writers on dancing


The Welcome Return of "Goldberg Variations"

"Goldberg Variations"/"Carnival of the Animals"; "La Source"/"Agon"/"Cortège Hongrois"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 19 & January 23 matinee, 2005

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2005 by Susan Reiter

The return of Jerome Robbins' 1971 masterwork "The Goldberg Variations" to the repertory is always a happy occasion. While in some ways it seems his most Balanchinean work—and even include such nods to the master as a quote from "Concerto Barocco" and some nifty "daisy-chain" maneuvers—it is really also a quintessential Robbins ballet, filled with variations and allusions to motifs and effects he has used in earlier works. It also takes on added significance in light of his fascination with Bach during his final burst of creativity (from 1994's "Two and Three Part Inventions" and "Suite of Dances" through 1997's resplendent "Brandenburgs"). As exhaustive and rich a work as "Goldberg" is, Robbins clearly felt he had more to express through Bach even after completing this 80-minute ballet.

The first half, in which crisp, springy dancing and playful camaraderie predominate, definitely has a kinship with "Dances at a Gathering." Indeed, the program might even identify the dancers in the six lead roles according to their costume color, as is done with "Dances." The standard view of "Goldberg" is that this half evokes adolescence while the second half moves into more mature and profound territory, and certainly Part I has moments that remind you of "Interplay" and its carefree gang. But within its evocation of kids-at-play and gentle competition, there are moments of deeper resonance. The extended, exquisitely delicate quartet that is its culmination is such a simple yet haunting study of shifting relationships—people finding each other, testing each other, seeking compatibility, building up hopes, letting each other go.

Making their debuts in the Theme, Teresa Reichlen and Jason Fowler embodied courtly propriety without any sense of stuffiness. The very restrained choreography, at times barely sketching out the hint of a movement, nonetheless contains the seeds of what is to come. One of them softly lunges on a diagonal, and the other responds in kind—a motif Robbins uses often, one which suggest collegial repartee, as though one dancer is saying "Let's try this,' with the other offers a slightly alternative suggestion. Reichlen and Fowler erased the primness that the Theme can sometimes have, letting it flow quite naturally.

Both Ashley Bouder, in the more sharp and vigorous role originated by Sara Leland, and Janie Taylor, in Gelsey Kirkland's more delicate role, were making their debuts, and were well cast. Bouder's spring and vivacity set the tone in the first of two trios that introduce the leads of Part I, in which Stephen Hanna (also making a debut) and Jared Angle joined robustly. Taylor, dewy and touchingly vulnerable, then was at the center of the more subdued trio, joined by Joaquin de Luz (in a debut) and Arch Higgins.

Certainly for some people "Goldberg" may seem austere and a bit off-putting, a long haul to get through. But it offers an invitation into a distinct world that unfolds its secrets and delights with a logic and persuasiveness that lie in Robbins' rich connection to the music and ability to embroider on it without ever betraying it. His uncanny ability to find a "button"—a convincing, often surprising ending to a section, is wonderfully on display here. Inspired by the rigorous beauty of the Bach, he structures each variation so effortlessly, with echoes of what has come before or intimations of what is yet to come. The exuberant next-to-least section, a condensed recap of all that has come before, is a masterly piece of work.

Taylor inhabited her role magnificently. She was never coy, as some have been in the part, and her connection with the music was hauntingly pure. Bouder's performance felt more like a debut; it was already quite good, but the fit was not as complete. De Luz was a natural for the bounding sequence of turning jumps that his sweetly show-offy role calls for, and was endearing as well as phenomenally crisp and precise. All four men evinced the sense of unspoken camaraderie that is embedded in the roles.

