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New York City Ballet

'Scherzo a la Ruuse', 'Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fee', 'Danses Concertantes', 'Firebird'

'Apollo', 'Orpheus', 'Agon'

'Stravinsky Violin Concerto', 'Monumentum Pro Gesualdo', 'Movements for Piano and Orchestra', 'Duo Concertant', Symphony in Three Movements'

by Jerry Hochman

September 22 (M, E) and 29 (M), 2012 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

New York City Ballet has dedicated its three-pronged 2012-2013 Season to the Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration (Fall), a Tchaikovsky celebration (Winter), and an American Music Festival (Spring). The programming isn’t very inventive, particularly since it appears – at least for this season – that NYCB has abandoned its seemingly random programming (where rarely are two repertory performances exactly alike), in favor of the more common scheduling of multiple identical programs that may differ only in casting from one evening to another. While such consistency may be simpler, and probably less expensive where rehearsal time and set changes may be involved, I preferred having the opportunity to select a performance that included the ballets I wanted to see, rather than having the choice made for me.

Be that as it may, this new scheduling is easier to take when, as was the case during the past two weeks, the hits just keep on coming. In every respect, the three programs featured classic Balanchine/Stravinsky collaborations, brilliantly performed. While I may enjoy some ballets more than others, this mini-Stravinsky Festival presented essential Balanchine, a panorama of the development of neo-classical ballet, and concurrently a display of the excellence of NYCB as a company. Although Balanchine ballets are now performed around around the world, based on what I’ve seen, nobody does it better.

It is tempting to describe the series of Balanchine/Stravinsky collaborations as displaying a creative evolution, and it is a creative evolution - to an extent. But to this viewer, Balanchine was a musical explorer, seeing music and applying movement to it, rather than imposing movement on it. So although one way to view this series of performances is as a Balanchine/Stravinsky timeline of sorts from “Apollo” (1928, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; NYCB premiere 1951), through “Danses Concertantes” (1944, Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo; rechoreographed for NYCB 1972); “Orpheus” (1948); “Firebird” (1949); “Agon” (1957); “Monumentum pro Gesualdo” (1960); “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” (1963); “Rubies” (from “Jewels”, 1967); “Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fee’” (1972); “Scherzo a la Russe” (1972); “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” (1972); “Symphony in Three Movements” (1972); and “Duo Concertant” (1972), to this viewer it is more a display of Balanchine’s extraordinary virtuosity.

Indeed, ‘evolution’ doesn’t really fit as an overall description, either as applicable to the Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration (“Rubies” and the recreated “Divertimento” post-dated the pivotal and seminal “Agon”), or to Balanchine alone: shortly before and after “Agon,” Balanchine choreographed “The Nutcracker” (1954), “Western Symphony (1954); and “Stars and Stripes” (1958); in between “Monumentum” and ”Movements” he created “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” (1962); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”(1962), and “Bugaku” (1963); and he followed the creative genius displayed in the 1972 Stravinsky Festival with, among other pieces, “Cortege Hongrois” (1973); “Coppelia” (1974); and “Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir” (1974), followed soon thereafter by “Union Jack” (1976); “Vienna Waltzes” (1977); “Ballo della Regina” (1978); and “Kammermusik No. 2” (1978). While they may not all be masterpieces, the sheer breadth of Balanchine’s creativity is overwhelming, and considerably more than an evolution from pointe A to pointe B.

This review will concentrate less on the nuts and bolts of the ballets, which I believe are generally familiar, than on the performances. Overall, from principals to members of the corps, the company has not treated these pieces reverentially (which, several years ago, is the way I described how Balanchine classics were being performed by NYCB and American Ballet Theater), but as living choreographic organisms that grow and change depending on the input the dancers provide. That this is essential both for the survival of the Balanchine canon as it is for the survival of the company that depends on it is a given – that it is being fulfilled is itself a cause for celebration. To this viewer, NYCB has never been dancing better.

At times, Janie Taylor can look ghostly. Pale and expressionless, she sometimes appears to be concentrating so much on the steps that she loses connection with the audience. But to this viewer, she is not so much aloof as intensely focused, and completely connected to her role. So it was with the clarity of her performances in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and, more dramatically and emphatically, with her portrayal of Eurydice in “Orpheus.”

“Orpheus” comes across as something of a throwback; a narrative form remindful of “Prodigal Son” and “Apollo”, both of which preceded it by some twenty years, without either the narrative pulse of “Prodigal” or the choreographic purity of “Apollo.” But comparisons are deceptive – “Orpheus” is sui generis, and no less a landmark than its predecessors.

