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New York City Ballet

'Interplay', 'Afternon of a Faun', 'Antique Epigraphs', 'The Concert'

by Jerry Hochman

May 21, 2011 -- David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

There was a period of time, after the passing of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, when it seemed that the artistic management of New York City Ballet tried to change the focus of the company from the Balanchine/Robbins repertoire to “new” ballets created by contemporary choreographers. Although some of these new works were successful, many were greeted with disdain, and there was ‘talk’ that NYCB had lost its edge and was adrift.

If this ever was the case, it is no longer. Over the past few years, NYCB has found a proper balance between old and new, and, with a new generation of dancers, the company has enabled its audiences to rediscover, and perhaps to appreciate in a different way, the dances that are its heritage.

So it was with Saturday evening’s program, consisting of four pieces by Jerome Robbins: “Interplay,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Antique Epigraphs,” and “The Concert,” each of which illustrates Mr. Robbins’s breadth and creativity, and, more importantly, the ‘human’ quality that he wove into the fabric of his work. While, for this viewer, “Antique Epigraphs” was the evening’s most pleasant surprise, “Interplay” was great fun to see again, and “The Concert” was, and likely always will be, an evergreen comic masterpiece. But the evening’s centerpiece was his landmark “Afternoon of a Faun.”

First choreographed to Debussy’s 1894 score by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes, “L’apres-midi d’un faune” reportedly created a sensation at its 1912 premiere. Having seen the original production remounted by Rudolf Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet in New York in 1981 (included in an evening-long tribute to Nijinksy), I can understand why: the piece shocks all the senses. On the one hand, there is Debussy’s lush, impressionist music. On the other hand is a primeval forest tableau created by Leon Bakst’s equally lush, but expressionist sets and costumes. And on the third hand are the performances as choreographed by Nijinksy – restrained as if only partially liberated from canvas or stone, but beneath which were clearly-expressed volcanic passions. The style of the piece is a an amalgam of enigmatic Greek frozen images, Asian restraint and inward contemplation, the explosive color of Henri Rousseau, and the color blocks and fractured images of evolving contemporary (1912) French art.

In the story, the daydreaming faun, resting from whatever a faun rests from, spies a gaggle of nymphs parading before him (whether the encounter between the nymphs and the faun is real or imaged does not matter). The faun becomes aroused by the lead nymph, they have a highly stylized and controlled encounter, the nymphs exit, and the faun climaxes as he holds, and wraps himself in, the scarf that the lead nymph leaves behind. Through it all, the audience watches as if they were voyeurs, intruding on the faun’s private moment.

In the production I saw, Nureyev, by that point nearing the end of his career, displayed more than his usual primitive virility: his desire for the Leader of the Nymphs was feral, restrained only by some imposed code of conduct (‘societal norm’?), that forced him to keep his impulses under control. And when his lust for the Leader of the Nymphs finally, and privately, erupted, it produced shock waves that I can still feel. [The fact that the Leader of the Nymphs in this production was Charlene Gehm, whose serene and extraordinarily radiant beauty could ignite a forest fire and stop a heart in mid-beat, only made the controlled passion, and the inevitable release that followed, all the more outrageously understandable.]

Robbins takes this story and transfers it to a ballet studio, with the faun and lead nymph replaced by a male and female dancer. But instead of being exotically sensual, the atmosphere is ‘real,’ and the sensuality depicted is normal hormonal arousal amplified by characters whose existence is measured by physicality and narcissism. But the end result is no less erotic than Nijinsky’s original – it’s just not at all shocking (in fact, it not only exploits the preconception of dancers as beautiful people, it confirms the audience’s presumption that these idealized dancers are as attracted to each other as they are to us).

But within this structure, the encounter between the male dancer/faun and female dancer/nymph remains what was reflected in the Nijinksy original: the daydreaming male dancer, resting in the studio from whatever a dancer rests from, suddenly is aroused by the appearance of a female dancer who quietly enters, encounters the male dancer (who she sees – as he sees her – reflected in the studio mirror), and then departs, leaving the male dancer emotionally, as well as physically, spent. Through it all, the audience watches as if they were voyeurs intruding to the dancers’ private moment.

