writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Gods and Monsters

Mozartiana/Firebird/Symphony in Three Movements
Raymonda Variations/The Cage /Duo Concertant/ Firebird
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
June 8 and 11, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published June 14, 2004

The Russian Music Festival, companion festival of composers to the European and American Festivals, opened this week at New York City Ballet. There were some good debuts, but the best news came from the dancers who have had the time to find their way into their parts.

The Firebird is one of Alexandra Ansanelli’s best roles. It’s no surprise that another is The Cage; in both parts, she goes beyond human to the fantastical, and that is her gift. The first pas de deux in The Firebird recalls the meeting of Siegfried and Odette in Swan Lake, but for its contrasts rather than similarities. The initial purpose of the dances is the same, but it’s clear that this bird is not an enchanted woman, but a creature. Ansanelli’s Firebird is deliberately jerky, as birds can be, and moves with sharp, brilliant legwork and bourrées. She pushed the characterization very hard; it could be over the top for some, but I find her personality so theatrical that it makes sense.

As Prince Ivan, James Fayette gave her so much to work with. Ansanelli relied on him as she abandoned herself to the movements and he’s the proverbial partner that you'd want walking below if you were jumping from a sixth floor window. But it’s more than that. Fayette doesn’t speak poetry in character roles; what you can rely on is clear, vigorous prose. He’s great at exposition, in filling in the blanks that the choreography might not give you. Right before the Firebird’s entrance he scrambles about following a flickering light and then points offstage. You look: There she comes. Of course it’s obvious in print, but we don’t always see it that clearly on stage. Both he and Ansanelli have worked out a clear build to their dance; you can see her gradually trust that her natural enemy, a hunter, will not harm her. Each movement together is a path along that route.

Fayette used the same chronological approach to make sense of the dance with Kastchei and the monsters. The dance has never quite worked; Balanchine had Jerome Robbins attempt the present version but the designs by Marc Chagall for the monsters are adorable. The choreography isn’t very beastly either; they shake their tummies and do gavottes. At the Friday night performance they got laughs from an audience raised on Jim Henson’s Muppets. Fayette has worked out what’s happening to Ivan as the dance goes on. by borrowing from Albrecht's encounter with the Wilis in Giselle. You can see the monsters sap his strength through supernatural means as well as by spinning him round in their dance.

It’s interesting to see The Cage programmed with The Firebird (and, for that matter, in the same week as Orpheus) because Robbins is faced with the same problem here: figuring out how to create menace. He’s also working to Stravinsky; the music is all strings agitato. The difference is that Robbins isn’t trying to create a set number, “Dance of the Furies” or “Dance of the Monsters”. Even though his insect ballerinas dance, he isn’t saddled with making “a dance”. The monsters in The Firebird bow to each other and wave to the audience as they attack Ivan; the Souls and Furies in Orpheus bounce in Italian changements. The Group in The Cage is on the attack, and it’s a brutal one.

Wendy Whelan has been doing the role of the Novice in The Cage for well over a decade now, probably going on two, mostly with Jock Soto as her Intruder. The experience shows. It was the same in Symphony in Three Movements. Whelan and Soto got these roles relatively early in their careers. They are both more contemporary than classica, the stuff Whelan cut her teeth on. By now, she and Soto have thought these roles through to a point of extraordinary coordination and clarity. They haven’t gotten bored with showing you the details and you see new ones each time.

Whelan’s success is the opposite of Ansanelli’s. Ansanelli gives us the theatrical fantasy of ballets like The Cage, Whelan is committed to their reality. As the Queen, Rebecca Krohn’s approach is closer to Whelan’s. She attacks it wholeheartedly, but the role functions as a contrast to the Novice and she’d pair better with Ansanelli.

Kyra Nichols has a long history with Mozartiana, Nikolaj Hübbe (who substituted for Damian Woetzel) a briefer one. Both did a lovely job. Nichols’ performance is reined in, but carefully and expertly. Extravagance was never her biggest gift, so it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to accommodate her technique. Hübbe is an odd choice temperamentally for the role. If people were elements, the originator of the role, Ib Andersen, was Air. Hübbe is Fire. He lavishes the role with clean turns and sharp beats, but he also flips the role's balance. He’s no angel.

Daniel Ulbricht approaches the Gigue scrupulously, but he has difficult proportions for classical dancing; and it’s exacerbated when he’s next to a taller dancer. The originator of the role, Victor Castelli, was the negative to Andersen’s positive; but the company has rarely cast the role that way since Gen Horiuchi took it. It’s now looked on as a role with no partnering that can be given to a short man, and that isn’t good for the ballet. The Gigue is not danced by a mascot. Still, there was unselfish dancing from the entire cast.

Symphony in Three Movements premiered on the same day of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival as Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Look at both ballets and you can see Balanchine’s fascination at that time with the same anatomical approach: What is the framework of the music—of a ballet? In both ballets he uses a hierarchy but the lead is divided: in Violin Concerto between two couples, in Symphony in Three Movements unequally among three. The corps de ballet in both cases is deployed in squadrons that Balanchine fragments, dividing and switching. He used a similar layout in Who Cares? two years previously, using five demi-soloist couples. But in the earlier work he gave each of the couples a brief turn alone, the better to see them. Here the same structure is used for monolithic anonymity. We’re looking at a modern, faceless colossus.

This is another of Whelan and Soto’s longstanding duets. Here, they made theater out of the pose at the center of the pas de deux; a sort of Oriental incantation that also recalls the final pose of the pas de deux in The Cage. It is also good to see Jared Angle back in the repertory doing beautiful light double cabrioles.

It’s a good sign that the company handles the difficulties of Raymonda Variations much better than the last times I saw it. A few years ago the dancers cast weren’t able to get through the variations; it looked so unflattering on the company one questioned its place in repertory. Friday night, Faye Arthurs, Gwyneth Muller and Carrie Lee Riggins from the corps danced variations along with soloists Megan Fairchild and Ashley Bouder. They’ve all steeled themselves to the challenges; the first variation (Arthur’s) is particularly treacherous for current dancers. It’s got a long series of hops on point, and that step is much more difficult for the highly arched foot in fashion today. It’s easy to roll over and off point, and Arthurs did once but recovered quickly. Fairchild made an energetic debut in the second variation; Bouder continued her love affair with the audience as she ripped through the seventh. Muller did the fifth “harp” variation well; it’s nice to see her step out of the corps and into our view. Riggins was paired with Bouder in fouettés at the end and held her own. She seems to have an ambivalent place in the company; trusted implicitly to handle soloist roles, but not exactly pushed.

Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied have a good onstage partnership, and Millepied joined her in this ballet to make his fine debut. Romantic pastiche seems to be her métier, and with his conquering of La Source he keeps getting ever more relaxed and buoyant in these roles.

First: Alexandra Ansanelli and James Fayette in The Firebird. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Second: The opening moments of Symphony in Three Movements. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 22
June 14, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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

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

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last updated on June 14, 2004