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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Roots and Riches

Concerto Barocco, Prodigal Son, Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
New York City Ballet
Opera House, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
Thursday, March 4, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published 4 March 2004

Concerto Barocco has kept its name from its 1941 premiere to the present, whereas Ballet Imperial, danced for the first time just two days earlier, was renamed in 1973 for its composer (Tchaikovsky) and musical score (Piano Concerto No. 2). In all likelihood the foremost reason is that both ballets were developed principally from musical ideas, and Concerto Barocco already had a name that gave music its due. Proper credit seems to have become ever more a priority for George Balanchine, the choreographer of all 3 works on this second Washington program by New York City Ballet and, indeed, of all the ballets on the 3 programs danced during this one week visit.

Perhaps other reasons for retaining the Concerto Barocco title are its metrics and lilt. The syllables convey the baroque propulsiveness of J.S. Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor and rhymed, the two words have the ring of latter day syncopation. To give the ballet its full value, it has to be danced with both Bach's era and 20th Century jazz in mind. Thursday's performances by the chamber-size female corps de ballet was properly strong and fleet enough, but it was square. A trait of the Balanchine dancer I found missing was that about-to-be-in-motion appearance even before starting to move. These 8 women aroused no expectation. And, once in motion they didn't call to life this work's delicious tension between freedom and control.

The dancers in the three leading roles gave a better account of the lean choreography's riches. Nikolaj Hübbe, as the cast's sole male, does no substantial solo dancing. His partnering, though, conveyed the feeling of how a danseur moves. There was gallantry in the way he offered his lady support— lifting, leading or launching her and then allowing her to skim freely. Hübbe's reverence was musical and meaningful, there was a spring to his step and a stability too. Yvonne Borree, dancing as "first violin", molded her adagio passages in a pleasingly mellow way and, modestly, rose to the challenge of Pascale van Kipnis' bright "second violin". Borree had moments on Thursday when she seemed tight around the shoulders and set her lips tensely; Van Kipnis' shine might be more effective if it were less uniform. The music was conducted at a fast clip by NYCB's Hugo Fiorato, with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra's Oleg Rylatko and Eric Lee as solo violinists.

What used to be Ballet Imperial has changed over the years, and history must thank or blame Balanchine who made most of the changes or, at least, instigated them. There used to be a conversation between the ballet's ballerina/czarina and the danseur/prince who comes to her court. It was in pantomime, and this passage happened as a surprise in a work that, overall, had only dramatic indications but no other specific inicident. The pantomime was replaced by a danced duo in 1950. Still later, although the mime was not restored, additional indications gave the entire work a more consistent mood. Another sort of change, though, happened. I still find it drastic—replacement of the women's costuming, which had been the steadfast tutu, by flimsy, loose shifts. The current ones, by Gary Lisz, are in barely distinguishable pastels—pink, yellow, blue, lavender and what not. The choreography, though, is based on the very principles of symmetry, clarity and assurance that prompted the evolution of the short, imperturbable tutu. No matter how brilliant the cast, these costumes disfigure the dancing for me.

Miranda Weese and Charles Askegard were Thursday's leads. Her taqueté in the demanding czarina role was deft, admirably so. That her line isn't ample bothered me at first. Askegard was very much a Yankee at the imperial court. Ashley Bouder, as the second ballerina—perhaps the czarina's little sister—and her two swains, Seth Orza and Sean Suozzi, burst onto the scene like a trio of fighter planes for a display. On the ground, though, Bouder can be blunt. Maurice Kaplow conducted, with Susan Walters as the solo pianist.

Prodigal Son, Program #2's midpiece, has an earthy literary lineage—Kochno going back to basics in the footsteps of Pushkin and the Bible. Pictorial values are important, too. There are Rouault's actual sets with strokes of black paint imitating the metal skeletons of stained glass windows (the sets need other frames on stage than the black curtaining that seems to have become standard). There are the apt costumes. Balanchine, it seems, was also thinking of Russian icons. A Renaissance canvas of the becloaked Father lifting the returned Prodigal into his arms prompted the moment of final resolution. These are precedents for the choreography as much as Prokofiev's music. Prodigal Son emerged expressionist and constructivist. Balanchine built it, like Fokine did Petrouchka, with ingredients from character dance, ballet and human behavior. Today it looks bold, in 1929 it should have bowled people over.

Different ways of performing the crucial title role are valid. Damian Woetzel, on Thursday, was direct in his anger, lust, victimization and contrition. He expressed one emotion at a time simply, powerfully. There wasn't even a hint of sentimentality in his homecoming. Woetzel's dancing, needless to say, was strong. The ballet took shape as a portrait of the Prodigal, with everyone else there just to define his features. That singular focus was effective. It gave the parable punch.

As the Siren, it was Maria Kowroski of the splendid, long body opposite Woetzel. The role's dancing and acrobatics come to her easily, but there were times when her characterization vanished. The male corps took to the grotesque behavior of the Prodigal's Drinking Companions with gusto, while Antonio Carmena and Kyle Froman showed clearly the servants' slippage. These two men start out no wiser than their prodigal master but turn into predators. Kaplow conducted vigorously.

This NYCB triple bill was well chosen in significant ways—musically, visually, temperamentally. Program building in ballet everywhere is a virtue that's becoming harder to find each season.

Other NYCB in DC reviews:
Opening night triple bill, March 3, 2004, by Alexandra Tomalonis

Jewels, March 5, 2004, by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Great American Dancer, March 6 (matinee) by Alexandra Tomalonis
NYCB in DC; Last Look and Look Back, March 7 (matinee and evening) by George Jackson

To read our coverage of the New York Season, click here; you'll be taken to the last review in the series, with links at the bottom of the page to the other reviews.

To read a series of articles by Leigh Witchel on the George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project sessions, in which the creators of many of Balanchine's leading roles coach young dancers in those roles, click here.

Photos, by Paul Kolnik:
First:  Yvonne Borree, Nikolaj Hubbe and the corps de ballet in Concerto Barocco.
Second:  Miranda Weese in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.
Third: Damian Woetzel in The Prodigal Son.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 4, 2004

copyright © 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on March 1, 2004