writers on dancing


Crowd Pleasers

“Fanfare," "Liturgy," "Orpheus." "The Four Seasons"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
February 4, 2005

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2005 by Leigh Witchel

What makes a crowd pleaser? City Ballet put three proven ones on Friday night’s program sandwiching “Orpheus”, a ballet that has always been more of a succès d’estime.

Jerome Robbins’ “Fanfare” is set to Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. It has a similar purpose as a Young Person’s Guide to a Ballet Company: It allows one to see individual members of the company as well as the massed corps de ballet. In some cases their little solo or group moments as various instruments in the orchestra may be the first time one identifies them (Ah! So that’s Georgina Pazcoguin!) It’s not a major work in Robbins’ canon, but interesting for its place in the repertory. Just wait for the children’s matinee of “Fanfare” and “Carnival of the Animals”. Children and their parents could do far worse; both are real ballets. “Fanfare” also shows Robbins’ approach to classical ballet and how early it was formed. Act II, "Swan Lake" is recalled in the formations for the female corps of string instruments; and how very like Robbins to end with a fugue.

Friday’s reentry of the ballet into the repertory with many new cast members was a bit shaky; the dancers looked like they needed a few more performances to work out the kinks. Daniel Ulbricht had a fine comic debut as a stentorian tuba, and Ask la Cour managed to turn and even tumble as a double bass wearing the bane of every dancer’s existence: a large headpiece. Other notable performances came from the veterans; Jared Angle and Rachel Rutherford as the violas, Antonio Carmena and Adam Hendrickson as trumpets.

“Fanfare” was NYCB’s “Coronation Ballet”. It had its premiere on June 2, 1953 to celebrate the ascendance of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne. It’s interesting to note its parallel history to the Royal Ballet’s own coronation piece, “Homage to the Queen”. Ashton’s work to Malcolm Arnold was also choreographed to show off the full company and it was suggested, as mentioned in David Vaughan’s book on Ashton’s works, that it be used as a company defilé on special occasions. Alas, it was dropped from repertory after 1958 except for rare performances of the pas de deux that was made for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. 1952’s “Sylvia” has just been recovered after being called lost; is there any hope for this as well?

Christopher Wheeldon has returned to choreograph scores by a few composers time and again. In the case of György Ligeti, it seemed that Wheeldon was trying to build a trilogy. I only saw portions of his second Ligeti work “Continuum”, but the final “Morphoses” looked to be less durable than the earliest ballet, “Polyphonia”. Now with Arvo Pärt, Wheeldon has followed 2003’s “Liturgy” with the current “After the Rain”.

“Liturgy” is a pas de deux that mines the haunted atmosphere of Pärt’s “Fratres”. The audience loves the work; the riveting performances of Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan doing conjuring trick partnering in the smoky glow are no small part of their enthusiasm. Still, the work also feels a bit cheap. Pärt is on his way to becoming this generation’s Tchaikovsky; a composer whose reputation gets devalued for being relentlessly overexposed. As fascinating as “Fratres” is, I groan when I hear it for the zillionth time as a dance accompaniment. Yes, it’s a great atmosphere piece, but don’t advertise it as cutting edge. Using it is about as cutting edge and original as using Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.

“Liturgy” is all high-gloss atmosphere and little heart, but I think Wheeldon needed to make it to work towards “After the Rain”, a more deeply felt piece. Wheeldon has always balanced his facility as a choreographer and openness to all forms against his canny commercial instincts that could easily become cynical, but he’s still enough of an artist to go back to something until he’s got it right.

Like “Fanfare”, “Orpheus” occupies a historical place in repertory; it was the work that caused Morton Baum to invite Ballet Society to become New York City Ballet. Right now, it feels more and more isolated in repertory. With its emphasis on mime and expressive instead of classical vocabulary, what else does the company do that feeds on it or into it? The audience doesn’t respond to it or the gloriously beautiful score; it’s too restrained a lament. The only thing that will save the ballet right now is a searing, committed performance and we’re not getting those. Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins gave lackluster performances. Eurydice is a role for a mature dancer, but at this point it does nothing for Kistler. She’s unfortunately come to the point where she’s trying to sell most of her performances on star mystique, something I had hoped to never see from her. I barely recall anyone other than Martins as Orpheus at this point. Even when he gives a decent performance as he did last week, it’s still time for another cast.

“The Four Seasons” is Robbins’ and NYCB’s “Soviet” ballet, made to showcase virtuosity, especially male virtuosity, in a way that Balanchine didn’t. “Fall” is a Bacchic festival à la Walpurgisnacht, a Soviet specialty. Balanchine’s own “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” was originally choreographed for Paris Opera in 1975; fittingly for a gloss on Parisian traditions, the man functions in it mostly as a porteur. The dancers perform “The Four Seasons” innocent of historical implications; they relish the chance to show off and the audience laps it up.

There were major cast shuffles throughout the ballet on Thursday night due to illness and injury; Ashley Bouder was taken out of Winter and thrown into Fall; Megan Fairchild took the role vacated. The Friday cast was the same as Thursday’s, so the involuntary debutantes got another shot. Fairchild is continuing to give more expansive performances; even in soubrette roles like Winter she’s dancing bigger and more maturely. It’s all in taking the time to let herself register to the audience rather than rushing on to the next thing. Carmena and Sean Suozzi were charming as her consorts. It seems the company has its eye on Suozzi; I hope the same for Carmena and for Jonathan Stafford, Seth Orza and Craig Hall, who danced in the Spring section. The crop of men in the senior corps hasn’t looked this interesting or hungry in a while. One wonders who will be plucked from it to rise.

Spring has long been one Jenifer Ringer’s best roles; it suits her gentle moderation and coordinated phrasing. Robbins underchoreographs her coda with Philip Neal beautifully and turns walking into a motif. In Summer, Rachel Rutherford is a conundrum. Her presence keeps getting more and more darkly vivid, but then she’s fidgety in little things. Rutherford rarely takes any position, even simple ones, without tiny readjustments and it becomes noticeable and disappointing. James Fayette had a better night on Thursday as her partner; on Friday he was falling out of turns and again, simple poses and looked like he's out of shape.

Along with Ulbricht, Bouder and Joaquin de Luz form a powerhouse trio in Fall. All three delivered. Both Ulbricht and de Luz did prodigious trick jumps; de Luz did a classically flashy applause-getter variation seemingly without effort. Both Ulbricht and de Luz have difficult proportions but Ulbricht is more musical and though his line is less well formed than de Luz’s, he uses it more intelligently. Bouder can stand up to both of them, in fact that’s the problem in her physical partnership with de Luz; she’s taller than he is even off pointe. Like many shorter men, he compensates with strength in simple lifts, but any partnering requiring manipulation can be tricky; he’s just too small for her. Bouder’s performance was typical; 90% delightful bravura and 10% hair-raising, including extensions taken far enough one thought her pointe shoe might slide out from under her, or a final series of double fouettés that both nights she corrected while still turning from spin-outs of varying degrees of potential disaster. All of it 100% pure Bouder. It’s said that one of the qualities that NASA looks for in astronauts is an unnatural absence of fear, as if the person were physically unable to feel that emotion. Ashley Bouder would make a great astronaut.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel


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last updated on January 31, 2005