writers on dancing


Straining at the Edge of Orthodoxy

"Ballo della Regina," "Stabat Mater," "I’m Old Fashioned"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 7, 2005

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by by Leigh Witchel

Ballets can change over time; works can become dated or acquire cogency. Peter Martins’ “Stabat Mater” was created in 1998 as a memorial to Stanley Williams, who taught Mr. Martins and the members of the original cast. For this performance, there were a few replacements to that cast, Rachel Rutherford, Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle for Darci Kistler, Yvonne Borree and Jock Soto. Miranda Weese, Peter Boal and Nilas Martins remained.

It was a ballet that originally seemed pretty but placid, and overlong. But it got a nuanced, weighted performance on Friday night. The Pergolesi oratorio is long, and though it’s danceable, it’s so Mannerist in style that it shrugs off steps from the danse d’école. Mr. Martins set his sights ambitiously high in the work, venturing into a dark and subtle emotional territory and taking the time to commission production elements; a stunning set from Alain Vaes that incorporates architectural elements with Mannerist painting and sulfurously beautiful lighting by Mark Stanley. Mr. Vaes also designed the simple costumes; they move well with the dancers and cede effectively to the other designs. It is one of the few fully dressed ballets in NYCB’s repertory; most of the rest are by Christopher Wheeldon. For that alone, it has a place.

There’s some gorgeous stuff in the ballet, and a real mood is created. Mr. Martins usually seems less interested in adagio then allegro. Not so here; he digs in and uses vocabulary in a way that exceeds his usual proficiency. It’s not so much that the vocabulary is inventive, when Mr. Martins concentrates on that the result usually seems forced. It’s that he’s put an emotional commitment into the steps to a point where they take on a new expressive meaning in the hands of the dancers. The cast deserves a lot of credit as well for the richness of their performance along with the singers, soprano Amy Burton and countertenor David Walker.

Near-successes are more frustrating than failures, and I think that’s a reason Mr. Martins has taken so much flak as a choreographer. Mr. Martins the choreographer has long taken second position to Mr. Martins the company director. His ballets are created with economy and exigencies in mind. The Pergolesi score is divided into movements, and an episodic structure is efficient and convenient for a choreographer, particularly if he’s a sprinter rather than a marathon runner with his ideas. It’s economical as well; rehearsals are easily blocked out when one knows that this three minute section contains cast members A and B only, and C through G are free to attend other rehearsals.

It’s a tremendous skill to be able to choreograph to accommodate the needs of the company. But sitting in the audience we shouldn’t notice it. And we can if an idea is not taken all the way down its path. “Stabat Mater” has a beautiful set. It is never used by the dancers, other than to sit or pose on. Doing anything else, such as dancing on it or otherwise using it would have taken rehearsal time. Mr. Martins choreographed beautiful pas de deux, including one here danced by Mr. Angle and Ms. Rutherford looking as if it was made just to show off a new, noble maturity in the both of them. But then the oratorio has some allegro movements that don’t seem to jibe with the structural arc Mr. Martins is working towards. He could have taken a chance and changed the order of the movements, but instead left them as is, and a competent danse générale with little solos follows that seems improbably inspired by the coda of “Divertimento No. 15.”

In his most interesting works Mr. Martins seems to be straining at the edge of orthodoxy, needing to find new rules and new formats to bring his ideas to completion. It isn't with vocabulary that he needs to break rules. He keeps trying that and the results seem precious. It's structure he needs to alter, and he needs to do it not for the sake of originality but for the sake of expression. It isn’t a failure of talent. It’s a failure of stamina; the rocky road of new choreographic structures and rules not taken in favor of the paved one of established conventions that goes only partway to the destination. If only Mr. Martins the company director would give Mr. Martins the choreographer a kick in the pants and make him take the rocky road instead.

Hindemith’s score for “The Four Temperaments” is in separate movements, but very integrated because of the repeated themes. The cogency of expression in the score transfers to the choreography. Balanchine used familiar forms including the grand pas de deux in the Sanguinic movement, altering them not for its own sake, but to suit his needs. The lessons about structure and expressiveness to be gleaned from “The Four Temperaments” are endless, but saying that is about as callously helpful as tossing a talented playwright a copy of “King Lear” and asking if he could make something a bit more like that, please.

