CriticalDance Forum

New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016
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Author:  balletomaniac [ Wed Feb 10, 2016 7:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

January 27, 2016: Liebeslieder Walzer, Glass Pieces
January 30, 2016(M): Barber Violin Concerto, Fancy Free, Who Cares?
February 6, 2016(M): Ballo Della Regina, Kammermusik No. 2, Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3

-- by Jerry Hochman

It gets somewhat tiresome to keep recognizing, and trumpeting, the capabilities of New York City Ballet dancers at all levels, but recent programs on January 27, 30, and February 6, which included significant role debuts, make it impossible to ignore or overstate the company’s depth of talent, as well as the breadth of its repertory. I’ll discuss the February 6 program first.

I was in the audience when Ballo Della Regina premiered on January 12, 1978, and I remember vividly the cheers that began while Merrill Ashley was still in the process of completing her concluding pas de deux, grew through the ballet’s conclusion, and erupted into a roar at its end and through multiple curtain calls. The ovation was not only for Ashley, who well deserved it; it was also very obviously a salute to Balanchine from a grateful audience. I overheard thrilled ballet-goers with smiles on their faces repeatedly proclaiming to anyone within earshot: “He’s back!” What they were referring to was that Ballo was the return to the form and brilliance that members of the NYCB audience had been waiting for: another great Balanchine neo-classical creation, rather than an avant garde exercise or an elaboration on a particular style which NYCB audiences – at least those in the orchestra - largely tolerated as examples of Balanchine’s genius but otherwise generally didn’t seem to like much.

Ballo Della Regina returned to NYCB’s active repertory this Winter, 2016 season, and I caught up with it on the remarkable February 6 matinee program, which also was the occasion for Tiler Peck’s debut in the leading role. Ballo includes some of Balanchine’s wickedest choreography for its lead ballerina, and Peck not only executed brilliantly (including the two-footed hops en pointe, and the freeze-frame conclusion of the final pas de deux), she filled her performance with nuances and stretched phrasing as if she’d been dancing the role for years. Peck doesn’t have many opportunities to look regal, but here she gave a performance fit for a queen.

The piece is taken from ballet music eventually cut from Verdi’s score for the opera Don Carlo. The ballet, originally choreographed by Lucien Petipa, visualized a fisherman’s search for a perfect gem in an ocean grotto, and was separately titled La Peregrina (which just happens to be the name of one of the most famous pearls in the world). It was originally placed at the beginning of Act III (of five acts) of the opera, and perhaps was intended as a balletic metaphor for Don Carlo’s longing for his ‘pearl’ – his step-mother (don’t ask). The word ‘peregrina’ also has a double-meaning – pilgrim or wanderer - which similarly fits the Don Carlos story. In any event, pearls naturally reside underwater. Accordingly, Balanchine's ballet has an aquatic feel to it (arms push out occasionally as if treading or pushing backwards against water), but this never interferes with the overall impact. On the contrary – it enhances it.

Peck was not alone in her debut, or in providing a distinguished performance. In featured roles, each of which was a debut, Brittany Pollack (a soloist), Sara Adams, Alexa Maxwell, and Emilie Gerrity (each a member of the corps) excelled as well, with Pollack and Maxwell showing particularly strong attack and vibrancy. Gonzalo Garcia displayed adequate partnering capability and zest in the lead male role, but lacked sufficient elevation in his leaps (well, ok, it’s underwater), and either overshot or undershot his turns too frequently.

Later in the same year that Balanchine created Ballo, he crafted Kammermusik No. 2. Kammermusik reflects a distinct kinship with Balanchine’s earlier iconic Stravinsky ballets: Agon and Symphony in Three Movements. Indeed, like Three Movements, Kammermusik has a jazzy, art deco feel to it, which fits Paul Hindemith’s music, one of a series of seven kammermusik (chamber music) pieces he composed between 1923 and 1933.

I doubt that there is a better introduction (it's a relatively short piece) to Balanchine's 'contemporary' style. Not only is the choreography in Kammermusik as contemporary-looking today as it must have looked at its premiere, it masterfully integrates relatively novel (for ballet) movement qualities – flexed hands and feet; backward thrusts for the women, for example— and adds both dynamism and an inherent sense of excitement. Even knowing Balanchine’s genius and the breadth of his creativity, the realization that he choreographed Ballo and Kammermusik sequentially never ceases to amaze.

The lead women for the Kammermusik No. 2 performance who dance in counterpoint to each other and to the striking eight-dancer male corps, Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford, excelled, with Stafford, a principal dancer since 2007, demonstrating remarkable vigor and no diminution of ability at this point in her career. The roles of the two lead male dancers, danced by Adrian Danchig-Waring and Ask La Cour, are not nearly as complex or spectacular-looking, but both performed well.

Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, the third piece in this superb program, is a synthesis of what I've previously described as the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky ‘collaboration’, and it's an unquestionable masterwork. Like the music for the suite, the four ballets – and particularly the final component, Tema Con Variazioni (Theme and Variations) – seem incompatible. But the more you see the ballet, the more clear it becomes how compatible they are. And Balanchine makes the entire suite visually evolutionary – from almost overly romantic, to dramatic, to frenetic; from pointe shoes to ballet slippers to barefoot; with the final movement placing it all in a classical context.

Teresa Reichlen and Zachary Catazaro led the Elegie with more melodrama than I’ve seen previously, but it was not overdone and, in fact, made the segment all the more compelling. Erica Pereira and Antonio Carmena led the Scherzo, and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz did fine work with Theme. But the performance by soloist Ashley Laracey (partnered by Jared Angle) in Valse Melancolique was particularly noteworthy. In a role that is intended to reflect the music’s air of mystery, but which frequently comes across simply enigmatic or, alternatively, too bland, Laracey injected drama and vibrancy. Hers was the kind of performance that allows you to see a ballet, or a segment of one, with fresh eyes.

Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces returned to the NYCB repertory on a program together with Liebeslieder Walzer, which I saw on January 27. Liebeslieder Walzer consists of a series of dances (primarily duets) to waltz music by Johannes Brahms inspired by German love poems, to which these poems are sung. It’s filled with emotional nuance and is brilliantly crafted; every turn of the head, every bend in the hand, carries meaning, and every individual dance is distinctive. And the performances - by Rebecca Krohn and Russell Janzen, Sterling Hyltin and Jared Angle, Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar, and Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay – complemented the brilliance of the choreography.

But to me, Liebeslieder Walzer is a ‘cold’ ballet. The audience knows the emotions are there, but they’re private; trapped within period mannerism and limitations on expression. I watch it and admire the quality, detail, and muted passion, but it never draws me in. Glass Pieces, on the other hand, to me is a ‘hot’ ballet. That is, even though there is little in the way of emotional nuance, the ballet is so exciting to watch unfold that I’m drawn in (together, as far as I can determine, with the rest of the audience). Krohn and Ramasar carried the central ‘Facades’ segment admirably.

Several of the featured corps dancers in Glass Pieces also excelled in the January 30 matinee program, which was chockablock with role debuts. In her debut in one of the four leading roles in Who Cares?, Unity Phelan provided another demonstration of why she’s been given increasing role opportunities. In her featured solo in particular (I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise) she lent the segment a much-needed sense of buoyancy, in addition to providing the superlative execution that all NYCB dancers I’ve seen in this role routinely deliver. Joseph Gordon’s debut in the lead male role was danced at a remarkably high level, especially considering that his scheduled partner, Lauren Lovette, had to withdraw because of injury (replaced by Megan Fairchild, who danced the role admirably). While Gordon doesn’t yet have the presence of, say, Robert Fairchild, who I saw in this role at the beginning of the season, he makes up for it with an abundance of ability and contagious youthful enthusiasm. Pollack danced the third featured role debut, and excelled as well – particularly in her duet with Gordon in Embraceable You.

The January 30 program also included repeat performances of Fancy Free and Barber Violin Concerto which have been previously reviewed. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge the superlative performance of soloist Georgina Pazcoguin in the latter, in the role of the “modern’ female dancer – the first time I’ve seen her in this role. Her performance devoured space, and dominated the stage. In a word, she was spectacular.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sun Feb 14, 2016 9:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

In the New York Times, Gia Kourlas reviews the Friday, February 12, 2016 performance of Bournonville's La Sylphide and Balanchine's Piano Concerto No. 2.

NY Times

Author:  balletomaniac [ Wed Feb 17, 2016 10:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

February 13E, 2016
La Sylphide, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2

-- by Jerry Hochman

For this winter’s New York City Ballet season, and in conjunction with Valentine’s Day weekend, the company presented an encore eight-performance series of Peter Martins’s staging of La Sylphide. I caught up with the current run on Saturday night, in time to see Indiana Woodward, a promising member of the corps, in her debut performance as the Sylph, and Joseph Gordon, another highly promising corps dancer, who portrayed Gurn (a role I had not seen him dance previously). Both performances, as well as a repeat outing by Anthony Huxley as James, provide further confirmation of the depth of this company.

