The Dance Season Begins

2011 ended on a rather dark note, with the closing of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, after six final performances at the Park Avenue Armory. It has taken some time to process these events (I’m currently writing a piece about the whole Cunningham situation, to which I will link here at a later date), but move on we must.

New York City Ballet began its winter repertory season on Jan. 17, with a rather wan evening of Balanchine: “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and “Who Cares?” It was an off night. “Steadfast” was too sweet; “Couperin” too docile. The high point was when Ashley Bouder flew in like a bat out of hell in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” and fell. “Who Cares?” suffered from its usual surfeit of brassy cheer. “Who Cares?” always puts me on edge, with those terribly tinkly, jarringly optimistic arrangements of Gershwin by Hershy Kay, and chintzy electric pink leotards for the corps. The choreography for the ensemble is amongst Balanchine’s least inspired. And yet: Tiler Peck gave one of the most sizzling, wily, feminine performances I have ever seen. As she traced her diagonal from front to back in “The Man I love,” covering her eyes and arching her back extravagantly, she was transformed (and with her, the ballet), all smooth and silky, but sizzling and dramatic too. And always with that easy, nothing-to-prove way she has. She extended her arms on a note in the trumpet, and the movement merged with the brassy sound; her body is an instrument. For a moment, the orchestration and the cheesy costumes just ceased to matter. She gets it, and makes it sing. (Another nod goes to Emily Kikta, a tall, vivacious new corps dancer. I’d never noticed her before (she joined last August) but the vigor and joy of her dancing made her stand out from an otherwise dutiful corps. I look forward to seeing her again, soon.

The following night, Jan. 18, was mostly the same, with Tiler Peck and Gonzalo García as the principal couple in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” and a different closer: “Union Jack,” vastly preferable to “Who Cares?” Again, Peck reveled in her newly-blossoming feminine charm. The girl has style, and she suddenly seems to have grown an inch or two. García looked a little forced, as he often does. Why is it that this beautiful dancer, who started off so well, has never really settled into the company or found his groove? There are a few ballets, like Robbins’ “Opus 19: The Dreamer,” that he has taken to completely. He owns them. But outside of this small group of ballets, he still dances like a fish out of water. It’s a shame, because the company is sorely lacking in male dancers with his qualities : his lyricism and dreamy introspection, but also his lovely jump and fine line. But he’s hit or miss.

“Union Jack” is always a pleasure, with its battalions of kilted clans filing in, accompanied by Scottish tattoos, doing pas de basques till the cows come home. How I love to see the stage flooded with dancers, 72 at once, filling every inch of the stage and moving in unison. It’s the pleasure of military parades, of the changing of the guard, of Olympic spectacles. Balanchine knew the powerful effect only vast multitudes moving with elegant precision can produce. And he knew how to present them with just a touch of irony, an eyebrow raised, as if to say: isn’t it all marvelous. Lest we forget, he created this tribute to British military tradition, ending with the entire cast signaling “God Save the Queen” with hand flags, for the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, which makes absolutely no sense, except that in a twisted sort of way it does. My only quibble with this cast was having three regiments in a row led by three of the least rhythmically-inclined ladies in the company: Janie Taylor, Wendy Whelan, and Maria Kowroski. All three have qualities in abundance, but rhythmic pop is not one of them. (Maria Kowroski, especially, can shave the edges off of any rhythm.) Just one of them would have added an interesting contrast; two, an added twist; but three in a row is positively eccentric. My other gripe is the Costermonger Pas de Deux, a supposedly humorous dancehall number that never seems to get any laughs. I have been assured that it can be done, and I’ve seen it get part of the way there with Jenifer Ringer in the female role. As it is now, the high point is the arrival of the donkey, a stage veteran who apparently is the only remaining member of the original cast (from 1976). With him, arrive two small peppy girls, who join in the finale. One of them, Callie Reiff, was the biggest ham I’ve ever seen in one so diminutive a body; just the thing to spice up this tepid act.

Things spiced up significantly in the second week of the season, with a program made up of Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations” and “Firebird,” and Jerome Robbins’ “In Memory Of…” (Jan. 26). The latter is certainly not top tier Robbins, but, with Wendy Whelan’s performance, it nevertheless holds a certain fascination. This ode to death—in which a young woman is drawn away from the world of the living and into a place inhabited by angels—is dominated by an overlong pas de deux with a shadowy character (danced by Ask la Cour). It begins rather brutally, with death’s hands yanking at her forearms, but ends with great tenderness, as the dark prince offers the woman his hand, which she takes, with infinite acceptance, and almost gratitude. It is horrifying to see La Cour drag the great Whelan across the stage, her body limp and lifeless—she has an uncanny ability to mask all muscular effort, as if she’d truly given up the ghost. As always, Whelan’s imagination, the infinite shadings and limpid soulfulness (and underlying strength) of her interpretation, brings this rather rambling and overly tormented ballet to life.

