Nilas Martins Dance Company Does Puccini

Nilas Martins Dance Company and Dicapo Opera Theater
Dicapo Opera Theater
New York, NY
March 25 and 26, 2006

by Michael Popkin

copyright 2006 by Michael Popkin

Nilas Martin, the New York City Ballet principal dancer, directs a dance company when he is not otherwise employed.  On the weekend of March 25 and 26, 2006 (with City Ballet on break) Martins and his company presented—in conjunction with the DiCapo Opera Theater of New York—an ambitious program of new ballets set to the music of Giacomo Puccini. The program was entitled “Puccini Passion,” and the idea behind it, besides that of showcasing Martins’ talents as both company director and choreographer, was a dance exploration of the Puccini’s music.  An appearance by Monique Meunier, the former City Ballet principal and one of the most popular dancers in the city, was also promised. New choreography by Stephen Pier and Alexandre Proia, along with that of Martins and his fellow City Ballet principal Albert Evans was the basis for the program. The performances, which were well sold, took place in the opera company’s home, a neat little proscenium stage theater on the lower level of St. Jean Baptiste Church on New York’s upper east side. 

The results were quite positive. The opera company provided live chamber music under the musical direction of Pacien Mazzagatti for most of the dances. The tenor John Matz (Hamburg State Opera and Washington National Opera) and the soprano Julianna Di Giacomo (New York City Opera) were the vocalists. The Puccini scores were lyrical, interesting and beautifully performed.  If the choreography was at times a little thin, there were also moments of substance and beauty, particularly in the works by Pier and by Proia, and in the last of Martins’ own ballets.  And the dancers in any case were of so high a quality—you won’t see much better anywhere—that even commonplace material, in their hands, was well worth seeing. 
First on the program was “Puccini Passion,” the title ballet. This was a classical work by Martins for two dancers, City Ballet’s Yvonne Borree (a principal) and Tyler Angle (a promising member of the corps). The music was a recording of the Symphonic Prelude to “Le Villi,” Puccini’s first opera. “Le Villi” translates as “the Wilis” and the plot of the opera runs roughly parallel to that of “Giselle.” Martins thus worked this piece in a romantic-classical dance idiom. The choreography for this was not entirely free of pastiche—“La Sonnambula” and “La Sylphide” came to mind almost as much as “Giselle.” There was much soulful gazing into the distance by Angle and much passionate embracing of him by Borree while a group Willis (Ellen Bar, Tiler Peck and Ashley Laracey of City Ballet) repeatedly crossed the stage.  But the brief ballet nonetheless worked well enough. I have seldom, in particular, seen Borree look better. She was relaxed and fluent in her movements and had choreography which emphasized her strengths and avoided long-held poses.

A second Martins ’ dance, “Puccini Pieces” with the subtitle “Fragments of Life,” came next on the program. This was a modern dance-inspired work, also to recorded music, this time a score stitched together from an orchestral prelude, a march, and music from “Manon Lescaut” by the composer. The dancers were six students from the Alvin Ailey School and one from the School of American Ballet.  The movement palate was late Martha Graham or early Paul Taylor—weighty, torqued bodies, things pulled to the floor. The dance was complex and, as its subtitle suggests, “fragmentary,” with a number of discrete entrances and exits for groups of dancers and the suggestion of a plot: a couple of boys competing for the attention of a girl who chooses one of them and leaves the other temporarily behind. A curious circus march and a series of demi-character tricks by a student classical dancer were also involved. While Martins here showed that he can “do modern dance,” the effect was slightly dilettantish. It was evident that this is not his native tongue. The dancers were nonetheless splendid.  Yannick Lebrun, the boy who got the girl, was particularly impressive in an adagio. Also deserving of individual mention were the two women protagonists, Rachel McLaren and Aisha Mitchell.   

“Puccini Arias” followed, still before intermission. Grouped under this title were the three small ballets by Proia, Pier and Evans. All of these were to arias from “Le Villi.” Indeed, the “rediscovery” of this opera was one of the themes of the program. From this point onward in the program live music was employed, vocals by Matz and Di Giacomo with chamber accompaniments.

