New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 21, 2011
Walpurgisnacht; Dances at a Gathering; Concerto DSCH;
January 28, 2011
Concert DSCH; Polyphonia; For the Love of Duke (Susan Stroman premier)
Susan Stroman is a Broadway Baby. By that I mean that her apparent goal is to engage and entertain, not to show off her choreographic abilities or the technical skill of the dancers who perform her pieces, and not to create ‘important’ or ‘definitive’ or ‘groundbreaking’ works of art. The fact that her works (like “Contact,” “The Producers,” and “Double-Feature”) display consummate choreographic skill and performing ability, and in many ways are important, definitive, and groundbreaking, is almost lost in the glow of pieces that are so much fun to watch.
So it is with Ms. Stroman’s new piece for New York City Ballet, “For the Love of Duke,” which actually is a double-feature combination of a work previously choreographed for NYCB in 1999 (“Blossom Got Kissed”); and a new work that had its world premiere last night (“Frankie and Johnny…and Rose”}.
The two pieces separately are wonderful; together they’re marvelous. That they’re jazz-inspired and calculated to leave the audience giggling might lead one to conclude that they’re mere funny valentines, without substance. That would be wrong. They are small-scale gems that show off Ms. Stroman’s choreographic breadth (from swing to classical ballet; from soft-shoe to fouettes), her incomparable wit, and her ability to take what already is entertaining (the Duke Ellington music – here deliciously played on-stage by the David Berger Jazz Orchestra) and transform it into something even better.
“Frankie and Johnny…and Rose” takes its cue from the songs (“The Single Petal of a Rose; Frankie and Johnny”) of the same name, and runs with it, converting it into a comedic take on one guy’s struggle to stay committed to one girl – a battle he hilariously loses (so many girls…so little time). Danced in front of, on top of, and behind a couple of benches behind which the Berger Orchestra is stationed, the male lead, Amar Ramasar, initially dances ‘in love’ with a first partner, Tiler Peck. At the conclusion of their initial dance, while lying on the bench, atop Ms Peck, he spies Sara Mearns. Smitten, he dumps Ms. Peck, and has a fling with Ms. Mearns. Ms. Peck then woos back the befuddled Romeo, who can’t make up his mind. Eventually, the two girls dump him. Literally. But he emerges from behind the bench with yet another girl – which provides a perfect segue to the companion piece.
Ms. Peck and Ms. Mearns are two of NYCB’s best. Ms. Peck never ceases to amaze with the breadth of her ability as a dancer and actress, and here as a comedienne. Ms. Mearns was a more subtle siren. But Mr. Ramasar, who is an extraordinary partner and comic foil, stole the piece.
In “Blossom Got Kissed,” Savannah Lowery plays the poor little ballet dancer who can’t lighten up and have fun (jitterbug) like the other girls, until she’s rescued by a triangle musician (Robert Fairchild) who teaches her how. Like “Frankie…,” “Blossom…” is funny and sweet and brilliantly done. But unlike “Frankie…”, “Blossom” has a corps of bogeying dancers to share the spotlight, balance things out, and shine on their own. Amanda Hankes, Lauren Lovette, Lauren King, Meagan Mann, Georgina Pazcoguin, Brittany Pollack, Sarah Villwock, Daniel Applebaum, Vincent Paradiso, Justin Peck, Henry Seth, Troy Schumacher, and Giovanni Villalobos, each of whom is still in the corps, were super. NYCB has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of the capabilities of their dancers; and, unlike other companies, provides its dancers with the opportunity to show what they can do – and its audiences with the opportunity to watch them grow.
The mid-piece on last night’s program was “Polyphonia,” an early (2001) piece by Christopher Wheeldon, created shortly after he was named NYCB’s artist-in-residence in 2000. It appears to have created a sensation when it debuted (I did not see it at that time), and with good reason. Choreographed to ten piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, the piece is visually stunning in the way that Balanchine’s black and white ballets are stunning – except here the leotards are a vibrant leafy purple. Wheeldon’s work mirrors the dissonance in Ligeti’s music, but goes beyond that to create a contemporary dance work of art that is both austere and loaded with indelible images. Taking his cue from Balanchine’s “Agon,” the piece begins with four couples dancing asymmetrical duets against a background of their own shadows, and then the asymmetry gradually resolves, and the couples’ dances mirror each other. The action then is divided into couples, trios, and solos, and eventually ends with the four couples regrouping at the back of the stage, in front of their shadows, as the work began.
Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle were the heart of this piece. As intricate as the movement quality for them was, it never seemed forced. On the contrary, their duets, as well as the piece as a whole, moved seamlessly from one musical excerpt, and one ‘scene,’ to another. The two of them were ably abetted by Jennie Somogyi and Christian Tworzyanski, and Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley, and Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay.
