New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
February 3, 4, 2012
"Allegro Brillante,” “Russian Seasons,” “Zakouski,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
“Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” “Les Carillons” (new Wheeldon); “Firebird”
-- by Jerry Hochman
Maybe it was because it was sandwiched between classics. Maybe it was the result of having seen too many great performances in too short a period of time, including Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful “Russian Seasons” the previous night and Liam Scarlett’s dynamite work “Viscera” with Miami City Ballet the previous week. Or maybe it was just that I was feeling contrary last Saturday evening. But for this viewer, Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, “Les Carillons” (which was given its world premiere by New York City Ballet on January 28) is a puzzlement. Mr. Wheeldon’s usual inventiveness and choreographic facility, which are evident here, raise expectations: one expects his works to be successful on all levels. Based on this one viewing, however, “Les Carillons” misses the mark. Essentially, I found “Les Carillons” to be both thematically and stylistically unfocused, and as beautiful and intriguing as certain of its segments are, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Choreographed to Georges Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne Suites Nos. 1 and 2,” “Les Carillons” is a plotless ballet with clearly expressed emotional undercurrents. After opening to a segment involving all of the very large cast (five lead couples and an additional ten corps dancers), the dancers separately perform as pairs, solos, trios, or other subsets of the whole, all coming together again in the closing segment. Some of the individual component parts are sublime – including the three pas de deux that are central to the piece (performed by Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild, and particularly Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle). I liked Mr. Wheeldon’s use of the corps, at times, as a sort of silent ‘chorus’ observing the individually-expressed relationships – the technique expands the field of view, and adds a sense of community to the relationships on display.
However, Mr. Wheeldon has a tendency, evident in some of his work, to cram too much into one piece, and to this viewer he has done so here in several respects. First, there’s too much of a good thing. By that I mean that although the central pas de deux are choreographically different, there is no dominant pair of dancers on which to focus, no sense of emotional differentiation between the pairs of leads, and no sense of progression from one displayed ‘relationship’ to another. Unlike Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” or Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading,” both of which I thought of as I was watching “Les Carillons,” “Les Carillons doesn’t have a thematic unity or ‘go’ anywhere. It doesn’t have to – a series of segments is fine – but for this piece, with this music, ‘going somewhere’ and showing something more than an display of relationships, appears called for. [The one ingredient that does unify the piece is the costumes, designed by Mark Zappone, which are contemporary and simple, but elegantly beautiful and sensuous. They provide a thematic and visual consistency that in other respects the piece lacks.]
Second, although some measure of choreographic variety and innovation is necessary for the success of a piece, here it seemed that Mr. Wheeldon threw too much movement variety into it. There were so many varieties of hand and arm positions that it seemed as if Mr. Wheeldon did not have a clear idea of what he wanted to show and, more importantly, how he wanted to show it. [For example, the ‘swan arms’ imposed on Ms. Kowroski in the middle of her pas de deux, though beautifully executed, looked forced and out of place.] The end result is that even though the choreographic tempo is sufficiently varied and the stage does not appear to be overly crowded, the piece ‘feels’ busy – there are just too many different movement qualities to digest.
But perhaps the larger problem is a more ‘global’ one. Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” is reflective of a particular place. “Les Carillons” is not.
Arles is a city and a commune in the south of France on the banks of the Rhone (it is a section of the larger area of Provence), which has a rich and varied cultural history, and which in more modern times has captured the attention of artists. [Van Gogh lived in Arles for a time (1888-89), and many of his paintings contain his impressions of the Arles landscape and its people (e.g., “Starry Night Over the Rhone,” “L’Arlesienne”). It’s also where he cut off his ear.]
Bizet’s score (Suite No.1) was composed in 1872 as incidental music to a play, “L’Arlesienne” by Alphone Daudet. The play was not a success and was rarely performed, but the music was a popular success and has survived as an orchestral work (a second suite was added based on Bizet’s original themes). Perhaps the score’s popularity and sense of place arises, at least in part, through its incorporation of local folk music and its atmosphere of simple virtues and lack of artifice.
By titling his piece “Les Carillon,” it appears that Mr. Wheeldon intended to divest the piece, visually, of the music’s folk roots. If this was Mr. Wheeldon’s intention, he succeeded. To this observer, “Les Carillons” fails to convey the sense of ‘folk nobility,’ if you will, of Bizet’s score. The movement follows the music, but it doesn’t reflect the music’s heart. And the piece suffers as a result.
“Russian Seasons,” on the other hand, is a work of art that captures a sense of style and place as it was intended to do. In every respect, Mr. Ratmansky’s work is a gem.
