writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Robbins-Bernstein-Martins: America

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
Who Cares?/Chichester Psalms/Eros Piano/West Side Story Suite
June 4, 2004
Fancy Free/Chichester Psalms/Eros Piano/Western Symphony
June 6, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published June 8, 2004

It wouldn’t have been an American Festival at New York City Ballet without Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. Robbins and Bernstein had a symbiotic relationship; Fancy Free was their first collaboration, West Side Story perhaps their most beloved. West Side Story went through a reverse journey from Fancy Free; instead of being expanded into a full length musical the dances were extracted into a suite.

Beloved as it is, West Side Story isn’t a perfect fit for NYCB’s dancers. They aren’t Broadway dancers; their ability to act, sing or work with accents is instinctive, not trained. But they can dance and they seem to love the chance to do something different. We’re seeing Robbins and Bernstein’s work pulled apart so we get the best dances, but we have to fill in the gaps in the story. It works because the story is so familiar. Even excerpted, the first thing that hits you about both Robbins’ and Bernstein’s contributions to American popular theater are both men’s incredible craftsmanship. Bernstein provides a complex and listenable mix of the rhythms and sounds of the street in the late 1950s, Robbins provides dances to match with pacing as taut as a violin string.

A few dancers are in both West Side Story and Fancy Free; Benjamin Millepied was Tony in the former and also substituted for Damian Woetzel (who was ill) as the third sailor in the latter. Millepied is better cast as the third sailor than as Tony; he overdances “Something’s Coming.” He’s a marvelous technician, but this is Broadway even if done by ballet dancers.

Thrown in as the ringleader into a cast with Seth Orza and Tom Gold, Millepied’s sweet looks and narrow shoulders mean that you look at the three of them on stage and expect Orza to be leading the pack. Millepied has to work that much harder to project authority; he dances beautifully again, but punches the rhythm of his rumba variation, smashing his hands together to clap. Orza is an interesting dancer, powerful and gentle at the same time. It would be nice to see him get a crack at the third sailor; it would also be nice to see James Fayette cast as either the second or third sailor. He’s another American guy. Both Jenifer Ringer and Amanda Edge are more convincing here than as Anita and Rosalia in West Side. It isn’t for lack of trying; they’re both working without the extra help they’d get to pull off the part on Broadway. In Fancy Free, they handle the balance of the piece well. They look like they enjoy just a little the men’s dilemma of not having enough dames to go around.

Peter Martins’ new Chichester Psalms is also set to Bernstein’s music; a setting of Hebrew psalms written for the Chichester Cathedral choral festival. In 1968, Balanchine created Requiem Canticles, performed only once, to honor Martin Luther King after his assassination. Photographs of the older work show the dancers dressed in white robes and carrying candelabras; the dancers are arranged in a similar semi-circular architecture in Chichester Psalms.

The ballet is an indirect plea for peace (from Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage?”) with echoes of the conflicts in the Middle East. The costume designer, Catherine Barinas, dresses the female dancers in white and the men in black and both sexes in long skirts. It’s effective architecturally; they echo the robes of the chorus arrayed above them and turn the whole setting into a Romanesque forum made of human columns. Martins uses this to create some striking tableaus with simple means. Like some other examples of modern religiosity, it’s impressive from its sheer mass but at the same time feels a bit vulgar.

Other divisions are as black and white as the costumes. The Men are from Mars, butting like rams in the warlike second psalm, while the Women are from Venus. Martins is following the music literally; the baritones and tenors are singing Psalm 2 while the sopranos and altos are singing "The Lord is my shepherd." Unfortunately, events have overtaken this conceit. The equal opportunity brutality at Abu Ghraib will probably lay that stereotype to rest for at least a generation.

There is comparatively little dancing for either the corps or the lead couple in Chichester, though it’s surprising how much dance Martins manages to wrest uncomfortably out of the music. Carla Körbes makes something of the female role through her luscious physical presence. All she has to do is strike an arabesquehonestly, all she has to do is stand on stage and there’s a story. In the other cast, Dena Abergel controls her emotional effects with more maturity than Körbes, but has more trouble controlling her physical effects. The leading male role (Amar Ramasar or Henry Seth) is mostly partnering.

Martins is essentially a musical choreographer who works structurally. It’s his strength but also a stumbling block when he works with music that is not meant to be danced. One other approach would be to work theatrically: thinking of the effects one wishes to produce as having their own structure independent of the music. From the looks of Chichester, Martins wanted to create a theatrical work, but approached it structurally. He’s trying to make a ritual pageant, but with outsize effects and his methods are forcing him into small boxes. The music itself is another problem. There’s little of the awe and rigor of the Old Testament in it. It runs dangerously towards the treacly; when the chorus launches into a soothingly and cloyingly pious vocalise during psalm 131, you feel less like you’re in a tabernacle and a more like you’re in Disney’s Hall of the Presidents.

