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New York City Ballet

'Chichester Psalms', 'Tarantella', 'NY Import: Opus Jazz'

Robbins wrong

by Harry Matthews

April 29, 2005 -- New York State Theatre, New York City

New York City Ballet has begun a Janus-like season, looking backward to past glories – through the careers of retiring dancers Peter Boal and Jock Soto – and forward with new works by several company members and resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The youthful and prolific Brit, who is taking on Gershwin’s "An American in Paris," has painted a target on his behind with an interview disparaging the Gene Kelly film. Unless the new piece is a work of genius, its reviews are likely to suffer from Wheeldon’s offhanded hubris.

Last Friday, I made my first visit to NYCB this season. There are many positive signs, including young dancers growing into key roles in an exciting way.

There are also some dreary notes, starting with Peter Martins' excruciatingly dull "Chichester Psalms," which offers artfully crafted if amazingly bland stage pictures to accompany one of Leonard Bernstein's more pretentious religious scores. The men wear long black robes apparently borrowed from a gamelan orchestra; the women are in virginal white as is the boy soprano who in this performance was a bit too far on the road to becoming a baritone. The applause barely lasted till the curtain hit the stage, with a polite burst when the largely blameless principals appeared. In a time of financial retrenchment, it's embarrassing to see an overscale turkey (large chorus, large set, guest conductor) gobbling in the NYCB repertory.

Next came "Tarantella", an evergreen Balanchine pas de deux "for dancers fleet of foot and long of breath," as Walter Terry once wrote. Megan Fairchild was cast, most likely, to expand her talents. She has the technique to perform the ballet's demanding steps at its swift tempo, but she does not yet have the confidence to do this fiendish choreography while simultaneously creating a character. She is young and gifted, however, and richer performances are all but inevitable in her future. Her partner was Joaquin de Luz, who eats bravura parts for lunch. Between them, they woke up the audience and prepped them for the main event:

"N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz", a ballet from Jerome Robbins in his West Side Story/Interplay/Moves period, made its NYCB debut on Friday. Robbins sanctioned performances by many companies -- most notably, the Joffrey Ballet, which shared its stunning Ben Shahn backdrops with NYCB -- but felt that Balanchine's dancers were "too classical" to deal with a work built largely around popular dance of the '50s. This production, staged by Edward Verso, who has a long association with Robbins as a dancer and a ballet master, proves Robbins wrong. The history and (original) program notes make the ballet sound terribly dated. But what we saw on stage was alive, crackling with energy, and in its own way, timeless. Even the once-sensational adagio for a black man and a white woman became a touching exploration of youthful hope and passion in the gifted hands (and feet) of Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall. The concluding ensemble variation and fugue brought the house down. The only disappointment was that Verso declined to appear for the ovation he so richly deserved.

The evening ended with an impressively crisp performance of "Stars and Stripes". Sterling Hyltin, Dana Hanson, and Daniel Ulbricht shone as soloists. The pas de deux featured Sofiane Sylve and Stephen Hanna. The Frenchwoman's silky style and subtle humor were impressive; Hanna is a wonderfully attentive partner, but he has yet to develop much charisma when he's alone onstage.

A lot of wonderful dancing seems promised for the future; details to follow!


Edited by Staff.

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