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New York City Ballet

Spring 2012 Gala:

'Mes Oiseaux', 'Two Hearts', 'Symphony in C'

by Jerry Hochman

May 10, 2012-- David Koch Theater, New York, NY

As has come to be the case recently, New York City Ballet’s ‘Spring Gala’ performance was like any other performance – except this gala featured two world premieres, choreographed by Peter Martins and Benjamin Millepied, and had a ‘theme’: a ‘Salute to France’. The evening’s composers are all French, Mr. Millepied hails from France; and the costume designers for the premieres are French. And the Paris Opera Ballet will be in town in July.

The Mezzanine (the DHK web site refers to it as the “Promenade,” but no one I know calls it that), a large space where audience members can purchase souvenir T-shirts, snack on candy, sip champagne, and people-watch on a level playing field, was closed off to the ‘uninvited audience,’ open instead only to the patrons who support the company to a far greater extent than just with the price of a ticket. Into this springtime-lovely thicket of reserved tables and reserved space , the non-performing dancers, to be joined later for a post-performance dinner by those who danced on stage that evening, mingled with the patrons, smiling, joking, cheek-kissing, and having photographs taken with them. As viewed looking down from the narrow upper tier promenades that encircle the Mezzanine floor like cascading terraces, with le tout DHK lining the inner railings to view the celebrants and celebrities below, it all looked like a contemporary take on a post-performance reception in Paris, designed by Monet or Renoir, captured by some twenty-first century Degas.

The world premiere ballets were also ‘contemporary takes’ on styles we’ve seen before. There was nothing really ‘new’ here – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just an observation. To this viewer, the new M & M pieces were uneven – neither embarrassingly bad, nor breathtakingly good. I enjoyed them both, but can’t gush over either of them (as I did last week with my belated first view of Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV: Dance A Grand Vitesse,” which is nothing short of miraculous). Mr. Millepied’s piece is the more ambitious of the two, but I’ll begin this discussion, as did the evening, with Mr. Martins’s new work.

“Mes Oiseaux” translates as “My Birds”. Since “Mes Oiseaux” is not the tittle of the score to which it is choreographed (“Trio No. 1, for violin, cello, and piano, composed in 2009 by Marc-Andre Dalbavie), the ballet’s title must have a meaning more specific to the piece. I took it to describe both the piece’s male dancer’s view of the three ballerinas with whom he interacts, and Mr. Martins’s view of his flock of very promising new company dancers. “Mes Oiseaux” succeeded more on the latter level.

Whether Mr. Martins is a superbly able teacher with a great eye for dancers who are much more than merely very talented, or the beneficiary of the efforts of extraordinary SAB teachers, or some combination of the two, is not knowable. At least by me. But the four young dancers whom Mr. Martins selected for his new ballet: Lauren Lovett, Ashly Isaacs, Claire Kretzschmar, and Taylor Stanley, represent the latest examples of the continuing flow of future stars into a company that supposedly has no stars.

The piece opens with the three women entering the stage, and then moving sequentially from one angular pose to another. Mr. Stanley then enters. He dances with each girl, as if sampling her, and as the piece proceeds, each girl dances solo, then again with Mr. Stanley, with each other, as duos, trios, and foursomes.

Accompanied (and limited) by the lugubrious score, at the beginning it was like watching molasses slowly crystalize. But that’s not entirely fair – the movement was not uninteresting to watch, albeit nothing new, and the choreographed pace at times became more dynamic to match the intermittent acceleration in the musical tempo. And although Mr. Martns had his young dancers move and pose with the angular forms that we’ve seen from him since “Calcium Light Night,” there was a soft-edge to the movement, less rigorous and detached, less mechanical. A kinder, gentler, almost sensual Martins, but definitely Martins.

What made the piece interesting to this viewer (other than its cast), but which also highlighted its failings, is that it appears to have a plot of sorts – although Mr. Martins doesn’t seem fully committed to the concept. There were choreographic echoes to “Apollo,” and to your standard ‘faun-meets-nymphs-and-doesn’t–quite know-what-to-do-with-them’ ballet. This is, after all, ‘My Birds,” and the piece displayed Mr. Stanley interacting with, being intrigued by, but ultimately unwilling to choose between his birds, and they depart, leaving him alone and obviously frustrated.

If this all sounds like a contemporary homage to “L’apres-midi d’un faune” (which has a few French connections of its own), that’s the way it appeared to me. [And the sense of a contemporary take on the faun/nymph theme was aided in no small measure by elegantly simple and sensual costumes, created by Gilles Mendel. The attractively cut basic black outfits, with the women’s short skirts edged in different colors, made the dancers look like ultra-chic contemporary nymphs.] But if this was Mr. Martins’s objective, its expression was too vague and too subtle; too dependent on whether the viewer has a predisposition to search for and decipher hidden meanings that an artist may have encoded in a particular work of art, or, like this viewer, to see things in a piece that may not be there.

On the other hand, if considered as recognition and celebration of Mr. Martins’s baby ‘birds’, “Mes Oiseaux” was a rousing success. [And if I do not include a discussion of Mr. Stanley, it’s not because I faulted his performance – on the contrary, he already displays the fine partnering ability and stage presence that is a hallmark of NYCB’s male danseurs. I just don’t think he’s one of Mr. Martins’s ‘birds’.]

