writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A few thoughts on seeing the New York City Ballet at Kennedy Center after 17 years

New York City Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
March 2004

by Sali Ann Kriegsman
copyright © 2004 by Sali Ann Kriegsman
published 15 March 2004

Were they always so young? Yes, of course they were. It is I who am older now—the distance between us has grown and not only in age. Perhaps only half a dozen of the dancers who’ve come to Washington danced on the Opera House stage in 1987. Most of the corps were barely born the last time the company was here. Of the principals still dancing, I shall never forget Darci Kistler’s debut in Swan Lake at 16—and Peter Boal’s as Oberon. Young gods and goddesses brimming with promise.

First Impression: The corps is desultory and rag-tag—much as it was in the 60's and early 70's (when Balanchine was watching). An acquaintance told me she’d been watching the company since the 60's in New York and grudgingly agreed they’d often looked untidy then. But then they’d pulled themselves together and now it’s come apart again. In her mind she could account for this because “it’s so American, each dancer must be an individual. It’s not the Kirov.” But something is different (and less interesting she implied)) about these young dancers. A lack of spirit, of excitement. Something’s lacking...

How could it not be a different experience for them? In Balanchine's day, they danced wiith him watching from the wings, waiting for the possibility he would notice them, say something they’d be able to live on for weeks, years after, glom onto them and change the arc of their careers, their lives. And there was the everyday gift of something made on and for them, something new and meaty they’d dance for an audience as eager as they were to see Balanchine’s next creation.

Today’s dancers, thrilled though they may be to have been picked out of the hundreds who try, live in a far different, more complex world of overabundant excitement and choice. The New York City Ballet is no longer the epicenter of an American century of innovation—no longer what even the most devoted audience members regard as the place to see the next new masterpiece, the next wonder.

Audiences and dance-goers in Washington have suffered a long absence of New York City Ballet and we came to it hungry and nervous. We have not been unaware of the carping and kvetching that, with some notable exceptions, have peppered the print and web media. Peter Martins was granted a very brief honeymoon but has long been fair game for all comers. Carbolic diatribes have poured forth about his casting policies, his allotment of adequate rehearsal time, his inattention to the Balanchine repertory, his choice of choreographers to make new works, the paucity of feeling and substance in his own ballets, his promiscuous commissioning policies and practices (deemed by some to be driven by funder influences in the case of the Diamond Project), his shunning of esteemed Balanchine dancer-artists-artistic directors such as Farrell and Villella, d’Amboise and Verdy among many who could coach and teach.

For a long while it seemed that many of those who were watching the company nightly in New York seemed unwilling to reconcile themselves to Balanchine’s death. It was so close and personal. Many critics had come of age during the brilliance of Balanchine’s and the company’s glory years. He was, in a way, our muse.

His death was an immense loss to be sure. Who knows what more he would have given us had he worked, say, as long as Graham did, and Cunningham is doing, into his 80's and beyond? (It is also possible he might not have had much more to give—we will never know that either.)

With the inevitable erosion of time, there is the impossibility—and the undesirability–of keeping the dancing the same as it was (as if there ever was a static “was”) and no one has offered a viable remedy.

Replace Peter Martins? Well, that begs the question—who will take the reins? Farrell’s name comes up in reverential tones. She is a consummate artist and coach, but her ability to direct a company—and not just any company but the NYCB–with all that entails (even, as some suggest, splitting the responsibilities so she does not have to manage but only take charge of the Balanchine rep)—is, as yet, untested. The group she directs at the Kennedy Center is essentially a motley pick-up troupe.

Her track record with her own small group of dancers (a company only in the sense that it has a brief seasonal life) is not entirely persuasive. Due perhaps to a lack of financial resources and an inability to offer her dancers steady work, she has not been able to enlist first-rate dancers. She deserves better. Surely there must be dancers out there who would jump at the opportunity. The performances I’ve seen have had their moments of keen understanding but have often been under-performed and have had the air of school recitals–granted very fine school recitals at that. And one doesn’t feel assured about her knowledge and ideas about commissioning work from living choreographers on the basis of the one modern work she commissioned last season.

Others among Balanchine’s progeny who have proven themselves leaders and institution builders—Villella, Tomasson, Stowell and Russell among them—might not want at this point in their lives and careers to dive into such churning waters. Each has built a vibrant company with a distinctive profile, and if they do not “own” Balanchine’s work in the same way that NYCB does—and I mean this not literally but metaphorically—they treat them with enormous care, respect and intelligence.

