Forward to Balanchine

It feels like a cliché to say it, but the best works on both the Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 programs at New York City Ballet were by Balanchine. No surprise there. Not all of them were first tier Balanchine, of course, nor were they all danced at the same level. But even at the lowest points, one recognizes moments of such intelligence and freshness that it seems surly to complain.

I have a feeling I just might love “La Source,” under the right circumstances and with the right cast. The music, bits and pieces from Délibes’ “La Source” and “Naila,” is bubbly as champagne—nineteenth-century pop music deluxe. It makes you want to put on some pointe shoes and ride the wave of its effervescence. It always reminds me of a ballerina in a little girl’s music box, in other words a child’s idea of a ballerina, a pink pouf of prettiness. The poses are pretty, the steps small, jaunty, refined. But of course Balanchine is playing with this idea, poking gentle fun, with all his coy little glances and pretty port-de-bras and primly vertical turns in attitude. In 1968, when he made the ballet, he had a partner-in-crime, the endlessly bubbly and witty Violette Verdy. I have yet to see it danced in the past few seasons with the kind of charme needed to make it glow. Megan Fairchild, so innocent, so eager, does not quite have the edge or the radiance to make it sing. Don’t get me wrong, she can be wonderful, but this ballet is just not right for her. Who in the current company could pull it off? Perhaps a wild card like Lauren Lovette? In the second, fast-paced soloist role, Ana Sophia Scheller danced with her usual power and clarity. If only she could now add a shade of softness.

Wayne McGregor’s “Outlier,” on the same program, is a ballet I simply do not understand. I’ve heard McGregor talk engagingly about his ideas for dance, but so far the dances themselves, at least the few I have seen, have struck me as senseless ramblings, an agglomeration of tortuous, twisty shapes that lead nowhere and bear little or no relation to the music or any notion of development, structure, or theme. It was remarkable to me that though the ballet was preceded by a brief but very informative introduction on the score—a devilishly difficult Thomas Adès violin concerto —by the evening’s conductor, Andrews Sill, I simply did not hear the music at all during the ballet. Some ballets, like “The Four Temperaments,” help you to see the music, others complement it, others ignore it, but seldom have I seen a dance that completely hinders one’s ability to perceive the music in any meaningful way. It’s just that one is so distracted trying to follow the dance that the music seems to fade away completely. If it’s pure movement invention that McGregor is after, why not develop some sort of theme, some pattern, that would make the shapes linger on the eye longer? And how is it possible that McGregor, one of the most highly-touted choreographers of our time, can think of nothing better for his dancers to do than stand around waiting for their turn while their colleagues go through their paces? I also find it mystifying that he would put many of the women in dark, opaque tights that shorten the legs, combined with flesh-colored tops that cut their bodies in two, while the men are either in leg-baring briefs or shirtless. Is he intentionally trying to make the women look less alluring than the men?

I had never seen Janie Taylor in Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” which closed the evening. In the central pas de deux, she was mesmerizing, simultaneously doll-like and exotic, as if somehow, in some parallel universe, the worlds of Coppélia and Bugaku had collided. She danced as if lost in a strange dream, which, in a way, is what this pas de deux is.

The following night opened with a reprise of Peter Martins’ “Magic Flute,” revived last year after an absence of almost thirty years. It was originally made for the students of the School of American Ballet, and it shows: there is a naïf quality to it, as well as a clear teaching purpose. For students groomed to perform plotless, modern Balanchine works, filled with irony and cool allure, this is a ballet that teaches them how to play characters onstage and be warm and engaging. There are 11 named roles, each with his or her own repertory of gags: the footman minces around on his heels, the marquis is a creepy womanizer with a bum leg, the farmer’s wife is buxom and brassy, etc, etc. Last season, I found the ballet charming, because of its straightforwardness, generosity of spirit (not a Martins specialty), and charming score by Riccardo Drigo (an Italian-born composer and conductor who worked for the Russian Imperial Ballet in the last nineteenth century). Those court composers really knew how to make well-constructed, danceable scores that sustain and move the plot along. In any case, this time around, I felt that the ballet had lost some of its freshness, mainly because the plot is very thin and the characterizations understandably one-note. This is not a ballet to see many times over, but it is sweet and fun, and has some truly funny moments, as when the young hero plays his “magic flute”, forcing everyone around him to dance, each in his or her own silly way. As the person sitting next to me said, “it’s like Monty Python.” The ballet is also a showcase for the lively character of Lise, danced with charm and playful musicality by Tiler Peck. It’s especially nice to see how Martins, no doubt drawing on his Danish training, allows the ballerina enormous freedom of motion in the pas de deux. She and her partner, Joaquin de Luz, often dance side by side, engaging each other with their eyes but without the need for constant physical contact, each able to do his own thing. And as is often the case with Martins, some of the sweetest dancing is for a group of kids from the school who looked to be no older than nine or ten.

About Balanchine’s “Valse-Fantaisie,” a virtuoso showcase set to Glinka’s incredibly dynamic Valse Fantaisie in B minor, all I can say is that I doubt anyone can dance it more brilliantly than Ashley Bouder. Her control, speed, and clarity are astounding. She held a series of attitude turns all the way through to the end of each note on the horn, making it appear as if she were producing the sound with her movement. Her jumps were like thunderclaps. She was very impressive. Unfortunately, Andrew Veyette, who seems to be dancing more than his fair share of bravura roles, looked over-taxed by the complex footwork, constant shifts of direction, and sheer relentlessness of the piece. His dancing was neither crisp nor clean, nor did he look to be enjoying himself. Where is Gonzalo García when you need him? There appears to be a shortage of fast, technically brilliant male dancers at the top of the company roster this season.

Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” seems to be one of the places where promising young dancers in the company get their first chance to show their stuff, and the Feb. 2 performance was fairly typical in this regard. There were two débuts in the opening section, for two men from the corps: Zachary Catazaro in the first theme, and Daniel Applebaum in the second. In addition, Amar Ramasar danced the third variation (Phlegmatic), a role I had never seen him in. Catazaro showed an appealing gravity and intensity in the first theme; I’d like to see more of him. As in Dances Concertantes last season, Applebaum danced with great vividness and sharpness of attack; his arms, in particular, emanate a lot of energy and vitality. He’s impish, exciting. As for Ramasar, he is certainly not what one would call “phlegmatic” in his dancing; he’s appealing, if a bit over-eager, and he tends to mug at the audience. But here, he has no chance to mug, and one can see him striving valiantly for the spareness, stylishness, and intensity required. He also digs deep into the pliés, making sharp, extended shapes with his legs, and arches his back voluptuously in the backbends. The lunges are real lunges, and when he stretches, he’s really reaching for something. He’s not cutting corners, which makes everything feel more exciting, if not necessarily more insightful, than usual. On the other hand, Sébastien Marcovici, who has danced the “Melancholic” section a thousand times, “gets” it but doesn’t make us feel it. His falls to the ground are safe, the struggles with his furies lack urgency. Nevertheless, this ballet is, for me, unique in that it can survive almost any performance. Structurally, thematically, and even on the level of sheer movement invention, it is still a model of originality and beauty.

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N ...read more

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