‘Thou Swell’, ‘Tarantella’, ‘Western Symphony’, ‘West Side Story Suite’ - New York City Ballet
London Coliseum; March 19, 2008
After the disappointments of the Robbins programme and the mixed bag that was programme 3, New York City Ballet’s final London programme finally gave us the excitement and good time feel we were all looking for. It was not however the best of starts. Like Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance)”, Peter Martins’ “Thou Swell” is another ballet created as part of the Richard Rogers birth centenary celebrations. First impressions are promising, an art-deco ballroom dominated by a giant mirror hung above the stage at such an angle that those in the lower levels see everything in duplicate, the men in tuxedos, the women in the most glorious dresses, a three-piece band in the corner, and two singers to help things along. But first impressions can be so misleading.
The work is pleasant enough but it takes a good twenty minutes to really get going. The couples dance to songs that come thick and fast, occasionally coming together, occasionally getting a rest as four delightful dancing waitresses take the floor. The ladies, especially Darci Kistler and Sara Mearns, looked great and equally at home with the grace or occasional speed Martins’ choreography required. The men however looked much less sure and all too often seemed very stiff uncomfortable, although it has to be said that the second performance was a distinct improvement on the first. The exception was Amar Ramascar, who has been a delight throughout the season and who along with his partner Mearns simply radiated the feeling Martins seems to be looking for.
The season suddenly exploded into sheer brilliance the second Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht burst on to the stage for George Balanchine’s “Tarantella”. From the very first slapping of hands you just knew this was going to be something special and boy did they deliver. Ulbricht gave a performance full of bravura and energy. His leaps and turns around the stage were so high and fast you felt he could be stopped for speeding at any moment. But they were not just fast, they were precise. And you couldn’t help feeling sorry for his tambourine, which was hit with such force that it started to fall apart, the final beat on it as he exited after his solo sending discs flying in all directions. And Bouder was not to be outdone. She simply oozed quality and is clearly a star in the making. Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia the following evening equally didn’t put a foot wrong, but they were not in the same league.
While there are a few ballets that scream ‘America’ and ‘Balanchine’, the most fun one just has to be “Western Symphony”. It’s long been an audience favourite and it’s easy to understand why. Easy on the eye, easy on the ear, Balanchine’s ode to the American West, full of cowboys and chorus dancers is a delight from start to finish.
Everyone threw themselves into it with great enthusiasm. The performances from both the principals and corps were wonderfully sharp as they revelled in the choreography that’s very classical but that equally draws heavily on square dance, Western mannerisms and even galloping horses. All three principal pairs gave performances to be proud of. Nilas Martins, who looked so unhappy in “Thou Swell”, suddenly seemed completely at home, while Abi Stafford’s extensions simply took the breath away. In the Adagio, Albert Evans’ Rhinestone Cowboy is so over the top it’s hilarious. When he just stands there and grins at the audience you just can’t help but laugh along. And Sterling Hyltin is no stranger to comedy either. In the Rondo, Teresa Reichlen and Stephen Hanna looked like they were trying to outdo Bouder and Ulbricht, so fast were their pirouettes and tours.
And so to “West Side Story Suite”, Robbins’ distilled version of his choreography from the wonderful musical. Although it is very much a piece fro the men, in some ways by distilling the story down to thirty minutes or so, Robbins actually emphasises the connection with “Romeo and Juliet”. And like all good choreography, it seems so simple. The whole piece was performed with great gusto and feeling. Damien Woetzel, due to retire at the end of the season, gave us a Riff that had the ladies swooning from the moment the curtain went up. At one performance he was even greeted with a few wolf whistles! Unusually, the dancers are required to sing, and while they may not be the best you’ve ever heard, having someone else do it would take so much away from the work.
And so the season ends. Despite the huge amount of new work Martins and the Diamond Project has produced, and some of it has been very good, it’s still the old favourites that really seem to get the company’s pulse going. Peter Martins is not afraid to present new work, and neither should he be, it is essential for any living company, but New York City Ballet still seems to be at its best when it looks back to Robbins and especially Mr.B.