But look at how many Balanchine ballets are in the repertories of even these companies. More than a half-dozen, two dozen in any one season? Now consult the NYCB calendar, and count the number of Balanchine ballets, Robbins ballets, Martins’ own works (after all he is ballet master), resident choreographer’s works and commissions of others in a single season. And then consider how many weeks of performing, how many seats in the theater, etc.

It’s the largest ballet company in the world—not necessarily in numbers of dancers (which have shrunk from 100 to about 85)—but in numbers of performances, ballets and weeks. The ballet master of this company faces a task far greater than any other in trying to preserve and pass along a huge museum of works while also nurturing the development of new work.

To be sure, the Royal Danish Ballet, by comparison, has a similar challenge: keeping Bournonville’s works (few in number of course compared with Balanchine’s) as a living museum (and doing a very patchy job of it by many accounts) and continuing to challenge the dancers with new works.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. For those of us who only get to see City Ballet at the State Theater once or twice a year, what we saw at Kennedy Center to my mind showed, yes, a definite decline in what I would call for lack of a better word spirit and spirituality, but I saw some wonderful, inspirited dancing from Hübbe (Barocco), Ansanelli (Apollo, Rubies), Boal (Apollo), Woetzel (Rubies, Prodigal), Bouder (Apollo, Tschaikovsky Concerto #2), and Weese (Emeralds). And the ballets “stood up” (to use Washington’s muscular Pentagon parlance).

The dancers came here without break after their eight-week Winter repertory season (7 performances a week) of 19 ballets; they will have a brief respite before rehearsals for their Spring season of 9 weeks, 63 performances of (if I count correctly) 72 ballets. Add to this a few repertory performances pre-Nutcracker in the Fall, Saratoga in August, Orange County, Tokyo, and now KenCenter.

Admittedly, this is the Balanchine 100th celebration–and a more densely packed number of ballets than usual; still, there is no other company that comes anywhere close to the volume of performances that NYCB attempts to offer the public.

In a richly informative “performance-Plus” lecture by historian/critic Lynn Garafola (held in the most unsuitable Atrium space at Kennedy Center at an awkward hour of six PM on a Monday non-performance evening), she was asked repeatedly what she thought accounted for the reported downturn in the company’s artistic fortunes. At one point (as diplomatic as she was), she suggested that when Petipa died a committee was formed to determine which ballets must survive and which could be allowed—even encouraged—to languish and this, she said, has never been done at NYCB. A hierarchy needs to be established, she suggested, with those absolute masterpieces given priority in terms of their living preservation; others of second and third rank given lesser priority in rehearsals and performances, and still others dropped altogether.

A provocative suggestion, and one that gave me pause. Who would make these determinations? She added that Balanchine let some ballets die, others (for example Cotillon) he may have abandoned because he reworked some of the ideas (in La Valse).

I’d be curious to hear a lively discussion of the pros and cons of such a strategy, though I would have grave reservations about implementing it. No one wants to revive PAMTGG—at least I hope not, having seen it—and this 100th Birthday celebration which has its perils (too many ballets being pushed through rehearsal without adequate preparation time) at least gives audiences and artists a chance to see and assess works that might not make it into such a pantheon.

But back to the problems that beset NYCB twenty-plus years after Balanchine’s death. Watching the company perform here, I was struck with how authoritatively they still dance Balanchine, flaws and weaknesses and all. They truly do own it, are born to it, raised with it, believe in it. It is their first language. Yet something surely needs to be done to repair what has been eroded, whatever shape it may take.

I first saw City Ballet at City Center (I remember the thrill of LeClerq’s legs in Faun, Tallchief’s incandescent Firebird, the burnished glow of Liebeslieder; d’Amboise’s all-American brio in Filling Station, the edginess of Robbins’ Age of Anxiety). I have the same feelings toward City Ballet as I do about my home town. It arouses deep passions. It is the most exciting, irritating, glorious place on earth. I can criticize it ‘til the cows come home—as a native-born New Yorker that’s my birthright, my duty. But I love it, warts and all. It’s still the dawg.

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
The Great American Dancer, March 6 (matinee) by Alexandra Tomalonis
NYCB in DC - Last Day & Look Back , March 7, 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:  Miranda Weese and Stephen Hanna in Emeralds
Second: Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette in Emeralds
Third: Alxandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel in Rubies.
Fourth: Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal in Diamonds.

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

copyright © 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on March 1, 2004