Generally considered to be the oldest continuously performed Romantic ballet, La Sylphide is very much a creation of its time. It’s generally acknowledged as having been loosely inspired by early 19th Century French author Charles Nodier’s story, Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail (1822), with the characters changed in the ballet’s libretto from a goblin/elf loved by a fisherman’s wife to a bewinged sylph lusted after by a besotted farmer. A contemporary of the Brothers Grimm, Nodier is best remembered for writing Romantic, vampire, or gothic tales of the fantastique, and has been called the conservator of the land of dreams. Indeed, both the goblin in the original story, and the sylph in the ballet, are spawned in dreams.

It may have been record-breaking cold outside the DHK Theater, but Woodward’s delightful, dream-like sylph warmed the stage. The role suits her well – the lyricism she displayed so vividly in The Blue of Distance earlier this season is readily apparent, as is the aura of sylph-next-door innocence. She appeared understandably nervous at the ballet’s beginning, but settled down and delivered an outstandingly animated and nuanced Act II, with a superbly touching ‘death’ scene. Her technique (she needs to keep her back from lurching slightly backward during her otherwise blithe-spirited leaps) and her characterization will get even better over time. Gordon doesn’t yet have the shading that Daniel Ulbricht brings to the role of Gurn, but few do. Aside from that, Gordon was an ardent and believable suitor for Effie (danced by Megan LeCrone), and his lack of deceitfulness and guile gave his character a refreshingly warm heart.

But Huxley’s James, who I noted last year was the finest James I’ve seen, was equally extraordinary at this performance. His technical facility and apparent comfort with the role and the Bournonville style makes his James not only believable, but thrilling to watch, and his presence dominated every dance he was in.

As was the case with many of his story-telling contemporaries, Nodier’s stories, like Trilby, told moral truths and had unhappy endings. The story of the evil witch Madge (played at this performance by Marika Anderson) triumphing over the selfish James, whose passion for the sylph of his dreams is in stark contrast to his lack of charity and cavalier attitude toward everyone else in the piece, is somewhat of an unpleasant surprise to audiences unfamiliar with it – there’s no catharsis, as in Giselle; just a dead thud at the ballet’s end.

In my initial review of this production, which followed Bournonville Divertissements on that program, I noted that concluding the program with La Sylphide left the audience morose as they left the theater. I suggested that the next time La Sylphide was scheduled, it might be advantageous to have the program begin with that ballet, and end with something more energizing. This season, La Sylphide has been paired with George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, with the latter concluding the program. I suspect that my recommendation had nothing whatsoever to do with the scheduling, but ending the program with this remarkable ballet made a considerable difference – it sent the audience home cheering.

I must confess that I prefer Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 in its original NYCB form (1964) as Ballet Imperial, with the sumptuous set by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. The piece, one of Balanchine’s homages to Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and the Russian Imperial ballet tradition, cries out for more than just gentle chiffon skirts and a flat background. But I understand why Balanchine made these changes (as well as choreographic changes that included eliminated mime from the original 1941 production for American Ballet Caravan) – homage or not, by 1973 it was more significant to emphasize where he was and was going, not where he came from.

Be that as it may, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 is a remarkable piece of work – a bridge between, and a synthesis of, Russian classical ballet and contemporary Balanchine ballets that distill the choreographic stage presentation to its essence. Everything is there – the majesty as well as the purity; the reverence (literally) for the classical past and the audacious originality inherent in Balanchine’s style and creativity.

At Saturday’s performance, led by Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, all the NYCB dancers, including the dazzling 16 woman/6 male corps and featured soloists Kristen Segin, Sarah Villwock, Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum, executed Balanchine’s choreographic extremes brilliantly. But particular kudos to Ana Sophia Scheller, who danced Balanchine’s more rapid-fire footwork in her role with quicksilver facility and unbridled energy.

All in all, this was a fine Valentine’s Day weekend program. But if I could make a suggestion – another one – next time, try Romeo + Juliet or The Sleeping Beauty. Or better still, and speaking of impossible dreams like James’s sylph, perhaps Suzanne Farrell can be persuaded to share Balanchine’s Don Quixote.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Thu Feb 18, 2016 7:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

Alastair Macaulay reports on dancers who are new to their roles for the New York Times.

NY Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Feb 22, 2016 9:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

In the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay reviews a wide assortment of ballets, including Justin Peck's Paz de la Jolla, Kim Brandstrup's Jeux, Christopher Wheeldon's This Bitter Earth, Peter Martins' Ash and The Infernal Machine and Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.

NY Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Tue Feb 23, 2016 11:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

In the New Yorker, Joan Acocella profiles choreographer Justin Peck and discusses The Most Incredible Thing.

