"Square Dance," "Liebeslieder Walzer," "Stars and Stripes"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 30, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright 2007, Leigh Witchel

A program with “Square Dance,” “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Stars and Stripes” shows about as much range as one can hope for in a single choreographer. There were so many links and contrasts in this evening at New York City Ballet, titled “Essential Balanchine,” that it’s hard to settle on a dominant connecting thread. All the works are from the late City Center period; “Stars” and “Square Dance” from the great ’57-8 season that also produced “Agon” and “Gounod Symphony.” “Liebeslieder” had its premiere a few years later in 1960.

As good as the choreography was, the most singular moment had no dancing. After the first intermission, before “Liebeslieder,” the curtain parted for an unannounced tribute to Melissa Hayden. Peter Martins kept his remarks brief but telling; recalling a woman “to be reckoned with” but also recalling her “dedication, diligence and commitment to what was onstage every night.” He made one tiny revision as he spoke, but a revision that was more than just a preposition. Speaking of Hayden’s place in Balanchine’s universe, Martins mentioned how Balanchine made his greatest ballets “on,” but then backed up and altered that to “with” Hayden.

Jacques d’Amboise appeared. Coming onstage, it was as if he had been given a shot of vital elixir; there is no place he is more alive. A raconteur, d’Amboise talked about Hayden with feeling and humor. She had the same need for the stage as he still does. He told of Hayden knocking herself senseless through a kick gone awry in William Dollar’s “Le Combat”. When he, Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine finally got backstage, they saw people holding her upside down and shaking her at her request so that the blood would go back to her head and she could go back onstage to dance.

The minutes went by as d’Amboise spoke and “Liebeslieder” — a masterpiece, but a long masterpiece — was still to come, yet he was mesmerizing in his stories, his blarney and his need to connect to her and (perhaps even more) us. He told of going down to see Hayden in North Carolina as she lay in the hospital on oxygen. Her mind took care of mundane details, telling her children there was a pot roast in the freezer in case d’Amboise stayed the night, but even then she was thinking of the stage. On seeing him, “Oh, Jacques, you came for my last dance.” Technique may make a dancer, but personality and hunger is what makes a star. Dancing Hayden’s role in “Stars and Stripes,” Ashley Bouder has that hunger.

In the First Campaign, Sterling Hyltin seemed to have barely touched a baton in her life, but still made perfect sense as a cheerleader in bobby socks. She ate space sailing back and forth across the stage in grand jetés and did high kicks with Rockette verve. The Second Campaign is informally known as the “Tall Girls Regiment” but a short girl, Abi Stafford, led it. It didn’t square with tradition, but it made Daniel Ulbricht’s life easier having two women he could partner with less awkwardness. Stafford beamed with pleasure in slow buoyant jumps and Ulbricht sailed through the air in the Third campaign.

Bouder came out for the pas de deux with Andrew Veyette, grinning and wearing the yellow feather of the canary she just ate. She pulled out all the stops with long balances and powerful turns for a performance that was brassy, but that made you believe in and love Balanchine’s idealized America with simple pleasures such as marching bands and pretty girls. Her performance was almost overshadowed by the news that Andrew Veyette can smile. He has come a long way since he and Bouder did these roles in the School of American Ballet workshop performance, when he scowled his way through the ballet. He gave a charming performance, and his long proportions make for handsome, suspended jumps. It’s great that Veyette is showing the beginnings of an onstage personality but these roles were originated by d’Amboise and Hayden. We need to see the hunger Bouder has, not just to be onstage, but to be a Star.

“Square Dance” and “Stars” are two of the most American of Balanchine’s works; “Liebeslieder” is one of his least American. Many European dancers who came to New York City Ballet have found the work congenial, but mysteriously the work does not do well at European companies; it failed to remain in repertory in both London and Paris. The ballet needs sophistication and is usually cast with senior dancers. This cast was Kyra Nichols, Darci Kistler, Wendy Whelan and Miranda Weese, in order the four women with the longest tenure as principal dancer, though the dates of attaining that rank span from 1979 to 1996.

Weese danced Jillana’s original role with Jared Angle. When the three other women sway in their chairs downstage, she moves upstage; a symbol for the contrasting relationship the couple has to the rest – more youthful and here dark-haired among fairer women. Weese’s dusky sophistication was a fine match for Jared Angle’s elegance shot through with darkness. There was a hint of melancholy in their youth.

Whelan danced Hayden’s role with its haunting final swimming dance with a commanding Nikolaj Hübbe; Nichols’ loveliest moment was in her final dance in the first section where she was lifted prone by Nilas Martins. Kistler’s performances have been erratic for years now; this role is within her physical abilities but the girlishness she forces on her performances has a strange scent. Years ago, Kistler gave an interview talking about how she viewed her retirement. She said that she wouldn’t linger onstage; when she was done, she would just leave. But for whatever reason, their hunger or because they have nowhere else to go, Stars are never quite finished.

Though “Square Dance” no longer has the caller announcing the steps in rhyme originally there in 1957, one can still sense the original purpose of the ballet, to show the links from a classical tradition to an American folk tradition. This went beyond novelty; it staked a claim for classical dance as a birthright to American dancers as much as did “Stars.”

In contrast to “Liebeslieder” the “Square Dance” corps was young, with only a few senior corps dancers dotted through it. Still, all the ladies can do gargouillades behind Megan Fairchild, who led them. Fairchild’s footwork unrolled like yards of lace, but she only relaxed and acquired presence at high speed. Her partner Sébastien Marcovici, gave drama to the slow male solo added for Bart Cook, but Marcovici didn’t have Cook’s fluidity.

Stars come and go; artistic directors have less to do than they’d like with their appearance on the scene, but everything to do with whether they flourish or not. NYCB had a dry spell in the 90s, and then once again a group of dancers with distinct personalities began to develop. Sadly, several of those dancers have now left for other companies. We’ve lost Carla Körbes and Alexandra Ansanelli, now we’re about to lose Miranda Weese — a greater loss than it seems. Weese is the senior female principal after Nichols, Kistler and Whelan, but she’s a few years younger than they are. Losing her, we lose the dancer who should be leading the company as senior ballerina after their departures. As a company director, Peter Martins has placed a premium on technique and reliability, stating in interviews that he doesn’t promote dancers to principal rank until he doesn’t have to worry about them anymore. Yes, but sometimes you have to worry about Stars. They knock themselves out onstage; they ramble because they’re in love with the audience. The same personality that makes them need extra maintenance is what makes them magical.

Volume 5, No. 6
January 29, 2007

copyright ©2007 Leigh Witchel

©2003-2007 DanceView