New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
July 23-26, 2003
My only previous trip up to Saratoga Springs to see the New York City Ballet was memorable more for the continual, drenching downpours than the ballet performances. So, this summer I decided to journey up north during the last week of New York City Ballet’s Saratoga Season in pursuit of sunshine, ballet and even some horse racing. Saratoga, the dancers and the horses did not disappoint! What follows is a combination journal and review of the ballet performances, with a little glimpse into the rest of Saratoga.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Arrived in Saratoga around 2pm after finally escaping from the thundershowers that had followed us all the way over from eastern Vermont. Driving in the (pouring) rain is not one of my favorite activities, but my mom and I managed to keep our spirits up with a bag of delicious peanut brittle. After I checked into the bed & breakfast, we headed over to the Saratoga train station so that my mother could catch her train back to New York City. By this time, storms were brewing again, and we were both a little startled to discover that due to construction the train station was no more than temporary trailer and a very muddy parking lot. As it turns out, my mother stayed drier at the train station than she did in the leaky-roofed Amtrak train.
In order to allow sufficient time for the sun to set, evening performances at Saratoga start at 8:15 pm. For most of the performances, I arrived at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) very early in order to soak up the pretty scenery and catch a glimpse of the dancers warming up on stage (some do, some don't).
The evening's performance, conducted by former New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Guillermo Figueroa, included George Balanchine’s Chaconne and Symphony in Three Movements, as well as the Saratoga premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals. Led by Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins, Chaconne received a slightly loose performance, no doubt due, in large part, to the notoriously slippery SPAC stage. Both Kistler and Martins were adequate, though neither had quite the energy or precision that the central pas deux demands. Their partnering was not always completely smooth and Martins’ jumps were could have used more stretch, though his beats were crisp. Instead, the performance really belonged to the corps, with Amanda Edge and Antonio Carmena standout in the second pas de deux. Carmena’s exuberance and energetic, yet clean technique made him a joy to watch, and Edge’s crisp jumps and rock solid balances were equally as stunning. Jason Fowler, Saskia Beskow and Eva Natanya also were noteworthy in the lyrical pas de trois, a trio of long, flowing limbs. The pale, flowing costumes were by Karinska.
Wendy Whelan, Abi Stafford, Jennifer Tinsley (who replaced the injured Alexandra Ansanelli), Jared Angle, Tom Gold and Jock Soto were a strong lead cast in Symphony in Three Movements. It was a treat to see Angle, who has been sidelined by injuries for much of the last two years, dancing again in a classical role. A tall, long-limbed dancer, he is a skilled partner and elegant presence on the stage. In the pas de deux with Tinsley, Angle demonstrated the depth and awareness in his movement-for instance, his arms just didn’t hang in the air, they were held with an obvious energy and attention to line created from neck to fingertip. Stafford and Gold were mercurial, flitting across the stage in a series of quick, precise steps. Stunning in the final, long pas de deux, Whelan and Gold matched Stravinsky’s edgy music with a moving performance of Balanchine’s often limb-contorting choreography. Their obvious complete comfort with each other and the steps allowed for a performance that never wavered in intensity and flow, keeping the audience in rapt attention. The corps, which opened the ballet in the memorable diagonal line of coltish ballerinas, was a bit ragged. Lines were straight, but arms and heads tended to be held in a number of different positions.
The evening concluded with Saratoga’s first glimpse of Carnival of the Animals, Christopher Wheeldon’s charming tale of Oliver Percy, a young boy who spends a night in the Museum of Natural History. Based on a story written by Wheeldon while he was a student at the Royal Ballet School, now turned into a full libretto written and read by actor John Lithgow, the ballet brings to life the people in Oliver’s life as the animals in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals”.
A great success when it was performed at the New York State Theater in June, on this first night in Saratoga, Carnival of the Animals received much applause, but the performance was hampered by a number of factors. First of all, the large, open nature of the amphitheater made it difficult for the orchestra to project, and the changing weather made it near impossible to stay in tune. In addition, the large size of the SPAC stage presented some issues during the ballet because in order to shrink the width of the stage and to allow the patrons in the far side seats to see, all sets had to be set back on the stage, framed by very wide, angled wings. With Jon Morrell’s simple, but ingenuous sets, the Carnival of the Animals needs a cozy stage, and looked a bit distant and overwhelmed at SPAC. The increased distance between the orchestra and dancers may also have been a problem, as the communication between first time Carnival of the Animals conductor Richard Moredock and the dancers did not seem entirely comfortable, with several musical endings off from the choreographic endings.
