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 17, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel   

Change the cast, change the ballet.  Peter Martins’ “Jeu de Cartes” was originally made for the ’92 Diamond Project; the cast was Darci Kistler with Damien Woetzel, Albert Evans and Nilas Martins. At Sunday’s matinee, Sterling Hyltin performed Kistler’s role; a new cast of male leads went into the ballet.

Hyltin threw herself around like a tipsy debutante; demure but dangerous. Amar Ramasar, in Evans’ role, danced with looseness and charm. I had not yet seen Robert Fairchild in a major role (here, Martins’ part) and wondered about his swift promotion. It was perhaps too swift, but it seemed to be justified when he entered. He carried himself like a soloist onstage.

Though the three male parts are actually approximately equal, when the ballet was first performed it was Kistler’s and Woetzel’s ballet. “Jeu de Cartes” became about their virtuosity. Kistler sliced and whirled in chaînés like a weapon with rotating blades; Woetzel negotiated jumping and turning combinations that seemed too dense to be possible. It was a Damien and Darci experience; the other men seemed appurtenances.

Daniel Ulbricht has the bravura technique to do Woetzel’s role, but he doesn’t hold the center of the ballet.  It’s not entirely his doing; the ballet isn’t structured to put him at the center. Woetzel simply took it.  The role’s entry is delayed (Ramasar enters first, then Ulbricht and then Fairchild).  Unless Martins has changed the role significantly there is very little partnering; the other two roles emphasize it. I didn’t realize Ulbricht was doing Woetzel’s part until the very end.

The ballet has been through a few changes in design and the costume colors for the leads have changed.  Originally, Kistler changed her tunic to match the color of the man with whom she was dancing. That was dropped and she stayed in the same color throughout, black — the same color Woetzel wore.  A few years ago, the ballet had a complete redesign with costumes and décor from Ian Falconer. Hyltin is brilliantly colored in red and Ulbricht wears predominantly white, breaking the association between them. As with Falconer’s previous work for Christopher Wheeldon, the designs are fussily humorous. They aren’t nearly as flattering to the figure as the simple earlier tunics and tights (Ulbricht’s costume doesn’t work with his body at all) but the playing card references move the ballet back from an abstract work to a card game, though without the joker Stravinsky envisioned. 

Wheeldon’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” is a sour reading of Oscar Wilde’s masochistically pretty tale.  A professor’s daughter, toying with a love-struck student, demands a red rose when none are in bloom.  A nightingale, learning of this, sacrifices her heart’s blood and her life to a thorned bush to produce a red rose in vain; the student is as unpleasantly self-absorbed as the girl.

Wheeldon compacts the story to tell it in dance terms, not always for the best. Wilde’s poetic writing for the Nightingale explains her reasoning about the beauty of love and gives her our sympathy even in the futility of her desires.  In lieu of Wilde’s poetry, Wheeldon cooks up bird vocabulary for Whelan, all of which she performs with oblique intensity. But a portrayal of a bird isn’t what’s needed — metaphor is.  Both Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns’ roles are brief. Though he is more romantic than the bookworm of Wilde’s tale, Angle is quite realistic as an egocentric student. He gets more opportunity to project and takes it. Mearns’ character is a petty cipher.

Bright Sheng’s music has very little dance to it, and beyond the bird movements there isn’t much ballet dancing to be seen. Wheldon’s transformation of the corps into rose bushes is ingenious. Two quartets of women form the yellow and white bushes. The gnarled and withered red rose tree is composed of the men in the company.  Animations projected onto scrims by James Buckhouse and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are also ingenious; Pakledinaz devised a simple but effective way to show the transformation of the withered bush from brown to blood red. Even with the romanticism of the story, as can often be the case with Wheeldon’s work, it’s hard to get beyond his ingenuity to actual emotion. It’s going to take some blood from his heart to make this “Nightingale” sing.

Contrast this with “Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertänze.” Balanchine, who heard the same complaint about emotional coldness much of his career, wore his heart on his sleeve. Maria Kowroski danced Farrell’s role — the quintessential Elusive Muse, Charles Askegard played the haunted Schumann figure; Kyra Nichols was his wife in a role she’s owned for years, but now the pages are shutting, the book soon to close.

Volume 5, No. 25
June 25, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Witchel

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