“Donizetti” is simply too fun for words, and oh, the music! Playful, clever, melodious, full of fun, but also of lighthearted drama. Each musical number (drawn from the ballet music for “Don Sebastien”) paints a little scene, which Balanchine is more than happy to fill in, again, with just a hint of dry humor. Only once does he take the satire a bit too far, and yet, even here, it works: In a dramatic passage in the music (perhaps evoking a storm), the small ensemble runs out, girls hiding their eyes with their forearms. Something exciting is afoot! One of the girls, realizing that the others are distracted, seizes the moment and does a happy dance, full of pas de chats, until, in her excitement, she “twists” her ankle and is forced to return to her assigned spot. It’s silly, for sure, but that’s the point. The whole ballet is like a tongue-in-cheek Bournonville divertissement in miniature, a twenty-minute “Napoli,” complete with skads of petit allegro and pretty dirndl-like dresses for the girls. Devin Alberda, of the corps, deserves special mention for the clarity and elegance of his footwork in the ensemble, and the intelligence with which he pulls off the choreography—he looks engaged, amused, and not over-taxed. Megan Fairchild, with her light jump, frisky piqués, and happy demeanor, is almost perfect for the central ballerina role, if she would just take the sweetness down a degree or two. Joaquin de Luz manages the dizzying pyrotechnics—all taken at lightning speed—of the virtuoso male role with aplomb and just the right hint of cocky charm, ending every display with a handsome hand-on-hip pose, beaming out at the audience. What other man in the company could pull off this bravura choreography with such easy panache?

The evening closed with Balanchine’s “Firebird.” Though this version lacks the mystery and dramatic line that makes Fokine’s so dreamlike and stirring—where is the dance of the golden apples? What are these princesses doing in this strange land?—the music and glorious costumes (and curtains) by Chagall make up for an awful lot. I do wish Maestro Clotilde Otranto would take the tempi a bit slower, to allow the dark growl of the strings to sink deeper into our consciousness, and to imbue the scene with the princesses with a more plaintive hue. Their assembly felt more like a girlish garden party than the hymn to Russian homesickness that it is meant to be—after all, they are prisoners of an evil wizard in a faroff land. The side-to-side tilt of the princesses’ heads, meant to suggest Russian dances, and Russian dolls, loses its lilt when taken at top speed. Savannah Lowery, stepping in for Rebecca Krohn, has all the mystery and vulnerability of a champion cheerleader. I could almost hear the unwritten dialogue in my mind: “oh, my gawd, the Tsarevitch is so cute!” Jonathan Stafford, on the other hand, has significantly deepened his interpretation of the role of Ivan, the Tsarevitch. There is still a touch of blankness there, but it is plausibly the blankness of innocence. After all, this is his bildungsroman.

Of course the main attraction of Balanchine’s “Firebird” is the choreography for the magical beast, created for Maria Tallchief. She is fierce, powerful, feral, but also, underneath, harbors a tender heart. Her capture by Ivan in the first scene should be an ambivalent spectacle; such an animal should not be handled by a man. And yet, she feels the stirrings of love. The pas de deux is electric and tinted in aggression; she is repulsed and attracted. It has always been one of Ashley Bouder’s best roles, and on this night, Bouder danced with her usually dazzling precision, speed, and strength. But her interpretation has lost a little of its bloom; it’s too hard, too muscular, too measured for effect. Only in her second solo, after she saves Ivan and the princess from Kostchei’s monsters, did she allow herself to be vulnerable, to expand and show the essential loneliness of her character. Her eyes, which used to look out so hungrily into the audience, have lost some of their crazed ardor. And yet, the deep bend in her back, the serpentine undulations of her arms, spoke of eternal longing. This creature has known the first rumblings of human love, but it’s not to be. Like the Firebird, there is something isolating about Bouder’s bravura; no-one can come near, not even the audience. Someone, or something, needs to touch her. As always, the splendor of the final Chagallian tableau, a resplendent wedding, is marred by the cruelty of the Firebird’s absence. Unlike the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, she’s not invited to the party. As in all fairy-tales, there is a tinge of cruelty to the restoration of order.

Next: reflections on Win Wender’s “Pina” and other dance on film, and my thoughts on NYCB’s all-Wheeldon evening, including a new work: “Les Carillons.”

* Please feel free to leave a comment. If you would like to receive an alert when new pieces are posted on the Dance page, please drop me a line at dancinginthefastertimes@gmail.com. You can also check my updates on Twitter: @MarinaHarss

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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