“Divertimento No. 15,” “Tombeau de Couperin,” “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”
School of American Ballet
2013 Workshop Benefit Performance
Peter J. Sharp Theater
New York, NY
June 4, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Popkin
Even with awards given to both Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo for their three decades leading the school, the strongest testimonial to both was the performance that followed.
Featuring all Balanchine ballets, this year’s program made a fresh and lucid statement, especially among the women. Opening the evening in “Divertimento No. 15,” the five female soloists looked good on the move. More than Vaganova trained dancers would be at a similar age, they were comfortable dancing off center and flowing through enchainements. The ballet shows off those very qualities: there’s almost no grand allegro in it until the very end and, with everything half speed, the dancers’ phrasing is prominent.
“Walpurgisnacht Ballet” staged by Susan Pilarre got a rousing performance. Different in tone, a show stopper to the ballet music from Gounod’s “Faust,” it can handle raw energy and got it here, as well as full measures of youthful beauty from the ensemble of women.
A precocious star performance from this year’s third Wien award winner, Isabella LaFreniere rounded this out. Partnered ably by Mayim Stiller, LaFreniere was tall, strong, displayed a mature technique, and danced musically. Turning beautifully, and presenting lines that recalled Sara Mearns, flowing through her back and into her working leg in attitude and arabesque, she held the stage in both her solo entrances and adagios. You can never predict a young dancer's future based on a workshop performance. They have to continue to dance well, stay healthy, be lucky, receive the support of direction and also get the opportunities to dance. That’s quite a list. Still, many professional performances of this role don’t reach the level LaFreniere showed here. Hoots and hollers greeted the curtain; ”Walpurgisnacht” is a ballet that needs excitement, musical drive and star presence, and got all of them. In what was, for many of the performers, their first major performance out of the studio, under the spotlights and dancing to live music before an audience, youth and adrenalin fueled the piece.
Yet as good as these two ballets were, the middle work on the program , “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (mounted by NYCB’s ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy along with Arch Higgins) offered the evening’s richest experience. The Ravel score had a particularly rich sonority in the Juilliard School theater with its brilliant acoustics . Although played by a pick-up orchestra (conducted by NYCB’s Daniel Capps) the music’s French orchestration rose to fill the vertical, Baroque inspired space, immersing you in poetic sound. Meanwhile the two quadrilles on stages, for the most part students from this year’s graduating class - the D women and Advanced men - could not have been more musically responsive and emotionally touching.
The group's cohesion gave the performance impact. Watching the senior students, you realized that this – the last workshop performance of their final year – was probably the last time most of them would ever dance together; and you sensed that they felt it.
For years in the studio, these women had finished every class with center floor exercises. Trained to the art together, they had moved across the studio as one. But the long series of class diagonals now ended here: this was the final music for the group, now not just piano but an entire orchestra - but the last time for them all the same. In lines, linking hands, the groups moved this way and that, a couple of pliés, then two women balancing each other in facing arabesques, the rear feet extending. Where would they be next year at this time; where in even a week? No one knew. Promotions and apprenticeships hadn’t yet been announced. But for the duration there was still this dance. They were beautiful.
Photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of the School of American Ballet: (top) Isabella LaFreniere and Mayim Stiller in “Walpurgisnacht Ballet;” (middle) ensemble with Daniela Aldrich in “Divertimento No.15;” (bottom) SAB students in “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”