There were several debuts at this performance. Sean Suozzi made his New York debut in Melancholic, a major break that one might guess came about through his work with Peter Boal in Mr. Boal’s own company. Mr. Suozzi’s performance looked slightly disconnected; one saw the nerves in a little fumble on a relatively simple step on the diagonal. Once he found himself, Mr. Suozzi performed with a powerful attack that gave drama to the role. He’s an interesting contrast to Mr. Boal who has been indelible in the role for at least a decade. NYCB’s great Melancholics in my viewing (Mr. Boal and Jeffrey Edwards) have been elegant dancers. Mr. Suozzi is not so refined; his natural movement attack is too violent. I don’t think it’s a matter of training but of, pardon the pun, temperament. He’s a commoner rather than a prince and that is no insult. The role doesn’t require a prince. The tragedy of Melancholic can be that of Everyman, high or low.

This has been a good week for Sofiane Sylve, with a wonderful debut in Cortège Hongrois and Sanguinic, a part that has her name on it strung up in Christmas lights. It suits her perfectly, because it’s a part one lets happen rather than makes happen, and Ms. Sylve isn’t a dancer with artifice. She doesn’t usually create a role; she just is. She gave an unforced, virtuoso performance of Sanguinic with her trademark perfectly centered turns and was well partnered by Charles Askegard. Ask la Cour made his debut as Phlegmatic, and it’s also a promising role for him; he’s attractively squishy in the part. Choleric is a teaching role for Teresa Reichlen. Unlike Mr. Suozzi, an angry attack isn’t natural to her and the role is also giving her some weight in her movement. And tucked into the corps of Melancholic, how lovely to see Kristin Sloan’s name in the cast lists again. Sidelined by a bad injury more than three years ago just as she was getting parts, she’s been missed.

The audience loves both “Todo Buenos Aires” and “I’m Old Fashioned” because they aren’t to classical music. Unfortunately for me, I don’t. To me, they’re both utility ballets made to satisfy repertory demands. “Buenos Aires” functions on a high nightclub level, “Old Fashioned” on the level of a slick Broadway review; amiable enough in its own setting but cynical here. “Todo Buenos Aires” was originally choreographed in 2000, but given a re-premiere here with reworked choreography and Julio Bocca as an additional guest star. The dance now revolves around Mr. Bocca’s encounters with the entire cast. He throws himself into it, sometimes lifting the level, sometimes descending into the general cheesiness.

Even amidst the glitz, Mr. Martins has oddly compelling moments. Most surprising are the homoerotic elements. There were strange hints of it as the men did a group number starting by slowly and threateningly circling Mr. Bocca in a way that suggested incipient gang rape, but that vanished into a standard group number. Then Mr. Bocca partnered another man for a few moments. At the end the men came out for a number where they all danced together and did male-male tango partnering. This is not at all extraordinary for tango, but it is for Mr. Martins, especially when Mr. Bocca flicked his leg toward another man's crotch. The moment comes and goes in a flash and who knows if that was choreography or just the moment of performance, but it registers.

The rest of the cast (Ms. Kistler, Wendy Whelan, Albert Evans, Nilas Martins, Philip Neal and Robert Tewsley also coming back for a guest appearance) is the same as in the original with the exception of the younger Mr. Martins for Nikolaj Hübbe. They all perform with their usual expertise. The costumes for the men other than Mr. Bocca are vests that have plunging necklines in front worn without shirts. They look very Vegas and are rather unfortunate.