In Part II, which is more presentational, moves into more sophisticated terrain, Maria Kowrowski was the lone newcomer amid a cast of seasoned veterans in the leading roles. She and Philip Neal were the couple in purple, whose stately, calm duet treads around the borders of strangeness. We can admire these two, but not come to know them; they retain a certain remoteness. Neal made me see the odd forlorn Petrouchka-like solo really come across as a puppet whose sad droopiness is not at all emotional (it sometimes seems as though the man droops almost comically after the woman has exited), but the result of having been abandoned by his puppeteer. He collects himself as though the strings have been reactivated, asserting himself in the allotted time before he's again left at the puppeteer's mercy, with no energy or momentum.

Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans are very much at home in the pretzel-like entwinings and extreme shapes of the "red" duet, while Miranda Weese and Peter Boal were regal and glowingly brilliant as the most purely elegant bravura pair. As Part II approaches its climax and all the principals, having now added on most of the stylized 18th-century elements to their basic practice clothes costumes, are given a flurry of purely virtuosic dancing to do, these two shone most brightly.

The astonishing full-cast section never ceases to amaze and move me. The dancers form an earthy circling ensemble, then effortlessly shift into a revolving wheel formation that fills the stage, and interlace in lines that pass over and under each other—and it all happens so naturally and genially, as though preordained. And then there is Robbins' most ingenious "button"—the final layered group pose that they effortlessly form, as though posing for posterity. As though that was not brilliant enough, Robbins psyches the audience out by NOT making that an ending, but an image we savor briefly before it starts to dissolve in front of our eyes. The stage picture gradually clears out, until only the lead dancers remain, and then the theme couple, serene and exquisitely simple in their practice clothes, appear out of nowhere, coming down the center. This is as exquisite an example of Robbins' theatrical ingenuity as anything else he has devised. The two lines of more ornately clad principals honors them with a courtly bow, and recede into the wings. We are left where we began—two dancers, in black and white, the seeds of everything. It is the perfect ending— the only possible ending. There they are, two bodies in space, poised and ready to be set in motion, to inspire a choreographer. It has the same heart-rending effect as the final line of Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George, as the painter Seurat, contemplating a blank canvas, says, "so many possibilities."

The program was completed by a repeat performance of Christopher Wheeldon's "Carnival of the Animals."

The matinee on what would have been Balanchine's 101st birthday was an all-Balanchine program, with a bracing, on-the-edge performance of "Agon" sandwiched between two tutu ballets. Jenifer Ringer and Neal graciously explored the delights of "La Source," in a performance that was a touch less scintillating that last week's but still extremely good. It helped that Ashley Bouder was again the demi-soloist—the most glorious bloom among the bevy of pink blossoms that fill the stage so enchantingly whenever the principal couple takes a break. She tempered the snap and precision that are her trademark with a lightness and delicacy that greatly enhanced her performance, and the result was a performance of both brio and subtlety, through which could appreciate anew how transparently Balanchine brings this music to life. Ringer was also at her most musical, utilizing rubato and suspension to capture all the little fillips and delights of her delicious role. All three dancers understood fully that this is not a ballet to push through, but one to relax into. I especially enjoyed the radiant calm that Ringer displayed in both of the duets.

In "Agon," Peter Boal gave an excitingly rough, almost angry performance of the Sarabande. He stripped it of its allusions to courtly behavior, and went out on the edge, pulling himself off center and throwing his arms around like a restless rebel. He made the little bow that ends the solo into a defiant, almost mocking gesture. Teresa Reichlen had terrific aplomb in her balances and a cool hauteur in her solo. She made one see the kinship between this role and that of Choleric in "The Four Temperaments"—"Agon"'s powerful, no-nonsense woman is attended by only two men rather than four, but she has the same air of using them for their purposes and dismissing them once they're no longer needed. Ms. Whelan and Jock Soto went out on the edge of the pas de deux, stretching and yanking themselves to extremes. In their performance, the duet was not about a man and woman exploring their possibilities and testing one another. These were beings of another species entirely, intense and possibly dangerous.

"Cortege Hongrois" closed the program.

Volume 3, No. 4
January 24, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter


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last updated on January17, 2005