“Russian Seasons” was choreographed in 2006 to music (“The Russian Seasons”) by Leonid Desyatnikov, which (according to the program notes) takes authentic melodies and text from the collection called ‘Traditional Music from the Russian Lake District’ and sets them as four ‘concertos’ of three ‘movements’ each, in a form similar to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” I cannot speak to the ‘authenticity’ of the folk melodies, and I don’t think that the music’s form relationship to Vivaldi’s work is significant for the piece (other than to provide its framework), but Ratmansky captures the music’s heart. Roughly unified under a folk dance umbrella, the piece is not just a collection of ‘folk dances’ – rather, it is a presentation of short, distilled folk expressions that provide moving images of various themes of peasant life – including fear and superstition, rapture, the anticipation of love, and the anticipation of death.
But what Mr. Ratmansky has also done in “Russian Seasons” is to display a universality of ‘folk’ emotional expression.
I have written previously of the similarities I see between Mr. Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins in the sense of Mr. Ratmansky’s singular ability, like Robbins, to instill a quality of humanity into the characters that he choreographically creates. This quality of ‘humanity’, in the form of a universal folk expression, is evident in “Russian Seasons.” As I watched the anguished, hysterical, but brilliantly executed dance by Sara Mearns (in her debut in the piece), I wasn’t thinking ‘Russian’ feeling as much as a universal response by an unsophisticated person to anticipated horror. And what came to mind was Robbins’s “Dybbuk.” I saw “Dybbuk” more years ago than I care to remember (not the 2007 revival), and, other than a clear image of the ‘bride’ (Deborah Koolish), all I can recall of it is a sense of primitive fear of the unknown and the unknowable. I felt this same sense from Ms. Mearns’s searing portrayal in “Russian Seasons” (although the movement quality is different).
In addition to Ms. Mearns, the lead dancers were Megan Fairchild, Wendy Whelan, and Jared Angle, all of whom (as well as the other dancers in the piece), provided the performance credibility and competence that the piece requires and deserves.
“Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” to Stravinsky’s 1931 score, debuted at NYCB in 1972 on the first program of its first Stravinsky Festival. It is one of Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets, but less ascetic and more joyous than others. The cast was the same for both performances: Janie Taylor and Ask la Cour, and Rebecca Krohn (in her debut in the role) and Sebastien Marcovici danced the two lead couples, accompanied by a corps of seven women and eight men.
Had I seen only Friday’s performance, I would have been disappointed. While Ms. Taylor and Mr. la Cour danced with clarity and precision, I found Ms. Krohn’s and Mr. Marcovici’s execution, particularly in contrast to Ms. Taylor and Mr. la Cour, to be somewhat muddy. Perhaps it was the product of insufficient rehearsal time, but whatever it was, it was gone the next night: Saturday’s performance was exemplary.
According to the program notes, Balanchine said that “Allegro Brillante,” one of his early (1956) pieces, “contains everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes.” That it does, but it’s more than just an academic exercise: it’s a joyous gift of movement magic. When brilliantly executed, as it was by Ms. Fairchild and Andrew Veyette, it sparkles like the facets of a diamond, and is emblematic of the ‘partnership’ between Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, less celebrated than the collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky but, to this viewer, more emotionally rewarding, that I anticipate elaborating upon in subsequent reviews.
From a smorgasbord of movement to hors d’oeuvres. “ Zakouski,” which means ‘hors d’oeuvres’ in Russian, is a pas de deux choreographed by Peter Martins to excerpts of works by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. It suffered by comparison with the pieces that preceded and followed it on Friday evening’s program. That it appeared less “Russian” than “Gypsy”.(akin, for example, to the gypsy dances in “Don Quixote”) on a program labeled ‘a la Russe’, didn’t help. But gypsy dancing would have been fine – the problem as this viewer saw it with Friday’s performance was that the dancers, Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz, were dancing as individuals. Separately, each was super; together, I sensed no connection between them at all except they were both on the same stage in the same piece at the same time.
I have mixed feelings about the closing piece on Saturday’s program, “Firebird.” A collaboration between Balanchine and Robbins to Stravinsky’s famous score, I have found in the past that I appreciated the score and the wonderful sets and costumes by Marc Chagall (costumes executed by Karinska) more than the dancing on stage. Saturday’s performance, however, was a success on all fronts. Following a slight slip, Teresa Reichlin recovered to dance a superb ‘Firebird’. In some ways, ‘Firebird’ is akin to Odette (yes, I know they’re both birds), which Ms. Reichlen danced superbly last fall. As she was as 'Odette', Ms. Reichlen as 'Firebird' was vulnerable, noble, sweet, and exotic, all at the same time, and danced impeccably. Jonathan Stafford as ‘Prince Ivan’, Savannah Lowery as the ‘Prince’s Bride’, and Andrew Scordato’s ‘Kastchei’ (the Wizard) completed the lead cast. And one indication that perhaps one has been seeing too many ballet performances is that I found myself able to recognize certain of the 28 dancers who were Kastchei’s subjects, even though they were fully costumed head to toe, by their stage demeanor and body movement alone.