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New York City Ballet

'Walpurgisnacht Ballet', 'Dances at a Gathering', 'Concerto DSCH'. 'Polyphonia', 'For the Love of Duke'

by Jerry Hochman

January 21 and 28, 2011 -- David H. Koch Theater, New York City, NY

Susan Stroman is a Broadway Baby. By that I mean that her apparent goal is to engage
and entertain, not to show off her choreographic abilities or the technical skill of the
dancers who perform her pieces, and not to create ‘important’ or ‘definitive’
or ‘groundbreaking’ works of art. The fact that her works (like “Contact,” “The
Producers,” and “Double-Feature”) display choreographic skill and performing ability,
and in many ways are important, definitive, and groundbreaking, is almost lost in the
glow of pieces that are so much fun to watch.

So it is with Ms. Stroman’s new piece for New York City Ballet, “For the Love of
Duke,” which actually is a double-feature combination of a work previously
choreographed for NYCB in 1999 (“Blossom Got Kissed”); and a new work that had its
world premiere last night (“Frankie and Johnny…and Rose”).

The two pieces separately are wonderful; together they’re marvelous. That they’re
calculated to leave the audience giggling might lead one to conclude that they’re without
substance or value. That would be a mistake. They are small-scale funny valentines that
show off Ms. Stroman’s breadth (from swing to classical ballet; from soft-shoe to
fouettes), her wit, and her ability to take what already is entertaining (the Duke Ellington
music – here deliciously played on-stage by the David Berger Jazz Orchestra) and
transform it into something different, and in some ways even better. They have as
important a place in the repertoire as more ‘serious’ pieces.

“Frankie and Johnny…and Rose” takes its inspiration from the two of the songs used in
the piece (“The Single Petal of a Rose; Frankie and Johnny”), converting them into a
comedic take on one guy’s struggle to stay committed to one girl – a battle he hilariously
loses (so many girls…so little time). Danced in front of, on top of, and behind a couple of
benches behind which the Berger Orchestra is stationed, the male lead, Amar Ramasar,
initially dances ‘in love’ with a first partner, Tiler Peck. At the conclusion of their initial
dance, while lying on the bench, atop Ms Peck, he spies Sara Mearns. Smitten, he dumps
Ms. Peck, and has a fling with Ms. Mearns. Ms. Peck then woos back the befuddled
Romeo, who can’t make up his mind. Eventually, the two girls dump him. Literally. But
he emerges from behind the bench with yet another girl – which provides a perfect segue
to the companion piece (this ‘other girl’ is one of the corps dancers in “Blossom”).

Ms. Peck and Ms. Mearns are two of NYCB’s best. Ms. Peck never ceases to amaze with
the breadth of her ability as a dancer and actress, and here as a comedienne. Ms. Mearns
was a more subtle siren. But Mr. Ramasar, who is an extraordinary partner and comic
foil, stole the piece.

In “Blossom Got Kissed,” Savannah Lowery plays the poor little ballet dancer who can’t
lighten up and have fun (jitterbug) like the other girls, until she’s rescued by a triangle
musician (Robert Fairchild) who teaches her how. Like “Frankie…,” “Blossom…” is
funny and sweet and brilliantly danced. But unlike “Frankie…”, “Blossom” has a corps
of bogeying dancers to share the spotlight, balance things out, and shine on their own.
Amanda Hankes, Lauren Lovette, Lauren King, Meagan Mann, Georgina Pazcoguin,
Brittany Pollack, Sarah Villwock, Daniel Applebaum, Vincent Paradiso, Justin Peck,
Henry Seth, Troy Schumacher, and Giovanni Villalobos, each of whom is still in the
corps, were super. NYCB has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of the
capabilities of their dancers; and, unlike other companies, provides its dancers with the
opportunity to show what they can do – and its audiences with the opportunity to watch
them grow.

The mid-piece on last night’s program was “Polyphonia,” an early (2001) piece by
Christopher Wheeldon, created shortly after he was named NYCB’s artist-in-residence in
2000. It appears to have created a sensation when it debuted (I did not see it at that time),
and with good reason. Choreographed to ten piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, the piece is
visually stunning in the way that Balanchine’s black and white ballets are stunning –
except here the leotards are a vibrant leafy purple. Wheeldon’s work mirrors the
dissonance in Ligeti’s music, but goes beyond that to create a contemporary dance work
of art that is both austere and loaded with indelible images. Taking his cue from
Balanchine’s “Agon,” the piece begins with four couples dancing asymmetrical duets
against a background of their own shadows, and then the asymmetry gradually resolves,
and the couples’ dances mirror each other. The action then is divided into couples, trios, and solos, and eventually ends with the four couples regrouping at the back of the stage, in front of their shadows, as the work began.

Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle were the heart of this piece. As intricate as the
movement quality for them was, it never seemed forced. On the contrary, their duets, as
well as the piece as a whole, moved seamlessly from one musical excerpt, and
one ‘scene,’ to another. The two of them were ably abetted by Jennie Somogyi and
Christian Tworzyanski, and Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley, and Lauren Lovette and
Chase Finlay.

One expects to be blown away by Ms. Kowroski, Mr. Angle, and Ms. Somogyi whenever
they’re on stage, and Mr. Tworzyanski has been used quite a bit recently, for good
reason. And Ms. Pollack and Mr. Stanley, and Ms. Lovette and Mr. Finlay more than
held their own against their more well-recognized colleagues. But Ms. Lovette was
remarkable. In a section of the piece which begins with a duet and continues as a solo,
Ms. Lovette was mesmerizing. The section has an inherent dramatic quality to it (for a
plotless ballet, “Polyphonia” is rich with nuance and hints of emotional gloss), and Ms.
Lovette was not only technically accomplished, she was strikingly expressive without
being the least emotional or melodramatic. It was an unexpectedly exceptional
performance, that was well-received by the usually restrained NYCB audience. Ms.
Lovette appears small and pretty enough to be a cute soubrette, but she also appears to be
talented enough to be a lot more than that.

Concerto DSCH, which I was able to see at both the January 28 and 21 performances, is
a masterfully crafted example of Alexei Ratmansky’s ability to create works that breathe.

Choreographed to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Mr.
Ratmansky’s creation is a tapestry of color and movement that, unfortunately, is also
very difficult to describe. There is a central lyrically romantic couple, danced last night
by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle; an effervescent, non-stop ballerina (last night
Ashley Bouder) accompanied, at times, by two equally buoyant sparkling men (last night,
Joaquin deLuz and Andrew Veyette), all of whom, at various times, are accompanied by
a complimentary corps. [At the January 21 performance, Ana Sophia Scheller was the
bubbly ballerina, Sara Mearns debuted as the girl of the lead couple, and Daniel Ulbricht
also debuted as one of the two men accompanying Ms. Scheller. I preferred the January
21 cast to last night’s cast, but they both were wonderful.]

But a mere description is entirely insufficient to describe what Mr. Ratmansky has crafted. He uses every part of the stage, and creates images that are his own, even though
at times I saw snippets of Balanchine, Tudor, and Paul Taylor. The central image, if there
is one, is a circle in which the corps frequently surrounds the couple, but the piece just as
often seems to have a split-screen effect, where action on one part of the stage is set off
by a complimentary (but not identical) action by part of the corps on the other. Most
remarkable to me is Mr. Ratmansky’s use of choreographic echoes. A series of steps is
danced by the lead couple, and as your eyes move to the ‘supporting’ corps, you see pairs
of corps dancers (or in some cases individual dancers), who had seemed to be executing
different but similar movement, suddenly echoing the movement of the lead couple. The
echoes are sometimes identical images, but just as often variations on a theme. It is a
technique that I’ve seen Mr. Ratmansky use before (actually, in pieces created
subsequent to this one), that I find gives remarkable texture and cohesion to his pieces,
and gives him the opportunity to emphasize images without simply repeating them.

To a large extent, NYCB’s January 21 program was ‘the Sara Mearns show.’ Ms. Mearns
is an unusual dancer. She’s not a sylph, and she appears larger than other dancers –
perhaps because of her bone structure, perhaps because of her height, and perhaps
because of the way she carries herself. She dominates the stage whenever she’s on it, and
as a result is a natural for roles that require such a dominating presence. But her
performances on January 21 convinced me that she’s more than a strong-like-bull dancer;
her dancing, where the choreography calls for it, also displays a lyrical quality that
doesn’t seem to go together with her stage appearance, but she pulls it off magnificently.
As displayed in “Dances at a Gathering” and “Concerto DSCH,” it is a lyricism born of
power and strength, rather than a natural ethereal quality, although I suspect that Ms.
Mearns can pull ‘ethereal’ out of her bun too.

“Dances at a Gathering” is one of Jerome Robbins’s many signature pieces – with good
reason. It is a masterpiece, and seeing it again after a long separation from it like getting
a booster shot for the soul. Familiarity with Robbins’s series of dance gems to Chopin’s
piano miniatures is presumed, and the entire cast, led by Ms. Peck, Mr. Angle, Ms.
Mearns, and particularly Mr.Ramasar (who makes partnering Ms. Mearns look easy)
danced as if it was a premier.

“Walpurgisnacht Ballet ” is a piece created by Balanchine as an entre-acte diversion for a
production of the opera “Faust.” Balanchine decided to present it on its own, but to me it
has always left me waiting for something more – which, of course, there should be. It’s
not one of my favorite Balanchine pieces. The performances, as usual, were all danced
well – particularly by Erica Pereira in her debut. But Ms. Pereira should tone down the
lipstick. She stands out well enough without the added emphasis.

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