One expects to be blown away by Ms. Kowroski, Mr. Angle, and Ms. Somogyi whenever they’re on stage, and Mr. Tworzyanski has been used quite a bit recently, for good reason. And Ms. Pollack and Mr. Stanley, and Ms. Lovette and Mr. Finlay more than held their own against their more well-recognized colleagues. But Ms. Lovette was remarkable. In a section of the piece which begins with a duet and continues as a solo, Ms. Lovette was mesmerizing. The section has an inherent dramatic quality to it (for a plotless ballet, “Polyphonia” is rich with nuance and hints of emotional gloss), and Ms. Lovette was not only technically accomplished, she was strikingly expressive without being the least emotional or melodramatic. It was an unexpectedly exceptional performance, that was well-received by the usually restrained NYCB audience. Ms. Lovette appears small and pretty enough to be a cute soubrette, but she also appears to be talented enough to be a lot more than that.
Concerto DSCH, which I was able to see at both the January 28 and 21 performances, is a masterfully crafted example of Alexei Ratmansky’s ability to create works that breathe.
Choreographed to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Mr. Ratmansky’s creation is a tapestry of color and movement that, unfortunately, is also very difficult to describe. There is a central lyrically romantic couple, danced last night by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle; an effervescent, non-stop ballerina (last night Ashley Bouder) accompanied, at times, by two equally buoyant sparkling men (last night, Joaquin deLuz and Andrew Veyette), all of whom, at various times, are accompanied by a complimentary corps. [At the January 21 performance, Ana Sophia Scheller was the bubbly ballerina, Sara Mearns debuted as the girl of the lead couple, and Daniel Ulbricht also debuted as one of the two men accompanying Ms. Scheller. I preferred the January 21 cast to last night’s cast, but they both were wonderful.]
But a mere description is entirely insufficient to describe what Mr. Ratmansky has crafted. He uses every part of the stage, and creates images that are his own, even though at times I saw snippets of Balanchine, Tudor, and Paul Taylor. The central image, if there is one, is a circle in which the corps frequently surrounds the couple, but the piece just as often seems to have a split-screen effect, where action on one part of the stage is set off by a complimentary (but not identical) action by part of the corps on the other. Most remarkable to me is Mr. Ratmansky’s use of choreographic echoes. A series of steps is danced by the lead couple, and as your eyes move to the ‘supporting’ corps, you see pairs of corps dancers (or in some cases individual dancers), who had seemed to be executing different but similar movement, suddenly echoing the movement of the lead couple. The echoes are sometimes identical images, but just as often variations on a theme. It is a technique that I’ve seen Mr. Ratmansky use before (actually, in pieces created subsequent to this one), that I find gives remarkable texture and cohesion to his pieces, and gives him the opportunity to emphasize images without simply repeating them.
To a large extent, NYCB’s January 21 program was ‘the Sara Mearns show.’ Ms. Mearns is an unusual dancer. She’s not a sylph, and she appears larger than other dancers – perhaps because of her bone structure, perhaps because of her height, and perhaps because of the way she carries herself. She dominates the stage whenever she’s on it, and as a result is a natural for roles that require such a dominating presence (e.g., “Cortege Hongrois”). But her performances on January 21 convinced me that she’s more than a strong-like-bull dancer; her dancing, where the choreography calls for it, also displays a lyrical quality that doesn’t seem to go together with her stage appearance, but she pulls it off magnificently. As displayed in “Dances at a Gathering” and “Concerto DSCH,” it is a lyricism born of power and strength, rather than a natural ethereal quality, although I suspect that Ms. Mearns can pull ‘ethereal’ out of her bun too.
“Dances at a Gathering” is one of Jerome Robbins’s many signature pieces – with good reason. It is a masterpiece, and seeing it again after a long separation from it like getting a booster shot for the soul. Familiarity with Robbins’s series of dance gems to Chopin’s piano miniatures is presumed, and the entire cast, led by Ms. Peck, Mr. Angle, Ms. Mearns, and particularly Mr.Ramasar (who makes partnering Ms. Mearns look easy) danced as if it was a premier.
“Walpurgisnacht” is a piece created by Balanchine as an entre-acte diversion for a production of the opera “Faust.” Balanchine decided to present it on its own, but to me it has always left me waiting for something more – which, of course, there should be. It’s not one of my favorite Balanchine pieces. The performances, as usual, were all danced well – particularly by Erica Pereira in her debut. But Ms. Pereira should tone down the lipstick. She stands out well enough without the added emphasis.