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New York City Ballet

'Apollo,' 'New York Export: Opus Jazz,' 'An American in Paris'

Suffering by comparison

by Jerry Hochman

May 7, 2005 -- New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York

There was good news and not so good news at New York City Ballet's matinee. The good news is that masterworks are still being performed and brilliantly so. The not so good news is that the ballet that closed the program, “An American in Paris,” is not in the same league as the other two.

It is an understatement that George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which premiered in 1928 at the Ballets Russes in Paris and with the Company in 1951, is a masterpiece. Although I would have preferred to have seen it with the Prologue, which is omitted in this production (I saw it in a production many years ago), the work represents both the arrival of Balanchine’s neoclassic style and the annunciation of a choreographic genius. It is as if the god Apollo and artist Balanchine were creating each other as the work progresses. “Apollo” is also a remarkably accessible piece of abstract storytelling, exuberantly restrained and awesome in its imagery.

Darci Kistler, Sofiane Sylve, and Miranda Weese were respectively Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, and Calliope. To absolutely no one’s surprise, each delivered a superb, nuanced performance. It was particularly heartening to watch Weese dancing in wonderful form after a lengthy recuperation from an injury. But the pleasant surprise of the performance was Nilas Martins as Apollo. Although not blessed with his father’s noble bearing, Martins was a commanding yet somewhat vulnerable deity. Inspired and enriched by the muses that he creates, he becomes, literally, both enlightened and enlightening.

When I first saw “New York Export: Opus Jazz” many years ago performed by the Joffrey Ballet in New York, I do not recall being particularly impressed. Either the performance was off that night, or I was not open to what I was seeing. I suspect the latter. After being performed by many different companies since its premiere with the Ballets: USA at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto in 1958, “Opus Jazz” finally arrived at Jerome Robbins’ final choreographic home this season. Although it was a long time coming, the wait was worth it, and Robbins, I think, would have been pleased. I certainly was.

“Opus Jazz” recalls a time when American culture was just beginning not only to impact but to be the reference point for much of the world’s cultural expression, and at that time New York was the breeding ground for American culture. Although jazz predates the 50s and did not originate in New York, the jazzy style that New York exported reflected the spiritual discontent and diminished expectations into which early 50s optimism had morphed. Whether the “beat generation” of the late 50s was a reflection of this mood or created it is not something I can competently speak about, but whatever the genesis, this cross between exhilaration and alienation presaged the tumultuous 60s.

Robbins was a superb chronicler and stylist whose dances are more than just choreographic snapshots in time. Whether in works such as “Fancy Free,” “West Side Story,” “Les Noces,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Dybbuk” and even “The Goldberg Variations,” his choreography always seems not just to mirror the times portrayed, but to capture its spirit. “Opus Jazz” is no different. Although the current staging by Edward Verso wisely appears to encourage the dancers to portray the mood of the piece rather than be inhabited by it (only Georgina Pazcoguin, who appeared noticeably different in attitude and expression from the other dancers even before she became identifiable in certain sections of the dance, seemed to “get it”), the staging works because the Robbins choreography, properly taught and executed, works.

But this production of “Opus Jazz” is not simply a recreation. Whether the dancers are “into” it or “imitating” it, the piece is exciting to watch because, even if they may not be quite sure what the late 50s was about, the dancers’ capabilities and exuberance do the Robbins choreography justice. Every dancer was superb, and the fact that most of them are members of the corps is a testament to the company’s strength. In addition to Pazcoguin, most notable because of their highlighted roles were soloist Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall, but the entire group deserves credit, as does Verso for bringing this piece back to life. Although the season’s run for “Opus Jazz” ended with this performance, I understand that it will be part of NYCB’s repertoire for next fall.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “An American in Paris” followed “Apollo” and “Opus Jazz," suffering by comparison. Perhaps it will look better on re-viewing (the other Wheeldon piece I recently saw, “VIII” for ABT, did, and with a different cast). Perhaps it also will appear stronger as a program’s opening piece. But I doubt it. If “An American in Paris” had been a choreographic distillation of the movie from which it was derived, that would have been fine. But Wheeldon’s work is a Readers’ Digest Condensed version. It takes bits and pieces of the movie, but loses the film’s heart and soul. I saw little that was particularly inventive choreographically, and it all seemed a hodgepodge of vignettes.

Particularly distressing were the “crowd scenes,” which looked overly, well, crowded. As the Gene Kelly character, Damian Woetzel tried gamely, but, aside from partnering, there was little for him to do (although the works are not exactly comparable, the difference between Woetzel portraying a Fred Astaire-type character in Susan Stroman's “Double Feature” and the portrayal created by Wheeldon in this piece was glaring). Jenifer Ringer looked the Leslie Caron part, but also didn’t seem to have much to do other than look sweet and get soaring lifts from Woetzel from time to time. Carla Korbes executed well but tried too hard. She was perky and effervescent enough but not nearly as seductive as she should have been.

Despite the disappointment of “An American in Paris,” being able to see two beautifully danced masterworks on one program was sufficient to glow all the way home.

 

Edited by Staff.

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