New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 14, 2010
Serenade, Grazioso, The Four Seasons
There has been a metamorphosis at New York City Ballet over the past few seasons.
After enduring years of sporadic criticism of the state of the company under Peter Martins’s leadership, including alleged rote regurgitation of Balanchine/Robbins standards and (with some exceptions) undistinguished new choreographic offerings, NYCB seems to have been re-created much the way Lincoln Center itself has been recently redesigned. No wholesale changes – just as Lincoln Center still looks like Lincoln Center, only a little different, NYCB still performs Balanchine and Robbins and the works of more contemporary choreographers, but there’s a difference. It’s a change in outlook, in spirit, and in accessibility. And whether the transformation was prompted by criticism, by the realization that other companies were dancing Balanchine as well or better than they were (e.g., Miami City Ballet), by clever marketing or by natural evolution, doesn’t really matter – it is as refreshing and intoxicating as the champagne to which NYCB treated its audience of $25 and $50 ticket-buyers on the opening night of its first ever (well, almost) autumn season in New York.
The company as a whole appears to be dancing better than it has in years. But I don’t believe that this is because the dancers are better then in prior seasons. The creations of NYCB’s legacy choreographers are not being treated as museum pieces to be preserved, but as vibrant and somewhat malleable works of art that can be seen in a new light when a ‘new’ dancer takes an established creation and makes it his or her own. And there is now a welcome renewed emphasis on the company’s dancers, and a recognition (evidenced by its marketing of the season through photographs of NYCB’s principal dancers as ‘real’ people rather than unapproachable gods and goddesses) that no matter how wonderful the choreography, it is the dancers that audiences come to see over and over and over again.
Last night’s first performance of the season had all the trappings of a gala, without the baggage. After a brief welcoming introduction, NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins introduced each of the company’s principal dancers (except for Benjamin Millepied, who was out of town) as they took positions in front of the house curtain. Those who were scheduled to perform were costumed to varying degrees, the others were in street clothes, and they all seemed like perfectly normal people who were a little self-conscious about parading rather than dancing in front of all these strangers. But that’s the point, or more accurately the anti-point, that’s being made. They are simply extraordinary ordinary people with whom one can identify or envy or idolize or love (a word Mr. Martins used as he introduced them), and the dancers and the audience are not strangers to each other, even if they’ve never actually met. We are family, not visiting nobility. Now go tell your friends.
And I don’t mean the above to be cynical. It’s true.
NYCB has been known as a company of choreographers (as opposed to, say, American Ballet Theatre, which is known as a company of dancers). This is not completely accurate (in either case). While there has always been an emphasis at NYCB on choreographic creativity (led by Balanchine and Robbins, it could hardly have been otherwise), there has always been at least an equal, and perhaps even greater, emphasis on the company’s dancers. And it has been this way with NYCB for at least as long as I’ve been attending NYCB performances. During this period, NYCB was not just the company of Balanchine and Robbins; it was the company of, among a host of others, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Suzanne Farrell, Jacques d’Amboise, Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomasson, Merrill Ashley, Jock Soto, Kyra Nichols, and Mr. Martins. They are muses to the choreographers, but their performances are memories to New York audiences who attend multiple performances of a particular piece not to just to see it repeated, but to see a particular dancer in a role (even where the ‘role’ has no name).
But even more than that, there is a vicarious relationship that can develop between an audience and dancers that is every bit as deep and as enduring as a ‘real’ relationship, and which marks the relationship between NYCB audiences and NYCB dancers as much it does with ABT dancers (or dancers with any other company). I had the privilege (and the good fortune) to be in the audience the night that Suzanne Farrell returned to NYCB from her Bejartian exile, and the welcome that greeted her, and the warmth of the seemingly endless curtain calls (as if the audience, individually and collectively, was afraid of losing her again), was not one that would be given someone who simply following a roadmap created by a choreographic genius.
So, while it may be a marketing ploy, NYCB’s renewed emphasis on its dancers and on nurturing the relationship between its dancers and its audience is a welcome tonic to attempts to treat dancers as mere cogs in a greater machine and audience members who develop a pseudo-relationship with them as deluded fools. And last night’s performance, a banquet of wonderful choreography matched with extraordinary dancing, was emblematic of the company’s relationship with its past and foundation for the future. Beginning with the stunning image of the corps in Balanchine’s “Serenade” as if they were saluting the new season, NYCB’s history, and the NYCB audience all at the same time; through its celebration of the virtuosity of NYCB’s dancers in Martins’s “Grazioso”; and concluding with Robbins’s frothy “The Four Seasons” (as if to recognize that NYCB now performs in all four seasons), the evening was as warm and fuzzy an NYCB evening of dance as I can remember.
That Balanchine’s neo-romantic Serenade is a seminal and signature work is a given. But more than that, it is the ballet equivalent of caviar as comfort food. Each time you see it, and each time you see it with a dancer who, for you, is new to the role, is a treat for the eyes and the mind and the heart. For this viewer it is everything to love about ballet in one package: It is at the same time plotless but rich with suggested meaning, undeniably innovative but timelessly classical, and complex and mysterious enough to be interesting and new every time it’s performed well – which it was last night.
With her lyrical strength, Sara Mearns dominated the piece whenever she appeared on stage, and Megan Fairchild was a bright and bubbly energizer ballerina. But in addition to a renewed appreciation of the corps (which impressed me as much as the corps does in “Giselle” or “Swan Lake”), it is the slight figure of Janie Taylor that will remain in my mind. A little too hyper at the beginning (a friend said that she looked like a deer caught in headlights), she settled down to give a performance with an edge of fragility and vulnerability and surprising depth. And the image of Ms. Taylor being carried off toward whatever-it-is-she’s being-carried-off-to at the end of the piece, looking like a resurrected spirit, was simply stunning.
Martins’s “Grazioso,” created in 2007 as a piece d’occasion for a 2007 gala performance in honor of NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein, is exactly what it is intended to be – a showpiece for the four NYCB dancers who perform it, and a sampling of NYCB-style artistry. It is non-stop virtuosic indulgence, a pas de quattre on steroids, which might come off as choreographic gluttony were the dancers not good enough to do it justice. Last night, they were. Grazioso’s four dancers were Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, Daniel Ulbricht, and Andrew Veyette. Each one was memorable on his or her own; together they displayed a cornucopia of talent that was so good it felt deliciously sinful to watch.
The celebratory evening concluded with “The Four Seasons,” Robbins’s giddy reinvention of a ballet divertissement that would typically have been inserted into 19th Century Parisian opera performances. Following the libretto conceived by Giuseppi Verdi (for his opera “I vespri siciliani”), and augmented by Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes and lighting by Jennifer Tipton, “The Four Seasons” is every bit as good as its pedigree, and even more fun to watch.
Light as a charlotte russe and just as sweet, the piece is divided into four sections, each of which, not surprisingly, is a choreographed representation of each of the four seasons. Erica Pereira, Sean Suozzi and Christian Tworzyanski led Winter’s blast of chilly air warmed by Robbins’s humor, followed by Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle heralding Spring, then by Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar leading sultry summer, and concluding with Tiler Peck, Joaquin De Luz, and Antonio Carmena providing the blast of fresh air of “Fall.” All the leads danced commendably (which is not nearly as strong a word as should be used), but I feel compelled to single out Ms. Krohn, who has that rare quality of being able to melt ice just by stepping onto the stage, without seeming to have a clue that she’s doing it.
More champagne, please.