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New York City Ballet

'2 & 3 Part Inventions', 'In Memory Of...', 'West Side Story Suite', Robbins Awards Ceremony

by Jerry Hochman

September 30, 2011 -- David Koch Theater, New York, NY

I’m not sure where to begin.

There are three logical focal points for a review of last Friday night’s New York City Ballet evening: the three ballets created by Jerome Robbins that comprised the program, the Jerome Robbins Award and its recipients for this year, and the display of generation-spanning talent on the David H. Koch Theater stage. It makes no sense to pick one alone, and reserve a discussion of the other two, so I choose all of them together, emphasizing what I believe the performance was ‘about’ for your average balletomaniac in the audience who’s been attending ballet for a very long time.

In one remarkable performance, NYCB celebrated its heritage – its legacy of dazzling choreography and superb ballerinas who brought the steps to life, as well as its continuing tradition of nurturing dancers who have the ability not just to execute steps, but to create memories. If the evening can be said to be ‘about’ anything it was about this heritage.

I knew that Friday’s performance, which was an ‘all-Robbins’ evening, was to include the awards ceremony for the Jerome Robbins Award, which is bestowed ‘when warranted’ on a person or group for outstanding contribution to the performing arts – leaning toward dance and its associated arts. What I didn’t know (must have missed the press release) was that this year’s awards recipients were to be twenty-six ballerinas, each a principal dancer, who performed Robbins’s pieces and who were cast and rehearsed by Robbins. Collectively, the dates they joined the company spanned the period from 1949 (Yvonne Mounsey) to 1996 (Alexandra Ansanelli). It is virtually impossible to adequately describe the impact of seeing twenty-six celebrated ballerinas on stage at the same time; dancers this viewer grew up with. I will identify them all later in this review.

But as miraculous as it was to see these ballerinas, most for the first time in decades, it was equally miraculous, and perhaps more significant, to see in one evening a timeline of ballet dancers, and of performing excellence, from NYCB’s past, and continuing through the present into its future.

The three Robbins ballets on the program – “2 & 3 Part Inventions,” “In Memory of…,” and “West Side Story Suite” – are very different works, but each exhibits, in different ways, the essential humanity that permeates Robbins’s work.

The evening’s centerpiece was “In Memory of…” Its subject is the premature death of a young woman. The music, and the choreography to it, is divided into programmatic movements that emphasize the girl’s vibrancy and creativity, her struggle with untimely death, and the resignation to and acceptance of her death both by her and the community that she touched. Robbins choreographed the piece to the 1935 Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, which Berg created in response to the death, from complications of polio, of Manon Gropius, the reportedly vivacious, intelligent, and angelic-looking 18 year old daughter of Alma Mahler (widow of Gustav Mahler) and architect Walter Gropius, which had left Berg devastated.

Although the music was inspired by the memory of one person, it transcends any such limitation. Indeed, Berg, who died within four months of completing the concerto, is said to have infused the work with references to his own life, and his anticipation of his own death. Similarly, “In Memory of…” has broad application and impact (telegraphed by its title’s ellipsis), and can be envisioned on multiple levels: as the celebration of a creative and memorable life, as the death of a spirit, and as a transfiguration of that life/spirit to an equally celebratory ‘after-life’ – with all characters appearing to be resident in a heaven-like space. And the piece, created in 1985, can be seen as (and has been considered to be) a requiem to George Balanchine, who died two years earlier. I thought I saw generalized references to Balanchine in the creative/inspirational first movement, and hints of Balanchine’s “Orpheus” in the second movement. [On the other hand, what the mind thinks it sees can be deceiving. The piece’s final scene, with the dancers in some version of post-death afterlife, brought to my mind parts of Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” (in staging, not in movement quality), which did not have its first performance until the following year.]

Friday’s performance featured a towering portrayal by Charles Askegard as the ‘angel of death’ and superb work by Jared Angle as the girl’s spiritual and corporeal partner, in an unspecified capacity, through her life, and beyond her death. But Wendy Whelan delivered the poignancy, the dramatic range, and the tragedy inherent in the music and the choreography to perfection. [The solo violin was stirringly played by Kurt Nikkanen.] The steps that Robbins created are sufficient by themselves to transmit the force of the piece – but Ms. Whelan’s singular ability to stretch steps into dramatic expression, without necessarily ‘acting,’ adds immeasurably to the piece’s impact.

