Tradition and Innovation
“Jeu de Cartes”, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertänze’”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
June 8, 2007

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2007 by Mary Cargill

The rather generic title of this group of ballets could mean anything, but I guess it is better than “Anything Goes”. What went was an aerobic exercise by Peter Martins, an interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory new Christopher Wheeldon ballet, and a fine performance of the multifaceted Balanchine swan song of a ballet. "Jeu de Cartes" is not Stravinsky at his best; there is little variety in the bouncy score, which sounds at times like a dime store version of the “Rubies” music. In Martins’ hands, the conceit of a poker game is only decorative. The cards (the one girl as the queen, or possibly ace, of hearts, playing with the 2 of diamonds, the ace of clubs, and the king of clubs — or so it seems from the fussy costumes) do not add up to a useable hand. The queen, Sterling Hyltin, danced the same fussy, posey, frilly steps with each partner, who in turn bounded through some difficult and flashy steps (Benjamin Millepied was especially impressive) with absolutely no characterization, wit, or point.

Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet certainly has characterization and a point. It is based somewhat loosely on one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales; it is not filled with unchoreographable epigrams, but it is a beautifully stylized work about the sacrifices an artist, in the form of the nightingale, makes for an ignorant and ungrateful public, represented by the student and his lady, who prefers expensive jewels offered by someone else to the student’s rose. The bird’s blood alone will create the red rose that the student thinks he needs to win his love, but the student can’t understand the song. “She has form, that cannot be denied to her; but has she got feeling? I’m afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style without any sincerity.”

This pointed jab at oblivious critics did not make it into the ballet, and the story, which is incomprehensible without the printed summary, is all about the bird. Wendy Whelan was the poor nightingale, hampered by a costume that made her look like Tiger Lily from Peter Pan. Wheeldon’s choreography for Whelan accentuated her angular form, and looked a bit like Robbins’ work for "The Cage." He seemed to be trying to choreograph the bird (she kept miming having a beak), and not the song.

The music, by resident choreographer Bright Sheng, too, was often too literal; it began with actual bird songs, so at odds with the stylized intensity of the Wilde story. The score stressed the drama of the situation, and not the beauty of the bird, so that the creation of the rose (the bird must press herself against a thorn to stain the rose red) sounded fraught and ominous, rather like an avian "Rite of Spring."

Tyler Angle was the student, and was appropriately ardent, but had little to do. Sara Mearns was the professor’s daughter, and had even less to do; this lovely dancer just flounced in and out.

I found this a disappointing ballet because it didn’t seem to trust dance to convey the perfume of Wilde’s story. It could only try to translate the words into shapes but at least it, unlike "Jeu de Cartes," had an idea.

Balanchine’s "Davidsbundlertänze" is a magnificent example of dance’s ability to convey meaning through movement. There are critics in this ballet too, and the ominous black shapes are as disturbing now as they are when I first saw the ballet, because they seem to come from within the music. Of course, this ballet is packed with emotion from the very beginning because it is another stop on the Kyra Nichols farewell tour. It is almost impossible to look at that pure, intense, committed movement and not want to rail against time.

But ?Davidsbunderlertänze" is not a one-woman show, and most of the other dancers were exceptional. Charles Askegard, in the Schumann role, was Nichols’ partner. He uses his height and physicality to great effect in this role, with never a hint of scenery chomping. Jenifer Ringer with Nikolaj Hübbe and Jennie Somogyi with Nilas Martins, were also by turn lyrical, impassioned, and always committed. I was disappointed in Maria Kowroski in the Farrell role; she was all surface mannerisms with little variety or mystery. But the night really belonged to Nichols, reaching after her disappearing partner with resigned despair; a single gesture that will resonate for a long time.

Photos, all by Paul Kolnik, are of Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nightengale and the Rose."
The first two photos show Wendy Whelan and dancers of the New York City Ballet. The bottom photo is of Ms. Whelan and Tyler Angle.

Volume 5, No. 23
June 11, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Mary Cargill

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