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New York City Ballet

'Thou Swell', 'Carnival (A Dance)', 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue', 'Who Care?', 'Ivesiana', 'Tarantella', Stars and Stripes', 'Interplay', 'Fancy Free', 'I'm Old Fashioned'

by Jerry Hochman

May 2 and 4(M, E), 2013 -- Koch Theater, New York, NY

New York City Ballet began its Spring season at the David H Koch Theater last week with the first three programs in its three-week American Music Festival (the Spring analogue to the Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky Celebrations that opened the previous segments of NYCB’s 2012-2013 season). While few of these ballets match the classic masterpieces that George Balanchine choreographed to Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, the ballets on these programs are not without merit. The fact that three successive audiences left the DHK Theater with smiles on their faces is testament to the value of well-crafted and well-executed ballets that are evocative of a particular time and place, but that nevertheless are timeless in their emotional appeal.

Most of the ballets presented fit that description. I will focus on three of them: Thou Swell, Peter Martins’s tribute to Richard Rodgers; Who Cares?, Balanchine’s salute to George Gershwin; and I’m Old Fashioned, Jerome Robbins’s homage to Fred Astaire. First, however, I will discuss in greater detail one of the ballets that does not fit this mold, which is one I had not previously seen.

According to the program notes, the title "Ivesiana" implies an homage of sorts by Balanchine (as in ‘Mozartiana’), but I sensed nothing of that. Nor is it simply an attempt at experimentation (e.g., Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir). To this viewer, "Ivesiana" refers to a ‘place’, whether that ‘place’ is Charles Ives’s mind or Central Park in New York, and something very strange is happening there.

Ivesiana, which premiered in 1954, is divided into four sections, each choreographed to a distinct Ives composition: “Central Park in the Dark,” “The Unanswered Question,” “In the Inn,” and ‘In the Night’ (the last being taken from “A Set of Pieces”).

Ives’s “Central Park in the Dark” has a dark, lugubrious, ominous quality, indicative of something awful having happened, or that something awful was about to happen. Balanchine's choreography matches this mood visually. The piece opens to a large group of people huddled together outdoors in a circular form like pins tightly stuck together into a pincushion, with their faces lit from above (as from the light of the moon). Gradually, these twenty dancers, all women – wearing simple, full body costumes of muted colors that conceal their gender – break out from the concentrated mass, moving through the park/forest like lumbering corporeal ghosts. To this viewer, they looked like walking dead. [Although the title of the section references ‘Central Park’, the scene could relate to any dark wooded area.]

Into this morass wander two people, their white costumes lit brightly in contrast to the dreariness around them. One, a young woman, with her hair down, enters from stage left, and wanders through the park/forest and its inhabitants slowly and tentatively, as if she were sleep-walking (I thought of La Sonnambula, without the bourrees). But there also was a component of fear in her demeanor, as if taking a stroll in the park at night was the equivalent of walking through a minefield. Shortly thereafter, a young man enters from stage right, moving almost as slowly and tentatively. The two of them appear to be searching for something or someone, and in the process must navigate their way around the bodies that they sense, but cannot see. Eventually, the couple meet and dance together, slowly, wary of what they sense around them. The forest inhabitants observe the young man and woman, and move around them with no clearly-defined movement pattern – except that at one point I thought I saw collective sequential movement, as if there was a pervading intelligence to this mass of undead. And I thought of the Willis in Giselle, except in Ivesiana the spirits are urban spirits who quietly watch and seethe, waiting either to see what happens with the invading couple, or for an opportunity to make their presence known.

This opening section segues into “The Unanswered Question.” Here the score is similarly doleful, but more spiritual and less hopeless. The corps of soulless bodies is replaced by four men in dark clothing. They are accompanied by one man, shirtless, and an angelic-looking woman (who, like the girl in the first movement, also has her hair down). Throughout this section, the man appears to be worshipping this vision of an angel. The contortions that the angel endures are both frighteningly complex looking, and breathtaking to watch unfold, as she is manipulated by these four men (who appear to be ‘forces’ of energy rather than ‘undead’ bodies): she walks on air, arabesques on air, turns on air, all while walking over, under, around and through the four men – at times on their backs. To this viewer, the scene was not representative of idolatry or lust – it was the visualization of a hymn or a spiritual; a prayer for rescue or redemption.

The third section, “In the Inn,” is very different. Here the stage is lit brightly, the couple living or being entertained in the indoor space is having a grand old time, and if there is any connection to the prior two movements, it is that these people are completely oblivious to whatever is happening in the park. The final section appears to return to the park/forest at night, with the same mood as in the initial section.

Frankly, I confess that I don’t know what all this means – but I’m reasonably certain that Ivesiana was intended to have a meaning beyond exploring bodies moving in space or creating a ballet version of zombieland. To this viewer, this was about spirits in the park; dark forces, representations of people who had been wronged (but not necessarily jilted), and whose spirits would always keep those who enter the park at night fearful.

