writers on dancing


Two Parts Charm

"La Source," "Todo Buenos Aires," "Carnival of the Animals"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, New York
January 14, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2005 by Susan Reiter

There are few ballets that attain the exquisite levels of delight that abound in Balanchine's "La Source." When it is well performed—and only a real curmudgeon could have complaints about Friday evening's cast—it can leave such a joyful afterglow that one almost feels wistful at having experienced 25 minutes of such harmonious beauty. The Delibes music, while not profound, has its modest glories, and is a marvelous partner to the dancing. And the pink paradise that Balanchine created in response to it is modest in scale but rich in imagination, as it layers bracingly contemporary speed and finesse over an affectionate evocation of French Romantic ballet.

The ballet is oddly, yet symmetrically, structured, and as it flows along it persuades you that its sequence is perfectly logical. The lead couple performs the equivalent of two full traditional pas de deux, except that the first one never arrives at its coda. They appear alone onstage when the curtain rises—unlike most Balanchine ballets in a similar vein ("Raymonda Variations," for example) in which we don't meet the lead protagonists until the ensemble has set the scene for them. To spell the lead couple once they have completed their solo variations, there is a sprightly, scintillating demi-soloist who leads a small corps of eight women who embody all the piquancy and refinement one associates with French ballet.

Miranda Weese had a triumph in the ballet's ballerina role when she made her debut last spring, and she was again wonderful, gaining strength as it progressed, after dancing with a hint of caution in the opening duet. The role demands extremely crisp, clear, fleet legwork and she met its challenges with flair, at times teasing the music. She and Benjamin Millepied perfectly captured the gently romantic, well-mannered style of the duets. He danced his solos with a lovely crispness, shaping each jump beautifully, making sure to finish each phrase and land on his knees neatly at the conclusion of each variation. He never pushed or forced anything, maintaining a buoyant ease and subtle musical sensitivity.

Ashley Bouder attacks the demi-soloist role with gusto and verve, snapping into each arm position and sailing through leaps so effortlessly that the music seems to be carrying her along. The role is filled with sharp arrow-like steps, which Ms. Bouder darted through with effervescent flair. And surrounding her there is the delightful bevy of demure women, who seem just on the verge of blossoming into full womanhood. Balanchine achieves myriad wonders with the patterns for these eight dancers, summoning up images of floral garlands and eddying currents of water. The ballet achieves its greatest heights in the concluding "Naila" waltz, throughout which gorgeous, intricate dancing spills forth with such abundance that Balanchine seems to be spoiling us. Threaded through it is the coda that the lead couple has earned twice over during what came before, as well as the buoyant manage of turning leaps that Ms Bouder executed with such buoyant dynamism.

Also returning to the NYCB repertory, with all of its charms intact, was Christopher Wheeldon's "Carnival of the Animals," which had its premiere in May 2003. John Lithgow, happily, was back to deliver the witty and tender narration he wrote, which summons up the wonders to be discovered at night within the Museum of Natural History—and to perfectly portray a kindly, concerned night watchman. His naturalness, and the way he conveys anticipatory delight in what unfolds, make him an ideal intermediary between the danced vignettes and the audience, and he quickly sets the scene and draws us into what is about to transpire.

Although the work is intended to take place in New York, there is a highly English sensibility in its tone, and in its clever costumes by Jon Morrell. Oliver, the protagonist (portrayed affectingly by School of American Ballet student Galeb Kayali, fresh from appearing as the Little Prince in "Nutcracker"), wears a school uniform of grey jacket and short pants that definitely seems more English than American, and also suggests an earlier, more innocent time. There are other touches in the costuming—most particularly, the Sherlock Holmesian outfits work by the cockerels—that add to this Englishness, as does the overall delight in a sense of whimsy and an appreciation for the peculiar, and the occasional touches of music-hall sensibility.

It is hard to sustain the theatrical pacing of a work such as this, which alternates bits of rhymed narration with brief bursts of dancing, Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Lithgow have found an efficient internal rhythm for the piece. The fact that the scenery is never as lavishly appointed as the costumes are means that "Carnival" moves quickly from one scene to the next, with just a few lines of narration apprising us of exactly which persons from Oliver's daily life have been transformed into the particular animals of each segment.

One of the early segments are efficient and cute, but once Oliver envisions the school nurse as the elephant, daintily and zestfully portrayed by Lithgow (in this guise, he could give Harvey Fierstein's Edna Turnblad a run for his money), things really take off. The way the drab, mopey librarian (Janie Taylor) lives out her fantasy as a sensuous mermaid, is among the highlights—as is the array of shimmering lovelies who in habit "The Aquarium" around her, summoning up echoes of 1930s movie musicals and Balanchine's "Water Nymph Ballet" in "Goldwyn Follies." Arch Higgins as the lumbering but oddly charming baboon, who is Oliver's dream version of his piano teacher, creates a vivid characterization, as does (NYCB ballet mistress and former soloist) Christine Redpath as the prim great-aunt who, inspired by an evening spent watching a tedious ballet, rises touchingly to relive, through simple, resonant gestures, her past glories as Odette/Odile.

It is amazing that the youthful Wheeldon is able to create such a convincing portrayal of longing, regret and yearning, one that conveys the poignancy of someone looking back on his or her younger self. His retrained, eloquent portrayal of Oliver's worried parents (Kyra Nichols and James Fayette) is also masterfully devised.

In between the zesty deliciousness of "La Source" and the playful fantasy of "Carnival," the company rightly placed something darker and quite different: "Todo Buenos Aires," Peter Martins' expanded and significantly revised.version of his 2000 ballet of that title, now set to six pieces by Astor Piazzolla. It's now a starring vehicle for Julio Bocca, who provides it with a blazingly intense central role (he is onstage for the majority of the time) and with electrifying bursts of multiple pirouettes that the audience clearly enjoyed. But the now overly-extended ballet is a muddle. At first, it seems to be focused on Bocca as a solitary figure whose fleeting encounters with two temptresses (Wendy Whelan and Darci Kistler) are stymied by four men who function like the phalanx of men in "Scotch Symphony"'s central movement, creating a human barrier and blocking his way. But then there are other times when the men (looking less than suave in their low-cut black vests—Bocca's silky black shirt is a far more sensuous costume—turn into a cheesy and unconvincing bunch of back-up boys for Bocca, delivering by-the-yard bland routines. For one of these sections of trite filler, Mr. Martins unwisely chose Piazzolla's "Escualo," which Paul Taylor uses for the seething, angrily sexy and brilliantly crafted finale of his "Piazzolla Caldera." That is a work of grit and substance, and while tolerating the 30 minutes of Mr. Martins' unfocused meanderings, I comforted myself with the thought that in less than two months New Yorkers will again have a chance to see that great work.

Volume 3, No. 3
January 17, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel


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