Dancing in an Emerald Grove, and a New Generation at the School of American Ballet
The key to a fulfilling performance of “Jewels,” I find, is a truly poetic reading of “Emeralds.” It is the first, and the most delicate of the three sections that make up this evening of dances by Balanchine, which premièred in 1967 (with significant revisions in 1976). A shallow or merely pretty “Emeralds”—a common enough occurrence—can turn the whole ballet into a disconnected triptych of contrasting styles, a showcase for ballerinas. I’ve often heard audience-members say, after “Emeralds,” “oh, that was pretty,” and quickly forget it for the flashier attractions of “Rubies” and “Diamonds.” The latter ballets can stand alone, and often do, but “Emeralds” is the secret door that draws you in to Balanchine’s world, his invitation au voyage.
What is the essence of “Emeralds”? Well, in part it lies in the qualities of the ballerinas for whom it was made, Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul: charming, feminine, mysterious, expansive, intelligent. Balanchine described “Emeralds” as “an evocation of France — the France of elegance, comfort, dress, [and] perfume.” It is that, and more. With its sylvan setting and shimmering music by Fauré, it evokes the fragrances and cool shadows of the forest, the setting of chivalric legends as well as the realm of Shakespeare’s fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Within its shifting groves, seductive spirits in weightless skirts glide and whirl, and also dream. In the solo for the first ballerina in “Emeralds”, she begins by moving only her arms and head. But how she moves them! This is a woman delighting in her ability to seduce; she lifts one hand to her forehead, up high, then out again, then down and behind her in a gesture of coy girlishness. Then she swirls around, slowly, then faster, then slowly once more, arms swooshing forward and up, basking in the sensation of movement, but also reminiscing about past dances. It reminds me a little bit of the dance of the lonely woman in the final section of “Vienna Waltzes.”
The two central ballerinas in “Emeralds” must fully open themselves to this shadowy world of the forest, to unlock its magic with their hands and arms, and with their backs. The basic requirements are a pliant, luxuriant back that bends softly with the breeze, sparkling feet, and expressive eyes and arms—eyes that see, arms that can draw arabesques in the air. The back—arched extravagantly as the leg is lifted forward, or torqued in a hovering turn–is the doorway to a space of remembered pleasure. The dance’s incantatory function is constantly evoked: by the ending of the first pas de deux, in which the dancers walk backwards into the wings, arms outstretched, chests tilted upward; by the quiet magic of the second pas de deux, composed mainly of walking patterns punctuated by the slow, mysterious lifting of an arm or a leg by degrees; and perhaps most of all by the new ending Balanchine added in 1976, in which the dancers form strange, enigmatic shapes with their hands linked together in a chain, and, in a final image, three men slowly kneel and then raise their arms, not toward the audience but toward a secret place we cannot see, beyond the stage.
The final two weeks of New York City Ballet’s spring season (which ends on June 12) feature several performances of “Jewels,” danced by a few different casts. I caught Tiler Peck’s début in “Emeralds” on June 3, with Sara Mearns in the second ballerina role. Peck looked a little daunted at first—she is usually cast in lighter, faster roles–but soon relaxed into the movement; she is naturally feminine, deeply musical, and instinctually theatrical. Now she needs to feel more comfortable luxuriating in the moment and thinking on a grander scale. Her modesty is lovely, but misplaced here. But it’s clear that she gets it; she simply has to feel empowered to really swoon and reach and show her pleasure. If anything, the scale of Sara Mearns’s dancing is almost too big for this ballet; she slightly overpowers the delicate mood, swooping and swirling her arms dramatically, adding an almost mythical, “Swan Lake”-like dimension to the role. But as always, she is completely in the moment and full of imagination. There are chapters and chapters of stories in her phrasing, and no-one has a more pliant back, or carves out the space around her as incisively in attitude. She has an innate glamour and a sense of endless space that flows beyond the edges of the stage. Mearns and Peck bring out the poetry of the steps, but there could be even more.