Robert Fairchild was perfect as the male dancer whose world is interrupted by the female dancer’s unexpected appearance. [For an instant (built into Robbins’s choreography) he morphed into the image of the Nijinksy faun.] In her debut in the role, Sterling Hyltin came across a little too strong and a little too experienced – to this viewer, the role calls for her to arouse the male dancer, not to seduce him. But then, it is consistent with Robbins’s apparent vision for the female dancer to be doing exactly that – she imposes herself on him; theirs wasn’t a chance encounter in the forest, she chose to enter that particular studio. So it’s a valid approach, just not one that’s as appealing to this viewer as a male dancer being aroused by an angelically sensuous female dancer. [I know, I know…save your emails.]

As stated, the two-dimensionality displayed by the dancers in the piece (both versions) appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by the two-dimensionality that is a component of primitive art (whether actually primitive, or art that aspires to be primitive), including Greek characters as captured in friezes and sculptures of the period. In 1984, more than thirty years after his reimagining of “Faun,” Robbins returned and further explored this idea in “Antique Epigraphs” – and again set his piece to Debussy. With similar styles and similar music, the two pieces complement each other well – but they’re very different.

I was in the audience for the premiere of “Antique Epigraphs” in 1984, and I recall thinking that the piece was an interesting exercise, but not much more. Viewed with fresh albeit tired eyes, I now see the piece as enchanting and inventive, and overwhelmingly sensual.

The piece is crafted on eight women, all of whom are costumed in diaphanous gowns over pale leotards to mimic the appearance of the young women in Greek art that all of us recognize from photographs in art history books, museum exhibits, and perhaps visits to Greece: ‘ordinary,’ albeit probably patrician, nymph-like women captured in ritual celebration or mid-reverie. Robbins frees these women from their poses and breathes life into them, explores the actions, motivations, and emotional colorations of the real lives from which their poses were captured, and then restores them to the frozen positions from which they emerged. The result is a revelation of the women as sensual human beings with complex personalities rather than figures etched in stone or painted on a vase, and, in the viewer’s mind, there now are explanatory choreographed epitaphs virtually engraved into the stone in which their fixed images forever rest. [Debussy’s atmospheric music was inspired by a series of contemporary poems, titled ‘Songs of Bilitis,’ that were themselves inspired by classical Greek stories.]

The piece as a whole is more complex and intricate than mere animation of figures etched in stone would suggest, and the quality of making a work of art appear and then magically come to life is extraordinary (I acknowledge that my appreciation may have been stimulated by my recent viewing of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake”).

While the entire cast, led by Rachel Rutherford, Savannah Lowery, Sara Mearns, and Teresa Reichlen, effectively communicated the sense of the private lives of Greek women, Ms. Reichlen’s quality of sweet serenity coupled with restrained sensuality is unforgettable, and perhaps as close as we can get to a Greek goddess – with the possible exception of Helene Alexopoulos in the piece’s original cast.

“Interplay,” Robbins’s second ballet (it was created in 1945), conveys the youthful free-spiritedness that he had previously captured in “Fancy Free". The piece is divided into four segments illustrative of types of young-adult playground-like play (Free Play, Horseplay, Byplay, and Team Play), and it is as fresh and exhilarating as a game of stickball on a clear spring day (with no parked cars to navigate around). But “Interplay” is more than just choreographed ‘play’ – it is also a play on words, and was intended to illustrate the ‘interplay’ of ballet steps with everyday movement. In its depiction of exuberant young adults doing what exuberant young adults do in a ‘natural’ setting and with ‘natural’ movement quality, the piece anticipates Mr. Robbins’s later explorations of similar subjects – with somewhat different emphasis – in such pieces as “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” “Moves,” and “West Side Story.” The cast: Ashley Laracey, Tiler Peck, Erica Pereira, Ana Sophia Scheller, Joaquin De Luz, Amar Ramasar, Troy Schumacher, and Sean Suozzi, all were appropriately high-spirited and seemed to be having a great time with each other and with the Robbins choreography, but to this viewer Ms. Peck and Mr. Ramasar, in their ‘Byplay’ duet, and Ms. Pereira, in her debut in the piece (who looked like she’d been plucked earlier that day from a neighborhood playground), highlighted the performance.

“The Concert,” which closed the program, is perhaps the most successful comic ballet ever created, and in Saturday’s performance proved as irresistible as ever. Like a Beaujolais that never ages, it is bright and fresh and always intoxicating. Led by Maria Kowroski, the piece was danced as if it were a premiere (it was first performed in 1956), and I left the theater envious of those in the audience who had been treated to it for the first time

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