writers on dancing


Equals and Opposites

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
February 9, 2005

By Leigh Witchel
Copyright 2005 Leigh Witchel

True love may be harmonious, but friction causes sparks. Wednesday night’s performance of “Jewels” was a fascinating study in love, partnering, casting and the mysteries of chemistry and anti-chemistry.

We think of ballets as being led by a ballerina or couple. The hierarchy of “Emeralds” is split; there are two main couples and a subsidiary trio. Classical ballet traditionally emulates monarchy; this one feels less like a kingdom and more like a duchy where there is nobility but no royalty. The ballet is courtly, but this is not courtly love. Balanchine’s couples tend to be stable and without interlopers. In “Emeralds”, it could be argued they aren’t even lovers. The two principal men are literally knights: chevaliers. They serve their ballerinas while the man in the trio is a different sort of horseman. He performs dressage, bracing his two ladies as they spring into arabesque as if tethered.

“Emeralds” is constantly shifting focus because there is no central couple, but the ballet feels placid and nostalgic; possibly why people don’t warm to it. But there’s constant motion underneath and changes in focus. The couples have dialogues, some public with the corps and others private. The two ballerinas have solos that are like private monologues. The trio is a small self-contained ballet nested inside the larger one like a set of Russian dolls. The finale brings the whole society together; the coda Balanchine added in 1976 shows that world slipping away bit by bit.

Seth Orza made his debut in the trio and his casting was interesting for being atypical of the role. Usually the man in the trio is more of a boy; the Young Lord. Orza is young, but he’s broad and powerful: a man. He’s closer in build to both Hanna and especially Fayette and this made the groupings in the finale look particularly harmonious. He also works well with both his ladies, Amanda Edge and Carrie Lee Riggins. Yet another thread in the web of balanced relationships in the ballet, Edge and Riggins pair well as opposites; Riggins is articulate and elongated and Edge smaller and darker, yet not a soubrette. The three created a sophisticated interlude in the midst of the reverie.

James Fayette is one of the company’s stalwart cavaliers and Stephen Hanna is being groomed to a similar position. Fayette partners Jenifer Ringer, his wife. Nice work if you can get it. Not all offstage couples look good onstage, but there are very few women Fayette does not partner well. Hanna is a more tentative partner, possibly because of shuffled casting. He was slated to dance with Miranda Weese instead of Rachel Rutherford; who knows if they had the rehearsal needed to work out the sticky moments. Recently promoted to principal, Hanna’s got the heart and the looks for the rank, but not the lines—yet. Everything’s BIG!! even when it isn’t clean. He needs to lose his gaucheness, but his ardor made Rutherford glow.

As for Ringer, green is her color. She’s elegant and warm in the role but projects a tristesse like the scent of lilacs slowly fading. In the pas de deux where she and Fayette move like mechanical dolls she isn’t mechanical herself; she’s a woman reminding you of what mechanical dolls looked like once, long, long ago.

The story was very different in “Rubies”. Weese was moved from “Emeralds” to dance this role with Damian Woetzel. Their's is a partnership cast with far less frequency than it once was, and they danced like a Noel Coward couple after the divorce. Physically, they are still close to a perfect match; the flamboyant partnering went off without a hitch. Psychically, it’s about as likely a union as a countess and a chorus boy. The anti-chemistry is perversely fascinating.

The horn calls of Fauré in “Emeralds” lead to dressage, but the astringent, jazzy notes of Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” lead to the hunt. There are some echoes of horses in “Rubies” as well, but this performance was The Most Dangerous Game; man and woman are each both hunter and prey. Weese whirls herself into a tricky turn in attitude to wrap herself around Woetzel, who practically throws her from him. She bounces away from him and glances back waiting, eyes downcast. At another point she spins tightly to end up trapped in his embrace looking back at him. The game continues on, and still later, they repeat each of these segments, as lovers do in both love and argument.

Both Woetzel and Weese are well suited for their roles, Woetzel stereotypically and Weese paradoxically. Woetzel’s loose hoofer style works extremely well in ballets that reference America or jazz. Weese, on the other hand, is slumming. She’s sophisticated and controlling. This gives the entire ballet an atmosphere of knowing decadence, Mata Hari visiting cheerleader practice.

There’s another woman involved, the second ballerina (Teresa Reichlen). The role is always cast very tall and Reichlen dances alone and towers over the proceedings. Interestingly, one tends not to link her to the man at all, but rather to the woman, and again there’s an interesting tension in this cast. Weese is a tight, incisive dancer; Reichlen is young and wild. Along with Woetzel, all danced at top form with Reichlen jumping and flicking her impossibly long legs with abandon as if they were fencing swords. There is another moment of capture in “Rubies”. The second ballerina is approached by the four men in the corps who grab her limbs and manipulate her into impossible extensions. Reichlen is very tall and infrequently partnered because of her height. When those short men came and took her, she froze. It was probably because of unfamiliarity or awkwardness, but it read from the stage like fear or violation, and was momentarily frightening. The only thing that could have made this performance any more fascinatingly decadent would have been for Reichlen to be completely blasé as she was manipulated; as if taking on four men was the sort of thing that she expected on any night out. It’s a nasty lesson, but Weese and Woetzel are there to teach her: Sometimes sex isn’t between lovers, but between worthy opponents.

“Diamonds” is the fairy tale that closes the trilogy. Balanchine finally gives us the traditional pyramid of ballet: corps, demi-soloists and the leading couple at the pinnacle. The relationship at the top is not equal. Courtly Love returns full force. The man is not the ballerina’s spouse; he’s her consort. Her cavalier ends their dance kneeling at her feet and kissing her hand in obeisance. Her signature arm gesture recalls drawing a bow. Once again, the hunt is not far, but the ballerina is Diana, self-sufficient and virginal in her strength.

Wendy Whelan gave a fine performance in the ballerina role. Her elongated limbs aren’t classical but rather than fake her way through classical roles or reinterpret them to suit, she forces herself to work as classically as she can. Nilas Martins partnered decently and he’s a neutral ground on which to display a ballerina.

At this performance of the three ballets, “Rubies” was the most fascinating because of its perversity, and that was all due to the vagaries of casting, much of it unplanned. I love the coolness of “Emeralds”, but it may need to boil a bit for audiences to warm to it. As in “Rubies”, this can be gotten solely from interesting casting; so can the fantasy of “Diamonds”. What happened onstage wasn’t the hidden and sole true meaning of “Jewels”. Like all ballets, it is reinterpreted every time it hits the stage. Casting is part of that reinterpretation; it’s what makes sparks fly—or not.

Photo on front page by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 14, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel


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