DanceView Times, New York edition
Free/Calcium Light Night/Sonata and Interludes/Stars and Stripes
The friend who accompanied me to this program was convinced the company had programmed Stars and Stripes to coincide with the Memorial Day weekend, and wondered whether Fancy Free was on the program to coincide with Fleet Week, during which scores of sailors on leave fill the streets of midtown Manhattan. I myself could not help recognizing the apt timing of Robbins' 1944 classic being performed just as the opening festivities for Washington's World War II memorial were taking place.
One could speculate on these presumably accidental coincidences for a program whose main raison d'être was to represent a sampling of NYCB's repertory of works set to American music, since its spring season's fifth and sixth weeks have been designated the American Festival. This has meant more programs such as this one—only one work by Balanchine—since there are a limited number of his works set to American music, and there are heaps of Robbins and Martins ballets inspired by American composers.
Fancy Free, now 60 years young, has certainly earned status as a classic. Forever fresh, engaging and sassy, it retains the youthful brio of the 25-year-old geniuses, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, who gave birth to it via long-distance correspondence. Equally timeless as the music and choreography are the snapshot-of-an-era costumes and setting; could one ever picture the first passer-by in anything other than her stylish yet sensible black and yellow ensemble? The ballet rarely, if ever, falls flat; when it truly takes flight, it's because the three sailors really come across as tight buddies who've stuck together through thick and thin and are sharing this Manhattan adventure together.
On this occasion, the sailors were an engaging lot, but not as cohesive a trio as when performed by NYCB's more experienced casts. Joaquin de Luz made his debut as the over-eager, feisty first sailor and was lively and charming, but his solo was rough. He communicated the daring and verve of this guy, but fudged the contours of the choreography in some places. Arch Higgins is perfectly cast as the gosh-gee sweet sailor, the one who's the most innocent, perhaps a bit of a hick. Always a natural in ballets that call for a jazzy or colloquial edge, he was smooth and endearing in his solo. Benjamin Millepied seems temperamentally more of a second sailor than a third—more a natural nice guy than an over-confident ladies' man. He danced his Rhumba solo well, but with a pleasant rather than a cocky manner; it could have used a more sensual edge. Millepied also added a touch that was new to me: both times the sailors raised their mugs of beer and drank. He mimed a reaction that seemed to say "wow, that stuff is strong."
The roles of the two women who join the sailors for their night on the town are terrific character roles, requiring strong personalities. In her debut as the first passer-by with the red pocketbook, Amanda Hankes avoided the trap of being too tough. She clearly delighted in the sailors' attentions, but then grew annoyed with their overly playful shenanigans. Her perfectly designed hair, and her confident yet sexy walk helped create a portrait of a smart city gal, circa 1944. As her sweeter, more romantically inclined counterpart, Rachel Rutherford was a pleasant surprise, creating a vivid portrayal. Rebecca Krohn, in a blond wig better worn for a parody skit, was almost too much the dream girl fantasy figure as she wafted by during the final minutes, but the mens' adept physical comedy as they reacted to her in spite of themselves was terrific.
Calcium Light Night—with its bare stage and suspended neon rectangle of light, and its bracingly quirky choreography—was an exclamation point of a choreographic debut for Peter Martins lo these many years ago. As an interpretation of the brief, offbeat Charles Ives pieces to which it is set, it remains an intriguing movement study. Alexandra Ansanelli made every angular movement clear and precise, but could have brought more attitude to her performance. Edward Liaang (back with NYCB after a time out exploring the worlds of Broadway and contemporary dance) mined the odd accents and deft directional changes of his deceptively casual-looking choreography.
Richard Tanner's Sonatas and Interludes, set to John Cage's meditative and oddly exotic-sounding works for prepared piano, joined the company's repertory during the 1988 American Music Festival, and its inclusion in a salute to national composers is certainly appropriate. Its also a clever companion piece for Calcium—another edgy duet in unitards, its white patriotically complementing the red and blue of the other work. But it is an overly-finicky work that lacks theatrical panache. Jock Soto, extraordinary partner though he is, is presumably cast for his ability to partner tall, pliable Maria Kowroski with ease through Tanner's extended duet, but he looked stolid and lacking in resiliency during his solo passages, and the costume did him no favors.
Hardy perennial that it is, Stars and Stripes impressed me anew, after not having seen it for several years, with the witty delight Balanchine took in Sousa's music. This performance opened vividly with Ashley Bouder dynamically leading the crisp maneuvers of the First Campaign's majorettes, with the ensemble picking up on her clarity and sharp attack. The Second Campaign was a bit listless in comparison. Ellen Bar was its unassertive leader, and the ensemble danced carelessly. The lovely moments when they seem to transform parody 19th-century French ballet dancing did not come across, and much of the choreography's wit was not mined. But the men's regiment that followed was in crackerjack form, their delicious patterns ringing out clearly behind Adam Hendrickson's virtuosic leadership.
As part of the NYCB seasons' festive series of appearances by guest artists, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Tai Jimenez and Duncan Cooper made their debuts in the lead roles of Liberty Bell and El Capitan. They brought lots of appeal and just the right amount of snap-to-it military manner, but this was not the most blazing interpretation of these bravura roles. Fortunately, they did not overdo the comic moments as some dancers do, and theirs was a very warm, spirited partnership. They were careful in the opening adagio, but began to really pick up steam in the coda. Arthur Mitchell was ushered out onstage for a bow, and looked not only as agelessly handsome as ever, but genuinely proud and moved to have his dancers performing with the company (and on the stage) where so much of his own performing career took place.