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New York City Ballet - American Festival

'Fancy Free,' 'Calcium Light Night,' 'Sonatas and Interludes,' 'Stars and Stripes'

Has Johnny gone for a soldier?

by Jeff Kuo

May 28, 2004 -- New York State Theater, New York City

Three sailors cruising the town, cadets leaping like stallions, big smiles and salutes everywhere: bracketing Friday's offering of NYCB's American Festival with sailor-soldier ballets was like asking, exactly how American is the symbol of the man in uniform? In American iconography we have George Washington crossing the Delaware River, marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, G.I. Joe, and of course Yankee Doodle Dandy. But grape shot and canister, and the fire and storm of battle tend not to sum up the American myth in the same way in which that old sea dog, Sir Francis Drake's annihilation of the Spanish Armada bespeaks the triumph of the Elizabethan monarchy. While von Moltke's victory over the French at Sedan literally brought into being the modern German state, America came into being at the behest of tax dodgers and slave drivers, as our British cousins doubtless still incorrectly believe.

"Fancy Free," which premiered in 1944, was Jerome Robbins' choreographic debut and was an immediate hit. Its story about the adventures of three sailors on leave in the big city doubtless captured an unique sense of metropolitan America. What Robbins did was combine the cliché of the gum chewing, skirt chasing, braggart American sailor with the elegance of Astaire and the excitement of contemporary social dance idioms. The ballet treats the sailors with a broadly humorous touch, not in any small way owing to Bernstein's very listenable score. If we like the sailors -- and we must -- the secret is that it's not for their tomfoolery or camaderie. It's because the score adores them. When it's corky, we see boys being boys; when it's lush, we see Astaire; and when it's earnestly seductive -- what a show.

Yet, the world has changed a lot since 1944, and this performance has made me realize for the first time that "Fancy Free" is a vintage ballet and of the same era, for instance, as Lew Christensen's "Filling Station" (1938), staged within recent years by San Francisco Ballet. "Filling Station" also used stock American characters such as the bored station attendant, the hen pecked husband, the inebriated socialite, and the hoodlum -- but seemingly expanded these characters only into a tedious, cartoonish mediocrity. That's not the problem here.

In "Fancy Free," when the sailors tease the first girl and steal her handbag, American Ballet Theatre's staging has always been careful to show that it's all harmless fun. New York City Ballet's sailors weren't delinquents but thugs, and the girl wasn't just feisty but combative. If this would ever be staged in the present, I'd be afraid a canister of pepper spray would appear in her hands and the ballet would have a rather quicker ending. Even the ballet's show stopping dance competition numbers for the three sailors seemed somehow off, as if they were ballet dancers imitating old RKO and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.

The sailors were Joaquin De Luz, Arch Higgins, and Benjamin Millepied. If I were a mugger, I'd think twice about taking anything away from Amanda Hankes. Rachel Rutherford was the romantic pas de deux girl, and Rebecca Krohn kept them panting. Andrew Veyette was the Bartender. The scenery was by Oliver Smith, costumes by Kermit Love, and lighting by Ronald Bates. Maurice Kaplow conducted.

Peter Martins' "Calcium Light Night" and Richard Tanner's "Sonatas and Interludes" came after the intermission. The Martins ballet set to compositions by Charles Ives and the Tanner piece set to music for prepared piano by John Cage are not easy to love, though one must try for the sake of Alexandra Ansanelli and Edwaard Liang ("Calcium") and Maria Kowroski and Jock Soto ("Sonatas"). One never tires of watching Kowroski or Soto. Elaine Chelton played the piano.

A time when America is at war is not the best time to bring up the seeming patriotic vulgarity of Balanchine's "applause machine," his all-American Sousa ballet, "Stars and Stripes." Fortunately, censorship is not necessary since I love this ballet, kitsch and all. "Stars and Stripes" has nothing whatsoever to do with the military, war, or even heroism. Think "Rockettes," not "rockets" -- these Corcoran Cadets and Rifle Regimenteers sport majorette hats, lavender or blue tutu skirts with matching tunics; accessorize with eye catching buttons, ribbons, and trim; and sport white gloves and anklet socks. Ashley Bouder leading the Corcoran Cadets would have made small town America proud twirling her baton, and Ellen Bar looked smashing leading the tall girls' Rifle Regiment.

I would set Adam Hendrickson's quite smart looking "Thunder and Gladiator" campaigners against anything in Petipa. These young men (many of draft registration age) are no cannon fodder for the Somme or Fort Douaumont like the mustachioed lieutenants and captains of Balanchine apres moi le deluge fantasy, "Vienna Waltzes." Here are the officers of a Jane Austen world who face only the dangers of the balls at Meryton or socials in Brighton. It's unthinkable to imagine these officers interrogating prisoners in Iraqi jails -- cards, dice, and silly wives are their only hazards.

It would be difficult to imagine anything more brilliantly "politically correct" in its racially diverse Americanness than the casting of guest artists Tai Jimenez and Duncan Cooper from Dance Theatre of Harlem  in "Liberty Bell" and "El Capitan."  Unfortunately, Jimenez's and Cooper's performances were listless. Jimenez's arms seemed casual and her line weak. Cooper seemed to visibly tire as he danced, though his solo variations were properly fiery. Fortunately, the troops came to the rescue in the Fifth Campaign, "Stars and Stripes," pulling all the theatrical stops out with a big, flag waving finish.

Richard Fletcher conducted.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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