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Russian Tidbits

Concerto for Two Solo Pianos/ Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux/ Monumentum-Movements / Musagète
June 22, 2004
Valse-Fantaisie/Zakouski/Opus19-The Dreamer/Cortège Hongrois
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
June 23, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published June 28, 2004

The Russian Music Festival has been light on Russian soul. We’re getting some works that feel Russian; it was lovely to see Scherzo à la Russe again and Theme and Variations is about as imperial as they come. But Tuesday and Wednesday night’s performances didn’t include any of the core “Russian” works in the company; we ranged further afield. Our strongest helping of Russian soul, though not a sort we’re used to, was in a work that used more Bach than Tchaikovsky: Boris Eifman’s new Musagète and it was quite an overdose.

On Wednesday night Joaquin de Luz made his debut in Valse-Fantaisie partnering Megan Fairchild. Like the gigue in Mozartiana, the role is being cast more for what it doesn’t need, strong partnering skills, than what it does. There’s no problem in casting a shorter man in the role, but he still needs to be able to get the legato quality of the drawn-out reaches and slow arabesques. De Luz has a huge jump, but he’s short limbed and has difficulty growing into a movement. Fairchild’s charm seemed a bit forced here and the corps de ballet danced together, but the four dancers chosen (Faye Arthurs, Melissa Barak, Pauline Golbin and Elizabeth Walker) are very disparate. The performance, briskly conducted by Maurice Kaplow, could have used a little more flavor.

Zakouski is the Russian word for hors d’oeuvres and Martins gives us a mixed plate of musical tidbits from Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky fashioned into a pleasant pas de deux. Nikolaj Hübbe danced with Yvonne Borree.  He originated his role in 1992 and Martins gives Hübbe the room he needs. Hübbe is like a very responsive sports car that handles best on hairpin curves rather than straight roads; he gets traction in his dancing from changes in speeds and moods. He needs very little more to hold a stage, and his variation, taken from Stavinsky’s opera Mavra, gave us the evening’s biggest helping of northern soul. Borree has looked her best this season in both this work and especially Duo Concertant. The smaller, more intimate settings and scorings of both dances seem to be her milieu; she can get lost in the larger ballets. Cameron Grant on piano and especially Kurt Nikkanen on violin deserve praise; Nikkanen has been doing yeoman service this season in several solo violin parts.

Opus 19/The Dreamer was made in 1979 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, but it’s become a signature role for Peter Boal. It’s an interesting contrast to another Baryshnikov role Boal essayed last March at the Joyce. Dancing Pergolesi by Twyla Tharp, Boal looked like he was wearing someone else’s clothing. He’s had much longer to retailor this work to himself. Also, Pergolesi took advantage of Baryshnikov’s ability to connect with an audience with broad humor. That’s not Boal. But as its title implies, Opus 19/The Dreamer is all about internal states of mind in the protagonist and that’s Boal’s strong point. It’s why he gravitates to solos in his extracurricular activity from NYCB. He gave a riveting performance along with Wendy Whelan, who was determined as ever to bring his dreamer out of himself.

Caroline Cavallo of the Royal Danish Ballet also made a guest appearance in Cortège Hongrois. Balanchine refashioned the Pas Classique Hongrois from Raymonda for Melissa Hayden’s retirement in 1973. It’s an unkind going-away present; among other things the ballerina has to fight for focus with a second character couple. Cavallo looked hampered by nerves and was facing stiff competition from a lively Jenifer Ringer. Cavallo had difficulty with her arms drooping in turns and ended up giving a rather methodical performance. In secondary roles, Dana Hanson looks like a water bird in a tutu, all weirdly beautiful extremities. Even buried in the corps, it’s hard to miss Carla Körbes, and Adam Hendrickson shows a real gift for character work.

Tuesday night’s performance opened with Concerto for Two Solo Pianos. It is an early Martins work, from 1982, and you can see that in the work. There’s the sense of experimentation you see in someone’s early career as he or she tries things out, like a child taking apart a toaster to see how it works. The echoes of Balanchine are there; the corps is in shocking white leotards as in Symphony in Three Movements against the backdrop of blue sky from Chaconne. The music is astringent and spare Stravinsky, but it doesn’t have a strong rhythmic impulse. There’s probably a reason Balanchine never choreographed to it himself. There are also the “THIS IS NOT BALANCHINE” moments of apostasy such as having the lead female dancer walk flatfooted almost on her heels as she enters or in transitions between steps. Martins also looks at the Balanchine corps de ballet and tries to figure it out and synthesize it into his own voice. There’s a tradeoff; the energy of risk against the awkwardness of experiment.

Alexandra Ansanelli gives a major performance in a minor ballet. The role is studded with treacherous turns that she speeds through brilliantly. For those who saw the ballet when its original cast was dancing it, the most surprising thing is Ansanelli’s complete reinterpretation of Heather Watts’ role. Watts was a knowing dancer with a harsh edge. The difficult, cynical role Martins gave her to do was very much of its time. Martins put her in vulnerable positions, such as having her abandoned in a crouch at the beginning and end of her dances. Contrasted with her forcefulness, it seems he was seeing what sort of tension this would provoke. Ansanelli seems insouciant in the role because of her technical ease and delicate physique. Sébastien Marcovici and Amar Ramasar dance the asymmetrical consort roles, and aren’t able to make as much of them. Both men’s unitards are also unfortunately very unflattering.

