A Gala Sampling
by Susan Reiter
No choreographer was left out in the cold, but some got more stage time than others on this opening-night sampler that included the NYCB premiere of Peter Martins' "Octet," choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet last year. As if to officially put the Balanchine Centennial festivities behind them, the company limited the Balanchine portion of the program to that ever-ebullient divertissement, "Tschaikovsky pas de Deux." Christopher Wheeldon's mesmerizing 2003 "Liturgy" provided about as complete a contrast as possible to that work— in terms of presenting a man and woman on a ballet stage. Then, to send the gala audience out to the festive dining tables in an upbeat mood, there was Jerome Robbins' "I'm Old Fashioned," an efficient program closer that pushes all the right sentimental buttons.
With its smartly organized, color-coded contingents and flocks of men briskly sailing across the stage in accelerated combinations, "Octet" is instantly recognizable as a Martins work—a neatly organized, true-to-the-Balanchine-faith neo-classical work, but one that adds up to little more than an intellectual exercise. Certainly Mr. Martins has captured the energetic, propulsive rhythms of Mendelssohn's invigorating Octet for Strings, Op. 20, but not its heart. For all its crisp clarity and buoyant momentum, this is an early Romantic score, but Mr. Martins' approach is resolutely pragmatic. He is an excellent problem solver and certainly knows how to craft a ballet. But over the course of the music's four movements, his approach wears out its welcome and at times what we see onstage has already become predictable.
"Octet's" compact cast features two lead couples and a male ensemble of six, which showcases some of the company's finest and fleetest younger men. The men sail across the stage in bold, resilient patterns to the brisk opening strains of the first movement (Allegro moderato ma confuoco). The group wearing dark raspberry unitards—who accompany Ashley Bouder and Benjamin Millepied—appear first, with the forest green contingent, which ushers in Darci Kistler and Stephen Hanna, appearing later. There is amply brisk byplay for the first group, with the men at times forming a quartet against which Ms. Bouder, who dances with a bold, bracing clarity, is set. She and Mr. Millepied, who is in excellent, high-flying form, have the stage to themselves for some conversational exchanges of fleet allegro phrases. Both threw themselves into the material with such gusto that an awkward slip just as they were exiting into the wings in a lift hardly mattered.
A new theme in the music introduces the green gang, with Ms. Kistler and Mr. Hanna performing some busy, impersonal partnering that ignores the bracing sweep of the music. The remainder of the lengthy first movement explores various mix-and-match possibilities among the dancers—sometimes Ms. Bouder is in front of the green guys, sometimes Ms. Kistler is with the red ones. Mr. Millepied and Mr. Hanna trade off in passages of jumps and breathlessly energetic steps. When the music briefly shifts to a minor key, Mr. Martins asks the two women to turn pensive, giving them a lot of aimless reaching and yearning moves. As contrasting ballerinas, the two women make sense, but when Mr. Martins asks them to perform as equals, there is a technical gulf between Ms. Kistler's compromised capacity for allegro material and Ms. Bouder's ready-for-anything expansiveness.
The choreographer plays off the contrasts between them by giving Ms. Kistler and Mr. Hanna the Andante second movement and the other pair the exhilarating third movement, a Scherzo which clearly has a close kinship (and comparably fantastical lightness) with the Scherzo of the composer's "Midsummer Night's Dream" incidental music, also composed when he was in his teens. In the former, the stage is darkened and the couple is a moody, troubled one, struggling to connect. Mr. Martins skirts around a lot of Balanchine references here, at one point seeming to quote from the Karin von Aroldingen-Adam Luders partnering in "Davisdbundlertanze." Ms. Bouder and Mr. Millepied make a zingy pair, their gusto and technical brilliance well matched. They are up for anything Mr. Martins throws at the, but the choreography turns hectic and forced; it needs to breathe and relax.
The efficient finale (Presto) showcases the men, in small and then larger numbers, with all eight of them circling the stage and then welcoming back the women for the concluding festivities. The work has energy to spare, but too much of the time it has a generic feel to it, and when the dancers arrive in a final pose or concluding exit, the effect tends to feel imposed than inevitable.
Mr. Wheeldon's "Liturgy"—gorgeously lit (by Mark Stanley, who also did the lighting for "Octet,") but puzzlingly costumed—is simply stunning. Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto seem like otherworldly creatures under a microscope as they smoothly navigate the eccentric but fluid partnering. As in other works, Mr. Wheeldon comes close to asking Ms. Whelan to turn herself into a contortionist, so extremely does she explore the possibilities of her tensile, pliable body. But the choreography is so seamlessly welded to Arvo Part's haunting music ("Fratres") that what unfolds onstage becomes a natural, evolutionary process.
Sofiane Sylve made her debut in "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux," and she had clearly not only learned the choreography but understood its finer details and musical subtleties. This was a technically strong, assured performance, but a certain veneer of toughness in her dancing detracted from the limpid fluidity that is also an important aspect of this choreography. Charles Askegard was a skillful partner, but his heavy solo passages were far below what one would hope to see in a gala performance.
There is much to admire in the theatrical savvy of Robbins "I'm Old Fashioned," a 1983 work that is set up by a 1944 film clip of a charming Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth duet from "You Were Never Lovelier." Once the audience has been warmed up by that elegant black-and-white footage and by onscreen "opening credits" that conclude with the line "dedicated to Fred Astaire," they are treated to a live-and -in-color series of variations on the duet. Robbins and composer Morton Gould cleverly find ways to incorporate and expand on elements like the Latin-flavored rhythms of the original, and the amiable little bump and "after you" byplay near its end. But the work tends to bog down amid a series of duets and solos that should constitute its emotional core. They were made for a core group of dancers Robbins knew well and worked with often, and some have lost their distinctive coloring as they've been handed down to later generations. The happy-go-lucky "Fancy Free"-influenced solo, with its rhythmic thigh slapping, was convincing when Bart Cook performed it, but Philip Neal seemed clueless as he tried to put it across. The women came off better; Maria Kowroski was supple and alluring, and Jenifer Ringer was the epitome of elegance, seemingly born to inhabit a ballroom.
2, No. 45