Jerome Robbins’ “I’m Old Fashioned” recalls some of his better works with few of their virtues and too many of their flaws. He used episodic scores often, and would treat them like pop-it beads, adding and subtracting sections at whim. It doesn’t do much for the structure of the work as a whole; as I recall from years back, one of the female principals in “I’m Old Fashioned” (Ms. Rutherford at these performances) is referred to as the “run-on principal” because her pas de deux was deleted by Robbins because he did not like it, so she only appears in the opening and closing. In Robbins’ experienced Broadway hands, a series of numbers can be strung together into a revue. All well and good, but that ain’t a ballet. Several other Robbins tricks show up again here, including a fugue for the dancers at the end that’s inferior to the one in “The Goldberg Variations”. Even with deletions, the work seems to go on and on, and nothing in it beats the Fred Astaire clip that plays above it. The dancers still do an ace job with it, including also Ms. Ringer and Maria Kowroski, whose endless arabesque was the redeeming quality in a saccharine Boy-meets-Girl number. In demi-soloist roles, we’re seeing more of Ellen Bar – a good thing – and also Faye Arthurs, who is gaining control over her super-flexible body and becoming more interesting for it. Ms. Arthurs turned in a fine First Theme in “The Four Temperaments” as well.

It’s impossible to hear Verdi’s music for “Ballo della Regina” and not feel your spirits lift. The music, especially the final galop, is infectiously happy. Balanchine created an underwater ballet in an imaginary grotto. It’s a spirited commentary on the conventions and form of opera ballets; he just didn’t bother to surround it with an opera. It’s also an argument that Balanchine’s structural sense was usually only as good as the structure of the music he chose. He squeezes a man’s role into the crevices here, and splits a demi-soloist variation in two because that’s how the music is divided. But excellent dancing never hurts your mood, and a cast with most dancers new to their roles gave an effervescent performance that left you with a happy champagne buzz after.

Three of the soloists were new to their roles, Sterling Hyltin, Ana Sophia Scheller and Carrie Lee Riggins in the first, third and fourth solos with Amanda Edge reprising the second. All of them danced very well, with musicality and sweep. Once Benjamin Millepied would have mentally fought a role as straightforward as this, but he seems to have made his peace with classical ballet’s conventions. He danced with freshness and ballon, and made a fine virtuoso consort to Ashley Bouder.

And Ms. Bouder’s performance? Well, she’s NYCB’s ultimate can-do girl right now: the can-do girl who’s more than just a technical whiz. The whiz-bang part was there; she sailed through the series of hazardous piqué turns. Those three turns ending with a balance build up so much momentum that the ballerina usually barely controls them; Ms. Bouder not only gauged the momentum exactly, she finished each in a clean plié. In the midst of the technical difficulty it’s amazing enough to find time to perform, but Ms. Bouder never looked rushed. She made something big out of the brief pas de deux; for an allegro technician, Ms. Bouder relishes the expansiveness of adagio movement. If nits must be picked, she could modulate her attack; not every port de bras should be posed and sharp but the climactic extension to a kneel ought to be a touch sharper. There’s a perfect description of how to make it that way by the originator of the role, Merrill Ashley, in her book “Dancing for Balanchine”. Ms. Bouder could also modulate her facial expressions; she used the megawatt smile (open and closed-mouth versions) and the soubrette pout a little too much. She doesn’t need to worry about making the audience love her, by and large, they already do. But this is like commenting on the placement of bows on a dress; the underlying material is of the highest quality.

There are many joys in the world, simple ones and happiness of a more complex sort. I had a stupid grin on my face after I saw “Ballo”. It’s shorter-lived and less exquisite than the happiness I feel after “Monumentum pro Gesualdo”, but that sort of happiness is Faustian; the sort you would give up your soul to experience again. It’s the music of the spheres. There are different ballets and ballerinas in the world; bless Balanchine for having a place for all of them in the repertory; the sunny and the soulful. Each holds her essential position, and there are the special ones who can traverse the realms. Sometimes it’s a factor of age and time. Ms. Weese has darkened attractively in tone as she’s grown up; paradoxically Ms. Ringer has lightened somewhat. Ms. Bouder is young. If she has not made me hear the music of the spheres yet, she’s shown me the brilliant sun that shines all the way down to the bottom of the ocean, and perhaps that’s enough for now

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchell


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last updated on January10, 2005