New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 3, 5M, 6, 2013
Contemporary Choreographers: “Soiree Musicale”; “Spectral Evidence”; “Namouna, A Grand
Balanchine’s Stories: “La Sonnambula”; “Prodigal Son”; “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”
Family Fun: “Carnival of the Animals”’ “Jeu de Cartes’’; “The Four Seasons”
-- by Jerry Hochman
New York City Ballet used to present seasons in which one evening of repertory programs was rarely comprised of the same ballets as another. While on one night the company would present a program consisting of Ballets A, B, and C, for example, the next time ballet ‘C’ was performed it may have shared the stage with Ballets ‘X’ And ‘Y’, and with ballets ‘A’ and ‘Y’ next time, and with ballets ‘X’ and ‘Q’ the next time. If you cared, you could pick a program containing all the ballets you liked, and avoid those you preferred not to see.
In recent years NYCB has shifted to more predictable, and more economical, programing, with ballets grouped according to a particular ‘theme’ (even though certain ballets can fit within multiple theme categories). These ‘theme’ evening are then repeated regularly throughout the season, with the only variation being possible cast changes.
I disliked losing the power to choose what I wanted to see. But with a repertory as strong as that of NYCB, and dancers worth seeing in almost any ballet, even programs that wouldn’t be on my ‘preferred’ list merit a trip to the DHK Theater. The first of these programs, under the rubrick “Contemporary Choreographers,” is one such program.
I reviewed “Soiree Musicale,” following its company debut at last Spring’s Gala. It still looks like a workshop piece (it was initially choreographed in 1998 as a workshop presentation for the School of American Ballet, NYCB’s affiliated school), and I still see it as more pleasurable than memorable. But any opportunity to see NYCB’s young dancers in featured roles is worth seizing. The cast was the same as last Spring except that Zachary Catazaro, in a fine role debut, replaced the injured Chase Finlay.
“Spectral Evidence,” Angelin Preljocaj’s take on the Salem Witch Trials, premiered at the company’s Fall, 2013 Gala. I reviewed it two weeks ago, and this second viewing has changed my opinion only to a limited extent. I now see the piece’s central pas de deux with Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild to be more detailed and compelling than I did before, and recognize that Mr. Fairchild’s subsequent solo is brilliantly performed. I still think the choreography for this solo, with the accompanying eerie vocalization, is overbaked. However, the juxtaposition of the pas de deux and the solo serves to emphasize the connection Preljocaj makes between the possessed sensuality of the girls, and the possessed torment of the clergymen seduced by the girls and their theological message. The piece is too long and suffers from avoidable excess, but “Spectral Evidence” is a stunning theatrical ballet. This performance also marked the role debut of Taylor Stanley (replacing Mr. Finlay) as one of the clergymen. Mr. Stanley’s natural intensity is a perfect fit for the role.
The final piece on this program was the most eagerly awaited – the return to the repertory of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement.”
When I reviewed the piece following its premiere at the Spring, 2010 Gala, I found it pointless; a ballet that looked good but was indecipherable, a potpourri of clichés in search of a purpose. I now see Mr. Ratmansky’s choreographic motivation more clearly, but doing so doesn’t change my opinion.
‘Namouna’ was a full-length ballet choreographed by Lucien Petipa (Marius’s brother) to a score by Edouard Lalo that premiered at the Paris Opera in 1882. The ballet told the story of Lord Adriani, who loses his favorite slave-girl in a bet, and spends the next few hours – or however long the ballet took – to search for and find her. None of that story is present in Mr. Ratmansky’s piece (although at times there’s clearly a typically Romantic ‘search’). Rather, Mr. Ratmansky’s intent is not to present the story en toto, but to isolate a series of dances, a ‘grand divertissement’ that might have been comprised the final act of the original M. Petipa production – except these dances are updated with an abstract and somewhat irreverent vision, and are presented as a standalone ballet. The fact that each ‘scene’ may be only tangentially related to another is intentional: They’re supposed to be relatively independent dances, tied to the missing core story by a concluding ‘unity dance’. Imagine a complete ballet consisting of a kinky reimagining of the final act of “The Sleeping Beauty” (or “Coppelia”). Instead of one dance in a series of divertissement that is part of a celebration, the celebration being the culmination of the core story, here one strange-looking dance is part of a series of strange-looking divertissement, all of which are lopped off some unknown core story. And just as the last dance in Romantic ballets featured the union of the lead characters, “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” concludes with the union of the lead characters, blessed by a Puck-like faun assuming the role of the Lilac Fairy.
