“Spectral Evidence,” “Soirée Musicale,” “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 10, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2013 © by Michael Popkin
New York City Ballet’s “Contemporary Choreographers” program was a marriage of ballet convenience. “Opposites attract” is another old saying; and the final Thursday night program of NYCB’s fall season proved both saws right. The styles, themes and genres of dance in the triple bill had little in common; but convenience is convenient as long it lasts.
From Angelin Preljocaj’s contemporary French drama based on the Salem Witch trials, through Chistopher Wheeldon’s retro idyll in a debutante ballroom, to Alexei Ratmansky’s impossible-to-define Russian romance, the company danced all three ballets with great commitment.
The thunderous effects and imagery in Angelin Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence” was difficult to parse at its gala premiere in September. Yet over four repertory performances things came into focus. As the cast of four men and four women (you can’t really call them couples) dug into the drama (you can’t really call it ballet either, the steps are as much modern dance) you saw a basic conflict between female power and masculine repression.
From the moment they appear, the women are sensual and provocative with their hair down in Olivier Theyskens’ semi-transparent costumes. The socially dominant men are costumed in clerical black with their hair slicked violently back. They look like characters from the Marquis de Sade.
After repeat viewings, it became thematically significant that apart from Robert Fairchild in the male lead, the men in the ballet are nearly anonymous. But you can always tell the women apart. The cast for all performances had Tiler Peck in the lead with Megan Fairchild, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Gretchen Smith. As Preljocaj conceives of them, something essential in their nature allowed them to attain an individuality (even to die) that the men could not. Their costumes, each with the different, blood red appliqués, incorporated this theme. Each also suffered execution apart, reacting differently. But in a masterful touch, if you saw what was unique to each of them, they still escaped definition. Their individualities were blindingly raw.
The conflict came down to a highly charged duet between Peck and Fairchild. Rendering their sensual collision with sustained intensity, Peck sank deep into her hips to give herself physical and emotional weight. She seemed to plead physically with Fairchild for recognition. When she took him by the shoulders and planted a kiss on his lips, he seemed stunned for a moment.
His following scene was a tour de force, combining dance, wildly mimed gesture, and even theatrical declamation in both English and French (“c’est étrange, n’est-ce pas?”). He looked like Lucifer after the fall in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” bending himself into the shapes of 19th century boulevard villains, all the while speaking in tongues. Among the women Smith, still in the corps de ballet and thus less well known to the audience than the others, was a revelation – tall, willowy and fascinating. Pazcoguin – who always likes to punch choreography – unforgettably portrayed her character’s passion.
The transition from such a level of intensity to the restrained values of classical ballet was bound to be acute, no matter what followed this. It became especially pronounced with “Soirée Musical,” Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet rooted in the danse d’école. Both the music (Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs Ballet Suite”) and Wheeldon’s realization are nostalgic. You could have called his suite of dances set in the suggestion of a 1930’s ballroom “Remembrance of Ballets Past”.
Some important debuts livened things up this final week of the season and the new cast included Ashley Isaacs in the tango and Sara Adams partnered by Zachary Catazaro in the pas de deux. They gave it clarity and, in the case of the lead couple, a dreamy and delicate mood.
Isaacs, with strong technique, proved unusually mature as an interpretive performer at this early point in her career. She used her eyes to flirt with both her suitors and the audience as she pirouetted away from a succession of attracted males, whipping through turns and then balancing in arabesque. Adams and Catazaro imbued their duet with quiet absorption. She was especially well suited to this ballet because of the subtle perfection of her placement and expression. She’s a little more pulled back, more expressive and less casual in her upper body than is usual at NYCB; and her clear leg lines and beautiful pointes helped bring out the homage to Ashton implicit in the pas de deux, especially where Wheeldon has the ballerina carried with her legs extended in a brisée pose, or again where he bends her forward into melting attitudes to the front, presenting her working foot eloquently, during promenades in adagio.
Catazaro is among the company’s most promising young men. Tall with dark hair, he’s a potential principal dancer because of the way you single him out and watch him to the exclusion of others even in an ensemble. Wheeldon re-choreographed the central duet in the ballet last spring on Chase Finlay, but it lost nothing when Catazaro danced it. Among the younger generation of dancers, his development as a dark romantic hero is promising.
