writers on dancing


Cool Kids

“Chichester Psalms, "Tarantella," "N.Y.Export: Opus Jazz," "Stars and Stripes"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
April 29, 2005

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

While it wasn't announced as featuring all-American music, the program that showcased NYCB's company premiere of Jerome Robbins' 1958 "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz" placed this distinctively American ballet amidst an evening of works also set to music by American composers. This most welcome addition to the repertory shared the stage with two Balanchine works choreographed within six years of its premiere, as well as one of Peter Martins' most recent offerings, last spring's "Chichester Psalms."

"Opus Jazz," once a mainstay of the Joffrey's repertory, performed by ABT in the 1980s, and staged fleetingly for the Ailey company in 1993, now feels like a natural for NYCB. With Robbins' "Moves" (choreographed one year after "Opus Jazz") and his brilliant 1995 synthesis of dances from "West Side Story" having previously joined the repertory, the company's dancers have acquired a certain familiarity with Robbins' late-1950s style—his absorption of the edgy, alienated currents that pulsed beneath the surface placidity and conformity of the time, and his fascinating ability to convey the tension and anxiety of urban life.

"Opus Jazz" is a big, bold, assertive work—sixteen dancers, large Ben Shahn backdrops for each of the five section, a blaring jazz-inflected score by Robert Prince that bristles with nervous energy. It's very much an ensemble work, with Robbins deploying his group in vigorous wedges and clusters. The eight men and eight women all wear black tights and brightly colored long-sleeved sweatshirts of fleecy-looking material (costumes by Florence Klotz) and sneakers colored to match each of their shirts. They look young, rambunctious and alert, and they move with a sly, cool playfulness. These hipsters have not yet lost all their innocence.

A very abstract work, with occasional individualized moments and no depiction of specific characters, "Opus Jazz" has been often mentioned in the same breath as "West Side Story," and it was created shortly after the musical opened. But the aggression and hostility that propel "West Side Story" are not the dominant impetus here, though there are moments that suggest trouble and danger. There is more a suggestion of eager kids having fun and exploring the possibilities of the music's brassy, liberating propulsiveness. Certain moves suggest a distinctively '50s jive and "hepcat" coolness, and to some extent the work does come across as a period piece, very much tied into the time when it was created. But the bold clarity of Robbins' patterns and the exhilaratingly open use of the stage space keep it from looking quaint, as do the energy and intensity of the performances.

The opening section, "Entrance: Group Dance," features twelve dancers against a backdrop of what look like hundreds of television antennas-a multitude of wiry, angled scribbles. The dancers sometimes hold their hands in front of them like paws, and mark time with their feet with jazzy insouciance. They form a cluster and sway slowly back and forth, as though marking time and waiting for something significant to happen. Invigorating energy is more the tone than alienation, although there are subtle hints that danger might be lurking nearby, and in the final moment, the dancers all drop abruptly to the ground.

"Statics" opens with a drum roll, and features a different backdrop. Four guys launch into moves that evoke the Jets on the prowl; they're rough, on edge, ready for action. They roll on the floor, then surround and envelop a later-arriving pair, Rebecca Krohn and Seth Orza. Frustration builds towards aggression, and ultimately Krohn is tossed roughly offstage.

The allusions to "West Side Story" are strongest in "Improvisations," which has a set strongly reminiscent of the open yard where the musical's rumble takes place. There is terrific, dynamic group energy on display here, as individuals and couples strut their stuff amid gestures and even vocal outbursts of encouragement and dismissal. The men—notably Orza, Adam Hendrickson and Amar Ramasar—really shine here, oozing cool as they get inside the juicy, bracing movement.

"Passage for Two" is a surprising, exquisitely restrained duet, performed here by Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall. Eddie Verso, who staged the work for NYCB and danced it as a member of Robbins' Ballets USA, intentionally replicated the original casting of a white woman with a black man, and though that does not seem crucial or integral to the dance, it does as an extra frisson of tension. The two explore each other with a sense of wonder and restraint, touching in odd, unpredictable ways within a sense of suspension and near-stillness. The backdrop is now a good-natured version of street graffiti, with designs that suggest exuberance rather than anger. But these two seem to inhabit some otherworldly place, as they move through their languid, deliberate contact with a sense of wonder and slight fearfulness. Rutherford and Hall gave beautifully focused performances, giving this strange encounter a marvelous intensity as well as a fierce privacy. Their breaking apart at the end, going off in opposite directions, felt inevitable but also heartbreaking.

The full cast, switches to white tops and sneakers for the final section, "Theme, Variations and Fugue," and at first the change looks like an affectionate nod to the black-and-white world of Balanchine's "leotard ballets." A boldly designed, multicolored backdrop makes them stand out even more clearly. The fugue builds on what one woman introduces in a solo passage, and soon elements are overlapping ricocheting form one part of the stage, as more and more dancers join in. It's a masterful, exciting, sophisticated yet still vibrant finale to a work that will certainly become a welcome addition to NYCB's rich Robbins repertory.

Opening the program was the decorative but ultimately flat "Chichester Psalms," in which Carla Korbes was a gleaming goddess, presiding over the vapid, vaguely mythic ceremonies with Amar Ramasar, even though she was given little to do but bourrée endlessly. Joaquin de Luz excelled in "Tarantella"; his temperament is ideal for this work—boisterous, outgoing, thoroughly engaging. He soared and turned effortlessly, and made sure not to push or strain for any effect. He just seemed to be having a darn good time, as tough Balanchine's swift, bravura challenges just came naturally to him. He also displayed wonderful attentiveness to, and appreciation for, his partner, Megan Fairchild, who acquitted herself well but lacked that extra degree of flair and wit. When he kneeled, spellbound, beating his tambourine in time with her fast series of single pirouettes, his enthusiasm made them seem to be something greater, and the audience responded as though she has tossed off triples.

Stephen Hanna made a strong, confident debut as "El Capitan" in "Stars and Stripes," with Sofiane Sylvie as his robust and somewhat over-emphatic Liberty Bell. She turns wonderfully, as always places her foot beautifully high on her leg in passé, but when she takes to the air, she has a somewhat lumbering quality. Hanna had a welcome relaxed stage presence, and did not force any of the humorous aspects of the role; he just allowed them to emerge, and focused on dancing with snap and precision.

Volume 3, No. 17
May 1, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



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last updated on May 1, 2005