Miranda Weese got one of her infrequent shots at Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux with Benjamin Millepied and she turned it into a lovely exercise in legato phrasing. Weese is naturally a sharper dancer and she’s figured out a successful method to smooth her edges. There’s always a deceleration and a breath at the end of the movement. It’s the equivalent of a musical ritardando, or an opera singer’s sigh at the end of the phrase. Besides that, there was her beautiful accuracy in allegro movement. Unfortunately, she’s also having some insecurity with her turns lately. Her fouettés at the end of the coda threatened briefly to go out of control. She saved them, but this made her late for the next phrase, which was the infamous final dives and they also looked uncertain because of it. A luminous performance of Monumentum pro Gesualdo and a sharp Movements for Piano and Orchestra followed, with Maria Kowroski leading the cast. Monumentum is one of her loveliest roles, she looks more like herself here than in any of her other non-comic parts.

The evening crashed to the ground with Boris Eifman’s dreadful Musagète. The problem with the ballet isn’t just his awful taste, it's his awful craft. Eifman states in his own program note to the ballet, “From a Russian perspective, it is also an appreciation for a man who so brilliantly developed and transformed the traditions of Russian ballet and made possible the evolution of dance from the 19th to the 21st century.” Since Balanchine only lived into the 20th century, one gets the uneasy feeling that Eifman is claiming to be yet another heir. How? He’s not doing anything even remotely related to or descended from Balanchine technically or conceptually.

One of the many problems is that Eifman can't put steps together into an enchaînement. He’s probably never felt the need for this skill making his effects and angst-heavy melodramballets before. Eifman doesn’t use classical vocabulary or placement. He forces the dancers to ginch and twist in airless vocabulary that wrenches them around and off their centers. A typical phrase might start with a fan kick, then the pelvis is thrown forward, then with no transition (there are never any transition steps), frenetic pawings on pointe, then a jump in contraction. Wrench around and repeat to the other side. That’s for the women; the men jump more. This might be appropriate if Eifman weren’t trying at that moment to show onstage a ballet class or the finale of a classical ballet. It looks as if he’s never even taken a ballet class. Of course Balanchine also distorted classical vocabulary to brilliant effect. The difference is simple: he mastered it fully first. Watching an Eifman ballet is like reading a novel by someone who can only write in Pig Latin.

Eifman populates his own dances with tall, thin women with hyperlong limbs and then distorts their lines further. That’s probably why he cast Kowroski—not for her resemblance to Farrell—and why he cast Wendy Whelan. That’s also probably the reason he has Teresa Reichlen front and center in the corps; because she reminds him of his own dancers, but she’s a cleaner ballet dancer than any of them. Kowroski looked celestial in Monumentum pro Gesualdo; Eifman made her look like hell in Musagète. It isn’t any of the dancers’ faults that they look alternately frenzied or uncoordinated. Ansanelli and Whelan are doing everything they can to make something out of what they’re given. Eifman choreographed the dance on his own company and transferred it to NYCB with no sensitivity to the movement or style of the choreographer to whom he insists he is paying homage.

Again from Eifman’s program note, “It is not a biographical ballet, but there is the personality of the choreographer.” Translated, this expression of artistic cowardice means, “I would like to associate myself with and exploit Balanchine’s cachet and mystique but without any responsibility for accuracy or comprehension.” Everything that’s wrong with the ballet’s outlook can be found in its opening. Robert Tewsley hunches over in a chair, suffering, and moving his arms. The chair later doubles as a wheelchair as an attendant (Henry Seth) comes in to move him from place to place. Tewsley is obviously in pain, near the end of a life that was apparently one of unrelenting loss and sorrow. This episode may have been inspired by the following passage about Balanchine’s final days in Bernard Taper’s Balanchine: A Biography, the standard reference for anyone interested in the man:

“Nightmares assailed him, but also he must have heard music in his head and seen visions of splendor. A visitor one day saw him asleep with his arms over his head in a perfect port de bras couronne . . . [describing a visit by Maria Tallchief to his hospital room] As she came into the room, she saw that his fingers were moving. Looking up at her, he said, ‘I’m making steps.’”

Eifman looks at the transcendence of the man who could make ballets as heavenly as Monumentum and only sees his own self-indulgent cliché of angst and despair.

Even after all the research and moments cribbed from Balanchine's choreography, he has no clue who Balanchine was. Eifman dedicates Musagète to Balanchine and says “It is an expression of my admiration for him.” This massively self-absorbed and badly crafted work is not a fitting tribute.

First, Nikolaj Hübbe in Zakouski. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Second, Caroline Cavallo in Cortege Hongrois. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 24
June 28, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by  Leigh Witchel
revised June 28, 2004


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