“La Sonnambula,” “Prodigal Son,” “Firebird”
New York City Ballet
The David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 29, 2017
by Michael Popkin
© 2017 by Michael Popkin
What do we look for when dancers take on new roles? For every “star is born” performance there’s probably a flop. Reshuffling the deck in three Balanchine story ballets on Sunday afternoon, New York City Ballet posed the question by casting no fewer than nine dancers in debuts. The answers were at neither extreme; instead the message was promise. The ballets looked fresh and spontaneous but the price of the new was, well, novelty in dramatic interpretation. And in the end it was the non-debut in the program (Ashley Bouder as the Firebird, replacing an injured Isabelle LaFreniere, and thus forestalling what was to have been yet another debutante going into a leading role) that reminded us how much experience in a role lends to a performance.
Ashley Bouder in "Firebird." Photo © Paul Kolnik.
In the middle of this, Kretzschmar’s portrayal of the Sleepwalker was relatively traditional and very strong. The twenty-four year old is still in the corps de ballet, well proportioned with long arms and legs and at the tall end of middle height, showed nerves of steel and indeed a hunger for the spotlight in this, her first time out in a leading role that bodes very well for her future. The pas de bourrées were liquid and strong, her control of her leggy body admirably coordinated, and her dance phrasing beautifully musical across the melody of her duet with Catazaro. In fact where he tended to be physically soft and often turned in from the point of view of classical placement, Kretzchmar was rigorously correct. If she was very corporeal, the Sleepwalker is after all a woman and not a wraith.
“Prodigal Son,” following on the bill, showed the same spirit of dramatic innovation with Anthony Huxley in the title role and Miriam Miller as the Siren both going into their roles for the first time. Here Huxley displayed some huge leaps in the opening scene of revolt against paternal authority but then gave his character an open and vulnerable personality by underplaying the potential melodrama. Psychologically present, he was curious with the drinking companions, somewhat attracted to the Siren and during the long crawl home he nearly stood at times; his trying to stand but repeatedly falling down relieved what can sometimes be a monotonous portion of the work. Still it also must be said that this was a physically light and very classically correct representation in a role that is generally danced with more physical weight.
Paradoxically it was Miller who delivered the more knockout performance in her debut than did Huxley. Despite struggling with the physical demands of her role, her casting was perfect. Tall and blond, with a very plumb carriage in her upper body and the placement of her head, she was unforgettably icy and cold, seducing the audience perhaps even more than she did Huxley in the seduction duet. While she did become slack in her torso, and the duet ended with her briefly falling off of Huxley’s calves (it was unclear of course whether he or she was responsible), the debut was more than justified by the promise of this performance. Not since Helene Alexopoulos retired from this role has NYCB possessed a woman more naturally suited to it.
Best of all, as they had in “La Sonnambula,” the new cast here justified their debuts by a performance that was very in the moment. Yes the accents were different and sometimes less than well thought out, but the displacement of characterization looked like the price for keeping the works dramatically alive.
That there is a lot to be said for experience in a role as well as youth and freshness was all the same pointedly demonstrated in “Firebird,” which ended the evening. Here, Ashley Bouder delivered an extraordinarily powerful rendition of the title role supported by Silas Farley and Emilie Gerrity, who made debuts beside her as Prince Ivan and the Prince’s Bride.
Phrasing with a musical instinct that illuminated the choreography and the music, always remaining in marvelous control of her physical instrument so that her transitions from, say, a partnered attitude front to arabesque with a wrapped leg were accomplished with an ease and grace that took one’s breath away, Bouder showed an emotional intensity in the role that kept it fresher than any newcomer could have rendered it.
Moments of balance in stillness achieved astonishing dramatic effect within the flow of her performance at least twice: first about one third of the way through the opening duet, when she balanced in sous-sus against a long trill in the strings as Farley backed away from her, she stood silent just a beat longer than necessary to highlight the moment. When again, at the end, she turned on point and balanced in a backbend for a heartbeat, trembling in bourrées before backing into the wings at the end of the hushed berceuse, one remembered how Bouder too had made her debut in this ballet once upon a winter Thursday evening in 2001, going into the role on extremely short notice when Margaret Tracey was unable to dance.
Supporting her in this cast, the tall, intelligent Farley proved himself more than just the marvelous character dancer he has often appeared to be. His rendition of the Prince had classical finish while at the same time the strength of his partnering impressed during the opening duet. Staying just close enough to Bouder to keep her on her leg and finding her center of gravity, Farley displayed instincts that may take him far in a Balanchine repertory where partnering matters immensely. Gerrity, in her solos with the maidens and then duets with the prince, showed beautiful lines and a sensitive understanding of the drama.