Still, the dancing was excellent, with a couple of notable debuts. Jenifer Ringer made her first appearance in the Cuckoo section as Oliver’s mother, a role that was choreographed on her before she was injured early in the the spring season. In the tender and poignant duet, Ringer and (her real-life husband) James Fayette were very believable as Oliver’s worried parents. Aaron Severini made his debut as one of the mouse cavaliers to John Lithgow’s hilarious school nurse turned waltzing elephant. Also of note were the performances of P.J. Verhoest, an SAB student, as Oliver and Rachel Rutherford and Pascale Van Kipnis as the slow motion can-can dancing sisters turned turtles. Christine Redpath, in Morell’s deep backed cocktail dress and long white gloves was superb as Oliver’s aunt recalling her glory days as a ballet dancer in a moving solo to “The Dying Swan”.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
(2pm and 8:15 pm, both Coppelia)
The thunderstorms have not yet made their final exit for the week, making watching and performing at SPAC somewhat of an adventure. High humidity and pouring rain can turn the stage into a virtual ice-rink, and the walk from car to seat a challenge in staying dry and mud free. Luckily the only incident of the day was a wind burst during the matinee performance which startled those sitting on the lawn and preceded a very brief downpour.
George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s classic version of Coppelia was performed both in the afternoon and in the evening. The matinee was supposed to be the occasion of corps member Megan Fairchild’s debut as Swanilda. However because of an injury suffered by Alexandra Ansanelli, Fairchild was cast in in all four performances of Coppelia. (Both Yvonne Borree and Jenifer Ringer had previously danced the role, but neither were apparently recovered enough from injuries to take on the role.) Fairchild got rave reviews from the local press for her debut performance opposite Damian Woetzel on Tuesday night, but I was a bit nervous in anticipation of her dancing the role twice in one day. The role of Frantz, however, was split between Damian Woetzel (evenings) and Benjamin Millepied (matinees).
Megan Fairchild’s performances as Swanilda were very impressive, especially for a dancer who has been in the company just over a year (Fairchild was made an apprentice after the 2001 SAB Workshop in early June of 2001, but did not receive her corps contract until the summer of 2002). A tiny, slim dancer, she has a cherubic face, and wonderfully straight, slender limbs. Especially during the matinee performance, where the daylight washes out much of the attempts at spotlighting the dancers, the roles must be danced “big” in order to stand out from Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s multicolored set. Fairchild was certainly up to this challenge, her Swanilda a young bundle of energy. In the first act dances, she displayed a delicious crispness and quickness in the very precise choreography, and was jollily hyperkinetic in the Scottish dance in the second act. For such a young Swanilda, Fairchild’s acting was surprisingly effective, her emotions telegraphed via her wonderfully expressive face. It was indeed a young interpretation of the role, and with time and experience should come more depth, especially in some of the mime sequences. With more performances under her belt should also come greater comfort with the choreography which will allow her to have great greater stretch and depth of motion in her dancing.
Dancing opposite Fairchild at the matinee and evening performances, respectively, Benjamin Millepied and Damian Woetzel were stunning in their individual dancing and solid, supportive partners. The chemistry between Millepied and Fairchild was especially effective, and, not surprisingly, she seemed more comfortable with his partnering (she was originally supposed to dance with Millepied, thus she likely had very little time to rehearse with Woetzel).
With his dark-haired good looks and innocent rascaliness, Millepied was a very natural Frantz. His quick, crisp beats and breathtaking ballon also made for an energetic and youthful Frantz, a perfect match for Fairchild’s Swanilda. Also impressive was Millepied’s acting, which has grown in it’s depth and detail. The final pas de deux was performed with great poise and fluidity, though Fairchild looked slightly fatigued by the end. Her series of beats across the stage simply flew across the stage, yet did not lose any of their intended crispness. Millepied’s double tours were nicely rotated, though he really shone with his high, light beats and assembles. The tricky shoulder lifts and leaps of faith were smoothly and confidently performed, and the pas de deux in general had a fluid and delicate quality.
