writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Romantics Sour and Sweet

La Source/Shambards/La Sonnambula
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 21 and 23, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published 24 May 2004

Programming Christopher Wheeldon’s Shambards with La Sonnambula makes for a corpse-laden evening; both ballets kill off their protagonists. But I don’t think Wheeldon is taking a leaf from Balanchine’s book.

Wheeldon has always been a magpie choreographer; he’s gathered the shiny bits from many great dancemakers to feather his own nest. It’s been an intelligent path in the synthesis of his artistic voice. Mercurial Manoeuvres had reminders of Ashton in it; with Polyphonia and the Ligeti series Wheeldon attacked the summit of Balanchinian modernism. In Variations Serieuses he tackled narrative and comedy similarly to Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance. But Wheeldon has talked in interviews of being most influenced by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. The wrenching violence of MacMillan’s work is in Shambards, but its biggest influences are closest to home.

By the late 1980s and the American Music Festival, Peter Martins was starting to speak with his own voice as a choreographer. Lyricism was not natural to him; his choreographic temperament gravitated to more disturbing places. There were inklings of this as early as Calcium Light Night (1978) and Poulenc Sonata (1985); he choreographed Tanzspiel (1988) for the festival and there were echoes of the “preppy killer” Robert Chambers and Jennifer Levin in the death of the heroine in the ballet. One of his most successful works, Fearful Symmetries (1990), combines juggernaut propulsion with a violent pas de deux for one of its leading couples. As recently as in Guide to Strange Places (2003), Jock Soto tied Darci Kistler’s dress round her neck to become a cape and the possibility of asphyxiation simmered underneath.

Shambards opens with the corps arrayed in a striking tableau in chocolately dark décor (designed by Michael Nagle and supervised and lit by Mark Stanley). They move with the monolithic propulsion of Fearful Symmetries; Wheeldon uses them as couples in unison or in phalanxes by sex. With the interesting score commissioned by the company from James MacMillan, Wheeldon is looking at Scottish folk dance through a dark tunnel.

Ballet is also a magpie; since its origin it’s taken the best from vernacular dance to grow. One of the biggest dangers to ballet is that folk and social dancing is dying out, and contemporary vernacular forms mesh awkwardly with ballet when incorporated into it. Current social dancing with its lack of partnering and minimal freeform vocabulary has little to offer to ballet, but without current influences, ballet risks becoming as dead a language as Latin.

Wheeldon adopts the upraised arms and some of the patternings of Scottish dance in a very interesting manner that feeds the ballet vocabulary of the corps. But he’s doing something else with his solo couples, Carla Körbes and Ask la Cour in “The Beginning” and Miranda Weese and Jock Soto in “The Middle”. Their vocabulary isn’t folk influenced classicism. It’s contemporary ballet, the same hybrid of ballet and modern dance that Martins is obsessed with.

For Weese and Soto, Wheeldon has made a striking and dark central pas de deux that culminates with Weese being thrown about much in the way Heather Watts was in her pas de deux in Fearful Symmetries. Weese has even performed this pas de deux with Soto. It’s a disturbing reference. Both dancers gave their absolute all to it and show us the flow of the movement like a rough, murky stream. But Wheeldon exploits them violently and against character. He’s taken one of the strongest and most independent women in the company and one of the most caring partners and turned them into victim and murderer. It’s as if the ballet were a Thomas Hardy novel set on pointe.

At the beginning of the final movement Wheeldon challenges Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin de Luz in an athletic duet and partners them with Megan Fairchild and Ashley Bouder. Bouder, bless her heart, completely ignores or doesn’t see the darkness of the ballet and dances it as if she were leading the first movement of Scotch Symphony. Unfortunately, la Cour and Körbes are underused, posing and stretching as the corps marches past.

Wheeldon has been on a quest to explore ballet for years. He’s also a man who has had phenomenal commercial success and he knows his market and what sells—the contemporary harshness and vocabulary of Polyphonia. He’s one of the few choreographers, maybe even the only one, that this constricted and retrenching market will even permit to work classically. We need him to keep working in the form, but at the moment we need him more than he needs us. Who knows if the future will take him further away from classical ballet towards a violent and self-referential cul-de-sac of contemporary ballet.

La Sonnambula has had numerous revisions since its 1946 premiere, but from what we see Balanchine doesn’t try and turn ballet vocabulary on its head while he’s examining its conventions. He picks and chooses his battles; The Four Temperaments was presented a few months later and he was able to do just that. The questioning in La Sonnambula comes from the libretto and Vittorio Rieti’s disorienting reorchestrations of Bellini’s operatic themes. Balanchine takes the genre of Romantic ballet and dissects it, and though the hero doesn’t get up off the operating table, the genre survives.