New Yorker

Author:  balletomaniac [ Mon Feb 29, 2016 5:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: New York City Ballet Winter Season 2016

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

February 20M; 28, 2016

Ash, This Bitter Earth, The Infernal Machine, Jeux, Paz De La Jolla
Episodes, Agon, The Four Temperaments

-- by Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet concluded its 2016 winter season with one program devoted to contemporary choreographers, and one to three Balanchine ‘black and white’ ballets, two of which are unquestionable masterpieces. Both programs indicate how far this company has come in the last several years, and how deep its depth of talent is.

I’ve frequently observed that Peter Martins, NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief, labored under the shadow of Balanchine for years. I recall that he was severely criticized for choreography that didn’t, and couldn’t possibly, measure up to that of his predecessor, as well as for purportedly allowing the company to languish, with insufficient attention paid to maintaining excellence in the company’s legacy repertory.

If that were ever true, those times are gone. It may be the product of a fortuitous convergence of circumstances that made attending a NYCB performance an exciting, rather than merely reverential, thing to do (extraordinarily talented dancers at every level, more successful development of contemporary ballet choreographers, marketing that emphasizes the youthful vibrancy and inter-cultural relevance of the company), or it may have been the case all along but went unnoticed in an effort by some to prove that the company under Martins’s tenure was living down to expectations, but regardless, in the past six-eight years, NYCB has turned around under his leadership. It’s been blessed with a bevy of superb corps dancers who are given ample opportunities to demonstrate their ability, and even Martins’s choreography looks better as the temporal distance between Martins and Balanchine increases.

I had not previously seen Martins’s Ash, which premiered in 1991. It’s essentially a study of dancing in counterpoint, expanded to a serviceable ballet form – a pair of soloists, supplemented by four pairs of demi-soloists. But Michael Torke’s commissioned score has enough variety of sound and meter to maintain aural interest, and Martins’s choreography makes the most of it. It’s a surprisingly joyous, if not particularly complex piece; a celebration of youthful vigor not complicated by the sense of futuristic sterility that marks other Martins/Torke collaborations.

Ash’s structure is simple. Essentially, the lead couple is framed by the four pairs of criss-crossing demi-soloists. This pattern repeats periodically, augmented by the four pairs dancing separately, the men and women dancing in counterpoint to the lead man and woman, and sequential solos that gave each dancer an opportunity to shine. With soloists Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro as the lead dancers, both role debuts, the piece was given a superlative performance. Each inbued Martins’s choreography with just enough individuality and zest to get beyond being empty vessels. And the supporting demi-soloists, all members of the corps, did the same and all performed admirably.

Laracey is a particularly strong vehicle for Martins’s choreography, as she demonstrated a couple of years ago in Martins’s 2002 piece, The Infernal Machine. She and her partner in that performance, Amar Ramasar, ignited the stage, giving a performance I described as watching lightning bolts mate. The dance was repeated on this program, with young and highly promising corps dancers Unity Phelan (who also appeared, and did a fine job in, Ash), and Preston Chamblee. With these two dancers, the piece appeared to have a more feral focus: less machine, and more inferno. It was a fabulous performance by both these young dancers.

This Bitter Earth is a powerful pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, an excerpt from a larger ballet called Five Movements, Three Repeats. Unlike some other excerpts, this one can stand very well on its own – even better than in context. Choreographed to a seamless mix of vocals by Dinah Washington and a composition by Max Richter, the piece explores a couple’s agony and survival, and it is hauntingly magnificent. At its NYCB premiere in September, 2012 (at the already fabled ‘Valentino Gala’) Wendy Whelan danced the lead female role, partnered by Tyler Angle. At this performance, Sara Mearns replaced the now retired Whelan, and an essential quality was missing. Mearns executed superbly, and danced with her usual overwhelming pathos. Her performance was beautiful to watch. But this pas de deux has grit to it: agony, despair, and ultimately, the nobility of suffering and surviving. None of these qualities was evident in Mearns’s portrayal – just brilliantly expressed but one-dimensional sadness.

Jeux, choreographed by Danish choreographer Kim Brandsrup, premiered last fall. I had a mixed response to it then – and still do. It’s beautifully crafted, and filled with dramatic-looking imagery. But it remains as opaque, dry and emotionless, as it did on first view.