The most stunning of these works was the dance for Meunier by Stephen Pier to the soprano aria, “Would I Could Be Like to the Flowers.”  This is the song of the abandoned maiden in “Le Villi” whose death the Wilis will avenge (Giselle, if you will). One doesn’t have much chance to see Meunier these days and many in the audience were there to see her. The results were every bit what they wished for. Meunier had the stage to herself. The soprano air, though from early in Puccini’s career, was characteristic of his best vocal writing for the female voice:  long floating vocal lines in which the voice seems to hover suspended in the air.  Meunier was costumed in dance slippers and a long peasant dress.  Forget that the action of “Le Villi” is set in the Black Forest; the costume and mood here were Spanish. Since we speak of opera, Azucena, the gypsy heroine of “Il Trovatore,” comes to mind. The choreography integrated large sweeping bends from the waist with the dancer brushing at the floor. At other times the movement became nearly convulsive, as Meunier repeatedly brought her knees to her chest and then almost stamped the foot, leaping forward in a Flamenco like motion. Until she herself went to the floor, her dress about her waist, rocking herself from side to side. The impression was conveyed of constricted grief and of emotional pressure. The dance ended with Meunier escaping to demi pointe, her arms pushing up above her head as if on an atmosphere which weighed her down—all this while the soprano’s voice soared instead into a floating, empyrean Puccini-esque diminuendo on the Italian refrain “Do not Forget Me.” 

Sandwiched around this dance were two interpretations of a tenor air from “Le Villi” entitled “Return to the Happy Day.”  The first was a classical piece by Evans and the second a modern dance inspired work by Proia. The idea of presenting two choreographic versions of this same aria thus worked in this section of the program, as a similar contrast did in Martins’ two earlier ballets, expressly to contrast classical and modern dance responses to Puccini’s music.

Evans’ ballet was not unlike Martins’ opening work. Tyler Angle was once again the poet hero, this time paired with the beautiful Ashley Laracey, one of NYCB’s most promising corps girls. One might have thought that the two works were by the same choreographer. Angle once again gazed mournfully into the distance. His partner once again repeatedly rushed into his arms. But so appealing once again were the dancers that the jejune quality of this material didn’t matter much. Angle and Laracey are such beautiful dancers that you can watch them do this for a while in a contented frame of mind.

Proia’s response to this music was much more original and striking. His dance, and the preceding work for Meunier by Piers, provided the real displays of “passion” on this bill.  Proia’s dancers were two promising youngsters from the Ailey School, Ephraim Sykes and Natasha Diamond-Walker. The dance opened with them entangled with one another on the floor, dramatically spot and back lit (the beautiful lighting for the program was designed by Susan Roth). The couple then proceeded to an anguished, emotional and sexy crawl through a series of encounters and rejections of each other—encounters from which neither could apparently disengage. The accompanying tenor aria was one of those dark exercises of recitativo by Puccini in which the singer intones almost a rhythmic chant in a minor key, only to break into passionate and brief bursts of melody. The dancers were plastic and sensual. The girl’s physicality was breathtaking when merely posed on an off balance leg. One was left with the sense that, in contrast to Martins’ prior essay at “modern dance,”  here was the language employed by a native speaker and to true effect.
After a brief intermission, Martins’ “Puccini Songs” concluded the program. The score here was a cycle of eleven songs, alternatively for tenor and soprano, all to piano accompaniment. The songs were selected from the length of the composer’s career and all of them were musical settings of lyrical poetry instead of passionate operatic arias.  In this respect, this portion of the program could have been called “Puccini Lyrics” instead of “Puccini Passion.” And, to Martins’ credit, that is how he treated the material choreographically. The Song cycle presented as a pastoral for six young dancers, beautiful kids at play in a set of dances infused with airy lightness.  It was also the work which Martins had worked on the most, as the version presented last weekend was an expansion of an earlier cycle of nine Puccini songs by Martins performed last year in New York as a commission for the Italian Cultural Institute and the Consul General of Italy.

