“Soirée Musicale,” “A Place for Us,” “Cool (from “West Side Story Suite”),” “Glass Pieces (excerpt),” “The Man I Love” (from “Who Cares”),” “Stars and Stripes” (“Fourth and Fifth Campaigns”)”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
May 8, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Popkin
New York City Ballet’s spring gala program had two audiences, and worked for both of them. The glittering assembly present for the after-the-performance soirée got a brief appearance by Queen Latifah, who served up a powerful rendition of “The Man I Love” from “Who Cares” alongside Balanchine’s familiar choreography. And in lieu of dinner, two new ballets by Christopher Wheeldon provided substantial fare for the ballet aficionados. Dance excerpts from two Robbins ballets and “Stars and Stripes” mediated between the two.
In re-staging the 1998 “Soirée Musicale,” Wheeldon revisited one of his earliest works. He originally made the ballet for the School of American Ballet workshop. But the company had never danced it before. The music is a dreamy score by Samuel Barber (“Souvenirs Ballet Suite”) where the composer renders his impressions of a series of dance forms. With subtle, syncopated rhythms and off-key orchestral settings, it recalls Ravel’s “La Valse.” Both Balanchine and Ashton choreographed to Ravel’s score, and Wheeldon’s ballet here owes the same debt to those choreographic originals as Barber does to Ravel. But it’s a happy artistic debt; Barber and Wheeldon both have uniquely individual voices.
Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay were the leading dancers and appeared first as one couple among three in the opening waltz. They then concluded the ballet in a new pas de deux that Wheeldon made on them for this revival. (At the 1998 workshop, Janie Taylor and Jared Angle had different choreography for their final duet; otherwise the ballet as seen Wednesday night was the same as in the prior staging). Brittany Pollack was the second lead as the tango girl with twelve male attendants. New to the company last fall, Indiana Woodward particularly stood out among other dancers in the two-step with her beautiful, quick and light jump; getting into the air very fast and achieving a finished position instantly.
In the new pas de deux featuring Lovette, Wheeldon – always very sensitive to what makes a dancer unique – showed off her coordination, articulate musicality, and beautiful feet. When Finlay first held her draped over his arm in a backbend on pointe, she altered the position to a supported arabesque. In the change of axis, you simultaneously saw the motion rippling through her back; the readjustment of her épaulement and delicate use of the feet. Everything engaged at once and the expression was also beautiful. The way she rolled up and down from pointe had unusual visual and metric value as pure elements of dance in themselves. Promoted to soloist at the end of the winter season, Lovette has a unique feeling for music, and she and Finlay make an ideal couple. He partnered her magnificently.
The costumes – romantic tulle tutus shot full of dark lilac and violet shades for the women and short black romantic jackets for the men, with flowing neckties that recalled 1840’s Parisian romantic style (again reminiscent of “La Valse”) – were by Holly Hynes. Penny Jacobus provided the twilight blue and violet lighting that helped create the atmosphere and also collaborated with Wheeldon on a backdrop of swagged and draped dark fabric that raised and lowered to provide differentiation between the various dances. The designs were restrained, and for Wheeldon (who has recently staged “Alice in Wonderland” and “Cinderella” with elaborate production values) particularly so.
This very early ballet showed Wheeldon’s genius flowing pure at the source. What’s inventive and contemporary here is arrived at by simplification and not complication. In the opening waltz, Taylor Stanley supports Brittany Pollack in an arabesque. When she picks up her supporting leg and touches it to the knee of the horizontally extended working leg, and he simultaneously alters his support of her at the waist, the arabesque instantly becomes a retiré pose in the air. Nothing more has to be done, it’s accomplished with a single move, beautiful, inventive, quiet, lyrical and, above all, totally simple. By the time Wheeldon got to “Polyphonia” a few years later he was twisting things.
Wheeldon’s new ballet, “A Place for Us” was a duet for Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck that flowed seamlessly out of the pure compositional style of the concluding pas de deux from “Soirée.” But the music was very different: here the minimal, staccato and modernist “Interlude” from André Previn’s “Clarinet and Piano Sonata,” and also Leonard Bernstein's “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.” To short sections of rhythmic piano with just a few lines of clarinet on top - at once jazzy and mournful - Wheeldon sets his dancers loose in a series of stop-and-start variations from twenty seconds to a minute or two long. A little staccato music and the couple moves either individually or in tandem and then stops to breathe. Resettling themselves, they start again, and the motion once again is as stark as the music. The musicians are on stage and, as in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” the dancers are aware of them, occasionally even turning to watch.
In one memorable passage Peck and Fairchild, side by side, extended to arabesque, then paused and returned their working legs to the floor, ending in a tandem of wide fourth positions. When each then did a small backbend, you saw the motions ripple from the small of the back to the neck. When they both raised their arms the impulses carried through the shoulder. Like the choreography we had just seen on Lovette, this too read as an intimate exploration of how these two extraordinary dancers move together.
Because Peck and Fairchild have just announced they are engaged to be married, the dance even had the air of an engagement present. The designs by Joseph Altuzarra (with costumes supervised by Marc Happel of NYCB’s costume shop) and lighting, again by Penny Jacobus, were subtle, unobtrusive and perfectly in service of the ballet’s minimalist aesthetic. The work also came accompanied in the program by a mysterious epigraph: “For Jerome Robbins. A Thank You.” As “A Place for Us” is literally the refrain of the concluding song in Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” (“Somewhere”), it felt as if Wheeldon, reviving an early choreographic work on this same program and then contributing this ballet, was re-consecrating a space on the stage that Robbins had delivered to him fifteen years before.
The program then abruptly shifted gears through “Cool” from “West Side Story Suite;” to the concluding entrances of “Glass Pieces” (where Zachary Catazaro, among the men, made a stunning impression); to Queen Latifah’s guest appearance and finally the end of “Stars and Stripes.” The emphasis shifted from these subtle shades of emotion to pleasing the crowd.
But crowd pleasing it was. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar had the unenviable job of sharing the stage with Queen Latifah, whose rendition of the Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” was prodigious. It’s been covered by nearly everyone, perhaps most memorably by Sarah Vaughan, who is a hard act to follow. Yet Queen Latifah brought artistic integrity and something individual to it by respecting the material. From the initial recitative (“When the mellow moon begins to peep . . . “) through the swelling choruses, it was never about her, always about the song and its emotion. You can’t go wrong like that. Unlike the Vaughn rendition, she made no attempt to make her voice instrumental, but stayed straightforward. Clear, melodic and strong, like Otis Redding or Ray Charles – once you’ve heard Latifah you’ll recognize her voice anywhere. But every bit as appealing was the raw star quality. The entrance from upstage right was phenomenal; on she just walked, the house came down shrieking and nobody thought of anything else.
Balanchine was shrewd in “Who Cares” when he used just the Gershwin music and let the dancers take the place of the singer. Because the song was rendered here with such unforgettable vocal force and presence, the dancers just didn’t matter. But nobody cared, not even Hyltin or Ramasar, who seemed as tickled pink and caught up in the moment as everyone else at the curtain.
Photos by Paul Kolnik: (Top) Queen Latifah, Amar Ramsar and Queen Latifah at the curtain of “The Man I Love;” (Middle) Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay in “Soirée Musicale;” (Bottom) Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in “A Place for Us.”