It’s certainly a unique, interesting looking ballet, but what makes it interesting is that it’s strange. It’s all choreographic glitz that looks like a collection of staged production numbers culled from depression-era movie musicals. There is an introductory promenade of women with hair helmets that make each of them resemble Louise Brooks, followed by choreography that alternates dizzying rapid-fire movement with intricate corps patterns with wonderful character dances with comic vignettes with quirky scenes that make no thematic sense (Bacall exhaling cigarette smoke at Bogart?). Then dancers suddenly appear wearing short, pale, and wavy plastered locks that make them look like moving statuary. Through it all, Mr. Ratmansky mines one Romantic choreographic source after another. It’s Petipa (Marius) reimagined by Busby Berkley.
Sterling Hyltin, in a role debut, was a more crystalline in her execution, and more sympathetic as a slave-girl, than I recall from the original cast. Tyler Angle, whom I had not seen previously in the lead male role, danced with his usual elan, but lacked the charisma that Robert Fairchild lent to the original cast. And Ashley Bouder, in a role debut (replacing Jenifer Ringer) was fabulous as the smoke-blowing pseudo-sophisticated lady.
Balanchine Short Stories
“Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” is a glamorous-looking ballet that appears to be excised from a larger whole. “La Sonnambula,” is also a glamorous-looking ballet that appears to be part of a larger whole. But while ‘Namouna’ looks incoherent, George Balanchine’s classic short story ballet is clear as a bell. That you can’t quite figure out what’s going on is your problem, not the ballet’s. It may be a gothic love story, or a gothic ghost story, or a murder/mystery, but its enigma is part of its brilliance, and part of its charm. Based on a story by Vittorio Rieti, and on musical themes from a variety of operas by Vincenzo Bellini (including “La Sonnambula”), Balanchine’s ballet is as gorgeous, alluring, and mysterious as a beautiful hothouse flower that has never breathed fresh air.
The ballet takes place at the darkly enchanting but somewhat claustrophobic and atmospherically sinister home of a haughty aristocrat who is hosting a masked ball attended by opulently dressed couples. The “Host” is escorting a girl identified as “Coquette.” We do not know the relationship between the Coquette and the Host, only that there is one. A man identified as the “Poet” enters the ballroom, and there is an immediate attraction between him and the Coquette. The Host leaves the room, and while he is absent the Poet ardently pursues the Coquette, and the Coquette circles the Poet as if she were a bird suddenly released from captivity and the Poet was her prey. The Host subsequently returns to the ballroom, invites the guests to dinner, and separates the Coquette from the Poet and removes her to the dining area. Now alone in the ballroom, the Poet suddenly sees a woman in white emerging from an area of rooms outside the ballroom, holding a lit candle. The woman moves like an apparition, as if sleepwalking, but she somehow senses any obstacle in her path. His curiosity piqued, the Poet plays with the Sleepwalker, manipulating her as if she were a dandelion flower in the breeze. The fascination turns into something more, and when the Sleepwalker leaves the ballroom, he follows her. After hearing of the infatuation from the jealous Coquette, the Host storms after them, returning knife in hand. The Poet reenters the ballroom, mortally wounded. As the guests watch awestruck, the Sleepwalker cradles the Poet in her arms, and carries him off to wherever she lives in the house.
We don’t know who these people are (other than their character identities), the nature of the relationships between them, why the Sleepwalker is imprisoned (or if she is), and what she does with the Poet’s lifeless body. But none of this matters. Balanchine’s exquisite and clever choreography is unforgettable.
Janie Taylor was a perfect Sleepwalker, with Sebastien Marcovici her bemused and bewitched Poet. Amar Ramasar (the Host) and Faye Arthurs (dancing the Coquette like a coiled viper) were both excellent. The pas de deux (within a series of divertissement during the masked ball) was danced engagingly by Lauren King, in her role debut, and Antonio Carmena.
“Prodigal Son,” an early (1929) and indisputable Balanchine masterpiece, remains as compelling as ever. Although I would have appreciated more power from Joaquin De Luz, and more of a siren from Teresa Reichlen, both have grown in their roles since I saw them previously. Jonathan Stafford was the commanding but loving patriarch. And displaying once again that there are no small roles, Marika Anderson and Likolani Brown were vibrant Daughters.
I reviewed “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” last Spring, and Balanchine’s classic, lifted from the Broadway musical “On Your Toes,” is as skillfully staged and performed as it was then, with the same extraordinary performances by Maria Kowroski and Mr. Angle. And seeing ‘Slaughter’ immediately following ‘Prodigal’ enabled me to see a connection, both thematically and choreographically, between the Siren in ‘Prodigal’ and the Stripper in ‘Slaughter’ that I had not previously considered. The connection tickles, but it’s a thesis for another day.
While an evening of Balanchine short story ballets may have been too much of a good thing (like the evening devoted to Balanchine Back and White Ballets the previous week), an evening entitled ‘Family Fun’ might cause one without children in tow to run the other way. That would have been a mistake. Each ballet on this program was enjoyable, and one was extraordinary. I’ll discuss them in reverse performance order.