Their cavaliers, Jared Angle and Ask la Cour, were less satisfying as soloists but gallant, attentive partners, which, in this case, is more important. In the more light-hearted backup trio, Ashley Laracey stood out for her lyricism and charm. I must admit, I find the City Ballet sets for “Emeralds” rather garish, with their dangling strands of gaudy colored jewels. The same goes for the set for “Diamonds.” On this evening, the ballerina at the helm of this evocation of Russian Imperial grandeur was Wendy Whelan. Seldom in the last few seasons have I seen Whelan dancing so well, with such boldness and quiet majesty. She was cool and enigmatic in the pas de deux, dreaming of far-off lands as she touched her crown and reached languorously into the distance (and away from her partner). In the final polonaise, so reminiscent of the wedding in “Sleeping Beauty,” she lit up from within, expressing both the joy of the woman in love and the pleasure of the dancer moving onstage, in front of an audience. The same cannot be said for the corps of “Diamonds,” who started things off with a rather un-majestic waltz. The patterns glistened, but the movement was pallid. Perhaps Mearns could teach them a thing or two about using their shoulders and digging into the air. And on this particular evening, “Rubies” was reduced to a kind of cartoon, with much stomping, lusty tapping of toes, and sashaying of hips. “What fun we’re all having!” everyone seemed to be saying, especially Savannah Lowery in the role of the female soloist, the number one showgirl. Only Megan Fairchild, with her joyful footwork and innocent demeanor, let the choreography speak for itself. Let’s hope it was just a moment of silly euphoria.
A few days earlier, on June 1, the company presented Jerome Robbins’ “2 & 3 Part Inventions,” a series of meditations set to keyboard works that Bach composed as exercises for his son. Robbins made the ballet for the students of the School of American Ballet in 1994, and it was first performed by the company a year later. Like his “Interplay,” it feels more appropriate with young dancers, and relies heavily on their freshness and lack of affectation. It can quickly turn cloying. On this occasion the cast included several of the company’s brightest young dancers, including Ashley Laracey, Daniel Applebaum, Erica Pereira, and Joshua Thew. Chase Finlay and Lauren Lovette, whose visibility increases with each passing week —Chase is the company’s newest “Apollo”—were making their débuts. As always with Robbins, the piece is well-constructed and theatrically clever, evoking games, camaraderie, gentle competition, imitation, and innocent flirtation. The steps are simple and clean, as are the lifts, which seem to come out of nowhere. There are little motifs, like the modest bows at the end of each section, or game of patty cake for two girls played on the beat while pliéing on pointe. Lovette’s charm and quiet femininity is put to good use—I have a feeling she would be marvelous in “Emeralds”—as is Chase Finlay’s youthful elegance, though I think he may soon outgrow this ballet. It’s all a bit coy, but lovely nonetheless.
“Mercurial Manoeuvres,” an early work by Christopher Wheeldon (from 2000) is another essay in style, with scrims and shifting lighting setting the mood. The ballet is set to a Shostakovich Piano Concerto with a similar feel to that of the concerto used by Ratmansky in his “Concerto DSCH”—big, smashing chords, roiling lines for the piano surrounded by nervous glissandos on the strings. And in the midde, a sumptuous, dark adagio. There is some similarity in the costumes as well, which are simple and sporty, divided into blocks of color. Unlike that ballet, however, this one has a lonely male figure who guides us through, danced here by Gonzalo García, marvelously incisive and lyrical. He is the first to emerge from behind the scrims, walking forward and embarking on a gradual but neverending crescendo. The acceleration builds and builds, suspended momentarily by the darkness of the slow movement and a pas de deux danced by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. Most of Wheeldon’s ideas and attention are devoted to this pas, which begins only after the two dancers manage to free themselves from their respective quartets of attendants, who seem to conspire to keep them apart. Once they are joined, their attention to each other is rapt, as if there were no-one else in the world but them. The supported turns become lifts in which Peck’s arms drift upward or reach out. There is a feeling of expansiveness, but also of control; the pace is dramatically slowed down, and Peck dances little on her own, always ending up in Angle’s arms, spinning, being lifted this way and that or shown to us in some innovative position. Wheeldon’s interest in the mechanics and emotional resonance of partnering is paramount. What the pas de deux actually aims to say about the relationship between the two figures is less clear. But “Mercurial Manoeuvres” is an extremely pleasing ballet, full of intricate and interesting patterns, worth seeing more than once. It’s the kind of work that audiences immediately recognize as impressive and beautiful, and a good closer to any program.
