New York City Ballet
'Thou Swell', 'Tarantella', 'Western Symphony', 'West Side Story Suite'
by David Mead
March 19, 2008 -- London Coliseum
After the disappointments of the Robbins programme and the mixed bag that was programme 3, New York City Ballet’s final London programme finally gave us the excitement and good time feel we were all looking for. It was not however the best of starts.
Like Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance)”, Peter Martins’ “Thou Swell” is another ballet created as part of the Richard Rogers birth centenary celebrations. First impressions are promising, an art-deco ballroom dominated by a giant mirror hung above the stage at such an angle that those in the lower levels see everything in duplicate, the men in tuxedos, the women in the most glorious dresses, a three-piece band in the corner, and two singers to help things along. But first impressions can be misleading. The work is pleasant enough but it takes a good twenty minutes to really get going. The couples dance to songs that come thick and fast, occasionally coming together, occasionally getting a rest as four delightful dancing waitresses take the floor. The ladies, especially Darci Kistler and Sara Mearns, looked great and equally at home with the grace or occasional speed Martins’ choreography required. The men however looked much less sure and all too often seemed very stiff and uncomfortable, although it has to be said that the second performance was a distinct improvement on the first. The exception was Amar Ramascar, who has been a delight throughout the season and who along with his partner Mearns simply radiated the feeling Martins seems to be looking for.
The season suddenly exploded into sheer brilliance the second Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht burst on to the stage for George Balanchine’s “Tarantella”. From the very first slapping of hands you just knew this was going to be something special and boy did they deliver. Ulbricht gave a performance full of bravura and energy. His leaps and turns around the stage were so high and fast you felt he could be stopped for speeding at any moment. But they were not just fast, they were precise. And you couldn’t help feeling sorry for his tambourine, which was hit with such force that it started to fall apart, the final beat on it as he exited after his solo sending discs flying in all directions. And Bouder was not to be outdone. She simply oozed quality and is clearly a star in the making. Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia the following evening equally didn’t put a foot wrong, but they were not in the same league.
While there are a few ballets that scream ‘America’ and ‘Balanchine’, the most fun just has to be “Western Symphony”. It’s long been an audience favourite and it’s easy to understand why. Easy on the eye and easy on the ear, Balanchine’s ode to the American West, full of cowboys and chorus dancers is a delight from start to finish.
Everyone threw themselves into it with great enthusiasm. The performances from both the principals and corps were wonderfully sharp as they revelled in the choreography that’s very classical but that equally draws heavily on square dance, Western mannerisms and even galloping horses. All three principal pairs gave performances to be proud of. Nilas Martins, who looked so unhappy in “Thou Swell”, suddenly seemed completely at home, while Abi Stafford’s extensions simply took the breath away. In the Adagio, Albert Evans’ Rhinestone Cowboy is so over the top it’s hilarious. When he just stands there and grins at the audience you can’t help but laugh along. And Sterling Hyltin is no stranger to comedy either. In the Rondo, Teresa Reichlen and Stephen Hanna looked like they were trying to outdo Bouder and Ulbricht, so fast were their pirouettes and tours.
And so to “West Side Story Suite”, Robbins’ distilled version of his choreography from the wonderful musical. Although it is very much a piece for the men, in some ways by trimming the story down to thirty minutes or so, Robbins actually emphasises the connection with “Romeo and Juliet”. And like all good choreography, it seems so simple. The whole piece was performed with great gusto and feeling. Damien Woetzel, due to retire at the end of the season, gave us a Riff that had the ladies swooning from the moment the curtain went up. At one performance he was even greeted with a few wolf whistles! Unusually, the dancers are required to sing, and while they may not be the best you’ve ever heard, having someone else do it would take so much away from the work.
Looking back, on the whole it was a wonderful season. If there was a disappointment, apart from “Russian Seasons”, it was the Robbins programme. It seemed strange to bring “The Concert”, a work The Royal Ballet actually dances quite well, when there is so much more to choose from. It would have been nice, for example, to see something not performed here such as the delightful “Interplay”.
It’s great that the company not only recognises and remains true to its heritage but equally is unafraid to produce and programme new works. It would be nice to think another company down the road from the Coliseum might take note. Of course, City Ballet is fortunate to have the backing of the Irene Diamond Foundation for the considerable financial backing to do this. A regular flow of new works are essential for any living company. Having said that, and while “In Vento” was a stunning success (and recognised as such by audiences), the company still however looks at its vibrant best when it looks back to Robbins and especially Mr. B.
There were so many highlights it almost seems unfair to pick some out. But here we go anyway. Damien Woetzel was at his boyish, bouncy best in both “Carousel (A Dance)” and “West Side Story Suite.” He is going to be missed when he retires in the summer. “Carousel” also gave us a glimpse of the delightfully innocent Tiler Peck in a principal role. She is clearly a great talent and a star in the making. Darci Kistler was as gorgeous as ever and a joy to watch. Consistenly good among the men was Amar Ramasar, who seems to be one of those dancers who says “watch me”. And we do! The most explosive individual performance though was that of Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht in “Tarantella”. Energy by the sackful, but equally great speed and precision. I remember seeing these two a few years ago in their graduation performances at the School of American Ballet and thinking they had great futures. The great news is they are getting better and better.
Of the works themselves, “In Vento” was easily the best of the newer works and quite spellbinding. And then of course there was Balanchine. In “Western Symphony” he really was at his exuberant best, and the company dance it with just the zest it deserves. Corny, yes; over the top, yes; but great fun? You bet! And finally, “Serenade”. Yes, it’s a signature work and you would expect it to be done well, but it was quite simply beautiful. Even better, it was danced with just that bit of extra energy and speed that British companies so often fail to give it.
And of course, there is the sheer energy of the whole company. Every dancer in every performance gave their all. A friend overheard someone say that the men seemed to have springs in their shoes. Quite. Everything was delivered in spades.
So it’s time to say goodbye. Memo to Peter Martins: Don’t leave it so long next time.