The pairing of Chichester Psalms with West Side Story was more thought-provoking to me than Martins’ coupling of the work with his other premiere, Eros Piano. Both ballets to scores by Bernstein dream of an end to conflict, but Robbins takes the universal and makes it personal. Martins and Robbins both offer a vision of resolution; Martins has his tabernacle and Robbins gives us the ballet before “Somewhere” that seems to take place midair in a brilliant sky. Interesting that Robbins’ paean for peace, no matter how Broadway, feels more heartfelt in its simplicity.

Martins has choreographed trios throughout his career, and for Martins, a trio is rarely a pas de trois. It’s alternating pas de deux; there’s always a choice to be made. In 1985, Poulenc Sonata threw Kyra Nichols between Christopher d’Amboise and Alexandre Proia; in 1999 Walton Cello Concerto had Miranda Weese and Alexandra Ansanelli tugging at Damian Woetzel. Eros Piano, the companion premiere to Chichester, also has Ansanelli in it, along with Nikolaj Hübbe and Ashley Laracey substituting for Janie Taylor.

The ballet opens with Laracey, Hübbe and Ansanelli in separate, emotionally ambivalent solos on the dimly lit stage. Each has his or her own path lit across a different area of the stage. Parallel lines, parallel lives. But then Laracey and Hübbe meet and after that Ansanelli and Hübbe have their own encounter. There are hints of coupling and abandonment and at the apex of the work, both women dance with Hübbe. But at the end, (as it was in both Walton and Poulenc), the protagonist is alone on stage, faced with a choice that he or she cannot make.

Eros Piano is a great break for Laracey, and she handled herself quite well in the intricate partnering with Hübbe. She’s got poise and solid technique to support it. Hübbe had untamed energy in the role and flickered from performance to performance. At Sunday’s matinee he came on like gangbusters, until one thought, “He’s trying to make something out of it.” The one thing Hübbe doesn’t need to do to make something out of a role is to try to make something out of a role. He couldn't be boring onstage if he tried. Ansanelli is also working to make something of the role, but she does it physically: faster turns and bigger arabesques. When one thinks back to her role as a coltish but very young girl in Walton, the new trio is interesting if only as a yardstick of how much Ansanelli has developed in half a decade. Martins looks like he’s trying to develop Ansanelli, not exploit her.

Ansanelli reappeared for the second movement of Western Symphony with Robert Tewsley. She’s riotously funny; if it’s imaginable she’s equal parts ballerina, voodoo kewpie doll and Colleen the Vegetable Child. She’s figured out how to move from tenderness or exuberance to a disturbing unearthliness with a grin or the widening of her huge eyes. She’s also the first dancer I’ve known to get a round of applause when she gets “stuck” at the climactic lift. Tewsley looks delightful with her; Balanchine has him beseech his chorine attendants as if they were swans or wilis and his princely nature links the part back to Albrecht or Siegfried. Ansanelli picks up on this all as well. The humor isn’t just mugging; they’ve taken a Grand Pas de Deux and sent it creaking wheezily into the Last Chance Saloon.

Sofiane Sylve comes out in the final movement as The Girl in That Hat and does fouettés. It’s her specialty. Oh, those turns. Perfectly placed easy fouettés, done on a dime. She does them also in the “turning” variation in Who Cares? and if eggs and a bowl had been handy, she would have whipped up a quick soufflé as well. She is sometimes pale and washed out in performance— literally; a little more rouge would help under all those lights—but in Western, she inspired Hübbe and coaxed his best sharp dancing out of him.

Miranda Weese went in for Borree in Who Cares? Friday night and did a marvelous job. She gave the blues-tinged pas de deux to “The Man I Love” the authority and experience it needs. Her timing has always been her wit, but she softened the edges in "Fascinatin’ Rhythm" from the mischievous performances she used to give in this part.

Ashley Bouder recently added the “jumping” variation to her repertory. That’s her specialty. The emotions in her pas de deux with Nilas Martins were in the big, heroic shapes she produced. She also had a small supporting role in West Side Story that she picked up due to Pascale van Kipnis’ absence, the unnamed girlfriend to Hübbe’s Riff. Bouder is completely believable as a tough girl and totally American. What would she be like as the girl with the red purse in Fancy Free?

Who Cares? lets us take a good look at the corps as well. The five demi-soloist men are all developing, particularly Jonathan Stafford and Andrew Veyette. Veyette still attacks movement hard, but his neck and shoulders have released and his carriage has opened. Edge danced the central role among the demi-soloists. In her pas de deux with Darius Crenshaw to ‘ ‘S Wonderful’ she turned a series of pirouettes across the stage into a “bit”. Each time she was surprised to see Crenshaw marching under her arm. Vivid acting, but it would have been funnier if her reaction had evolved rather than being the same one all four times. Faye Arthurs and Seth did something similar in ‘Do do do’ and turned their choreography into a game of footsie, but they gave it a build and punctuation with a shrug at the end. And from the corps de ballet, Jessica Flynn and Alina Dronova got to step forward for a moment to perform a charming little variationette.

Photos, all by Paul Kolnik:
First:  James Fayette, Arch Higgins and Amar Ramasar in West Side Story Street.
Second:  Jenifer Ringer in West Side Story Street.
Third: Miranda Weese in Who Cares?

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 21
June 8, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel
revised June 20, 2004



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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

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last updated on June 8, 2004