New York City Ballet

54th Winter Season Opening Gala: "Land of Nod," "Carousel (A Dance)," "Thou Swell"

New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
New York City, NY

November 26, 2002
By Kate Snedeker

With the weather appropriately wintry, the ballet aficionados of New York gathered at the New York State Theater on November 26th for the gala opening of the New York City Ballet's 54th winter season. This year, the occasion was dedicated to the celebration of Richard Rodgers' music, as interpreted by three very different choreographers, Robert La Fosse, Christopher Wheeldon and Peter Martins.

After brief remarks by the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, the program opened with Robert La Fosse's Land of Nod. It was indeed a place right out of a dream, but this was a twisted, surreal dream about doomed love between a circus girl and a street cleaner. The ballet incorporated some of elements of the tragic story in Carousel and was faintly, eerily reminiscent in costume and choreography of Gerald Arpino's The Clowns.

Robert La Fosse danced the lead role of Uh-Oh, a slightly sinister clown who was the master of the circus. The circus performers, outlandish characters with names like Eeny Meeny, Miney, Moe, Mr. Why, Spirit Gum and Acetone, the Pinheads and the Teardrops, were brought to life by Greg Poplyk's fantastical costumes. The Pinheads, the circus girls, were outfitted in short, brightly multicolored tutus and tight, high ponytails festooned in tulle, so that they seemed more doll-like than human. The Teardrops, all male, wore black unitards festooned with mirrored “teardrops”, that covered all but their eyes. These costumes added the dreamlike mood of the piece because the black material tended to blend into the background, leaving the Teardrops as shadows illuminated only by the reflections of the mirrors.

The story was simple: Uh-Oh awakened Natalie (Megan Fairchild), his pink tutu-ed circus girl from her slumbers. Unsupervised, she ventured beyond the circus "walls" and fell in love with Marco (Sebastian Marcovici), the street cleaner. However, a character who is first carried in by Teardrops cannot have a happy ending, and all too soon Natalie was snatched away by Uh-Oh and returned to her surreal circus world.

Megan Fairchild was appropriately innocent and sweet as Natalie, and her dancing was wonderfully delicate and youthful. This is her first year in the corps, and one hopes to see more of her in the future. Sebastian Marcovici in his first season as principal, was delightful as Marco the street cleaner. Marcovici is an excellent actor, and he danced with energy, precision and a poignant tenderness. Together, they came alive in their pas de deux, especially in the tricky "leap of faith" sequences where she did a flying leap into a fish dive in his arms. The ballet also allowed Robert La Fosse to show off his wide range of theatrical talents as he danced, tapped and acted, all in outsized clown shoes (demi-pointe in clown shoes is quite feat!). The other highlights included a duet for the Froman twins (as Miney and Moe), a pas de deux between Megan Fairchild's Natalie and a character on stilts. This pas de deux came off with nary a wobble, and Fairchild really did seem to fly as she was lifted way up into the air.

Land of Nod was intriguing and very original, both in costumes and choreographic style, but unfortunately lacked a common thread to create a cohesive whole out of the wonderful, imaginative bits of choreography. The audience clearly was not sure how to react, as illustrated by the rather tentative applause. This was followed by Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance). This ballet, a fun frolic to music from Carousel, was definitely the highlight of the night. With simple costumes and set, the focus was on the choreography and the dancing, both of which were worthy of the attention. The men were attired by Holly Hynes in jeans and colorful shirts, the women in similarly colored dresses with triangular darts of a contrasting color that appeared when the dresses fanned out. The choreography was full of fast steps, lines and circle of dancers (the carousel motif), and though these motifs are clearly drawn from Balanchine's vocabulary, the combination of the motifs into coherent choreography was distinctly, and uniquely Wheeldon.

Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel sparkled as the principal couple. Wheeldon's choreography gave Woetzel a chance to show off his high, airy jumps and uniquely twisted tour en l'airs. Ansanelli's dancing was energetic, endearing and precise without being mechanical. She and Woetzel have danced together frequently in recent years, and they seem to have developed a solid partnership which allows them the comfort to explore the choreography instead of just focusing on the steps. The corps was equally as energetic, and seemed to relish the quick, more modern choreography and wonderful Richard Rodgers music. Despite the light-heartedness, there was a faint darkness in the ballet – Ansanelli and Woetzel's lovers were kept apart by the circle of dancers as the ballet began and the ending was deliberately vague and open to interpretation.

The ballet concluded with Wheeldon's simple, but effective portrayal of the title: the ballerinas were the carousel horses, the danseurs the support and the engine. Arrayed in a circle, the ballerinas grasped brass poles, and were lifted onto their partners' shoulders. As the familiar music was played, the danseurs promenaded around the circle bending and straightening their knees. The complete effect – a living carousel of ballerina horses bobbing up and down to Rodgers' classic music.

Martin's new ballet, Thou Swell, which will have its formal debuted later this season, concluded the evening. Set in Robin Wagner's vision of a 1930s Art Deco ballroom, complete with a band, onstage singers and mirrored ceiling, the ballet was comprised of four couples dancing to a wide selection of Richard Rodgers songs. Julius Lumsden's ultra stylish costumes were appropriate to the era, but the tuxedo shirts were generally unflattering on the men. The women's coats, which were shed as soon as the ballet began, were fanciful and fun. (The much anticipated Manolo Blahnik shoes were worn so briefly that I didn't even see them.)

Of the four couples, James Fayette & Jenifer Ringer (pictured on the front of the gala program) and Maria Kowrowski & Charles Askegard stood out. Ringer and Fayette clearly delight in the chance to dance with each other, and have a very special chemistry in their dancing. It was unfortunate that they were mostly given faster songs, and they did not appear comfortable with the tango. Charles Askegard and Maria Kowrowski were the real stars of the ballets. They have well matched, long, elegant lines, and truly danced up a storm. Both have an edginess to their dancing, a wildness which makes them exciting to watch.

Jock Soto and Darci Kistler were pleasant to watch, with a sleek maturity to their dancing – this was a clearly a couple who had danced together for years. However, they seemed miscast in the more romantic songs. Soto is one of the best partners in NYCB, but he and Kistler lack the kind of chemistry that made the dancing of the first two couples so special and powerful. Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins were distinctly mismatched – he is a bulkier and less precise dancer, she a slender and angularly precise dancer. Martins looks like he is not in ideal shape, and thus was hard pressed to keep up with the faster paced music. It was also frustrating watching them dance to the classic Getting to Know You, because there was little interaction between the two dancers. Their dancing was precise and energetic, but lacked the emotion that this song demands. We also got a chance to see Martins play the onstage piano, and he sounded excellent despite having just danced a long solo.

The ballet also included delightful interludes for the four young waitresses and their waiter partners. One of the young ballerinas took a rib-crunching fall, but recovered elegantly. While the dancing was, for the most part, memorable, the ballet was was simply too long. In using so many songs, Martins ended up with a ballet that felt very repetitive and seemed to drag on and on. It would have been much more cohesive and powerful had Martins edited down his music selection to eight or nine songs. The ballet ended with a guest appearance by Bernadette Peters singing What's the Use of Wond'rin.

All in all, an interesting evening. I hope to see Wheeldon's ballet find a place in the repertory, and I wish Robert La Fosse well in his endeavors outside the walls of the New York State Theater.


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Edited by Malcolm.

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