I’ve written about Ms. Lovette previously. It’s difficult to believe that her stunning debut in Mr. Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” was little more than a year ago. If I gushed anymore about this young ballerina, people might start questioning my objectivity. Even in a piece like “Mes Oiseaux,” where nothing more than doing the steps is required, Ms. Lovette adds a quality of intensity that makes the part more than it would otherwise be, and she does that, somehow, with every role in which I’ve seen her. NYCB leadership is taking it slowly with her, as they should, not pushing her prematurely into roles she may not yet be able to handle. But I suspect that the number of such roles is quickly diminishing.

Ms. Isaacs is also one of the new generations of NYCB ballerinas to watch. Following last year’s ‘Dancers Choice’ performance, I observed that her ‘Polyhymnia’ (in Balanchine’s “Apollo”) was crisply and powerfully performed. Her role in “Mes Oiseaux” didn’t require the same demonstration of power, but it did require clarity, which Ms. Isaacs delivered. She also added a quality of understated warmth and unexpected sweetness to her stage persona. It will be interesting to watch her grow as well.

I don’t recall previously seeing Ms. Kretzschmar. If there was any dancer who was the centerpiece to “Mes Oiseaux” (other than Mr. Stanley), it was she – although it’s difficult to tell whether this is because her role in the piece was intended to be dominant, or she dominated by her presence (Ms. Kretzchmar is tall and blonde, and appeared to tower over Ms. Lovette and Ms. Isaacs, who are both brunettes). Regardless, Ms. Kretzchmar displayed crystalline control and the kind of dynamic attack that usually only comes with experience.

It was thrilling to see these baby birds showcased as successfully as they were, even if the piece itself wasn’t an unqualified success. It sends a clear message of justifiable pride and confidence in these young dancers, and of a commitment to nurture them to become tomorrow’s stars.

To this viewer, “Two Hearts,” doesn’t look particularly like a Millepied ballet. Instead of the self-indulgent technical excesses and dark, angst-ridden undercurrents that mark many of earlier works, “Two Hearts” is light, airy, accessible, and even touching. That it is not, ultimately, as successful as it might have been is unfortunate, particularly since its relatively minor flaws are evident in major sections of the piece.

The focus of “Two Hearts” is its lead couple, danced with their usual brilliance by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, who are supported by a corps of six men and six women. The commissioned score, by Nico Muhly (with whom Mr. Millepied has previously collaborated) ‘draws inspiration’, according to the program notes, from the Northern European folk song, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.” The piece is similarly inspired: it has an engaging, folksy quality to it, and the simple, very contemporary white-with-black-stripe (vertical, horizontal, diamond-shaped) costumes, created by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, surprisingly complement this folk sense.

Mr. Millepied has fashioned some inventive choreography for the corps, injecting a great deal of variety into his movement quality while making it all appear natural and uncomplicated. Not only were individual corps segments interesting, Mr. Millepied transformed the corps, at times, into a kaleidoscope of black and white ‘color’.

But, for this viewer, where Mr. Millepied was less successful was where it mattered most: in the duets for the lead couple, and in the piece’s structure.

When Ms. Peck and Mr. Angle appear during the course of the piece, the choreography engenders an overall sense of gentleness, appropriate for lovers’ duets inspired by a folk ballad. But instead of building on this folksy realism, the choreography for the pas de deux becomes overly visually complicated, idiosyncratic and artificial, with unnecessary jerky sudden changes of direction, even head movements, which detract from the sense of quiet tenderness that the duets are trying to convey. As much as I wanted to be drawn into the duets, Mr. Millepied’s technical ticks kept getting in the way.

Further, although the piece’s folk inspiration can be felt throughout, there is no specific reference to the folk song that is identified in the program as the piece’s inspiration until after “Two Hearts” seems to reach its natural end, at which point the duet to ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor’, sung by Dawn Landes, is tacked on as a denouement (if earlier musical melodies foreshadowed the song, I didn’t catch them).

This obviously was an artistic choice; a choreographic summation of the diffuse folksiness in the body of the piece, but it comes across as superfluous, as well as something of a let-down, and it goes on much too long. [Although the comparison is a stretch, it was as if the love duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Estancia” had been moved from its central location in the piece to become a somewhat disconnected post-action commentary on the piece itself.] I appreciate Mr. Millepied’s effort to structure the piece a little differently, and in another context it might have worked, but to this viewer, for this piece, it didn’t.

“Symphony in C”, which Balanchine created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, and which was included in NYCB’s first program the following year, was spiffed up for the occasion (and for its return to the NYCB rep this season after a lengthy absence) with new costumes designed by NYCB’s Director of Costumes, Mark Happel. Added sparkle was provided by Swarovski (though the performance, led by Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle, Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford, Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz, and Ms. Peck and Adrian Danchig-Waring, really didn’t need more sparkle than Balanchine’s choreography and the dancers’ effervescence provided). Swarovski is headquartered in Switzerland. But at this gala, even the Swarovski Elements looked French.


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