In the evening performance Damian Woetzel, who first performed the role more than a decade ago, went all out in his dancing and his acting. Though Woetzel is young looking 36, his roguish, flirtatious Frantz seemed little too much at times opposite Fairchild’s very innocent Swanilda. (His Frantz, however, would have been just perfect opposite Alexandra Ansanelli’s over the top Swanilda, which it was intended to be). In the first act, he flirted with village girls, and added a little flourish to every exit and entrance. He pulled out all the stops in the middle section of the final pas deux, showing off his stunningly tightly and quickly rotated tours and pirouettes, flawlessly throwing in a jaw-dropping double tour-double tour into the sequence of pirouettes to double tours snapped to second position after landing. A hard act for Fairchild to follow, and in her second performance of the day, she wisely opted for clean, crisp dancing over fancy tricks. The shoulder lifts were not as smooth, perhaps because of Woetzel’s greater height and less familiarity with Fairchild.
At the matinee, Adam Hendrickson was a youthful and caring Dr. Coppelius, crafting his characterization with many wonderful details. This Coppelius clearly cared very deeply for his creations, gently straightening up Coppelia in the opening scene. Robert LaFosse, taking over the role in the evening, was a more comic and crotchety, his characterization robust and animated. The gentler side to LaFosse’s Coppelius was revealed after a very scary slip by new corps member Austin Laurent, who was dancing his small solo as the Acrobat Automaton. Laurent, who has performed the role in every performance this year, is an elegant and long-limbed dancer. His splits are simply beautiful, his legs fully stretched beyond 180 degrees, but towards the end of his brief solo at the evening performance, Laurent slipped going up into a split, coming down very awkwardly. After having chased Swanilda’s friends out of the workshop, LaFosse spent several moments clearly whispering to Laurent, and lifted him very carefully back onto the cushion. Laurent did not reappear in the third act, and one hopes that he is not injured.
The quartet of divertissements in the third act all received sparkling performances. Led by Amanda Edge and Lindy Mandradjieff at the matinee and evening respectively, the young students in the Waltz of the Golden Hours, students from the School of American Ballet and local Saratoga ballet schools, were crowd favorites, their smiles as joyous as their dancing. Both Edge and Mandradjieff were notable for their precise footwork and energy. A fleet-footed Dawn, Abi Stafford was vibrant and quick in the numerous turns without sacrificing fluidity or control. Carrie Lee Riggins brought zest to the role of Spinner, barreling through the numerous turns. In the evening performance, Dena Abergel was a sweet Prayer, gracious with the children and giving every step it’s due reverence. Discord and War was led with gusto by Aesha Ash and Seth Orza, who were both especially impressive in the evening performance.
Standout performances in the solo roles were backed up by an excellent corps de ballet. The male dancers especially, attacked the folk dances with gusto, leaping and jumping with the long, colorful ribbons a swirl. The were matched by the energetic and precise female corps. Problems in synchronization still appeared in the dances for Coppelia’s friends, but all the women were solid in the tricky leap to one foot, which since it’s done in a line, can look bad if any one dancer is off beat. Taking over the role of the littlest friend from Megan Fairchild, new corps member Sterling Hyltin was adorable in her timidity and hesitation.
Leo Delibes’ score was conducted by Maurice Kaplow in the afternoon and Richard Moredock in the afternoon.
Friday July 25, 2003
The day was for horses, the evening for ballet. Saratoga Racetrack is a surprisingly large and attractive facility, unlike most modern sports arenas in this era. Ignoring the lit board with the betting odds and race information, the track hasn’t changed much from the days when Seabiscuit captured the hearts of the American public. In fact many scenes from the movie were filmed at Saratoga because it has changed so little since the 1930s. Though I’ve seen many steeplechase races in person, this was my first real experience with flat racing. What struck me was the unbelievable speed of the racehorses, how fast they fly by, necks stretching out as they flash over the finish line. For one brief millisecond in each galloping stride, a horse is balanced on the tip of one delicate hoof. As powerful, lithe and beautiful as a dancer, these are 1200 pounds ballerinas (and danseurs) poised on one shiny black pointe shoe.
