Tschaikovsky Evening
“Mozartiana,” “Piano  Pieces,” “Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
Thursday Evening, May 17, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

Two full weeks of City Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” have blessedly ended and in their wake you can again see something that appeared during the opening week of NYCB’s spring season:  that the company is in fine dancing shape, looking as good as it has in the past couple of years. Thursday night’s program — built entirely on ballets with Tschaikovsky scores (Balanchine’s “Mozartiana” and “Piano Concerto No. 2” sandwiched around Robbins’ “Piano Pieces”) was danced well, at times even brilliantly, with only “Mozartiana” suffering from a lesser performance and that due to casting.

Tschaikovsky published a good deal of music for piano and much of it was composed at his publisher’s request, not for concert performances, but for consumption of the published scores by amateurs, mostly families. The score for “Piano Pieces” (a succession of fourteen of these short, occasional compositions) is constructed entirely from these sources. All of the pieces are simple; some are characteristic dances or songs (a Mazurka, Scherzo, or Barcarolle) and others are sentimental meditations based upon the composer developing (or in the more pedestrian compositions, not developing) brief, conventional melodies.  

Whatever their musical merit, the simplicity of their formal and emotional content makes them good dance material and Robbins’ ballet to them is a lovely work when well danced, as it was Thursday night.  It begins with a brief succession of dances for seven couples, all dressed in white tunics with red piping in a Slavic design, and with these ensembles divided by a series of bravura solo dances for a jester/master of ceremonies character, a role originally made on Ib Andersen. The Andersen role ties the ensemble dances together, and continues to do so when the ballet then morphs into a series of resonant, difficult and musically interesting dances for three further principal couples, with solo dances for most of the principals also mixed in, until the whole thing ends in a rousing final Scherzo for the entire cast.

Joaquin de Luz debuted as the jester and did a fine job, dancing with understated ease. He’s a much smaller dancer than Andersen was, however, and his diminutive stature and the understatement of his performance on Thursday made the principal roles more prominent, which was a good thing on this evening as those roles were so wonderfully danced by Jennie Somogyi and Jared Angle; Abi Stafford and Amar Ramassar; and Jenifer Ringer partnered by Ask LaCour. (The performances by Ringer, Ramassar and LaCour were also debuts). Each deserves a positive word: Somogyi has lost some physical facility with wear and tear over the years, but she’s always been the most musical of dancers and her waltz Thursday night was the most fluent and lyrical she has looked since before her tendon injury of three years ago. Her partner, Jared Angle’s solo mazurka full of relevee poses in high attitude rear exposed lines you don’t often see him show.  Stafford and Ramassar’s gallop through their allegro was perfectly rehearsed and coordinated and so full of spirit that, watching the ease and aplomb of Stafford’s dancing, I couldn’t help wondering why it wasn’t her, instead of her brother, who was promoted to principal dancer last week.  Right now, relative to him, she’s the stronger one. While Ringer danced as lyrically and responsively to the music as I have ever seen her perform and was superbly and quietly partnered by LaCour. From everyone involved, I don’t expect to see a better performance.

“Piano Concerto” had the cast we saw in January with Sofiane Sylve as the leading woman, accompanied by Teresa Reichlen as the first soloist (the two women principals seem to be a Queen and a Princess respectively).  Jonathan Stafford debuted as Sylve’s leading man.  Sylve had the all the physical chops (and some to spare) for the ballet in her initial performances last winter, but she now has the feeling, style, and mystery of the role as well. In addition to dancing it with strength and authority, she performed it with consummate beauty — regally in the opening sections, then with great resonance in a deeply moving adagio (the advance up the line of women to bend over her romantic hero, and her retreat from him, were imbued with a subtle sadness that you don’t usually associate with her dancing), before she turned the mood of the ballet to fire in an instant, re-entering for the final explosive Gopak.  “Shot from a cannon” is a ballet cliché but one that accurately describes her performance.

Stafford danced his solos cleanly and had an appropriately romantic presence (he is the proper type for the ballet) but appeared physically weak as her partner. He struggled with her in the lifts (she’s a big woman), and the irony was that it appeared to be Sylve who pulled him through the ballet, not the other way around:  when she was coming out of a series of turns, he’d seem to have difficulty getting her back into a vertical position and then you’d actually see her just pick herself up with ease and get over her leg (as if it was he who was in the way) and then pull him back into the proper aplomb.

Reichlen has been strong in the princess role for several years and was so again on Thursday, though I also can’t help noticing that she hasn’t much progressed in it from where she was and that, as with Stafford, this also appears to be an issue of physical weakness — hers is in her upper body.  She’s amazingly fast and clear with her feat and clean in her turns, but her upper body remains a little slack and her back, shoulders and arms underdeveloped.  

“Mozartiana,” danced by Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal, with Daniel Ulbricht in the Gigue, received a performance that was merely pleasant and nice and that, in this respect, continued a series of diminished performances of this ballet over the past two years.  None of these dancers has the resonance you want in this ballet; and Ulbricht also turns his role into that of a jester instead of one that displays echoes of 18th century classicism.

In the words of Tschaikovsky’s biographer, David Brown: “The source of Tschaikovsky’s almost fanatical reverence for Mozart was a sense that the world of this classical giant was chaste and poised in a way his own could never be.”  George Balanchine, choreographing to Tschaikovsky’s effort to re-evoke this world of perfect harmony, took a further step in the same direction and his ballet, when well performed, makes a similarly personal statement about lost ideals and, in a late ballet he rechoreographed on his untouchable final muse, Suzanne Farrell, perhaps about his lost youth and the elusive feminine ideal as well.  As performed these days at NYCB, however, the grandeur of the effort to re-evoke a perfect ideal is missing.  As Brown went on to say of Tschaikovsky in this connection: “To attempt to re-enter that world was not simply an agreeable amusement but a profoundly serious undertaking”;  and that is precisely the sense you miss at City Ballet at the moment.  On Thursday night “Mozartiana” was “an agreeable amusement” but nothing more. 

Volume 5, No. 21
May 14, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

©2003-2007 DanceView