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New York City Ballet

'Paz de La Jolla', 'Variations pour Une Porte et Un Soupir', 'Concerto DSCH'

by Jerry Hochman

January 31, 2013 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

For twenty years, New York City Ballet has dedicating a performance program to a “New Combinations Evening” intended to showcase choreography that reflects George Balanchine’s famous declaration: “There are no new steps, only new combinations.” This year’s program included the world premiere of Justin Peck’s Paz de La Jolla, a revival of Balanchine’s 1974 Variations pour Une Porte et Un Soupir, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. The highlight of the evening turned out to be what, for me, was least expected: ‘Porte/Soupir’, and particularly the extraordinary performances by Maria Kowroski and Daniel Ulbricht.

First, however, Mr. Peck’s world premiere. After his triumphant Year of the Rabbit last season, anticipation was high that Mr. Peck’s new piece would be as good. That it isn’t is disappointing. Paz de La Jolla is not entirely without the interesting stagecraft and choreographic novelty that permeated Year of the Rabbit, but most of it is confined to the middle section of the piece. The opening and closing are more frenetic than they need to be, too bound by the music, and too limited by the choice Mr. Peck made in visualizing the music.

The piece is choreographed to Bohuslav Martinu’s “Sinfonietta la Jolla,” which was composed (depending on your source) either in 1950 or 1951. Martinu, born in 1890, was a Czech expatriate who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, left Paris in 1940, in advance of Nazi occupation, and fled to the United States in 1941, where he lived for many years. After World War II ended, he divided his time between the United States and Europe, and died in Switzerland in 1959.

I admit to being unfamiliar with Martinu’s work, but based on my limited research he has a vocal following. Trained either in the romantic or classical style, or both (again depending on the research source), Martinu became influenced while in Paris by ‘modernistic’ trends, including jazz, syncopation, and experimental music. [Based on a listing of his compositions in Wikipedia, Martinu’s early works included pieces composed for ballet, the last of which, ominously titled “The Strangler,” was composed after Martinu moved to New York. Hmm.] But musical radicalism yielded to moderating tendencies after the war, and his later works returned to a more classical idiom – while maintaining remnants of other musical ingredients. Reportedly, he was influenced by Debussy, Stravinsky, and Haydn. [I also sensed a kinship of sorts between Martinu and Shostakovich, based on the score used in Mr. Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major), although without Shostakovich’s pastiche and sense of irony.]

“Sinfonietta la Jolla” was commissioned by the Arts Society of La Jolla, California, and obviously reflects both Martinu’s take on the qualities and ambiance of that Pacific Coast community, as well as what the La Jolla Musical Arts Society wanted to hear. Martinu’s mixed musical heritage shows in the piece, which exhibits a little of everything, and has an overall sense, to this listener, of exhilaration combined with a sense of inner peace. What “Sinfonietta la Jolla” does not have in this listener’s opinion is a mandatory musical connection with a Pacific Coast beach, in La Jolla or anywhere else – which is Mr. Peck’s setting for his visualization of Martinu’s composition. [I don’t doubt that there is a beach somewhere in or near La Jolla – there’s a beach almost anywhere in Southern California. But in a brief visit to La Jolla several years ago, I recall seeing a rocky, cove-like swimming area, not a beach per se.]

The ballet’s initial image as the curtain rises is riveting – dancers randomly bourreeing as if welcoming the day – but degenerates almost immediately into the kind of frenzied activity that can be found on any vibrant, non-conformist beach/boardwalk. With one exception, the dancers are costumed in unattractive representations of swimming attire that one might see on a boardwalk in Venice, CA, with most everyone in the large cast (three principals and fifteen members of the corps) attired in some way differently from another – appropriate, perhaps, to represent a beach where personal expression is a prerequisite for a public appearance, but difficult to absorb visually. This costume cacophony quickly is matched by choreographic cacophony -- everyone seemed to be doing his or her own thing (again, not inappropriate for a nonconformist beach, but difficult to watch). Mr. Peck continues to do wondrous and inventive work for the corps – but the impression is a mess of activity. The one constant is Tiler Peck, who appears to personify the lone boardwalk skater who darts to and fro and up and down to her own beat, oblivious to the frenzy around her. She’s very good, but her character makes Ms. Peck look like some boardwalk Puck on some directionless errand in some midsummer day’s dream.

Sterling Hyltin is the one girl dressed in something other than swimwear: a white skirt, white jacket liberally cut to mid rib-cage, and with a conservatively bare midriff. She’s the girl from another place, the outsider who gets involved with one of the beach boys (Amar Ramasar), and gets ostracized (sort of) by the rest of the beach clique. I kept seeing Olivia Newton-John.

The story, such as it is, is not so terrible or so unusual. What is disappointing is that Mr. Peck felt that need to choreograph to every musical note – and in the opening and closing sections of the piece, there are a lot of them. Such slavish devotion to the musical beat does not enhance the music – the choreography gets buried in it, and it all looks very frenetic and very busy. As one friend put it, it looks like early Millepied.

