writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

The Great American Dancer

Concerto Barocco, Prodigal Son, Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
New York City Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
March 6 (matinee), 2004

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2004 by Alexandra Tomalonis
published 7 March 2004

Who are the great American male dancers? And before you say “Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly,” add the word “ballet” to that sentence. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Jacques d’Amboise and Edward Villella and…..some might add Fernando Bujones with an honorable mention for the late Patrick Bissell, surely a great American dancer in the making. The photo at left doesn't reflect the gender ratios of American ballet, but might be an allegory of the place of men in that world: the ballerina held aloft by a group of men, others, perhaps challengers, felled at her feet, and one young man struggling to rise.

There have been dozens of very able men since d’Amboise and Villella left the stage (I caught the very end of both men’s careers) but they weren’t the first of a line of boy prince-athletes mass produced by the School of American Ballet, as might have been expected. In the 1970s, Balanchine began to turn to Europe, especially Denmark, for male stars. And then, at a school performance when he was 12, NYCB-watchers noticed a young boy called Peter Boal who seemed to have every gift. Breaths were held, and Boal grew up with ballet lovers waiting for his debut as eagerly as those watching a royal family that had produced 100 beautiful daughters but never a son.

Boal danced the Nutcracker Prince as a child, and joined the company the year Balanchine died. In his early career, he was often cast in demi-caractere roles, probably because he's on the short side and there’s been a short boy/tall boy approach to emploi at NYCB during Boal's time that didn't seem to take into account the fact that Boal was more suited by temperament and line to classical and lyrical parts. He’s reserved, an Apollonian not a Dionysian dancer. He also has a beautifully clear, classical technique and an acutely musical response to choreography. Lovers of classical dancing thought he was the new god; others found him bland in some roles. In the past few years he’s come into his own; not that his dancing has improved (it couldn't), but more people have begun to realize just how fine an artist he is. To Washington ballet goers, Boal isn't merely a great dancer; he's a one-man cavalry, coming twice to the rescue of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet which would otherwise have been starless those seasons. Boal's range now is enormous, and he’s convincing in roles for which he might not seem ideally suited.

He danced one of them this weekend: Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, one of the greatest men’s parts in any repertory, and it was one of the most perfectly realized and exciting performances I’ve ever seen. Boal isn’t the typical rebel; he’s bursting with dreams and curiosity, not generational discontent. He took the time to show this by going to the fence, looking out and taking a deep breath as though trying to experience life by breathing in foreign air. One glimpsed a second's sadness as he thought about the world he wasn’t allowed to see, and then a determination that he wouldn’t be stopped from seeing it. The first solo was a conversation with his father rather than a temper tantrum; his leaving home, the action of a young man who thought he was old enough to fend for himself, not the impulse of a runaway.

Boal kept the character’s dignity and naivete in every interaction, first with the goons, then with the Siren (Darci Kistler, sadly now, a pale seductress). I’ve never seen anyone make the point so clearly that the pas de deux of Prodigal and Siren was sexual initiation, and Boal did this by being almost afraid to touch her before their duet, and incapable of leaving her alone after it.

The long journey home began with the Son trying to stand, trying to keep his dignity, and crawling because that was the only way he could move. He looked and moved as though he were broken in both spirit and body, and he made every second of the final moments: the realization that he was almost home, the eagerness to reach the gate, the inability to do more than knock feebly, the enormous effort it took for him to cross the stage to his father (James Fayette).

The ballet looked refreshed, more clearly directed than it had two days before. Its structure, the 19th century device of telling a story through a series of scenes, was made a point, not something to be rushed through, but something to be exhibited, like a series of paintings in a gallery. The dance of the two servants (Adam Hendrickson and Sean Suozzi) also had a coloration I’d never seen before and reminded one that the ballet dates from 1929, when lava and flames from the Russian Revolution were still flowing around the world. This double variation is often danced as a divertissement, but Hendrickson and Suozzi made it the servants’ own dance of rebellion; there are even gestures in it from the Prodigal’s first solo. Was Balanchine, or at least that side of him that was an Orthodox traditionalist who had lived through Revolution, ringing a cautionary note, that one rebellion may be imitated, with effects that cannot be anticipated? After their dance, the two crawl under the table to watch. They’ll never belong to the strange tribe of goons, but they’ll never be servants again, either. It’s after this dance that the tide turns against the Prodigal, and he has no protection against what is to come.

Prodigal Son was one of the last works of the Ballets Russes, made in 1929, the year Diaghilev died. Seeing a work that’s more than 70 years old brought to life with such vigor is a testament to the value of repertory. Concerto Barocco is only 12 years younger than Prodigal Son, but it’s a different world, one of harmony and serenity and calm, just the sort of thing the Prodigal might have hated. Unfortunately, Barocco isn’t in as good shape as Prodigal. Balanchine gave Barocco an American accent and American energy, and both were missing Saturday afternoon. The corps was ill-matched in height and body type. Pascale van Kipnis, in the second ballerina role, is a very promising dancer who danced very well, but the Baroccos I remember from the 1970s had a corps full of van Kipnises, and the two ballerinas were mature artists. Yvonne Borree joined the company in 1988 and had a slow rise, promoted to principal in 1997, but she doesn’t have a ballerina’s aura or authority, nor, at least at this stage in her career, a strong technique. There were some beautiful moments, particularly her turns, but other steps were barely marked and perfunctorily delivered. That the pas de deux had sublime moments was due to the sensitivity and musicality of Nikolaj Hübbe, the great Danish dancer of his generation, who partnered Borree with a gentle courtliness while remaining very much his own man.

Watching Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2 one realized why Balanchine turned so often to Europe for his cavaliers. America has produced a number of fine technicians and good partners, but finding men who are suitable prince material can be difficult. Charles Askegard has the technique and partnering skills for the leading male role here, but doesn’t look quite at home in the world of Balanchine-Tchaikovsky. Miranda Weese repeated her fast, brilliant performance, with breathtaking turns and beautiful footwork. She danced as though this killer role was play for her, but she’s not merely an allegro dancer, and brought both wit and allure to the pas de deux. Teresa Reichlen, pictured at left, was more comfortable in this part than in her role in Rubies, her dancing bold and fearless.

Other NYCB in DC reviews:
Opening night triple bill, March 3, 2004, by Alexandra Tomalonis
Second program, March 4, 2004, by George Jackson

Jewels, March 5, 2004, by Alexandra Tomalonis
Last Night and Look Back, March 7, 2004, 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 ArchiveProject 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:  Peter Boal and Darci Kistler (and ensemble) in Prodigal Son.
Second: Teresa Reichlen in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 10
March 7, 2004

copyright © 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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