“Orpheus,” is a retelling of the myth of the musician/poet/singer who could charm anything and anyone, does exactly that when he travels to Hades to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, but is undone by inevitable fate. As is the case with most myths and legends, the Orpheus myth can be found with slight variations from one telling to another -- for example, whether Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice on his own, or at her insistence. The version in this piece displays the latter, which can be seen as somewhat misogynistic, since Eurydice’s enticing passion for Orpheus is the cause of Orpheus’s undoing, but I see the different versions as different ways of explaining the inevitability of fate.

Regardless, what makes “Orpheus” as compelling as it is is its distillation of the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus barely reacts – he just is. Though influenced by outside forces, Orpheus’s movement quality seems completely inner-directed, internal, repressed. Eurydice’s reaction to outside forces, on the contrary, is externalized – everything seems to flow from within; everything is expressed. Seen this way, “Orpheus” is a study in contrasting characterization through choreography – a passionate character who shows no passion, contrasted with a passionate character whose passion is overwhelmingly present and inescapable. [And I thought I saw Graham-like contractions in the course of the piece – although I concede that the Isamu Noguchi sets and costumes may have inspired that.]

The difference could not be have been more evident in Sebastien Marcovici’s intensely brooding and monochromatic Orpheus, contrasted with Ms. Taylor’s physical intensity and fatal persistence as Eurydice. With more to do, Ms. Taylor dominated the piece, and whenever she was on stage, like Orpheus, one could not keep one’s eyes off her. [Ms. Taylor is having a remarkable season. She was equally dominating and riveting in “The Cage,” a Robbins/Stravinsky piece that was included in a later (October 2) program.]

Chase Finlay burst onto the NYCB scene much as Apollo burst onto the pantheon of gods at birth – a child, not fully developed, but you knew with a little nurturing he’d dominate the firmament. Mr. Finlay is still developing, but the future is upon us. And I’m not writing about “Apollo,” which, in the September 22nd performance, was every bit as good as it was in his initial round of performances slightly more than a year ago, when he was still in the corps (he was promoted to soloist before you could blink). In this viewer’s May, 2011 review of one of those initial performances, I compared him to a nascent Mikhail Baryshnikov or Peter Martins in the role. The comparison still holds.

While “Apollo” is now a signature piece for him (one expects that being treated somewhat like a boy god comes naturally to him), “Duo Concertant” isn’t. Yet. But the fact that Mr. Finlay, partnering Megan Fairchild, executed as well as he did in a piece in which appearing god-like could be a detriment is a major accomplishment.

“Duo Concertant” is one of those Balanchine/Stravinsky collaborations that doesn’t fit the mold. To my recollection, it doesn’t look or feel like any other Balanchine/Stravinsky piece. For example, “Apollo” is a cosmic statement; with character development (just because it’s distilled doesn’t mean it’s not there) and choreographic invention on a grand scale. “Duo Concertant” is no less a statement, but it’s intimate and personal: it has heart and soul – which perhaps is why it is one of my favorite Balanchine ballets. Mr. Finlay’s performance was not what I would consider to be flawless (it is neither as crisp and controlled as Robert Fairchild, who I saw dance the role a few seasons ago, nor does it display the economy of movement of Peter Martins, who originated the role), but it was undoubtedly promising. That he and Ms. Fairchild are wonderfully evocative of the original duo, Kay Mazzo and Mr. Martins, is a bonus.

I have previously described Amar Ramasar as one of the more underappreciated NYCB dancers. That this still appears to be the case is a tribute to the quality of NYCB’s contingent of male principals, and to Mr. Ramasar’s ability to look like he’s not there – until one recognizes the extraordinary partnering he does. Mr. Ramasar does not draw attention to himself. Even when he is dancing on his own or as part of a group, as in “Symphony in Three Movements,” he never looks like he’s showing off, even though he has every right to. When he explodes in movement, without any visible preparation, he flies around the stage with an exceptional combination of power and grace. But where Mr. Ramasar shines brightest is in his exquisite, considerate, and flawless partnering.

Last Spring, in reviewing a performance of “Agon,” I recognized Mr. Ramasar’s capability. At this season’s Agon performance, again partnering Maria Kowroski, Mr. Ramasar surpassed even his own standard. With Mr. Ramasar, you can see how hard he’s working, but although the statement seems contradictory, his partnering seems to be effortless. He knows that it’s his job to make the ballerina look good without making it appear that he’s making the ballerina look good. He’s an extraordinary selfless partner, and one of the few, it seems, who can partner any ballerina, tall or short, solid or slight.

Sterling Hyltin is short and slight, but she dances larger than life, and is terrific in anything she does. I’ve seen her act up a storm in “The Concert,” and work magic as Odile in Mr. Martins’s version of “Swan Lake,” but she excels as a technician, and her crystalline lucidity was evident in both “Danses Concertantes” and “Symphony in Three Movements.”