Nikolaj Hübbe danced the Poet at both performances of La Sonnambula this week; his Sleepwalker changed (first Yvonne Borree, then Wendy Whelan) but his Coquette and Baron, Sofiane Sylve and James Fayette, did not. Hübbe, Sylve and Fayette formed a troika to support a very interesting reading of the ballet.

Hübbe is a worldly and dissolute poet. He comes to the party at the Baron’s home and the first thing he does is set his sights on the Coquette. But this isn’t love; it’s a game of seduction. He may be a poet, but he lives in the realm of the senses. Hübbe’s characterization comes from his pelvis; he presses it into the Coquette when he attempts his first kiss and he runs out of the tower grabbing it when he’s been stabbed.

Fayette is an elegant and vicious Baron, delicately pomaded and overdressed in velvet and gold braid like a degenerate Liberace. Sylve was an oddly cringing Coquette and I didn’t understand why until I saw her with Fayette as he grabbed and shook or dragged her. She’s terrified of him and betrays the Poet less out of revenge than in the hope of gaining back favor with the Baron in some sort of fatal codependency.

The Sleepwalker arrives from the tower and the Poet is amazed by her. But Hübbe takes this a step further. He realizes that she can’t see him and ignores him even as he tries to block her. In some way her soul is unreachable but her body is ultimately malleable and he experiments with this, moving her arms then her legs. But if his passion for the Coquette is sensual, it’s the same for the Sleepwalker. When Hübbe led her back to the tower, it was the first time I ever thought he was trying to have sex with her; a sort of necrophilia or worse, date rape. The tragedy of his poet is his denial of the spirit, and perhaps his poetic gifts in favor of the flesh. He can’t tell the difference between the two sorts of love. If there’s a lesson learned from Romantic ballet, it’s that the intersection of the supernatural and the mortal have fatal consequences for the mortal. At the end of his pas de deux with the Sleepwalker, he kisses her full on the mouth, and it’s the kiss of death. The Sleepwalker seems to claim his body almost in spite of him. Perhaps fitting in its coupling with Shambards, it’s a sour, dark reading of the ballet. But it uses everything Hübbe has to offer and it works with the help of Sylve and Fayette supporting an atmosphere of curdled morality. A younger man couldn’t pull this off; it requires a Poet who’s wasted many years traveling the wrong roads. As the Sleepwalker, neither Borree nor Whelan are the sort of dancer who naturally dances in her own enchanted world, but Whelan fights harder for the part. She does very well; better than can be asked in a role she’s not a natural choice for.

Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied took the leads in La Source on Friday. It’s an impressive improvement for Millepied; he’s always had the technique for the role, but he’s looked half-hearted in this before. He’s found a way lighten his temper and buy into the straightforward classicism of the ballet. It’s a model ballerina role for Ringer. La Source is a pastiche of 19th century opera divertissements and it’s ballet presented straight-up, no chaser. Ringer has the right uncomplicated temperament and the right physicality, plastic and moderate with an expressive torso and back.

Bouder triumphed in the second ballerina role all week. It was her first major role in the company and she’s refined and shaded her performance since then, but it still has the vivacity of a hungry kid eager to show off when she soars in and kicks her head in the first leap. Her prospects and horizons are expanding by the day, what to do with her next? If I were king, I’d be adding coloring and shading. She had a major success with The Firebird in Maria Tallchief’s role. Tallchief isn’t a bad model for her to follow for a bit. Toss her the lead in Scotch Symphony to expand her adagio range and I’d even give her Eurydice (on a Saturday matinee) as a major dramatic challenge. She’s in no danger of becoming any other dancer no matter whom she imitates.

Weese made her debut in La Source this week as well as Square Dance. Square Dance is better suited to her; she sparkles when she is given bright tempos and sharp footwork. She danced the Sunday performance with Peter Boal, who’s been doing this ballet since early on in his career. Weese is a good partner for the way he dances the ballet now. Boal isn’t a kid anymore and Weese never seemed like a kid even when she was one. They have fine rapport and they perform a Square Dance that’s lucid but not callow. Weese brings an adult sophistication to her solo and the weight Boal gives to his turns it into the soliloquy of a philosopher-prince on the duties of state.

First:  Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe in La Sonnambula. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Second:  Jenifer Ringer and Nikolaj Hübbe in La Sonnambula. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Volume 2, Number 19
May 24, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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last updated on May 24, 2004