Debutantes and Veterans, Good Dancing (Almost) All Around
"Ballo della Regina," "The
Four Temperaments," "Musagète"/"Square Dance,"
I found myself often using Merrill Ashley as a reference point during these two programs, since they included two Balanchine roles in which she excelled and set the standard ("Square Dance" and "Sanguinic" section of "The Four Temperaments") as well as "Ballo della Regina," the 1978 ballet in which Balanchine celebrated her technical brilliance and scintillating allegro finesse. All three of these roles were performed by dancers who were tackling them for the first time this week, and thanks to Ms. Ashley there were high standards for them to live up to.
Seeing Ashley Bouder's name on the casting sheet for "Ballo"'s ballerina role created a sense of eager anticipation. She is the ideal dancer to take on this lighthearted, charming, breezy display of happy bravura, and her performance at the Saturday matinee (her third time out in the role) was most felicitous. She has the requisite sharp attack and, buoyant jump, and coolly secure technique. The only thing I missed was the extra ingredient of effervescence and wit that are built into the role. "Ballo" is a bit like "Donizetti Variations"—lightweight compared to much of Balanchine—a gloss on 19th-century opera-ballet that is far removed from the astringency of the leotard ballets, and frothy in comparison to his deeply romantic and impassioned works. It honors its music but also smiles at it; when Ashley in her heyday sailed through the role, punctuating her solo with a sharp arabesque like an exclamation point or flicking her feet at impossible speed, her good humor seemed to brim over. Ms. Bouder has a tendency to appear tight, even as she meets technical challenges with ease; with time her performance of the role will no doubt loosen up and, glorious as it already is, become even more delicious.
Making his debut on Saturday was her partner, Joaquin de Luz, whose high-flying brilliance and extra-precise pirouettes work very well in the role. He ignited the audience's enthusiasm with each of his solo passages. He attacked the role just as he might one of the classical warhorse solos, as though its virtuosic challenges were the main point. Ideally, one should almost feel they're an afterthought. The ensemble and four soloists at times failed to fill out the music, making the choreography look flattened. This Verdi score may not be music for the ages, but it doe shave terrific vigor and brio, and the dancers need to connect with it more fully. This was especially true of Sterling Hyltin in the first mini-solo. Ann Sophia Scheller and Carrie Lee Riggins performed theirs with more appropriate expansiveness.
This performance of "The Four Temperaments" was an interesting mix of veterans and newcomers. While in the past, the three themes often had dancers closely associated with them (once upon a time, Stephanie Saland and Kipling Houston owned the third theme), lately the company seems to try out a lot of rather green dancers in these small but crucial duets. Faye Arthurs made a strong impression in the first theme, dancing with clarity and dynamism, and Jonathan Stafford did well too. In the second theme, Amart Ramasar was invigorating, but Ms. Riggins did not cleave through the space with enough boldness. The third theme, whose mysteries can hint at eternal secrets, was rather perfunctorily handled by Jennifer Tinsley and Seth Orza.
Peter Boal brought out the full richness of "Melancholic" with his restrained yet intense performance. He never adds a veneer of overt dejection to the role, but invests each sag and crumple with heartfelt purity, and conveys the heroic effort rising up to forge ahead, even when faced with the implacable onslaught of the ensemble. Another "4Ts" veteran, Albert Evans, brought out the wonderful strangeness of "Phlegmatic"—in which the guy seems fascinated by his own feet —but had moments when he did not look strong and centered enough to fully control each move. The four women surrounding him were a bland bunch. Gone for the moment are the haughty Amazonian creatures one expects to see in this brilliant section, the ones who look so forbidding and chic.
Alexandra Ansanelli (after making her debut earlier this week) looked unsure and unconvincing in "Sanguinic." There is a highly complimentary article in the January NYCB program about this highly talented ballerina that rightly celebrates her triumph over a serious injury, and points up the vast number of roles she performs. Maybe she is sometimes being asked to spread herself too thin. This performance suggested a need for more time to focus on the particular demands and nature of this celebrated and demanding roles. She needed a more forceful, assertive attack here; this was not yet a confidence performance. She had a few hesitant moments during the part of "Choleric" when she and the four "theme women" surround the solo ballerina and serve as the visual equivalent to the strings' edgy pizzicato passages that alternate with the piano's pronouncements. Stephen Hanna, who partnered Ms. Ansanelli in "Sanguinic, performed adequately but far from commandingly.
My expectations that Megan Fairchild might be too demure a presence to fill the bold requirements of "Square Dance" were happily proven wrong. In this debut, she navigated the role's brisk technical demands with aplomb while also demonstrating a wonderfully complete and spontaneous connection to the music. During the brief, melancholy adagio duet, she filled out each phrase beautifully. In the playful, nimble fast section that immediately follows, she made me aware of little stutter steps that match the score's rapid-fire notes—a detail I've overlooked in the past. The role looks like it must be a killer on the legs, requiring immense stamina, and toward the end, when Ms. Fairchild had to bound onstage a carve a circle of turning leaps, her energy seemed to flag. The way Ms. Ashley used to perform this remains vivid in my memory; she ate up space and seemed to be giddy while doing it, as though she was being carried along without having to make any effort of her own. Overall, however, Ms. Fairchild made an authoritative and impressive debut.
Ms. Fairchild has an experienced, generous and wonderfully vivid partner in Nikolaj Hubbe, who brought terrific brio and warmth to the many brisk passages, yet also imbued the stunning male solo with an air of private meditation and quiet drama. In his performance, it had that Robbins-like quality of a dancer involved in a private experience, exploring something within himself, with the audience allowed the privilege of sharing his insights.
In 2001, Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" signaled a new level of maturity in his work, and also started him down a path of exploring the many fascinations of Gyorgy Ligeti's music. Returning to the repertory on this occasion, the ballet featured only three of its original eight cast members. The intricate, creature-like partnering that Wheeldon devised for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto—two extremely strange and haunting pas de deux, which summon up close associations with Balanchine's "Episodes" and several of his landmark Stravinsky ballets—was on this occasion performed by Janie Taylor and Albert Evans. Ms. Whelan has a way of navigating the most extreme, bordering-on-contortionist moves with a preternatural calm, and Ms. Taylor could not match that air of inevitability. Yet she and Mr. Evans inhabited the strange, hermetic world of this choreography very effectively.
At times, it seems that "Polyphonia" could be subtitled "what I've learned from the leotard ballets." Mr. Wheeldon invites comparison to such works as "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and "Agon," yet is also confident enough in his own voice to allude to these works and add his own further explorations. He makes skilled use of canon and counterpoint, and has an innately fluid sense of maneuvering bodies through space. In this work, he often asks the women to bend forward, curl up, lie on the floor, or arch backwards, at times incorporating stylized yoga postures within the organic flow. He has such a wonderful gift for bringing each of the ten sections to a resounding, memorable close, finding the right final pose or shape - something all too many choreographers these days are simply unable to do.
Both programs closed with Boris Eifman's "Musagète."
Photo by Amy Melous.
3, No. 2