Both “Symphony’ and “Violin Concerto” premiered in the same program on opening night of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and immediately were proclaimed – rightfully so – as masterpieces. To this viewer, “Violin Concerto” is the lesser of the two, being more bound to and limited by the Stravinsky score. “Three Movements,” on the other hand, is as glorious now as when I first saw it many years ago. The piece isn’t long (21 minutes), but, like the score, it synthesizes and harmonizes everything that came before: its use of space, time, balance of color and movement, and sheer audacity is breathtaking. It’s a stunning work.

That it was stunningly performed as well was a bonus. Led by Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar, Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, and Savannah Lowery and Adrian Danchig-Waring, and enhanced by the NYCB corps, the performance – including the unforgettable final image of the leads and the corps in a pose that encapsulates the novelty and the accomplishment of the piece – was as brilliant as the ballet.

To this viewer, it was Ms. Hyltin’s dominance that made the performance. Although she was emotionless (perhaps that will change as she gains experience in the role – this series of performances marked her debut), her performance luminosity became the focus of attention whenever she was on stage, including when she shared the stage with the flawless and ever-ebullient Ms. Peck.

But to this viewer the most memorable of the series of memorable performances were delivered by Teresa Reichlen. Always a stunning-looking dancer to watch because of her above-the-fray serenity combined with precision and formidable presence (she can dominate the stage just be being on it), I frequently felt that she was playing catch-up, and wasn’t quite comfortable being a principal. She is now. She has things under control – and she injects herself into roles not just as a dancer, but as a person.

An example is her Firebird. Physically, she’s perfect as a goddess-like Phoenix. But Ms. Reichlen’s Firebird is not a goddess-bird. There is a sense of humanity, a quality of compassion, to her performance that warms the heart as much as it dazzles the eyes. How she does it isn’t possible to describe, but it is palpable.

“Firebird” has always impressed me as being a piece one must see in order to hear the Stravinsky score performed live, and to be swept away by the extraordinary Marc Chagall scenery. [Each scene generates a collective audience gasp of both awe and delight. A woman seated near me could hardly restrain herself, percolating in her seat at each new scene, and repeatedly telling her companion that she’d never seen anything so beautiful.] Generally, the choreography is along for the ride. And although part of the choreography for the Firebird may allow for displays of masterful ability, which other NYCB ballerinas who perform the role deliver with crystalline virtuosity and command, except for the Chagall, you’ve seen it once,…. But Ms. Reichlen added the humanity, and doing so converted the role, and the piece, from being an accompaniment to the sets and the score, into being a complement to them.

Focusing as I have on these superlative performances necessarily compresses the opportunity to discuss other stellar performances, and ballets, in detail. “Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fee’” is a gem that that this viewer is grateful for the opportunity to see again (I last saw it performed by Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson in the lead roles). As one would expect from a story loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ice Maiden” and choreographed to a score that Stravinsky reportedly intended as homage to Tchaikovsky, it feels as sweet and warm as…a fairy’s kiss, with a gentle, subtle heart. Megan Fairchild’s performance was lovely without being saccharine, with Joaquin De Luz communicating the rapture of the ardent, doomed young man who loves her but can never cross into her world.

“Monumentum”/”Movements” are not among my favorite Balanchine/Stravinsky pieces, but Maria Kowrowski made both performances memorable.

I reviewed (briefly) a May, 2010 performance of “Danses Concertantes,” with the same lead cast (Ms. Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia) as performed the roles on September 22nd. My response to it is the same – very evocative of ‘Ballet Russes’ (it was first performed by the touring Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in 1944) – with wonderful original scenery and costumes by Eugene Berman. To this viewer, and despite superlative performances by Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Garcia, the piece is a remembrance evocative of a time and place that may never have existed, with no effort made to connect with the audience – which may have been Balanchine’s intent: bodies moving through space, in period style, and nothing more.

Finally, mention should be made of “Scherzo a la Russe,” a brief piece that opened the September 22nd program. Intended simply as a remembrance of and tribute to Russian women’s folk dancing, the piece often has been used to demonstrate the accomplishment of graduating students of the School of American Ballet. [A photograph in the Orchestra walkway shows Tiler Peck dancing one of the lead roles as a graduating student.] The performance was significant for the quality of the students, and particularly the leads (Olivia Boisson and Claire von Enck), both of whom are apprentices with the company, but also as a demonstration of NYCB’s continuing tradition.

Several years ago, Miami City Ballet (aka NYCB South) performed briefly in New York, and included classic Balanchine in its repertoire. The performances generated rave reviews, and comparisons to the then moribund NYCB. But that series of MCB performances, and the reviews that followed, appears to have been a wake-up call for NYCB. I don’t know whether it’s cause and effect, but since then, NYCB has reclaimed its heritage and stature. Through the strength of its repertoire (golden oldies that are danced with the enthusiasm of world premieres), and its dancers (top to bottom; principals to apprentices), the company has a firm hold on its future.

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