As the young woman and young man in the ‘Central Park in the Dark’ section, Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro were wonderful in roles that called exclusively for emotion through movement and little more. Ms. Laracey in particular was extraordinarily compelling. Although I’ve commented favorably on her dancing before, this performance was by far the finest work I’ve seen Ms. Laracey do. No surprise, however, was Janie Taylor’s angel. Ms. Taylor has a lock on any role that calls for an ethereal angel to be manipulated like a pretzel and yet emerge somehow looking even more supremely divine and otherworldly. Anthony Huxley played her supplicant/worshipper with an appropriate combination of passion and desperation. Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar were the couple having fun in the Inn.

As indicated, however, Ivesiana was the exception in these programs. The other pieces, all of which were familiar, are more transparent – and a lot more fun.

Thou Swell, Who Cares?, and I’m Old Fashioned are each choreographed reminiscences, designed to inspire memories of the way we were. Diabetics should be wary of a sugar overload. But each, to varying degrees and in different ways, takes the nostalgia to a high artistic level.

Created in 1970, Balanchine’s Who Cares? is a compendium of dances choreographed to sixteen Gershwin songs from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. It is art deco on its surface, with a backdrop of the New York City skyline, created by Jo Mielziner, that changes color and lighting detail as the ballet progresses. But it is ballet at its core, unrestricted by the backdrop, and confined only by the boundless breadth of Gershwin’s music. With no song the same as another (“Strike Up the Band,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “S’Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “The Man I Love,” and “I Got Rhythm,” for example), each dance is correspondingly unique – and the sheer variety of movement that Balanchine choreographed to every song takes this ballet beyond being merely evocative.

The structure of the ballet is a progression from songs danced by the corps (which looked great), to dances fluidly moving from groups of female and male soloists to pairs, and then pairs and solos by the lead male dancer (Robert Fairchild) and each of the principal ballerinas: Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Abi Stafford. I reviewed Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild in the same roles little more than a year ago (they danced “The Man I Love” together, Mr. Fairchild did “Liza,” and Ms. Peck again brought the house down with “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”), and have nothing further to add. Their performances are gifts. As I said then, and have repeated consistently, if you enjoy great ballet performances, and if you’ve read to this point I’m sure you do, you miss a performance of theirs at your peril.

New to the lead cast from performances I've previously seen (though not new to the roles) were Ms. Scheller and Ms. Stafford. Ms. Scheller did a fine job with her solo to “My One and Only,” and with Mr. Fairchild in “Embraceable You,” but Ms. Stafford was more subdued than she should have been in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Who Cares?”

In Thou Swell, Mr. Martins was tasked with doing the same with respect to Richard Rodgers, on the occasion of Rodgers’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2003, as Balanchine had done with Gershwin. But the sixteen Rodgers songs, though probably more familiar than many of the Gershwin songs, are not as stylistically distinctive from one to another (except for “Mountain Greenery” and “Getting to Know You”) as were the Gershwin songs selected by Balanchine, and consequently Mr. Martins may have had a rougher choreographic road to hoe. Whatever the reason, Thou Swell is not as brilliant a ballet as Who Cares? But Mr. Martins has elected not just to choreograph to songs, but to create, or replicate, a mood. And in this sense, in the impression it leaves and the feelings it generates, it might not be wonderful or marvelous, but it’s swell.

Like Who Cares?, Mr. Martins has placed his ballet in an art deco context, but instead of a painted backdrop against which the ballet is performed on a bare stage, Mr. Martins has his dance venued in a 1930s style nightclub, with elevated tables surrounding the central dancing space, an on-stage band supplementing the orchestra, and a pair of night club singers (Chloe and Joe Paparella) to cement the image. One expects Gatsby and Daisy to make an appearance at any moment. A large art-deco style mirror overhangs the set, a visual centerpiece that enables the audience to see the dance on stage, and the reflection of it, at the same time. If the ballet is the reflection of an era, the mirror is a reflection of that reflection.

The choreography generally is not exceptional, and frequently looks repetitious and strained. Together with the highly mannered waltz style, the overall impression created is one of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ on a special “art deco” night.

Nevertheless, Thou Swell is an enjoyable ballet because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is content to create an impression and let the audience feel good. And it is particularly good when the dancers are having as much fun as the audience, which seemed to be the case throughout. In addition to the corps of eight (referenced further below), the principals were Sterling Hyltin and Mr. Fairchild, Ms. Mearns and Jared Angle, Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour, and Jenifer Ringer and Mr. Ramasar. All were fine, particularly Ms. Reichlen, with legs that look like stretched steel beams, and Ms. Hyltin, whose role provided the greatest opportunity for character development, an opportunity that she seized: she was slinky, vivacious, a tease, a flirt, and one extraordinary bundle of energy. At the end of the piece, as the four couples exit the nightclub, Ms. Hyltin was the only one of the women who remained in character until the curtain came down; the others just exited. Perhaps this was programmed into Mr. Martins’s choreography, but if so, Ms. Hyltin exploited it to perfection.

