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Dances at a Gala Gathering

New York City Ballet
'I'm Old Fashioned,' 'Plainspoken,' 'Tarantella,' 'Western Symphony'

by Jerry Hochman

October 7, 2010 -- David H. Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York

New York City Ballet held its first fall season gala last night. The evening was also the occasion for the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s “Plainspoken.” The gala was the more significant event.

NYCB knows how to throw a party. Outside the theater, a photographers’ area was set up to capture the glitterati attending the performance, fenced in from the gawking general public. In order to get into the theater without circling around the Lincoln Center plaza, it was necessary to pass the through the phalanx of photographers – who somehow were able to separate the wheat from the chaff. It took Sarah Jessica Parker, newly appointed to the NYCB Board (and who looked much more glamorous than was captured in the published photos of her that I’ve seen), at least 15 minutes to walk the roughly 50 feet from the photo-shoot area to the lobby of the theater. [ok – so she was also very accommodating to autograph-seekers.] All that was missing was the red carpet and Joan Rivers.

Inside the theater, the mezzanine area was tastefully decorated in black and white, and most of it was fenced off from the general ballet-going public. Inside this first-class section, the champagne flowed freely. Outside, the champagne also flowed – but you had to pay for it.

The events on stage were another matter. Just as the opening night of NYCB’s fall season was, as I previously reported, like a gala without the baggage, last night’s performance was (with a couple of exceptions) a gala with more baggage than substance.

After a delightful performance of “I’m Old Fashioned,” Jerome Robbins’s saccharin but sublime tribute to Fred Astaire, the evening continued with “Plainspoken,” which Mr. Millepied choreographed to a commissioned score by David Lang. The contemporary score, which for too much of its length sounded like a musical notation of the vibrating buzz made by a bumble bee when it flies too close to your ear, was not unpleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, however, the piece – at least at its beginning – was imprisoned by the music, with steps choreographed to slavishly hit each beat. The movement didn’t enhance the music or detract from it – it was just there. Unfortunately, the ballet concluded the same way. [Until it became overused, I liked Mr. Millepied’s insertion of ‘slouching’ movement at various points (perhaps because, in hindsight, I saw it as a sort of ‘lean on me’ metaphoric connection with the theme of the rest of the piece).]

In between the opening and closing sections of the piece there were signs of life. After the overly long beginning segment (bound by the overly long beginning movement of the score), the cast broke off into pairs and trios, and the choreography seemed to spring to life as Mr. Millepied allowed the music to frame the movement rather than control it. And at that point, it finally became clear that the piece was not only movement to music – it had a definite ‘theme.’ It was, at its core, a series of edgy dances about relationships at a gathering of edgy young people. Yes, Virginia, another relationship ballet.

But, with one exception, the relationships displayed were not pleasing to watch. Particularly unpleasant was a section for Sterling Hyltin and Tyler Angle, which was uncomfortably aggressive and violent. This theme carried over to a trio, with Ms. Hyltin being tossed from one man to another as if she were a piece of meat to be used and abused over and over again. The choreography was nicely done and intensely performed, but it was very uncomfortable to watch.

In terms of accessibility, the best of the pairings, and the most successful choreographically, was that of Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, whose cautiously sweet and commitment-wary performances brought to my mind Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading,” albeit in real, contemporary (read, edgy) time, rather than as a sentiment-laden memory.

“Plainspoken” was followed by outrageously terrific performances from Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht in George Balanchine’s vibrant “Tarantella.” Both dancers pushed the performance envelope with gusto and exuberance, but never went too far. Their performance was easily the highlight of the evening. The closing piece was the final section from Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” led by Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard. It was a fun way to end the evening - although limiting the performance to a section of the piece seemed to be an unfortunate concession to the time needed to accommodate the post-gala performance gala celebrations.

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