Of the ‘lead’ dancers at this performance, Ms. Whelan (one of the twenty-six recipients of the Robbins Award) has been in the company the longest (joining in 1986), and her reputation as the company’s dramatic soul is well-deserved. At the opposite end of the time-line spectrum of Friday night’s ‘lead’ dancers, Lauren Lovette, who danced the ‘lead’ (to the extent there is one) in “2 & 3 Part Inventions,” has been with the company for the shortest period of time (becoming a member of the corps in September, 2010). But ever since her remarkable debut in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” last winter, when she instantly became one (of many) young NYCB dancers to watch, Ms. Lovette, who is still in the corps, has developed into a dancer with an individualized stage persona and an innate ability to project beyond the proscenium. It is premature to discuss Ms. Lovette as if she were already a complete dancer – she isn’t yet (I haven’t seen her assay roles that require NYCB-style speed), and lots can happen. But she already does more than just execute steps (which she does very well); she infuses a dramatic quality full to the fingertips in everything I’ve seen her do, while still looking like a fresh-faced ingenue. [She would be a natural ‘Juliet’.]

Robbins choreographed “2 & 3 Part Inventions” for a School of American Ballet workshop performance in June, 1994, and the piece entered the NYCB repertoire the following January. Choreographed to a dozen of the piano studies that J.S. Bach created between 1720 and 1723 (“Inventions and Sinfonias”) that were intended to be instructional vehicles for one of his sons, the piece is more than a series of interesting academic exercises. As Robbins created it, and as it was executed by Friday evening’s superlative young cast of dancers to exemplary piano accompaniment by Susan Walters, each individual component is a simple gem, and together they create a cohesive whole that is woven together like a contemporary baroque tapestry, and is as ‘inventive’ visually as Bach’s studies are musically. More than that, however, even in this ‘plotless’ piece, Robbins gave each dancer a personality of sorts, an emotion to transmit (albeit fleetingly), making them human characters rather than empty vessels.

The piece opens and closes with Ms. Lovette posed alone upstage right. In between, Robbins mixes and matches the group of eight dancers as each of the Bach studies is played: first Ms. Lovette solo, then she and Erica Pereira as bookends, then three girls, then four boys, who are then joined by two girls,…and so it goes. Ms. Lovette and Ms. Pereira, together with their respective partners Anthony Huxley and Allen Peiffer, anchored the piece, and were complemented by Ashley Laracey and Daniel Applebaum, and Brittany Pollack and Joshua Thew. All were terrific. [As an aside, it’s great fun to watch Ms. Lovette and Ms. Pereira share the stage. Both are very interesting and appealing dancers to watch, but they are very different, and somewhat contrasting, dancer ‘types’ who nevertheless balance and complete each other’s visual impression at the same time.]

“West Side Story Suite,” which premiered in 1995, is a sequence of dances ‘extracted’ (according to the program notes) from the iconic Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins “West Side Story.” Although the overall impression, at least to this viewer, is ‘West Side Story-lite’, the more compressed emphasis enabled several of its component parts to create an even stronger impact than did the antecedent Broadway or movie originals. Jenifer Ringer’s Anita (in the ‘America’ dance) was simply fabulous. I never had the opportunity to see Chita Rivera’s legendary performance of Anita in the Broadway production (Ms. Rivera, who looks like she could still pull off the role, introduced the Robbins Award winners), but it’s hard to believe that any portrayal of ‘America’ could surpass Ms. Ringer’s overflowing vibrancy. Ms. Ringer was ably abetted in this section of the piece by Gretchen Smith as Rosalie, and the corps of Shark Girls. Equally superb were Robert Fairchild as Riff (leader of the Jets), and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo (leader of the Sharks) The performances of Ms. Lovette as Maria and Chase Finlay as Tony left me wishing that the piece had provided more for them to do. [I could see them dancing ‘extractions,’ or, better, ‘expansions’ of “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty” or “Tonight” in the context of this piece – but, unfortunately, it was only in my mind’s eye since these scenes from the original were not include in the ballet suite.] [Ms. Lovette would be a natural ‘Juliet’ (did I say that already?), with Mr. Finlay as her Apollo-esque ‘Romeo’.]

