DanceView Times, New York edition
A Meaty, Varied Program
No. 2/Afternoon of a Faun/Sonatine/Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet
The second program of the designated European portion of NYCB's spring season (i.e. anything choreographed to music that is NOT American or Russian —so where would Bugaku fit in?) framed two sublime miniatures to French music with two contrasting major Balanchine works to German music. It made for a satisfyingly wide-ranging evening, and showed the company starting off this demanding season with vigor and flair.
Even though its costumes aren't strictly speaking leotards and tights—the two women wear simple, sporty tunics—Kammermusik No. 2 (1978) has always has struck me as the grand finale and summation of Balanchine's line of "leotard ballets." He returned to Hindemith—a terrifically taut, astringent score with haunting moments of mysterious eerieness—who provided the score for the seminal Four Temperaments, certainly a landmark in the "leotard ballet" lineage. Kammermusik is leaner than the two big leotard masterworks Balanchine made for the 1972 Stravinsky festival, and its images register with striking clarity and forcefulness.
Its most unique element is the all-male ensemble of eight that Balanchine employs. When the curtain rises on two ballerinas downstage with eight men behind them, one can't help feeling for a moment one is looking at a skewed version of Concerto Barocco. Balanchine has the men crouch and twist in a variety of non-classical ways, and most of the time their arms are held in odd, angled positions. At times, they seem more like creatures than humans, and some of their group formations turn them into a living embodiment of primordial ooze. When they work their way out of a cluster by linking and winding arms in a prototypical Balanchine "daisy chain" design, the effect is unsettling; we've seen groups of women do this so often, but here it comes across as an odd joke.
The original ballerinas were Karin von Aroldingen and Colleen Neary—both strong, bold dancers, exemplars of a very contemporary breed. The first movement is all theirs, as they play a game of follow-the-leader with sharp, fast flicks and kicks and strange, otherworldly arm and hand movements. The music, for piano and chamber orchestra. is impossibly fast and complex, and just watching them keep up with it is fascinating.
Maria Kowroski and Sofiane Sylve took these roles at this performance. Kowroski has really grown in this role, attacking it with new freedom and daring and reveling in its distinctly un-pretty challenges. Sylve, making her return to the sage after an injury sidelined her for most of the winter season, did not inhabit the choreography as fully in this first movement, but by the time she got to her witty third-movement solo of bounding leaps with sly little heel turns at the end, she looked quite at ease. Both ballerinas conveyed the strength and implacability that these roles require. The choreography invites you to marvel at the power of their thighs as they cleave the air, to focus on the power and force of the dancing rather than on elegance or refinement.
As the partners who appear in the second movement, Charles Askegard and James Fayette supported the women well but could have made a stronger impact in their non-partnering sections. Together with the women, they brought out the intriguing mystery of the second-movement's intimate interludes, when the lighting grows shadowy and each couple in turn is momentarily enveloped in unexpectedly emotional and tender exchanges.
The final movement is a brilliant summation, expanding on and sustaining the work's edgy, disturbing sense that we're in a not-quite-familiar place. When both couples are dancing front-and-center, with the men behind them, the stage picture looks like someone has erased the female ensemble from the finale of Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The music's relentless pulse and severity appears to propel the dancers into machinelike efficiency, and at the final moment we are left with just the eight men, who crouch and hide their eyes, having seen enough.
In its own way, and despite its amazing complexity, Kammermusik reflects the spare touch of a true master, and Sonatine, created three years earlier for the Ravel Festival, also shows the master working with economy during his final decade. On the surface, it looks like Duo Concertant meets Other Dances, and certainly the ballet's impact when it was new must have depended greatly on the flair and sophistication of the two French dancers for whom Balanchine made it. On this occasion, it again was blessed with French interpreters: Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris, two visiting étoiles from the Paris Opera Ballet. Both danced with such unaffected clarity and delight in dancing with each other that the airiness and shifts in tone that could make it seem a slight, inconsistent work became part of a warm, embracing, magical totality.