On the other hand, the pas de deux between Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar that is the foundation for the central section of the piece is both lovely and edgy – the couple walk along the beach romantically but innocently, Mr. Ramasar’s character wants more (evidenced by his sudden lunge for, and grip of, Ms. Hyltin’s hip), Ms. Hyltin’s character’s initial hesitancy is overcome, and they descend to the stage floor. [The audience fills in the blanks – it’s not exactly Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, but you get the idea.] Shortly after, the couple sees the beach denizens, their outfits now covered in blue tops (jackets, shirts, representative of swimmers in the blue water?). Frankly, I have no idea what this is supposed to represent, but it’s nicely done (a little Ratmansky influence), looks both interesting and intriguing, and gives the piece texture that it sorely needs.

It may well be that a second exposure to the piece will allow me to overlook deficiencies that appear, at least on initial viewing, to overwhelm the piece. The inventive corps work is still there, and perhaps a second view will encourage a change of focus and a different evaluation.

Second views have a tendency to do that. So it was with Balanchine’s ‘Porte/Soupir’.

Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir is comprised entirely of sounds of a creaking door (‘une porte’) and breathy, heavy sighs (‘un soupir’). To this composition Balanchine applied highly expressive choreography to match. I saw ‘Porte/Soupir’ following its 1974 premiere, and vividly remember disliking it intensely (as did the rest of the house, based on the audience’s leaden response). I recall feeling that Balanchine had foisted this obviously experimental piece on an unwilling audience just to establish, or reestablish, his avant garde bonafides, and that it was bad enough to have to sit through an interminable agglomeration of creaks and groans, but to have to sit through dull and repetitive choreography was worse. And, to me, the piece (as well as the accompanying performances – I don’t recall whether I saw the original or a later cast) was guilty of the worst of performing arts sins – it was boring.

‘Porte/Soupir’ is choreographed to ‘music’ by Pierre Henry, who, according to the program notes, used electronic techniques to record sounds, and then used these sounds to compose a score. [I concede my prejudice – I don’t consider a score that consists entirely of creaks and groans to be music, although I’ll grant that putting the sound snippets together into some cohesive form is an art.] Again according to the program notes, Henry was influential in France, collaborated with Maurice Bejart, and created many scores for Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century (“Ballet du XXe Siècle”), the company to which Suzanne Farrell had defected several years earlier. As a friend suggested to me, competition may have been a motive for the piece’s creation: anything he can do I can do better. Whatever the reason, I hated it.

Time passes.

I still dislike the piece, but I can now appreciate it, thanks to the scintillating performances by Ms. Kowroski and Mr. Ulbricht. I tend to use too many adjectives when I describe performances, because I’m not inventive enough to manufacture adequate replacements. But there are no adjectives sufficient to describe these two performances. Mr. Ulbricht was a combination feral cat and wild dog, lunging, attacking, and rolling over and playing dead to the sounds of throaty sighs. Ms. Kowroski, whose movement was much less physically punishing (hers was a relatively statue-like character, upright like a door, moving her arms and torso to match the door’s creaks, to whom a stage-sized gray/black oversized curtain-like contraption was attached). In addition to her physical contortions, Ms. Kowroski moved over, around, and under this whatever-it’s-called as if she were wrapping herself in and out of an oversized cloak. [With a few contractions, she could have been dancing Graham.]

But describing what they did is insufficient. What made their performances was the detached intensity: the raw power of Mr. Ulbricht’s animal vs. the raw power of Ms. Kowroski’s majestic presence (remindful of the Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son). And their performances made the piece come alive. Although there was never any direct connection between Ms. Ulbricht’s sighs and Ms. Kowoski’s creaking door, I sensed that there was communication of sorts between them, and a conversation of sorts between Henry’s sighs and creaks. Even though I still find ‘Port/Soupir’ to be too long and too strange to like, these are performances that must not be missed.

The ‘new combinations’ evening concluded with Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, which premiered in 2008, and which I have previously reviewed. Clearly, Ratmansky draws inspiration from Shostakovich – the piece is one of many that Ratmansky has choreographed to a Shostakovich composition, with more scheduled to come. The piece was given rousing, justifiably well-received performances by Ashley Bouder, Tyler Angle, Joaquin De Luz, and Troy Schumacher (in his debut in the role, an unannounced replacement for the injured Sean Suozzi), and Janie Taylor, whose performance added both drama and grace. These five were ably abetted by a bevy of 14 corps dancers, all of whom were given featured opportunities and performed admirably.

In basic structure as well as appearance, Concerto DSCH is remindful of Mr. Peck’s premiere earlier in the evening, but it is far more coherent. And it demonstrates one vital quality that seems particularly difficult for talented new choreographers to learn (and that should be particularly apparent in a company nurtured by George Balanchine): that less is more.

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