“Who Cares?”, “Fearful Symmetries,” “West Side Story Suite”
“Hallelujah Junction,” “Russian Seasons,” “Les Carillons”
New York City Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
April 3, April 7 (evening), 2012
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2012 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The New York City Ballet brought two of the most interesting programs of the season to Kennedy Center’s Opera House this week. It really was a fresh, spring breeze. The company was dancing not only well, but with an edge, and we saw nearly all of the dancers in multiple roles. We saw a varied sliver of the rep, with works by Balanchine, Robbins, Martins (two ballets), and, best of all, two new ballets – Alexei Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Les Carillons” – that show a clear path to a wonderful future.
Ratmansky’s choreographic imagination is staggering: movement after movement surges from the dancers, spun from their bodies, so spontaneously that they look as though they’re making up the dance as they go along. There’s movement rooted in folk dance, arm movements or torso twists that come from the movements that precede them. The dancing is always responsive to the music (an arresting score by Leonid Desyatnikov), sometimes obviously so, when Ratmansky wants to make a point, and sometimes incredibly subtly.
While it’s an ensemble dance, there are several solos. It’s hard to single anyone out, because the entire cast was wonderful, but Sara Mearns was especially striking, her dancing very off-balance (yet totally controlled) and, at times, fierce. Wendy Whelan, was the bride with a past, and her dancing was wistful, lyrical – nothing like the hard-edged dancer we’re so used to seeing. “Russian Seasons” was new to Washington, but created for NYCB in 2006, and it looked as though it had been freshly created. Aside from the dancers’ commitment to their roles, what I liked most about it was that not for one single second did it look like a ballet class.
Christopher Wheeldon’s “Les Carillons” is also a mature work, and, as grateful as I was to see two new ballets of this caliber, I wish the Wheeldon piece had been on a different program. Like “Russian Seasons,” “Les Carillons” is an ensemble ballet with hints of a story, mystery and tragedy, and used many of the same dancers, with Whelan again in a central, mysterious role. In this piece, Wheeldon seems to have come to terms with the two forces that have pulled him: classical ballet, especially its line and its pointework, and a contemporary sensibility. He can spin steps beautifully, without ever looking as though he’s straining to be inventive.
“Les Carillons” is set to Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne Suite,” the same music Petit used for his “L’Arlesienne,” yet I could see no similarities in either approach or choreography. The backdrop, by Jean-Marc Puissant, is a painting that changes colors throughout the piece, though it doesn’t seem to be in sync with music, mood or costume colors (by Marc Zappone). Wheeldon has spoken about his desire to go back to the day when design was an integral part of a ballet, and this one is gently incessant, but not intrusive, and adds to the atmosphere of the piece.
Of the other works, “Who Cares?”, which opened the first program and was the only Balanchine ballet on view (a fact that did not go unnoticed), was the most successful. Robert Fairchild, who was injured last season and not seen to his best advantage, danced the man with three American Broadway girl muses with an elegant ease, and an authority that belies his years. Tiler Peck, in the “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” role, also danced like a star, and it was wonderful this week to see that the rising generation has come of age. There is still a tendency, though, to take Balanchine’s “be vulgar” comment a bit too literally at times. Ashley Bouder’s dancing was so big – stretched and off-center to the point of being a bit bizarre – that you’re more aware of the dancer than the role.
There were two Peter Martins’ works on view, “Fearful Symmetries” and “Halleluiah Junction,” (both to scores by John Adams). They’re among his strongest ballets, and received very polished performances. “Fearful Symmetries” sags a bit right before the end, but otherwise is, as they used to say, a very high-energy piece, and Martins keeps the energy up, deftly managing wave after wave of dancers in red and purple. “Halleluiah Junction” has two pianists at the back of the stage, nearly hidden in the darkness, a couple in white and a man in black, with a small corps. It’s Martins’ black and white ballet. The leading dancers (Janie Taylor, Daniel Ulbricht and Benjamin Markovici) danced with the necessary clarity and edge, and the piece was absorbing to watch, but there was emptiness in the piece that they couldn’t fill.
Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” suite, also on opening night, closing the “Who Cares?” program, is probably best seen in its original context – in the musical. This is the second time NYCB has brought us a Broadway program and, since we only see the company now for a few performances a year, this was a bit disappointing. There is a long-time City Ballet audience here, one could tell from intermission comments, and a balance of new works and company classics would be nice in the future.
However, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one extremely grateful to both the company and the Kennedy Center for bringing us “Russian Seasons” and “Les Carillons.” Watching those two pieces, so confident, so rich, every movement giving truth to Bronislava Nijinska's comment that classical ballet is an infinitely renewable language, I kept thinking that Ratmansky and Wheeldon have given ballet at least another 25 years of life.
Photos, all by Paul Kolnik:
Top: dancers from the original cast (Jonathan Stafford and Jennifer Ringer) of "Russian Seasons".
Center: Ensemble in "Les Carillons."
Bottom: Tiler Peck leading the ensemble in "Who Cares?"