New York City Ballet
New York State Theater,
New York, NY
June 23, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin      

Saturday night’s performance of “Jewels” at City Ballet was a very fine one, as Ashley Bouder’s much anticipated debut in the principal role in “Rubies” was preceded by as good a rendition of “Emeralds” as I’ve seen from the company in years, and followed by a rousing performance of “Diamonds” by Maria Kowroski and the ensemble to close the evening.

“Ensemble” is the word that describes “Emeralds” above all others, as I can think of no other Balanchine work with more balance in the choreography provided for a group of multiple principal dancers and soloists.  There are seven substantial roles: two for principal couples and three for soloists, all with individual variations and partnering work. On Saturday, Rachel Rutherford and Stephen Hanna were the first couple; Sara Mearns and Ask La Cour the second (with the walking pas de deux); and the pas de trios/soloist roles were danced by Ashley Laracey, Megan LeCrone and Robert Fairchild.  Everyone danced compellingly. I’d have a hard time thinking of a performance where so many dancers performed at the absolute peak of their talents; but the ballet owed its success to more than that because the culmination of all the performances was a musically sensitive rendering with a strong feel for the ballet’s style and structure, and it was this overarching sense of form and stylistic meaning that made it so special.

Rutherford and Hanna did a fine job of implying an emotional history to their relationship without overdoing it. He was a strong partner, noble and attentive, while she showed a soft and liquid pas de bourée and a deeply shaped arabesque in the opening pas de deux. Her “Fileuse,” (the famous solo of arm gestures made on Violette Verdi), was subtle and flowing and again not overdone. I loved the sensitive understatement in her upper body work. You often see this performed with too much emphasis. The couple’s grand pas de deux then had a haunting sense of reverie as the dancers backed slowly off the stage in deep back bends. It’s twenty four hours later and I still can’t get that moment out of my head — how fortunate to have a spring season end on such a note.

As the lead woman in the second couple, Mearns’ opening solo was cautious and slightly heavy, but she calmed when La Cour joined her and a deeply poetic walking pas de deux followed, danced with a perfectly measured pace, and with Mearns’ displaying exquisite pointes and working the floor more delicately than you would have thought possible for so strong a woman. The arabesques she interlaced with the pointe work took your breath away; she gets more drama out of her back than any other woman in the company, carrying a deeply cambered line from her shoulders, through the hips, and into a high working leg.  If she stays the course (and stays in shape) she could become one of the great ones.

Laracey, LeCrone and Fairchild are all tall, strong and interesting dancers and the pas de trois and succeeding variations by this trio were better danced than they’ve been in many a year. Fairchild, newly promoted to soloist, has a strong sense of weight, good elevation in his jumps, and a generally elegant carriage. His solo of jumps and kicked jetés to the scherzo reminiscent of that in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was beautifully shaped and musically responsive. LeCrone, who has gone into some of Wendy Whelan’s roles this spring has leapt to another plateau in her confidence and authority as a result, and was compelling here throwing off easy jumps in attitude and effortless pirouettes, with everything well centered; she dances with remarkable flow. Laracey — like LeCrone tall, leggy and with the plumb lines you want to dance Balanchine — nonetheless has a striking individuality and this helped set each of these well matched dancers in contrast to each other. In sum, there was great balance to the cast as well as to the choreography.

Bouder’s debut in “Rubies,” opposite Benjamin Millepied (who has been dancing the leading man’s role for several years, most recently with Miranda Weese) was a marked success but not without some reservations.  She’s a powerhouse dancer and a charismatic performer with an extraordinary sense of music and rhythm; and from the point of view of sheer dance excitement and physical mastery of the complex choreography, her first performance was a tour de force. There were moments that were as well danced as any I’ve ever seen in the role: at the end of her final variation of piqué turns with flexed arms, for example, as she went spinning off the stage, she actually seemed to pause for the briefest split second to flash an insouciant, even superior smile at the audience; or again, a moment of totally unexpected feline eroticism when she leaned back into Millepied during the pas de deux, seeming about to devour him, a burst of animal presence from her I’d never seen before.

At the same time, though — and as you might have expected from a young dancer the first time out in a role of tremendous sophistication — her interpretation was at times unformed and the choreography had an unfamiliar shape. The signature moments when the dancer has one leg turned in, and limp, jazzy contra’apposto in her entire body, were not well conveyed. She should have gone deeper here, showed the pose more fully, and seemed to have trouble being quite so unclassical. To add to this she seemed to have little rapport with Millepied; and except for the dramatically erotic moment in the pas de deux described above, there was little sense of teasing and flirtation between them.  A stronger man might have engaged her more, and that’s an interesting point vis-à-vis Bouder. Millepied has been her only consistent partner for the past couple of years (he squired her to good effect in both Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”) but if she’s going to develop a more mature and sexy side as a performer, it will help if the company finds her one or two other men who better match her.  The stylistic rawness in the performance was also not helped by the fact that Savannah Lowery danced the soloist role with an awkward and athletic feel, seeming to engage more in martial arts  than ballet.

Due to an injury to Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski has danced the lead in every performance of “Diamonds” this spring, a role she’s performed for some years now to mixed critical reaction.  She’s a tall woman with high arches and in the past has had trouble with her arms and legs getting away from her and has also drawn criticism with  controversial, Sylvie Guillem-style two o’clock extensions.  This spring, however, she’s put all that behind her and these “Diamonds” have been the consummate performances of her career.  While her first performance of the role this season, ten days ago with Philip Neal as her partner, may have been her cleanest and best, on Saturday night with Charles Askegaard as her cavalier she was once again magnificent, delivering a slow, tensile, spellbinding pas de deux, followed by a kinetic, propulsive scherzo, and finally by a highly dramatic finale.

To be sure, it was not an academically clean performance; she’ll never be that kind of a dancer. But it was a supremely honest one, as she attacked the role frankly from start to finish, bared herself and her technique, and held nothing back. Her high attitudes during the opening adagio were wrapped and carried a twisted line through her back, around her partners body and into her leg — an appropriately Russian interpretation of the attitude pose for a ballet that is a tribute to Russian Imperial style. Likewise, in a Farrell role, she often danced off center but was never off balance; on the contrary, she used the floor differently than earlier in her career, showing her foot very solidly and squarely to the audience in her fourth positions so that, throughout, the sense that she was solidly planted, even when distorting her line up top, lent eloquence to her extensions and turns. Her balance in arabesque on point was formidable; and in developee her lines reached towards the back of the house. At the finale, first whipping through a series of balancés with arms to either side and then, as the music accelerated, through a final series of arabesques to the side on the big accents, she provided a series of visual climaxes that nearly blew the figurative roof off of the state theater. It was a performance to take home with you for the summer.

Askegaard was physically there to support her in the partnering but, in contrast to the earlier performance by Philip Neal mentioned above, seemed to be going through the  motions in his emotional relation to her, so that the performance provided little of the sense of a ritual romantic conversation between the principal couple that this ballet can have at its best. The young corps de ballet on the other hand danced beautifully, with Dara Johnson, Brittany Pollack, Marika Anderson and Tabitha Rinko-Gay standing out for their commitment, classicism and lovely training; and with the quartet of slightly older soloists — Saskia Beskow, Amanda Hankes, Megan LeCrone, and Gwynneth Muller — also providing beautiful support.      

Volume 5, No. 25
June 25, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

©2003-2007 DanceView