writers on dancing


Portrait of a Dancer

“Prodigal Son”/”After the Rain”/”Who Cares?”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, New York
January 6, 2005

by Nancy  Dalva
copyright © 2005 by Nancy Dalva

Christopher Wheeldon’s new dance called “After the Rain” begins with an arresting figure that tells us about its deeper meaning, just as the decor and the title tell us about its surface. As Arvo Pärt’s score gently chimes, to the right of the stage three couples stand, one behind the other, wearing Holy Hynes’s grey-scale leotards and tights. In Mark Stanley’s clear and somber ambient light, the women begin to swing their legs forward, and back, like the clappers of bells. Then they pitch their torsos forward and their kneeling male partners enfold them, so that each couple is bent around itself, like gears in a clock, with the women’s legs ticking the hour. Around they go, and backwards, as if telling the time, and untelling it.

How like that ineluctable duet in “Emeralds,” the first movement of Balanchine’s “Jewels,” where the ballerina’s uplifted leg moves towards twelve o’clock. Balanchine’s ballet seems to whisper, “Time is fleet. Let us love.” Wheeldon’s ballet seems to say, “Time is inexorable. Let us dance.” And so three well matched couples—Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, Sofiane Sylve and Edwaard Liang, Maria Jowroski and Ask la Cour—do, with fervor and vigor. Dancing for the sake of it.

All this is prelude. It is not yet after the rain, it is during. Then the light shifts, the music changes, and out step Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan, he in soft white trousers, she in a wisp of a pale pink leotard, and soft slippers, her hair tumbling loose over her shoulders. She is light as thistledown, and he is the wind, her perfect partner, wafting her about ingeniously, at times playfully—a touch of a foot deftly nudging her—and, over all, with the utmost tenderness and romance. In the beginning, they seem to be the couple of the first half, but Whelan soon transforms into metaphor, dancing herself into an apotheosis of ballet itself–not the muse, but the very art. He looks away, she woos him back.

Wheeldon’s dance has resonance. He is in that noonday phase of life when, if all goes well, there is abundance, but here he deftly imagines dusk. At the conclusion of “After the Rain,” the danseur lies prone, with the ballerina lightly draped across him. He is at rest. Later this year, Jock Soto is scheduled to retire. As much as anything else in a stalwart career notable for excellent partnering, this last leave taking role becomes him.


I happened to see the program with the new Wheeldon work from a seat favored by Jerome Robbins, and so I found myself watching the opening ballet, Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” from the former vantage point of a man who once danced the role himself. Thus it occurred to me that Wheeldon, too, was occupying a spot once belonging to Robbins, but on the evening’s program, as a foil for the Balanchine. There’s always a certain amount of talk about Wheeldon being the new this or that—the new Martins, the new MacMillan, the new Ashton, all of which is a tribute to his versatility, but he really functions very well as the new Robbins—a kinder, gentler Robbins, to be sure, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Dancing the Prodigal was Damian Woetzel, to my eye—and to my heart—an ideal practitioner of the role. The entire ballet is of course fabulous, it always was, but I have to say my relationship to it has changed. So it is with great works of art–they are immutable, though with performance one of course sees versions of them, not the same thing time after time, as with a painting. But we are not immutable. And so I watched the Prodigal be rude to his father and run off with his friends for an evening of drinking and music, only to fall in with a crowd of troglodytes, and meet the girlfriend from hell. Maria Kowrowski is a particularly upsetting Siren, being ingenue of countenance, but equipped with the legs of a sorceress. From the moment the addled Prodigal strokes her soft hand, you just know the poor sweet bunny is toast, but it’s still a horrid sight when she wraps a steely limb around his hapless torso and nails him to her lethal crotch. Then she sets sail as a figurehead on her own ship, and leaves him to his poor parents. Did you ever wonder why you never see the Prodigal’s mother? I can tell you. She’s inside the house, lying down in a darkened room. He’s given her a migraine.
“Who Cares?” is such a familiar oddity. Even when it was new, in 1970, it was at least 40 years old in tone and subject—the songs in the George Gershwin score date from 1922 to 1930. Nostalgia heaped on nostalgia, the opening segment, with its cheesy-looking pastel costumes, looks touchingly “colorized,” or touchingly faded, and the backdrop depressingly wrinkled. (This is not to mention what orchestrator Hershey Key does to the songs, which is something similar.) And what about the man we love—all of us girls—here played by Nilas Martins. No matinee idol he, nor quite a lounge lizard, he’s a Mr. Good Ship Lollipop of a ladies man, and if I needed a date for a wedding, I think I’d take him. He only has eyes for his partners, they always look pretty, and he never steals the show. As for the girls, they were the adorable Alexandra Ansanelli, the perfect Miranda Weese, and the glamourpuss Janie Taylor. Talk about sirens! The latter's a real lollapolooza.

First:  "After the Rain":  Maria Kowroski and Ask La Cour, photo by Paul Kolnik.
Second: "After the Rain":  Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 5
January 31, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva


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last updated on January 31, 2005