Legris, now in late career but still looking fresh and vibrant, has long been a model of elegance and modesty in his very pure, unaffected, seamlessly phrased dancing. He has also excelled in Robbins roles, so the Robbins-like flavor of his thigh-slapping folksy solo that opens the second movement came very naturally to him. Dupont, with her very open upper body and air of freshness, suggests muted rapture in her dancing. The ballet features a lot of comings and goings, with the dancers spelling each other, but when Dupont and Legris came together they meshed wonderfully, sharing a relaxed yet refined phrasing and an absolute connection with the music, played exquisitely by Elaine Chelton, the onstage pianist.
Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel, two of Jerome Robbins' favored dancers during his final years, were the two dancers sharing moments of privacy and contemplation in the gauzy dream-like ballet studio of his Afternoon of a Faun. Both were highly adept at the all-important aspect of this work: convincing the audience that they are looking at a mirror as they face outward—yet not adopting a studied, flat gaze as they do so. Woetzel is not quite the sensual creature that other great Fauns (Ib Andersen, Helgi Tomasson) have been, but he understands the subtleties of this work and doesn't miss any of its quiet highlights. When he almost walked out of the studio before being drawn back in as Ansanelli did a slow developpé, and then was impelled to first carry her away from the barre in a lift—making actual physical contact—it all happened so gently and spontaneously.
Ansanelli was very much the young, self-aware dance student, admiring her reflection, shaping her actions to create the image she wants to see. Unlike the male dancer in his opening solo, who stretches and reaches through space to explore how movement feels as well as how it looks in the mirror, the female dancer shapes her image in the mirror to fit her ideas and ideals of what a ballerina should look like. Ansanelli had the requisite dewiness—that air of entering the studio with freshly washed hair—and expressed pure delight when she swept her cascade of long hair up and over and savored the image.
The all-important kiss lost some of its poignancy because Woetzel did not suspend the moment, approaching Ansanelli too abruptly. Ansanelli,. In turn, allowed a touch of melodrama to creep into her sad, sweet backing away to the door. Faun, while it almost never fails to captivate, is a ballet made up of the most delicate moments and confrontations, and such slight interruptions of its delicate inevitability can weaken its impact.
After two such intimate ballets, the program moved on to its grand conclusion, Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. This swirling world of grey and pink tulle evokes headlong romance shadowed by lurking tragedy. The music, often robust and earthy, also hints at fateful possibilities. Brahms-Schoenberg is more unwieldy, less tidy than that other four-movement symphonic Balanchine ballet, Symphony in C. It doesn't always cohere, but it does offer rich opportunities for dancing.
Miranda Weese brought her strong, clear attack to the ballerina role in the first movement, but this very American dancer does not readily conjure up the perfume of a luxurious, heedless European world. Stephen Hanna was efficient but a bit bland as her cavalier, and Ellen Bar swept through the space-devouring passages for the secondary solo figure with aplomb, but with too much of a sense of simple delight; she should convey a more commanding authority.
The second movement's romantically impetuous ballerina role has long been one of Jenifer Ringer's specialties, and she was strongly partnered here by Fayette. The trio of tall elegant women—Carla Korbes, Saskia Beskow and Pauline Goldin—who swirl through this movement added to the luxuriant atmosphere, with Korbes particularly attuned to the music's subtler aspects.
Yvonne Borree brought her pallid presence to the third movement and managed to stumble off pointe during one passage. Fortunately there was also Nikolai Hubbe, a divinely romantic cavalier, to watch and his precise yet exuberant sail through the big bombastic solo to enjoy. In the concluding gypsy-flavored Rondo alla Zingarese, Wendy Whelan was frisky and abandoned, and Woetzel sizzled, taking his high-flying, heel-trusting antics just far enough to be thrilling but not silly. I recall first seeing him seize this role back in 1988, and he hasn't let go of it since, or lost any of the panache with which he performs it.