Brandstrup’s broad subject, not surprisingly, is the ‘games people play’, and his ballet can be seen as a reimagining of the original Jeux, choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913 for the Ballet Russes, to a score by Claude Debussy. As Nijinsky’s Jeux is reported to have been, Bradstrup’s has somewhat of an ambiguous narrative. But where Nijinsky explored the undefined relationship between two women, a man, and an errant tennis ball, Bradstrup explores the caverns of a human mind and the mental processes of envy, depression, attraction and obsession. Where it goes seriously wrong is in its density and incomprehensibility, reflected to an extent in its thematic inversions that echo the ambiguities in the Nijinsky original, but takes them far beyond comprehensibility. Brandstrup notes that ‘jeux’ does not just mean ‘games’, but also play acting, role playing, deception, and fate. Fair enough – and I’ll concede that consistency and transparency are not necessarily components of a ‘game’, regardless of its definition. But pretentiousness, which this ballet is rife with, usually isn’t.

Mearns repeated in her role as the sometimes blindfolded protagonist, as did Adrian Danchig-Waring as the ball-bouncer. Lauren Lovette, finally returning from an injury, and Craig Hall, both in role debuts, replaced the original cast’s Sterling Hyltin and Ramasar as the couple she envies and tries unsuccessfully to separate. Both executed well – and Hall’s brilliance as a partner cannot be overstated – but their dancing was secondary to the piece’s pervasive perplexity.

The evening concluded with the return of Paz de La Jolla, choreographed by Justin Peck, which premiered in 2013 (and which was the subject of the 2015 documentary film: Ballet 422). I found it a somewhat disappointing successor to his marvelous Year of the Rabbit, but acknowledged that a second view might temper my criticism. It has. Looking at its overall impact rather than deconstructing it helps. It’s a serviceable, if not particularly innovative, dance that oozes summer sunshine, dreamy moonlit nights, individualistic beach/boardwalk behavior, and Ratmansky-like ocean waves of dancers. The leads, Hyltin and Ramasar as the summer lovers, and Tiler Peck as a percolating beach bunny (or, having recently seen the choreographer’s The Most Incredible Thing, a beach roaming cukoo-bird), gave the piece the emotional weight required to take it beyond cliché.

The Balanchine Black and White program which included the towering Agon and The Four Temperaments, began with Episodes, a 1959 piece that I once described as choreographic castor oil.

An homage to Anton von Webern, Episodes is set to various Webern orchestral works, and originally included a segment choreographed by Martha Graham, and a solo for one of her company members named Paul Taylor. In its current form, which NYCB has performed since 1961, it includes four segments, the first three of which anticipate a direction that Balanchine would later go with more academic, avant-garde exercises such as Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir (1975). Each of these three segments includes snippets of movement to Webern’s snippets of musical ‘episodes’, and expands the music’s impact. They’re somewhat tedious to watch, but the craftsmanship and execution are beyond reproach – particularly with respect to the second segment, to Five Pieces, Opus 10, exquisitely performed by Teresa Reichlen and Jared Angle. Abi Stafford repeated her fine performance in the first segment, partnered by Catazaro (whose wild-looking hair augments the sense of rugged individualism of his execution), and Ashly Isaacs and Taylor Stanley led the third segment with an admirable combination of power and grace. Mearns and Danchig-Waring danced with particular vibrancy in the concluding segment, which, inspired by Bach, is the most accessible of the four, and both cleanses the visual palate for, and neatly segues into, the dances that followed.

Agon, Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece that at this point is familiar to ballet-goers worldwide, was given a scintillating, top notch rendering, led by Reichlen, Rebecca Krohn, Laracey, Lauren King, Danchig-Waring, Alberda, Robert Fairchild, and Daniel Applebaum.

For me, the best was saved for last. The Four Temperaments, which Balanchine choreographed in 1946 to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, is an extraordinary piece that illustrates both Balanchine-in-transition (in multiple respects), but also stands on its own as a thrilling, singular celebration of the human spirit. Led by Anthony Huxley’s extraordinary Melancholic variation, Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle’s masterful Sanguinic, Ask la Cour’s Phlegmatic, and Isaacs’s superb Choleric, it is as fresh and relevant as when it premiered in a war-weary world, and deserves to be on anyone’s short list of ballets that must be seen at least a few dozen times.

The quality of the choreography and execution notwithstanding, the most extraordinary moment of the evening, and perhaps the season, came during the curtain calls. As the leads emerged from the wings to take their first round of bows in front of the corps, Peck, escorted by Angle, slipped and briefly fell to the floor. The audience gasped, but she rose quickly and smiled an embarrassed ‘what just happened?’ smile. She was delightfully flustered, and the audience, already enthusiastically acknowledging the superb performance, was energized further by the unexpected humanity at the end of this very human piece – implicitly recognizing that if Tiler Peck is going to make one minor mistake in an entire season, saving it for a bow is the way to do it.

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