Meanwhile, American Ballet Theatre is performing John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias” through June 8. I caught a performance with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, and was reminded of just how awful this ballet is. Yes, there are interesting theatrical ideas, like the way Neumeier has the action begin before one enters the theatre, and the linking of the stories of Marguerite Gautier and Manon Lescaut (danced by a second ballerina), but the choreography is so burdensome, so messy, and so dependant on heavy-lifting and kitschy melodrama that one quickly feels discouraged and bludgeoned into submission. Worse yet, the lifts are so difficult and uncomfortable (and ubiquitous, even in the corps) that they inevitably cause mishaps. At this performance, the most dramatic of these occurred when Alexandre Hammoudi (playing Armand Duval’s friend Gaston Rieux) dropped Simone Messmer (Marguerite’s friend, Prudence) from his shoulder; she produced a little yelp, after which the two ad-libbed a funny lover’s quarrel, perhaps the most refreshing moment in the whole ballet. It was hard to tell with all the fussiness and the petticoats, but the ballet seemed under-rehearsed, with labored partnering and spacing issues popping up here and there.
I found myself ardently insisting to my neighbor that Vishneva truly is one of the great ballerinas of our time, so awkward and underpowered did she look executing Neumeier’s steps, or rather being lifted and manipulated in ugly, rag-doll poses. How is this possible? Even Marcelo Gomes, a paragon of warmth and dignity, was reduced to a histrionic mess, throwing himself at Marguerite’s feet, or, at one hideous moment, running repeatedly across the stage, arms outstretched, mouth distended in a silent scream. How is this even allowed? Luckily, this too will come to end, and the company will soon begin its run of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” which I unreservedly encourage everyone to see. A farce, a neo-Soviet tractor ballet, and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the 1930’s Bolshoi style, this work proves that ballet can be enormously enjoyable, intelligent, tender, and silly, all at once.
There is also much enjoyment to be had at the performances held yearly by the School of American Ballet, the dance academy created by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1933. Every year, the top pupils are showcased in a “Workshop” performance, after which the crème de la crème is selected by New York City Ballet and other companies around the country (and worldwide). Intelligence and good taste comes through in the programming (works by Balanchine, Robbins, and Martins) and the detailed, loving coaching given to the dancers. Their readings of these works are often more lucid than those one sees across the street at the State Theatre or the Met. This year, they performed Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” and “Who Cares?” as well as Peter Martins’ “Les Gentilhommes” and, for the little ones, Jerome Robbins’ “Circus Polka.” On the night I attended, June 4, the dancing was electric, unmannered (with one exception), fresh, and incisive. How good these dancers are already! Their speed and attack were astounding, as were the little details—their beautifully-shaped hands, the harmoniousness of the arms and head, the responsiveness to textures in the music. Throughout, the small “Workshop Orchestra,” led by Martin West (principal conductor at San Francisco opera), played exceptionally well, better than the ensembles at New York City Ballet or A.B.T. The tempi were brisk, but never relentless; the pianists played with gusto; the strings were crisp ad well-blended.
Several dancers stood out: Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, a tall, leggy beauty in “Who Cares?” who was playful and expansive, as well as subtly sensual (a femme fatale in the making) most notably in “The Man I Love.” Peter Walker, the lone male soloist in this ballet: free, and fully at home in the rhythmic syncopations and jazzy, all-American attitude. His partnering skills also rose to the occasion. The tall, handsome Silas Farley, one of few African Americans in the show, radiated happiness and long, elegant lines in Martins’ beautiful “Les Gentilhommes,” a well-constructed and stylish demonstration of male technique, sprinkled throughout with eighteenth-century flourishes and set to movements from two Handel Concerti Grossi. Austin Bachman (brother of City Ballet corps-member Callie Bachman), is a quietly regal young man with a boyish face and beautiful footwork as well as a relaxed, elegant manner and lovely port-de-bras. All this promises well for the next generation of City Ballet dancers. Who said ballet is dying?
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