The company’s reigning romantic hero is Robert Fairchild, who had already proved it earlier in “Spectral Evidence.” Returning to the lead of Ratmansky’s “Namouna” at the end of the night, he showed this, if possible, even more conclusively.
Made in the winter of 2009 and not seen since the following fall, “Namouna” is rare among Ratmansky’s works for its non-Russian musical score and straightforward psychological tone. The music is a suite of dances from Edouard Lalo’s 19th century French ballet of the same name. (Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” uses the same score, only less of it and in a different order). But Ratmansky discards Lalo’s scenario of pirates and slave girls and substitutes a rough plot of a hero tempted by, and forced to choose among, three women.
There’s the usual Ratmansky-esque overflow of elements: grand tableaux for the corps de ballet, comic solos, demi-caractère numbers, and full scale Bolshoi heroics. But unlike the choreographer’s recent works to Shostakovich, the romantic element is never subverted. The hero has the chance to dance with the cigarette girl but refuses. Likewise he won’t engage with the Mazurka girl; she too dances alone. Yet after a scene of despair, he falls in love with the heroine in white – a role made on Wendy Whelan. In a transcendent duet full of press lifts for this couple, Ratmansky lets the lush emotionalism of Lalo’s score work for him.
At its debut four years ago, the male lead was a triumph for Fairchild and solidified his arrival as a mature ballet star. Yet he was missed in the three opening performances of the revival this fall, along with some of the other key cast members. Wendy Whelan was absent recovering from hip surgery and Jenifer Ringer, who was supposed to reprise her comic number of “La Cigarette,” had to pull out the day before the first performance. Until this fourth performance, of the original leads in the ballet, only Sara Mearns continued to dance. Meanwhile, Tyler Angle (replacing Fairchild) made the male lead look cute instead of sincerely innocent; Sterling Hyltin looked physically too slight for Whelan’s shoes; and Ashley Bouder was both too small and broadly comic. What looked witty and sophisticated on Ringer look silly and slapstick.
Happily on Thursday, restoring Fairchild to the lead and casting Rebecca Krohn opposite him in Whelan’s role cured the ills. “Namouna” came back into crisp focus. You cared what happened to Fairchild’s romantic hero. When he collapsed on the beach at the end of “La Sieste,” his distress registered as sincere. A “real character” (that contradiction in fiction’s terms) had come into being. When Krohn rescued him during the final scenes, the concluding pas de deux read as meaningful happiness after suffering, and exploited the grandeur of the music. Fairchild’s dancing in the challenging choreography also showed superb musicality. Having come to ballet late, his early jazz training has left him with a feel for flowing through steps in a musical whole; and meanwhile his classical technique has caught up. He’s the quintessential NYCB dancer because he doesn’t instinctively want to stay on center, but is far happier on the move.
Opposite him, Krohn equally brought the ballet to life. Like Fairchild, she’s tall and dark; and is every bit as natural a romantic heroine as Fairchild is a hero. It was surprising at first how beautifully Whelan’s material suited her; but she was also perfect two seasons back in another of Whelan’s great Ratmansky roles: the virginal heroine (in white) who holds the stage at the end of “The Russian Seasons.” Her sincere, open persona suited the material in “Namouna,” but so did her dance chops. She stayed centered and strong in the core of her body, coordinating her long, eloquent limbs. She and Fairchild did cut the last press lift short in the final duet, where the ballerina is on high in a swallowtail pose, supported on her partner’s hands. It was their first time out and anyway it didn’t matter. They’d restored the ballet’s essential balance.
In the context of such a long and various evening of dance and drama, “Namouna” perhaps even read more intelligibly than usual. When you’d already absorbed the distance between Preljocaj’s Euro-Dram auto-da-fé and Wheeldon’s debutante ball, the contents of Ratmansky’s bag of dance tricks even seemed relatively homogenous. Meanwhile, over the course of an evening a theme had emerged. The three works represented distinct artistic lineages - French-German, New York formalist, and Russian; and even within those genealogies the three choreographers all had most individual voices. What a variety and range. Altogether you saw the continued vitality of ballet and theater dance.
Photographs by Paul Kolnik (top to bottom): Dancers of New York City ballet in “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement;” Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in “Spectral Evidence;” Sara Adams and Zachary Catazaro in “Soirée de Ballet;” Rebecca Krohn and Robert Fairchild in “Namouna.”