focal point of the ballet, irrespective of her less then ideal match with Albert Evans.
The Jerome Robbins bill was interestingly diverse. I can’t imagine, though, that “The Four Seasons” was meant to be performed in such an offhand manner as it mostly was here. It felt like an old, seasoned performer returning to one of his former hits in throwaway fashion. Part of the problem, it seems, was again the absence of personalities with enough flair to keep the joints together whenever necessary and transcend the trivialities which lurk around every corner in this ballet. Clearly not Megan Fairchild in “Winter”, or Sara Mearns in “Spring”, both too inconspicuous in appearance and steps. The men made a stronger impression, especially the debonair Jared Angle who partnered Mearns, dancing with remarkable musicality and clearly having fun. Things brightened up in “Summer” with Rachel Rutherford who exuded ballerina quality, but it wasn’t until Ashley Bouder hit the stage in “Fall” that everything started making sense — regardless of the fact that “Fall” is the most interesting part of the “Seasons”. Bouder is one of those rare performers — images of the Bolshoi’s Natalia Osipova came to mind — you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, because they do everything which such generosity and clarity of purpose. A boyish Daniel Ulbricht with his natural ballon and unstoppable daredevilry was tremendous fun as the bouncing Faun, yet Benjamin Millepied looked ill-at-ease in outfit and bravura.
Robbins’s silent “Moves” provided a welcome contrast and left a more positive mark. Like “Agon” dating from the same era, it remains amazingly modern. Robbins’s inventiveness, the timing, spiced with surprising flashes of emotion, the plasticity and physical beauty of the dancers in their practice clothes, set free from any gimmicks of stage or lighting, make this fascinating from start to end. The programme ended with the irresistibly funny “The Concert”. The young cast headed by Sterling Hyltin, Andrew Veyette and Gwyneth Muller, and accompanied by pianist Nancy McDill, enthusiastically rose to the acting challenge and performed with brio as well as taste.
Photo: Ashley Bouder in "The Four Seasons."