There was more than a hint of Jerome Robbins’ piano ballets in this work. As in Robbins’, a group of dancers was deployed in a vaguely timeless setting, the boys costumed in Massine pants and open blouses, the women in loose romantic dresses with their shoulders bare. The dancers for this ballet were the pick of City Ballet’s recently promoted soloists and promising corps members:  Ellen Bar, Jason Fowler, Amar Ramassar, Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, along with Laracey.  
The dance opened with each boy and girl taking the stage individually and then pairing off.  At one point the three girls and the three boys formed separate groups and eyed each other flirtatiously. This motif was repeated at the end. In between there were brief individual dances with snatches of narrative. As the songs have lyrics, Martins set appropriate actions or vignettes to each piece of music and developed each character with an individual choreographic identity.  Ulbricht and Peck were, for example, the couple who jump.  A song for them entitled “Little Story of Love,” opened with the couple lying shyly side by side on the floor.  When they rose, he lifted her with her feet turned childishly to the sides, but not incidentally displaying the remarkable facility of her turn out, her beautiful proportions, and the length of the foot.  He stole a kiss and she returned one.  As the music built, he repeatedly set her down in summersaults.
Yet another song, “To Die,” was a poetic meditation upon death. Ramassar and Laracey danced this hauntingly, each first a solo, then a pas de deux which rose for a moment to a poignant emotional level. Ramassar, who was recently promoted to soloist, is an arresting dancer.  He is at once lyrical and masculine and has, in addition, developed a fine technical command of himself.
The most positive element in all of this was also how well Martins appreciated and set off the individuality of each of his dancers. Ellen Bar, for example, had chainee turns and lyrical gestures on point, showing an astonishingly beautiful side of this girl. Jason Fowler on the other hand had repeated broad steps into fourth position in a held demi pliee, when the strength and depth of Fowler’s pliee is one of the best elements in his dancing.
Martins thus showed some promise as both a choreographer and a director in this program. At times he was both a little crude and sentimental. His best work, “Pucinni Songs,” was more charming than deeply felt, more surface than depth, but charming it nonetheless was.  His strongest point was how good he made his women look. If “ballet is woman” in Balanchine’s dictum, Martins has promise because he loves them and shows them off so well.  He can choreograph a romantic pas de deux with a straight face, which is more than you can say for many other contemporary ballet choreographers. If the romance is a little shallow at time, well, he’s young and thank goodness it’s there at all. You can’t really do ballet well without it. The utilization of the men was more rudimentary. The boys looked good partnering the women but, when left alone on the stage, tended to be given a series of rote demi-character tricks. The exception to this was the more plastic and expressive material for Ramassar.
Martins certainly bit off a good deal in this program. He lacks neither ambition nor confidence. The program and its press materials presented him as variously:  principal dancer of City Ballet; accomplished pianist and saxophone player; jazz aficionado; impresario; intellectual; music historian; ballet master; company director and choreographer . . . The issue that comes to mind is concentration.  Martins has talents but perhaps too many of them.  Experience teaches that natural gifts are only one of the things, and perhaps the least of the things, that make an accomplished artist. Application and concentration are even more important. Often, it is not the most talented people who accomplish the most in this world.  It is instead those who possess some measure of the requisite talents but who have even more of the application and concentration to focus and develop them.  It was perhaps no coincidence that the best thing Martins provided for this program was the ballet he had reworked the most—“Pucinni Songs.”  Concentration and effort matter. We will see where he goes from here.

Photos, all by Rosalia Rivera.
First: Ellen Bar and Ask LaCour, Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht in "Terra e Mare."
Second: Ellen Bar and Ask LaCour in "Mentia all' avviso."
Third: Ashley Laracey and Amar Ramasar in "Ad una Morta."

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Michael Popkin



©2006 DanceView