New York City Ballet
New York State Theater,
New York, NY
June 14, 2007

by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2007 by Tom Phillips         

Fifty years ago “The Divine Sarah” was Sarah Vaughan, a full-throated jazz singer who could  swoop a tune anywhere and back without ever losing its essential pulse.  Today  the title should go to New York City Ballet soloist Sara Mearns. Like Vaughan, this divine Sara possesses a lush sensuality, and a rare musical instinct that made her debut in “Emeralds” another triumph in her winning streak.

Dancing the second soloist part, Mearns made sense of some of Balanchine’s trickiest and subtlest choreography. She had to fight her way through her first solo waltz — fast, delicate footwork is not her forte — but then came into her own in the “walking” pas de deux.  Here she made every step and every gesture not just match but embody the music — most stunningly when the ballerina raises her extended arm and leg into an arabesque, not in one fluid move but in a series of broken pulses. I must confess I never understood the musicality of this before;  it always looked like a strobe-light effect, fighting the gentleness of Faure’s meditative stroll. But Mearns made it clear that this was nothing but the quiet andante beat of the music, rising to the top of the phrase.

From there on she was “in the zone,” and when she’s in it there are few dancers who project such rapturous mastery. In the final pas de sept she was reaching ever higher in the lifts, diving ever deeper into her penchees, and even her skirts seemed  to be obeying some mystic rhythm, flying and falling in layers, in slow motion as in a dream. Her partner was Ask la Cour, who’s big enough for the job, and who seemed awed and inspired enough to do it well.

Also making a debut in the pas de trois were Robert Fairchild, Ashley Laracey and Megan LeCrone. This was a sprightly trio, with Fairchild’s leaps taking off lightly and landing softly. Rachel Rutherford in the first ballerina role handled the intricate port de bras with care, and stretched to her max in the air, but had to take second place to Sara in this shimmering green display.  

The signature gesture of “Rubies” is an in-your-face kick, and there’s no one better to deliver it than Teresa Reichlen of the long long legs. A few years ago these assets would flail around ineffectually, but now she whips them up with the force of a karate blow. Dancing the second soloist part, she topped her ruby crown again and again with kicks erupting from a reckless twist of the torso. But the highlight was the series of whirling lifts, her legs flinging out like helicopter blades. In “Rubies,” Balanchine and Stravinsky get as close as they ever did to the radical innocence of American youth, and Reichlen is perfect for the part, brash but thoroughly good-natured.  (As in our national anthem, “Girls just want to have fun.”) Yvonne Borree also had fun in the other solo role, dancing with Damian Woetzel, still a flying skateboarder at heart even after going to Harvard.  

Maria Kowroski also retains her radical innocence, and the awesome extension to project it, but she is a little short of the regal dignity needed for “Diamonds.”  Still, she and Charles Askegard knew what they were about in the crowning section of “Jewels,” and they gave a reverent tribute to the Russian Imperial style, highlighted by Kowroski’s above-the-horizontal attitudes and over-the-top penchees. Askegard may not be an aristocratic dancer, but he is a gentleman and has the right feeling for this. When he knelt at the end of the pas de deux and kissed Kowroski’s hand, it was no staged affectation but a true reverence.

Forty years after its premiere, “Jewels” is well on its way to becoming a classic. More than any single work, it is Balanchine’s statement and gift to America. 1967 was an annus mirabilis for ballet here; the nation suddenly became aware that a genius was working in our midst, as magazine covers splashed Balanchine and his ballerinas into everyone’s consciousness, and the new Lincoln Center became a destination for the masses. 

“Jewels” is what Balanchine came up with at his moment of maximum  opportunity, and it was a canny move. This was classical ballet in all its protean forms, with just enough flash in the title, décor and costumes to make it broadly accessible, and fun.  The theme and the setting may be faux, but the jewels are real.

Photo on front page by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 5, No. 24
June 18, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Tom Phillips

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