Jerome Robbins’s “The Four Seasons” is one of his classic pieces. It is not insubstantial, but it has a light mood, and is punctuated by humor throughout. The ballet is based on music by Giuseppe Verdi (“I Vespri Siciliani,” augmented with music from “I Lombardi” and “Il Trovatore”), and was intended to replicate the form of a third act opera ballet divertissement to accompany “I Vespri Siciliani.” The snowflake-like dancers in Winter try to stay warm, the dancers in Spring move tentatively at first and then explode with vibrancy as the season progresses, the Summer dancers are sultry and seductive, and the Autumn dancers celebrate the refreshing air and the promise of the beginning of a new yearly cycle. Erica Pereira led the Winter dancers (abetted by Troy Shumacher and Ralph Ippolito); Ms. Hyltin, accompanied by Mr. Angle, was the breath of Spring; Rebecca Krohn, partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring, danced sultry Summer, and Ms. Bouder and Andrew Veyette (with Mr. Carmena the sprightly faun) were superb embodiments of refreshing autumnal energy.
“Jeu de Cartes,” choreographed by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins in 1992 to a 1936 score by Stravinsky of the same name, is somewhat of a puzzlement. It’s entertaining, but, except for the colorful costumes for the principals and the strikingly simple costumes for the corps (by Ian Falconer), it doesn’t have any particular relationship to a game of cards, nor does it sufficiently distinguish between segments of the score (shuffles of the deck). Since I was luke warm to the other version of “Jeu de Cartes” I’ve seen (choreographed by John Cranko) for the same reason, I suspect that my problem is more with the score’s relationship to a ‘game of cards’ than the choreography. But whether there are sufficient ‘card-game’ relationships inherent in the music and the choreography to support the thematic simile, there is no doubt that Mr. Martins’s choreography is vibrant to watch and was executed with flair. In the principal roles, Mr. Danchig-Waring was a somewhat low-key King of Clubs, Mr. De Luz an energetic Ace of Spades, and Mr. Taylor a dynamic and thrilling Jack of Diamonds. As the Queen of Hearts, Megan Fairchild was wonderful, blending personality coloration with sparkling technique.
But as good as these ballets and performances were, the highlight of the evening was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals,” and the highlight of that performance was Lauren Lovette.
At the end of last season, I complained that certain of the repertory choices for 2013-2014 had been poorly made, and with respect to Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography, I would have preferred something other than “Carnival of the Animals.” While I still would like to see again the other Wheeldon ballets I offered as alternative choices, my memory had dimmed as to how fine a piece “Carnival of the Animals” is. It’s everything a ‘family fun’ ballet should be, and much more.
Choreographed to “Le Carnaval Des Animaux” by Camille Saint-Saens, the ballet tells the story of a boy (‘Oliver’) who falls asleep while on a class trip to the American Museum of Natural History. While he sleeps, the animals in the museum come to life, and resemble characters in Oliver’s life. Fine, you say. So we have a bunch of dancers running around in animal outfits like the mice in “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’”. Not exactly. The animals (and other inhabitants of Oliver’s memory) that come to life are recognizable dancers acting like animal characters in Oliver’s memory, most with minimal costume. Among others, Oliver’s classmates become weasels and rats, his teacher a lion, members of the school wrestling team morph into jackasses (it’s funny – not necessarily social commentary), an aunt becomes a swan, and a bookish librarian becomes a kangaroo who dreams of, and becomes, a mermaid in a sea of humanoid fish. The choreography is uniformly ingenious, and the dancing was uniformly wonderful. It was great fun – great, and fun.
It also was an excellent opportunity to watch NYCB dancers act. Every one of the dancers created an outstanding character that went beyond caricature. These were, after all, human animals. And they all seemed to be having a blast. While I cannot list each cast member here, I must highlight Ms. Kowroski’s remembered ‘Swan’, and Brittany Pollack and Georgina Pazcoguin’s tortoises. [I must also recognize Jack Noseworthy’s Narrator (reading the narration originally written and performed by John Lithgow), and the performance of Maximilian Brooking Landegger, an SAB student, as Oliver.] Most noteworthy, however, was Lauren Lovette’s kangaroo/mermaid. Ms. Lovette’s character(s) had the most intriguing choreography. The kangaroo as envisioned by Mr. Wheeldon wears eyeglasses and is somewhat frumpy-looking, but at the same time moves her legs like they were intricate and precision mechanical stilts. The legs go up and come down and then go up and come down again in slightly different positions on the floor, at lightning speed. And when the librarian/kangaroo becomes a mermaid, she’s not just any mermaid. Ms. Lovette floats through the imagined ocean like a waterborne sensual angel – which, in Oliver’s dream of the kangaroo’s dream, is what she is. Ms. Lovette has a remarkable stage presence, with the ability to combine sensuality with innocence, and to make the most intricate of steps look lyrical. But I never expected to see all these traits in the same performance. As I overheard one observer say, her performances are magical. This was, perhaps, the most magical of them all.