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New York City Ballet

'Who Cares?', 'Union Jack', 'In G Major', 'In Memory of...', 'The Concert'

by Jerry Hochman

January 22 and 25, 2012-- David Koch Theater, New York, NY

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins are part of New York City Ballet's genetic material. Their ballets are regularly recycled throughout NYCB's active repertoire, and the thought of a NYCB performance without a work by one or the other is virtually…unthinkable. So one would expect that a proper review of NYCB performances that are billed as 'all Balanchine' and 'all Robbins', as were, respectively, the January 22 and 25 programs at the David H. Koch Theater, would begin with a description of the featured works created by the company's founding choreographers. But ballets by Balanchine and Robbins are not unknown quantities, and 'foreign' companies (by that I mean any company that is not NYCB) are able to cherry-pick the many masterpieces and make them their own. So, as good as the ballets may be, and as fresh as they may (and must) appear, what lingers in my mind are the performances that make a NYCB-danced Balanchine or Robbins a step above the same works danced elsewhere. [With the possible exception of NYCB-South (Miami City Ballet) -- recent performances of which will be the subject of a separate review.]

Tiler Peck is at the top of her game. She's the little engine that could, and did, and does at every performance. She's not just an effervescent speed-demon, she's a speed-demon with warmth and a twinkle in her eyes. She's not just a great technician; she's a technician with flair. If she were wine, she'd be Zinfandel. And she's intoxicating to watch. Her work in "Who Cares" is a prime example.

Robert Fairchild is at the top of his game. He's not just NYCB's current jack-of-all-partners who does everything well; he has that gift of being able to create a clearly perceptible stage persona that endears him to an audience (even to an audience member whose natural gravitational pull is to watch the ballerinas), but does so without dominating the dancer he's partnering, insuring that he makes whichever ballerina he's partnering look as spectacular as she may be. His work in "Who Cares" is a prime example.

And if you miss a performance that features either Ms. Peck or Mr. Fairchild, you do so at your peril.

"Who Cares," created in 1970, is a collection of dances set to sixteen George Gershwin songs which reflects Gershwin's sophisticated but unaffected and free-spirited musical style, a distinctly New York mid-20s to early 30s style. [In its original incarnation there was a seventeenth song, which was removed from the piece in 1976, reinserted in 2010, and has now been re-removed.] To this viewer, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald if Fitzgerald were more urban than urbane. But however one chooses to describe it, "Who Cares" is one of those vibrant and accessible Balanchine pieces that sends both audiences and critics home happy. And as good as all of the dancers who performed in it were, Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild were extraordinary.

The structure of "Who Cares" is your basic corps/soloists/pas-de-deux/corps structure, but with mutations that make this basic structural form less perceptible and the piece as a whole much more interesting than your basic outline. The ballet opens to "Strike Up the Band," with the entire ensemble (except the principals), and closes with the entire cast in "I Got Rhythm". In between are dances first by five soloist women (Faye Arthurs, Amanda Hankes, Emily Kikta, Rebecca Krohn, and Ashley Laracey), followed by five soloist men (Antonio Carmena, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Adam Hendrickson, Ask la Cour, and Sean Suozzi), who then break off into pairs framed by the others. I particularly like the work by Ms. Arthurs, Ms. Krohn, and Mr. la Cour, but all performed commendably.

The piece then segues to various choreographic combinations danced by the principals: Ms. Peck, Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen, and Mr. Fairchild, who was assigned the challenging, albeit enviable, task of partnering each of the three very different ballerinas in stylistically different dances -- effectively anchoring the entire ballet. Following the initial pas de deux with Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild, Ms. Mearns danced solo to "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," Ms. Reichlen, partnered by Mr. Fairchild, danced to "Embraceable You," Ms Peck solo to "Fascinatin' Rhythm", Ms. Mearns and Mr. Fairchild to "Who Cares?", Ms. Reichlen solo to "My One and Only," and Mr. Fairchild solo to "Liza."

As I've written previously, Ms. Reichlen has a sweetness about the way she looks and moves on stage that makes it appear more difficult for her to conquer roles that require her to be a siren. But "Embraceable You," is right up her alley, and to this viewer, she (with Mr. Fairchild's able assistance), gave the section the innocence and sensitivity the role requires. On the other hand, it appears to this viewer that Ms. Mearns is not naturally inclined to the 'jazziness' inherent in the songs to which she danced -- which doesn't mean that she didn't execute them well (she executes everything she does brilliantly); only that she looked less comfortable doing what she did than the others.

"The Man I Love," which is the ballet's heart, was not set on them (Patricia McBride and Jacques D'Amboise originated the roles), but I have difficulty envisioning any finer interpretations and execution than the performances that Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild provided. The segment is not your standard operating romantic pas de deux: Balanchine's choreography so clearly and completely absorbs the already evocative Gershwin music that any reasonably competent pair of dancers will likely melt your heart. But Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild took "The Man I Love" to another level. It's not just effortless and seamless perfection that one expects, and usually receives, from NYCB dancers, nor is it just chemistry - abundant as it was. It was a quality of casual confidence that showed not that Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild were dancing steps imposed on them, but that they were moving to some inner voices and executing steps that were as natural to them as breathing.

Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild followed this pas de deux with superb solos. As with the pas de deux, it wasn’t just the steps, it was the attitude. Ms Peck in particular danced as if she fully expected to nail the quicksilver choreography, knew she'd nailed it, and celebrated her triumph with a knowing but understated flourish. It was the ballet equivalent of a walk-off home run.

"Union Jack," the other ballet on the program, is not one of my favorites. It is all spectacle interrupted by occasional dances, takes forever to get moving, and doesn’t hold much interest until the "WRENS" strut their stuff and the Union Jack crescendo ends the piece with a patriotic salute to Great Britain. [Balanchine created the piece as a bicentennial tribute to the British, in recognition of their continuing connection to the United States. The fact that the British lost the war that the Bicentennial celebrated was immaterial.]

The 'Costermonger Pas de Deux' provides a comic respite from the spectacle, but as well-performed as it may be (and it was by Megan Fairchild, Andrew Veyette, their "Pearly Princesses" Leah Chen and Callie Reiff, and a temptress, unidentified in the program, who was on stage for all of three seconds), it doesn't rescue the piece. I would be remiss, however, if I did not recognize Wendy Whelan. Ms. Whelan, more often than not, is assigned more dramatic or more ascetic-looking pieces, which she always executes memorably. But in the 'Royal Navy' segment, Ms. Whelan let loose, smiled radiantly, and appeared to be having a blast. It was good to see.

The 'all-Robbins' program was a more interesting overall performance, demonstrating yet again the stylistic breadth and the essential humanity that permeates Robbins's creations. I've commented on "In Memory Of…" recently, as well as "The Concert," and Sunday's performances of each (particularly by Ms. Whelan in the former and Sterling Hyltin in the latter) were up to the usual high standards. I should note, however, that Mr. la Cour, who replaced the now-retired Charles Askegaard in the role of the 'angel of death' in “In Memory Of…,” was superb.

The highlight of the performance, at least for this viewer, was "In G Major," which I had not seen in many years. The music, "Piano Concerto in G Major," was composed by Ravel between 1928 and 1931 following a successful tour to the United States. The program notes describe the piece as a reflection on Gershwin and American musical comedy, but it seems to be more of Ravel's impression of what he saw as the American spirit: bubbly, somewhat immature, but unburdened by European traditions and established sensibilities. Jazz is used as a sort of overlay, but the overall impression (of Ravel's impression) is light and frothy and a breath of fresh air -- like a sunny day at the beach.

It is this 'impression' that Robbins picks up on and runs with (abetted by the scenery and costumes that Erte created for the subsequent Paris Opera production of the piece -- called "En Sol"). In front of a light, ocean blue rear curtain onto which linear representations of sunlight and waves are drawn, six women, soon joined by six men, prance and play, dressed in the ballet-costume equivalent of 1920s bathing suits (horizontally striped tops, corresponding solid-color bottoms, with matching hair 'ribbons' that encircle the girls' heads).

But the choreographic playfulness yields to a pas de deux of wonderful complexity and controlled emotional development. This is not youthful love, contrasted with mature love, contrasted with passionate love (which Robbins choreographed earlier in "In The Night"), but a love that grows from its first tentative steps and emotional uncertainty gradually to trust and, very slowly, to quiet but profound exhilaration. It is masterfully choreographed, and was masterfully performed by Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle.

Finally, Sunday's all-Balanchine program, which was billed as 'Sunday at the Ballet with George' (in celebration of Balanchine's birthday), featured a pre-performance panel of Darcy Kistler (the last of the principal ballerinas nurtured directly by Balanchine), Lisa de Ribere (who I remember from her years with American Ballet Theater, although she began her dancing career with NYCB), and Ms. Whelan, 'moderated' by Tyler Angle, providing a free-form discussion of Balanchine's creative process as they saw it or were told by others. Following the performance, as part of the 'birthday celebration,' Peter Martins 'taught' a class of advanced students from the School of American Ballet on the DHK Theater stage, and liberally sprinkled the teaching with anecdotes and descriptive explanations (of NYCB-style vs. the-rest-of-the-world). Both programs were wonderfully instructive and enlightening.

But more importantly, these programs fill a need and spark interest. Both were essentially 'sold out' -- the mezzanine area set aside for the panel discussion was overflowing, and the orchestra (to which seating for the demonstration class was limited) was full. To this viewer, the attendance level was fueled less by the fact that the panel discussion and class demonstration were free than by a desire to get to 'know' the dancers beyond the performance. NYCB isn't the only company that offers such programs, but they are invaluable additions to its (and any ballet company's) programming.


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