writers on dancing


Flag Night

“Stars and Stripes”, “Barber Violin Concerto”, and “Union Jack”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
April 26, 2005

by Mary Cargill
copyright ©2005 by Mary Cargill

The New York City Ballet opened its Spring Season with a bang, literally, in the case of “Union Jack”, which ends with a cannon going off while the dancers semaphore “God save the Queen”. “Stars and Stripes” and “Union Jack” both salute countries, but “Stars and Stripes” is really an homage to Russian classical ballet, decked out in cheerleader costumes, and “Union Jack” is one of the most American ballets Balanchine ever did. “Union Jack” was not popular in England, where among other things the audience disliked the use of army music for naval maneuvers; it is more an American tourist’s view of England, appealing to those who think high tea is an elegant meal. I find its brashness irresistible.

“Stars and Stripes”, stripped of its costumes, is pure classical dancing at its most 19th century. The corps patters are rigorously formal and surely the baton and the trumpet are related all the accoutrements of Medora and her kind. Sterling Hyltin made her debut as the baton twirler. She has a lovely jump and a bright presence, and though she could use some more practice twirling, made an impressive debut.

The pas de deux between Liberty Bell and El Capitan is hard to bring off without looking overly coy. Extra head twitching and eye batting reduces it to a cartoon, when, in fact, it is, underneath the feathers, a formal pas de deux. The real fun comes from watching dancers who seem to be unaware that they have funny hats on. Damian Woetzel has the elegance combined with a throw-away devil-may-care approach down pat, and he was both smooth and flamboyant, never pushing or punching the steps. Alexandra Ansanelli, unfortunately, did both; Melissa Hayden once said that Balanchine told her to dance Liberty Bell as if she were Odile, but this classical emphasis seems to have been pushed aside, and sloppy arms and fudged steps were the result of a few too many flashy turns.

Peter Martins’ “Barber Violin Concerto” is a classical versus modern couple gloss on Barber’s lush and melancholy music. Originally the modern couple was danced by Kate Johnson and David Parsons from Paul Taylor’s company (the piece was done for the American Music Festival, which included Taylor dancers), but after the early years, ballet dancers have taken off their shoes to do it. This version had Ashley Bouder and Albert Evans. The modern pas de deux is among the most interesting and developed choreography Peter Martins has ever done; unfortunately the classical couple gets the usual “repeat a move three times and go on to something else”. Darci Kistler and Charles Askegard were as serene and lyrical as was possible in the pretty twiddling. But it does seem like loose hair—abandon had had its day. It seems to be the modern equivalent of the 19th century mime gesture of hand on heart, moony look meaning “I love”. Nowadays removing a couple of bobby pins inevitably means “I lust”.

Bouder, though, was riveting. She was a far cry from Johnson’s original sprite and danced with an inward drama and tension. She was also a far cry from her technical whiz kid persona, moving with depth and weight and a slight awkwardness that made the relationship with Evan seem profoundly troubled and profoundly interesting. Evans doesn’t have the pure animal magnetism of David Parsons in the pas de deux with the classical Kistler—who does?—but as always, he moved with grace and dignity.

Grace and dignity are not terms that usually come to mind when watching the Costermonger pas de deux, that chipper scene-changing interlude in “Union Jack”, but Nilas Martins as the Pearly King gave a magnificently realized performance of a slightly down-at-heels two-a-day hoofer. He seemed to be dancing in a Cockney accent, and gave the piece a real smell of sawdust. Watching him dance the galloping steps with his umbrella that Frederick Ashton had used earlier in “La Fille Mal Gardée” I could only thinh what an Alain he might have been.

The opening parade was its usual colorful display of kilts, though by the end I did wish that Scotland had not produced quite so many folk songs. The final hornpipe, for all the inappropriate music, was gloriously exhilarating; Woetzel especially was a wonderful Popeye in the most American of British celebrations.

Volume 3, No. 17
May 1, 2005

copyright ©2005 Mary Cargill



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last updated on May 1, 2005