Every ballet company has corps dancers, soloists, and principals, and one anticipates that there is a continuous progression over time from one level to another. But it doesn’t always work that way, and even when it does, audiences may not get to watch the evolution. But with NYCB, audiences get to see it happen, get to watch dancers grow as performers, and get rewarded with a connection that is almost familial. And it continues from season to season, from year to year, and from dancing generation to dancing generation.

So the return of NYCB ballerinas who had excited and enchanted and grown with NYCB audiences for more than half a century, and the sense that this process will continue as long as there is a NYCB, was not only a homecoming reunion. It was a celebration of memory, of continuity, and of NYCB’s heritage – and its legacy to itself and to its audiences.

As Ms. Rivera announced each Robbins Award-winning ballerina by name and year she joined the company (from ‘newest’ to ‘oldest’), one by one each emerged from the wings, crossed the stage in front of a projection of Robbins on an upstage screen, and took positions alternating left and right filling in toward center stage, to a crescendo of applause. First Ms. Ansanelli (1996); then Maria Kowroski (1995) (who, of course, continues to perform); Miranda Weese (1993); Ms. Ringer (1990), in costume as Anita for “West Side Story Suite,” which was performed after the ceremony (Ms. Rivera quipped that the skirt looked familiar); Yvonne Borree (1988); Margaret Tracey (1986); Ms. Whelan (also 1986), who had just performed so brilliantly; Darci Kistler (1980); Helene Alexopoulos (1978) [an aside – I picked out Ms. Alexopoulos from the back of the corps in “Coppelia” the first time I saw her on stage shortly after she joined the company) (yes, I was proud of myself); Melinda Roy (also 1978); Lourdes Lopez (1974); Kyra Nichols (also 1974); Maria Calegari (again 1974 – it was a very good year); Judith Fugate (1973); Stephanie Saland (1972); Heather Watts (1970); Gelsey Kirkland (1968) [another brief aside – the first NYCB performance I ever saw featured Ms. Kirkland in the lead role in Robbins’s “Goldberg Variations” – that was the night I became a balletomaniac]; Merrill Ashley (1967); Suzanne Farrell (1961) [yet another aside – I did not see Ms. Farrell dance until she suddenly returned to NYCB in 1975 (after having spent a few years with Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century), and by pure luck I was in the audience for her first post-return performance. I don’t think I’ve since seen an outpouring of emotion that matches the welcoming ovations given that night by the joyously teary-eyed audience to its prodigal daughter]; Kay Mazzo (1961); Sara Leland (1960); Patricia McBride (1959); Violette Verdy (1958) [Ms. Verdy did a little twinkle-toes dance to celebrate the occasion]; Allegra Kent (1953); Jillana (1951); and Ms. Mounsey (1949). Melissa Hayden, Nora Kay, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Janet Reed were recognized posthumously. [It’s a little unsettling to realize that I’d seen twenty four of the twenty six (all but Ms. Mounsey and Jillana) perform live on that same stage.]

NYCB has famously been considered a ‘starless’ company, to use Lincoln Kirstein’s word. I disagree, but whether it is starless or not is irrelevant. What NYCB excels in is encouraging talented dancers to be more than anonymous moving mannequins, despite its reputation to the contrary. Not all dancers, in NYCB or any other company, are able to transmit more than the steps. As technically good as they may be as dancers, they blend in. But over the years, evidenced by the twenty-six ballerinas on stage, NYCB seems to have nurtured more than its share of dancers who stand out, who can communicate an emotion to an audience and engender a response that is unique to them, creating indelible memories in the process. And, further evidenced by Friday’s performance, the process, and this heritage, continues. I may forget where I went on my first date, what I ate for dinner last night, or where I put my car keys, but I’ll remember performances I’ve seen by these dancers, and by those of NYCB’s fresh crop of non-stars who were born long after I became a balletomaniac, as long as I have the ability to remember.

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