"Namouna", "Estancia", "Luce Nascosta" and Established Repertory
The New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY
September 22 - 24, 2010
by George Jackson
copyright 2010 by George Jackson
Programming for New York City's Ballet's September season made it practical for the company's out of town followers to catch up on current casting and recent additions to the repertory. Seeing something really new happens rarely when watching dance, but one of the latest ballets, "Namouna", struck me as a milestone work.
"Namouna, A Grand Divertissement" is odd and overwhelming. It alludes to ballets and perhaps operas from the past but doesn't quite look like any work of lyric theater I've seen before. Big, bursting with content, having a large cast and lasting almost an hour, it has yet been crafted with an ever so light touch. Imaginatively it is full of free associations that are funneled into a formally tight set of musical numbers. Sincerity is blended with irony, and successfully for once.
Much has already been written about this "Namouna", but for those who haven't heard let me say that it is the doing of Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Russian choreographer of considerable outside experience. He drew his music from Edouard Lalo's score for an 1882 ballet at the Paris Opera which had choreography by Lucien Petipa and a story of love, rivalry, deception, fighting and flotsam concocted by Petipa and Charles Nuitter. Some of that music may be familiar from concert performances and from its use by Serge Lifar for his ballet "Suite en Blanc" which has been widely staged and is excerpted on YouTube. Remarkably, Ratmansky's "Namouna", while alluding to these precedents, and lots else, is fresh.
After a grandiose and rather Wagnerian overture, the curtain rises on a stage without people. The space is suffused by a dark glow that hovers over a floor dappled by lights (Mark Stanley's design). Dancers enter to fill the space, one after the other in shaft formation. They are women wearing longish yellow gowns and, on their heads, tight turbans. Their line forms from the right and folds back to become u-shaped, elliptical, as it begins to retreat. No scenery decorates this grand divertissement but the corps de ballet is dressed to function as both chorus and as sets (the women's group more than the men's). The corps dancers' appearance, geometric formations and moments of modulation all serve to frame and place the action.
The look of the women's costuming isn't quite 1920s modern but closer to it than to 19th Century historicism. When the male corps appears, its cubistic grey and black apparel suggests that these men are pirates (as in the 1882 "Medora"), but perhaps spaceship pirates rather than seafarers. Not as strong is the hint in the costuming of the women's ensemble that its wearers are harem slaves. All these allusions are fleeting compared to the substantial shapes and dynamics of the corps work.
Bravura of the big and bold sort is lavished on seven principal dancers. It is almost in the Bolshoi style but not altogether because some of the most brilliant movement seems off the cuff, thrown away in the manner of asides. Not tossed off but a point of focus is a remarkable duet for the ballet's two leading men. Like in Shakespearean word duels, they try to outdo each other, the "young protagonist" with entrechats and the "special danseur" with splits. The only thing I've seen approaching such simultaneous fireworks was a jam session at the end of a Bolshoi men's class.
Throughout "Namouna" the principal dancers function as two sets. One set consists of the protagonist and the three women who attract him. The special danseur and his two female chums are the second, the more comedic set. No story is spelled out , no characters are named, but the dancers are typed by how they dance, behave and look and the associations that sets up. Ratmansky takes such abstracting beyond the goal of game playing. I think he's making a case for dance - dance both for its own sake and as a mirror held up to life.
The "Namouna" on Sept. 23 had Tyler Angle instead of Robert Fairchild (whom I've not seen) as the young protagonist, otherwise it was the original casting (Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, Wendy Whelan; Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild, Abi Stafford). Angle's take on the role seemed that of an innocent (in the simple manner of the heros in "Red Poppy", "Age of Gold" and other Soviet ballets) rather than that of a Czarist ballet prince. The contrast with Ulbricht's Enrico Cecchetti-like special danseur worked well.
So did the double-duty (as clothing and decor) Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov costuming. The orchestra, conducted by Faycal Karoui, contrasted Lalo's Wagnerisms and Meyerbeerisms pointedly.
Christopher Wheeldon starts "Estancia" with a lovely, lyrical, Ashtonian solo for its young City Boy hero. After that, the choreographer is ever more weighed down by the story for Alberto Ginastera's music - a tale about going back to the simple life. Since this ballet's premiere last spring, Wheeldon seems to have read Agnes de Mille on "Rodeo" and taken fouettes out of the country finale - but not all. The leads, new to New York City, were Ana Sophia Scheller as Country Girl and Adrian Danchig-Waring as City Boy. She made the girl's opening solo more interesting than it seemed previously and he made the boy likeably gawky. Mauro Bigonzetti's "Luce Nascosta" seems to be a Halloween or Walpurgisnacht ritual. Its yardage of contorted choreography becomes repetitious. Even the later, more tender duets prompted by a change of tone in Bruno Moretti's music, wore this viewer's patience thin. Likeable was the chance Bigonzetti gave dancers listed as secondary - Craig Hall, Danchig-Waring, et al. - to appear prominently as the ballet wore on.
Gonzalo Garcia in the title role of Jerome Robbins' "Opus 19 / The Dreamer" sculpted his role richly, making the very continuous movement register as rounded in space but still reflecting the Prokofiev music's rhythms. This Robbins is a treat despite its ending. Shouldn't the Dreamer, as the only real figure, be solitary when all the dreaming is done? Wendy Whelan, though, as the figment who joins him and remains with him, isn't easily forgotten. Sitting closer on Sept. 24 than on Sept. 22, I think I prefer a bit of distance despite the detail of working bodies afforded by the nearer seat.
Sterling Hyltin was exceptionally expressive in the Balanchine/Stravinsky "Duo Concertant". From start to finish, without excess, her feelings soared. Jared Angle allowed his mood to build, from caring to adoring. Her dancing - highly articulated, clear, sharp, light - seemed right. His was rich and subtle in the arms and torso but the leg and foot work could have had more edge. Hyltin and Angle shared the stage with violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Cameron Grant.
Balanchine's "Monumentum" and "Movements" grow into a single work when danced by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Also paired in the NYCB repertory, they remain further apart. Casting may have something to do with this. In "Movements for Piano and Orchestra", Rebecca Krohn and Sebastien Marcovici relate to life whereas Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour in "Monumentum pro Gesualdo" suggest the studio. La Cour hasn't yet the star allure for "Who Cares?" and Reichlen, of the lovely body, has an inexpressive face. Sara Mearns, in a red dress that did not flatter her body, and Jenifer Ringer caught more of this Balanchine/Gershwin ballet's glamor. All the game playing in "Interplay" reminded me of David Lichine's "Graduation Ball", which this Robbins/Morton Gould ballet didn't used to.