Strong dancing

“In Vento," "Mother Goose" and "Symphony in C"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 10, 2006

by Michael Popkin
copyright ©2006, Michael Popkin

A virtue of strong programming is to provide useful contrasts between works, but  contrasts, when too extreme, can also disrupt the continuity of a theatrical experience; the transitions you are asked to make can be jarring.  Saturday night at City Ballet, when Jerome Robbins’ “Mother Goose” was substituted at the last minute (for the originally programmed “In the Night”) as the opening ballet on a program that included Mario Bigonzetti’s “In Vento” and ended with George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” was an example of just such extreme shifts of mood and impression.

What to make of the Bigonzetti, God only knows. It is the second time I have seen it.  It is immensely popular with the audience. While I thought that the tumultuous reaction to it on opening night might be due to the fact nearly half of Italy seemed to be in the theater to cheer on their native son, the repeat performance tonight before a subscription audience was just as well received. The dance is highly dramatic and expressive, its effect is like a jolt of Moonshine.

As everyone has noted, Bruno Moretti’s score — an adagio for strings, alternating harmonic moments with dissonant ones — is very strong.  In a sort of black velvet haze, dancers loom up out of the dark, are spot lit with a kind of golden light, perform emotionally fraught solos and duets, and disappear back into the gloom. Groups form and dissolve. A vague grief pervades everything. The dancers seem not to be able to help themselves. It’s all happening “to” them, though they are the actors. You don’t get much of a feeling of free will in this.

Edwaard Liang went into the principal role, replacing the injured Benjamin Millepied and, while he didn’t have the same physical facility as Millepied in the role, may even have been better at expressing the emotionally troubled aspect of the work. Maria Kowroski (dancing with Jason Fowler) was likewise very expressive of this. The role is a seminal one for her in that it allows her to explore a side of herself — at once sad, victimized and aggressive, but with the aggression somehow turned inward — that we have not seen from her before and that certainly has not been developed by anyone else.  Kowroski has sometimes in the past appeared to dissociate from herself on stage but there has been no sense of her doing that in this role. Just the opposite, it was and is an open and a raw performance.

Overall, however, the dancer who stole the show in this, both Saturday and last week, was Tiler Peck, who may actually be all of eighteen years old. Peck’s physicality is arresting in this and she also dances it with an extraordinary fluency of movement, in a sense transcending the material. A problem with the choreography in “In Vento” is that Bigonzetti’s natural idiom relies upon compressing and pressurizing the body in ways that are antithetical to the aesthetic of classical dance. Bigonzetti is not content to leave the movement pattern at that, however. Instead, he attempts to incorporate incongruous elements of the ballet vocabulary at random moments and in a seemingly arbitrary manner. In the middle of the most weighted and pressurized solo, for example, the dancers will interrupt what they are doing to toss off a few pirouettes or an arabesque or two. You can almost see the choreographer thinking, “Hey this is Ballet and these are Ballet dancers — Watch this.”

Peck, though, succeeded in fusing these elements (the Bigonzetti idiom and a classical technique) into an integrated whole and was the only one who fully did so. Her role, though less extensive than Kowroski’s, is a prominent one.  In her solo entrance, Peck is carried onto the stage and placed over the male principal (Liang or Millepied) who lies on the floor.  She then dances a mesmerizing pas de deux with him and ends with an extended solo. This is the most riveting moment in the entire work, you stop thinking, “what can this possibly mean”, your mind shuts down and you just get absorbed into watching the dancer move — it justifies the piece. If only there were more moments like this in “In Ventro,” or rather, if only the other moments like this were as good and lasted as long. Either Bigonzetti gave Peck material in which the extraneous pretty-pretty ballet element was simply absent or, what I think more likely, Peck is so gifted a dancer that she is able to take this movement vocabulary and meld it into a single natural idiom of her own.

Altogether, in fact, it was Peck’s evening, as she started the program by carrying the performance of Robbins’ “Mother Goose” (where she had the central role of the “Sleeping Beauty” who dreams the other nursery rhymes) on her shoulders with her strong acting and a technique that was just a fluent in Jerome Robbins’ classicism as she was afterwards fluent in Mario Bigonzetti’s particular idiom.

“Symphony in C” got a very strong performance from a largely new cast to conclude the evening. The First Movement was danced by Jenifer Ringer and Jonathan Stafford; Sara Mearns made her debut in the Second Movement partnered by Charles Askegard; Sterling Hyltin made her debut in the Third Movement with Antonio Carmena; and Abi Stafford and Arch Higgins danced the Fourth Movement.

In the First Movement, Ringer danced with ease and a lovely feel for the music.  It is a long time since she has looked this good or this happy on the stage. Jonathan Stafford partnered her ably and has gained greatly in strength over the past year.

Sara Mearns’s debut in Second Movement was promising but a stretch for her physically. She has a  beautiful arabesque but does not have a big developee or a big extension. A particularly deep arabesque penchée is not what you can expect to see from her. She looked a little cautious at times; perhaps Second Movement demands a particular maturity from a ballerina. She did, however, convey the mood and the spirit of the piece very well and this made the Movement succeed as a whole. She has the ballerina presence to hold it together and make it work.

Sterling Hyltin’s Third Movement was almost uncannily finished for a debut. This was a welcome surprise. Third Movement is a killer role and Hyltin can sometimes look a little tense in her expression. But she has a big jump and is extremely fleet footed; she was well rehearsed and understood the phrasing and flow of the choreography here very well. She and Carmena got everything pretty nearly right, from their initial chassées while turning and jumping in tandem, to her sticking the big supported arabesques on the musical accents right on the beats, to her series of glissades, moving horizontally across the stage with an easy and joyful batterie. Carmena’s air turns, concluding with one to the knee, were also perfectly done.  The only rough spot was some minor difficulty in partnering during the diagonal of lifts.  This was the most promising moment — indeed it was more than that, a fully realized moment — I’ve seen Hyltin have on the State Theater stage. Abi Stafford and Arch Higgins danced a strong Fourth Movement and it was particularly good to see Higgins back in a prominent role and moving easily.

“Symphony in C” looks sharp at the moment. The orchestra is playing it well and the newly remodeled corps de ballet, in transition mode due to a number of important dancers either being injured or having left the company, has coalesced nicely in it. And on Saturday night in particular, coming after the dimly lit and unintelligible Bigonzetti, the ballet has never looked more full of light or seemed better to deserve its original Paris Opera title that translates as “The Crystal Palace.”

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Michael Popkin



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