“Square Dance,” “Liturgy,” Fearful Symmetries,” and “La Sonnambula”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
October 5, 2011
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
No boldface names, no new ballets, no must-see swans—not even a role debut to pique the interest of those in the know. Just a plain-old New York City Ballet mixed bill that even the most determined of marketing departments couldn’t wrap in a gimmick. There was nothing to see but a couple of masterworks, well danced—and nobody to see it but a warmly appreciative audience. Good ballets, good dancing: in a just world, that would be gimmick enough.
“La Sonnambula” received the most satisfying performance of the evening. The entire cast imbued its gothic melodrama with a novelistic degree of psychological and moral complexity, throwing the parallels between the Poet’s encounters with the Coquette and the Sleepwalker into relief.
With her staring eyes rimmed in black and her mouth painted crimson, Janie Taylor’s ghostly-pale Sleepwalker looked like she stepped out of a Tim Burton film. But this was gothic in deadly earnest: it was better not to know the content of the dark dreams that fueled her febrile bourrées. The fatal allure of Taylor’s Sleepwalker lies as much in her darkness as in her mystery: you half-suspect that she becomes sensible of the dead Poet’s body not because it blocks her path—but because it is a corpse. She wasn’t ethereal; she was spectral. To say that the Poet courted death is no dead metaphor.
Robert Fairchild was less a brooding Romantic poet than a young man avid for experience. There was nothing poetic about his encounter with Coquette: the grasping crudeness of his kiss at the end of their duet suggested that his need to possess her had more to do with hormones than imagination. He became a true poet only when he encountered the elusive, unknowable Sleepwalker. The urgency of his pursuit—no man in the company generates more excitement simply running across the stage than Fairchild—and the yearning arc of his futile backbend embrace bespoke an ache for communion, not a lust for possession.
The Coquette is often played as a knowing, glittering temptress—almost a stock character. Jennie Somogyi’s Coquette seemed more like an Emma Bovary: a pretty, provincial bourgeoise who warrants a novel—or Tudor ballet—of her own. In over her head, in love with love, her vanity fed by the blandishments of le beau monde (A baron! A poet!), she was as much prey as predator. Palpably human, she was part of the story, not just a piece of plot machinery, and it was a revelation.
You didn’t need to watch Somogyi’s face to read her Coquette’s conflicted mind. The coy turn of her head away from the Poet’s kiss said “No, this is just a game.” But the sinuous curve of her pliant back shouted “Yes” all the way to the back of the theater. Her enactment of the abandoned Coquette’s passage from stunned discovery to malign fury was a tour de force: the spasm of disgust that flashed through her just as the happily paired-off party guests began their dance would itself have been worth the price of admission.
Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley’s gratifying performance of “Square Dance” emphasized the classical foundations of the work’s joyous bravura. Fairchild brought her lovely musicality to bear on its turbocharged petit allegro. Her steps were unfailingly quick and clear, but their impact arose as much from deft phrasing and touches of teasing rubato as from sheer speed. Fairchild and Huxley aren’t an ideally-matched pair—she’s just a shade too big for him—but their shared commitment to unaffected clarity rather than Wham! Pow! effects carried the day.
Huxley has the unforced elegance and dignity of a natural prince. Small but beautifully proportioned, he dances with a classicist’s commitment to a vibrant yet balanced line: his arabesque is a thing of beauty. His jumps and turns are marked by fluid grace rather than bravura explosiveness—he’s a child of the Arcadian air. This made his performance of the ballet’s great terre-à-terre solo all the more intriguing. Many dancers bring a brooding weight to its slow lunges and backbends. Huxley retained his lightness without sacrificing any of the solo’s interiority. He unskeined its moments of tension into a singing line, as if it were meditation through which loss and longing might be resolved into equipoise.
Christopher Wheeldon’s “Liturgy” and Peter Martins’ “Fearful Symmetries” aren’t masterworks on the order of “Square Dance” or “Sonnambula.” “Liturgy,” a precursor to the later, greater “After the Rain,” dances on the precipice of hooey. Fearful Symmetries” has neither the wit nor the urgency of John Adams’ score. Still, both have their place as a showcase for talent.
“Liturgy” is a great big metaphor for human connection that depends on the illusion of two separate bodies forming an indissoluble whole, no matter how much distance is between them nor how perilously cantilevered their balances. The casting sheet alleged that Craig Hall’s performance opposite Wendy Whelan was his first time in the role, but he and Whelan have performed the work together as part of Wheeldon’s former pick-up company Morphoses. On Wednesday evening they looked like the best thing that ever happened to each other. As dancers, they share a quiet but intensely theatrical inward gaze and their ability to move in total sympathy was both astonishing and affecting. Hooey, schmooey, it was gorgeous to watch.
There’s a lot of surface excitement in “Fearful Symmetries”—so many dancers! So much speed! And so many of the same maneuvers over and over again. It’s like watching bottles zip along the conveyor belt of a high throughput bottling plant: you marvel at the engineering, but after a while your eyes glaze over. Worse, Martins breaks the rules without being genuinely transgressive. His dancers slink their pelvises forward in between textbook arabesques sautés, then throw their hands up in the air like they’re selling it on Broadway. It’s the corn-fed cheerleader’s idea of sassy.
Still, there are pleasures to be had in the work’s propulsive drive and moments of ingenuity. The cast gave it their all, and it was worth seeing for that. Lauren King was a standout in the role originally created on Margaret Tracey; she got the most exacting combinations, and performed them with sunny aplomb. Tiler Peck’s fierce commitment wrung real drama out of some of Martins’ most facile gestures: he owes her big-time.
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by Paul Kolnik
Top: Janie Taylor and Robert Fairchild in “La Sonnambula”
Middle: Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in ”Square Dance”
Bottom: Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley in “Fearful Symmetries”