I’m Old Fashioned takes things to another level. While Balanchine was creating a brilliant ballet to familiar music, and Martins was creating a dance that exploits a time and a place and a mood, Robbins was doing both, and in the process of grafting a ballet onto a movie scene, created a work of art that invariably impels a viewer to simultaneously cry and smile. I’ve reviewed I’m Old Fashioned previously, so won’t spend much time exploring it here. Suffice it to say that although it may be saccharin and manipulative, it is so brilliantly done that it doesn’t matter. Robbins tugs on heartstrings leaving no emotional trigger unpulled, all the while creating stage magic to match Astaire’s movie magic. I’m Old Fashioned is more than a paean to Fred Astaire and mid-Twentieth Century sensibility: As I noted previously, it is as classy a work as was the movie persona of the artist to whom it is dedicated. Emilie Gerrity and Justin Peck, Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle, and Ashley Bouder and Tyler Angle anchored the cast.

Space does not permit an extensive discussion of the other dances on these programs. Hopefully I’ll be able to go into more detail later in the season, but briefly: Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the familiar ballet within a show created by Balanchine for the Broadway production “On Your Toes” (and one of the ‘masterpieces’ referenced at the top of this review) is as wonderful as ever, particularly as performed by Ms. Kowrowski, whose legs scrape the ceiling, and Tyler Angle, who was having a blast (and who can tap dance). Carousel, A Dance was a bit disappointing, but this was more a product of my erroneous expectations than any choreographic deficiency (I had not previously seen it). I was expecting more of a capsulation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but Carousel, A Dance is only a whiff of the story combined with Christopher Wheeldon’s marvelously realized stagecraft (particularly the ‘carousel’ of dancers – the circle of dancers at the beginning of the piece that is representative of a carousel, and a ‘real’ carousel, complete with carousel ‘horses’ on moving poles, an image visually created by Mr. Wheeldon and executed to perfection by the dancers). Ms. Peck and Andrew Veyette were the lead couple.

Fancy Free, Robbins’s take on three sailors on leave in Manhattan, is the other certifiable masterpiece on the program, and it received fine performances from Joaquin De Luz, Mr. Fairchild, Georgina Pazcoguin, Ms. Peck, Stephanie Chrosniak, and Mr. Ramasar. [Mr. Ramasar, as the ‘third’ sailor, made up for an absence of Latin style with a less effusive, but more engaging, interpretation than I’ve seen from those who have performed the role previously.] Stars and Stripes takes audience manipulation to another level as well, but without the endearing nostalgia that Robbins gave to I’m Old Fashioned. It wears its xenophobia on its sleeve, and is not as likable as its English analogue, Union Jack, but it stirs the audience and, in the ‘Liberty Bell and El Capitan’ pas de deux, provided a fine vehicle for Ms. Bouder and Mr. Veyette. Tarantella, which preceded Stars and Stripes on Saturday afternoon’s program, was nicely performed by Megan Fairchild, but Antonio Carmena lacked the flair I’ve seen in other performances (but in all fairness, Mr. Carmena was a late substitution).

Interplay, which opened Saturday evening’s program, was danced expertly by its entire cast (Ms. Laracey, Lauren Lovette, Erica Pereira, Brittany Pollack, Devin Alberta, Troy Schumacher, Taylor Stanley, and Daniel Ulbricht), but Ms. Lovette, who, with Mr. Stanley, performed the central pas de deux, was merely exceptional and a cut above. Somewhere, Mr. Robbins must be smiling.

The conducting at each of the three performances was maintained at a very high standard by Clotilde Otranto on Thursday, Andrews Sill on Saturday afternoon, and Daniel Capps on Saturday evening.

One final observation: That NYCB has been performing extraordinarily well over the past few years is something that this viewer has frequently emphasized, but it bears repeating. This is a superb company, that handles whatever choreography it is asked to perform with excellence, whether it be a full length ballet or a five minute pas de deux. Other companies have superb dancers as well, but what marks NYCB is its remarkable depth from principals to corps and beyond, depth that the audience gets to see and watch grow. One example among many: in Thou Swell, a corps supports the four pairs of principal dancers. This eight-dancer corps, however, does more than just dress the stage; they dance, and dance a significant amount of time. In Thursday’s performance, these corps dancers were all apprentices, given the opportunity for significant stage time (and a few already showing stage personalities). When they formally join the company, the transition will be seamless both for them and for the audience. Mr. Martins, the company’s Ballet Master in Chief, was criticized when the company seemed to lose direction after he took the reins. Whatever one thinks of his choreographic abilities, he now deserves to be credited for the way he has handled, and nurtured, this company.

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