The damp weather banished to far away places, the evening unfolded with gentle breezes and crystal clear skies. Heaven on earth and on stage, at least for a few hours. Touching off this divine evening were the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the choreography of George Balanchine in Concerto Barocco. In the pit, Jean Ingraham and Nicolas Danielson brought Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor to life, while onstage Maria Kowroski, Rachel Rutherford and James Fayette offered up an dignified performance of Balanchine’s choreography. Kowroski was powerful in the crisp, sometimes jagged feeling choreography, using her stunning flexibility to accent the steps without seeming forced. Rutherford doesn’t have the same stretch, but had an equally cool and elegant quality to her dancing. Providing strong support for both Rutherford and Kowroski was the always dependable James Fayette. A steady partner, he brought a sense of cool calm to the ballet, his tidy, solid technique, complimenting, but never overwhelming the power of Rutherford and Kowroski.
A repeat performance of Balanchine’s Chaconne, was led by Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal, but otherwise the cast was identical to that in the performance earlier in the week. Quick in his beats, Neal was a dignified and gracious partner for the stunning Wendy Whelan. Flying across the stage to Christoph Gluck’s joyful music, Whelan made Balanchine’s intricate choreography sparkle like a diamond, every facet and step highlighted without sacrificing the breathtaking beauty of the whole. Much of the extended solo for the woman is danced for the her partner who watches on stage. In this section, without neglecting the audience, Whelan made Neal the focus of her dancing, making the long series of steps on point nearly sing with joy and confidence, as if to express her feelings to him and to impress him.
This joyous energy was continued by Antonio Carmena and Amanda Edge, reprising their roles in a sensational demi-soloist pas de deux. Though quite impressive on Wednesday night, in this performance Carmena and Edge raised the level of their pas de deux to new heights by bringing excellent synchronization to their already wonderful technique and exuberance. Gone were the slight breaks in timing seen on Wednesday-this was a simply super, complete performance.
Closing yet another evening of repertory was a much improved performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals. Both orchestra and dancers seemed more comfortable with the quirks of the SPAC amphitheater, the dancing and music coming together for an outstanding and humorous performance. Of note on this night was Arch Higgins, as the piano teacher turned maniac baboon.
(for more details see entry for Wednesday, July 23, 2003).
Guillermo Figueroa conducted the first two ballets, Richard Moredock again taking up the baton for Carnival of the Animals.
Saturday, July 26, 2003
The day started early with an 8:30 am tour of the Oklahoma Training Track and the various barns. The training track was named a number of years ago after a trainer, commenting on the long walk from training track to racing track, was heard to say “it’s like going from here to Oklahoma”. The training track is refreshingly peaceful, away from the loudspeakers, betting machines and hustle & bustle of the crowds. Small clusters of trainers, exercise riders, owners and curious onlookers watch quietly as horses are breezed or urged into a full gallop to be timed. Walking around the perimeter of the barn area, one is surprised by the lack of horsy smells, pleasant and unpleasant. Manure is removed daily, and the barns are for the most part spotless, aisles swept and decorated with brightly colored hanging baskets of flowers.
After a quick shower and a mostly successful attempt to jam everything back into one suitcase, it was off to SPAC for one last New York City Ballet performance. The ballet was again Coppelia, Megan Fairchild and Benjamin Millepied leading New York City Ballet’s twelfth and final performance of Coppelia in 2003.
Millepied was impressive, his pirouettes much improved over Thursday and his ballon even more stunning. Fairchild appeared somewhat tired by the end, but even over the course of a week there was great development in her interpretation of the role of Swanilda. There was more confidence in her dancing, as well as a greater depth and better timing in her acting.
In the second act, shaky performances in the roles of the acrobat and the chinaman, hinted at a possible change in casting (perhaps to accommodate the possible injury to Austin Laurent). The only other cast changes came in the third act divertissements, with Pascale Van Kipnis a powerful, but more restrained Spinner. In the Dawn Solo, Dana Hanson brought poetry to the stage, echoing the delicate music in the flowing motions of her willowy body. Each step was placed with a wonderful delicacy, her slow arabesque penchee beautifully controlled and deep.
Richard Moredock conducted the excellent NYCB orchestra.
With the lowering of the curtain, my Saratoga sojourn came to an end. Many wonderful memories in my mind, I head soon to Scotland, where I will be studying at the University of Edinburgh and hope to extend Critical Dance’s scope to include the marvelous and varied dance world in Edinburgh!