writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Americans We

Fancy Free/Barber Violin Concerto/Stars & Stripes
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 26, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published May 31, 2004

Apple pie isn’t the only flavor Americana comes in. As the American Festival continued at New York City Ballet, we saw a range of emotions and perspectives of our country from native and foreign eyes.

Fancy Free isn’t just about America; it’s about New York City. The ballet was created for Ballet Theatre in 1944 and this week was a perfect time to perform it; life imitated art on the streets outside. This week is Fleet Week; one sees young sailors in groups of three or four walking around midtown, looking up and pointing. Jerome Robbins was a native New Yorker, the son of a Polish immigrant corset manufacturer. Fancy Free was his first ballet. With music by then-unknown Leonard Bernstein that incorporates the Blues and a cast of sailors and shopgirls, Robbins used dance to put Americans onstage.

In Stars and Stripes, Balanchine looks at our country through the eyes of an adopted son and makes classical dance American. It’s interesting to read Lincoln Kirstein’s comments on the ballet in Thirty Years/The New York City Ballet. He described Dag Hammarskjöld’s reaction to the ballet. To Americans looking at the ballet from within, it seems close to happy parody; a good-natured look at cheerleaders with bobby socks, hometown parades and fireworks on the fourth of July. To the Secretary-General of the United Nations, “such a display approached a call to arms, a shameless exhibition of chauvinist sentiment when Korea still spelled war, and this planet could do with a lot less flag-waving.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Damien Woetzel was the link in casting, performing the third sailor (in NYCB’s version the third sailor also dances the pas de deux) and the Liberty Bell pas de deux with Wendy Whelan. He’s at his best in these ballets, a loose and happy showoff and an American guy. The other sailors in Fancy Free, Seth Orza and Tom Gold and the young women, Amanda Edge and Jenifer Ringer, have all done the ballet before (some of them quite often) and the experience shows. It was a comfortable and enjoyable performance. I only wish Ringer looked like she believed in Woetzel’s honorable intentions a little less as they sat on the bar stool and he showed off telling war stories.

The soloists also all did well in Stars. The first campaign lets Jennifer Tinsley project and Dana Hanson did a lovely job in the second. She was absent from the stage for a while and seems even more musical and expansive than before. It’s great to see Whelan in a role where she allows herself to have fun; she’s far more demanding of herself than we ever could be.

I wonder what Hammarskjöld would have made of Adam Hendrickson’s performance in the third campaign. Hendrickson slashed through the steps, nailed them to a post and left them there. Never smiling once, he was Mars on stage. It could have been the individual performance or it could be the current climate, but it seemed close to political commentary in an impressive but strange debut.

Peter Martins’ contribution, Barber Violin Concerto, also examines American music and the American spirit, but on a more intimate scale. Made in 1988 for the American Music Festival, it was a novelty that brought Kate Johnson and David Parsons from the Paul Taylor Dance Company as guests to the State Theater.

The piece set Merrill Ashley and Adam Lüders as the “ballet” couple against Parsons and Johnson as the “modern” one; the novelty was that the second and third movements were pas de deux with the couples jumbled. It’s one of the first dances Martins ever choreographed for Ashley (whom he seemed to avoid) and he threw her a curveball. Ashley was a virtuoso ballet technician; there was an amiable humor as she gamely and earnestly attempted the “modern” poses in her pas de deux. Worlds collided but didn’t quite meet onstage; I wonder if watching it was at all similar to the experience of watching Margot Fonteyn guest with Martha Graham’s company. The ballet is much less jovial with Darci Kistler and Jock Soto in Ashley’s and Parsons’ roles.

Soto isn’t a modern dancer, he’s a ballet dancer forced into a modern role. Martins has always been a skilled imitator, but his “modern” choreography looked as if it involved a good deal of collaboration from Parsons or Johnson and feels like mimicry. He has the male dancer in a constant crouch as if he were a supplicant to the woman. The echoes of the idea of a noble savage were there since its creation but the messages are even more uncomfortably mixed now. Toward the end of the first pas de deux, Ashley’s hair got released from its bun and the ballet seemed to say, “See? She’s loosening up!” But Ashley could have done with a bit of loosening up; Kistler has a completely different personality. With Kistler and Soto, you can’t help but notice that he’s the one forced into a permanent contraction.

Ashley Bouder made her debut in Johnson’s role and Ask la Cour made an unscheduled debut a day early when he stepped in for Charles Askegard. He looked as if he were taken a bit unawares. Bouder also changes the shape and balance of her role completely. She may be quick and small, and she’s a tomboy like Johnson (Bouder reminds me here of Peppermint Patty) but like Hendrickson in Stars, she’s no cutiepie. What was a comic pas de deux of a tall melodramatic man plagued by a gnat of a woman when Lüders and Johnson danced it looks almost vicious when la Cour swats Bouder away.

Barber is durably made and has persisted in repertory, but perhaps it should have remained a pièce d’occasion; I don’t think its original intent survived the deletion of modern dancers or the cast changes it’s had among its ballet dancers.

First:  Finale of Stars and Stripes. Wendy Whelan, Damian Woetzel; Ashley Bouder, Tom Gold, Ellen Bar. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Second:  Barber Violin Concerto. Ashley Bouder and Jock Soto.  Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Volume 2, Number 20
May 31, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel



Back issues

Index of Reviews
Back Issues
About Us
Contact Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Gia Kourlas
Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan


The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!

DanceView is published quarterly (January, April, July and October) in Washington, D.C. Address all correspondence to:

P.O. Box 34435
Washington, D.C. 20043
last updated on May 24, 2004