"Raymonda Variations,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Antique Epigraphs” and “Evenfall”  
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
February 16, 2007

by Michael Popkin
copyright ©2007, Michael Popkin

New York City Ballet’s program Friday night — Balanchine’s “Raymonda Variations,” Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” and “Antique Epigraphs,” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Evenfall” — was entitled “A Banquet of Dance” and presented a microcosm of the things that have been most obvious this season: the critical difficulty the company has right now casting certain Balanchine ballets; the contrasting strength of the Robbins’ repertory and the interest of seeing the young dancers dig into it; and the long goodbye we are saying to Miranda Weese with each of her final performances here.

While Balanchine’s leotard ballets (“Agon,” “Monumentum/Movements,” “Episodes,” “Symphony in Three Movements”) have looked at least workmanlike this season, his tutu ballets — few as they have been (“Square Dance, “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto” and “Serenade”) — have been a different story. Every time the company has had to dig beyond Ashley Bouder and Sofiane Sylve to cast these works, the performances have been weak and this was true again in “Raymonda Variations” Friday night when Yvonne Borree and Benjamin Millepied were the leading man and woman, and Rebecca Krohn, Savannah Lowery, Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen and Abi Stafford were the soloists.  

The ballet is a brief ensemble waltz followed by a pas de deux and eight variations distilled by Balanchine from the Imperial Russian Ballet’s masterpiece of the same name, and despite (perhaps because of) the apparently simplicity of its form and its appearance as a surface decoration, it needs principal dancing that has grandeur and projects a regal quality. Borree and Millepied are not dancers of this type, and their casting threw the visual proportions off. You knew they were supposed to be the principal couple, but when they did not deliver a performance of the proper scale the composition looked askew and, in the case of Borree, the styling of Balanchine’s choreography (the “raison d’etre” of the entire piece) was missing as well. What differentiates Balanchine from Petipa is the longer, rangier, more modern and off-center quality of the dancing and “Raymonda” needs to be performed by a taller, stronger woman. Although the solo variations were for the most part well danced (especially by the tall and regal Sara Mearns), Krohn had placement issues and Lowery’s diagonal of hops on point was heavy.

If “Raymonda” lacked glamour and star power, the Robbins’ portion of the program that followed restored the balance of these qualities. “Afternoon of a Faun” featured Janie Taylor’s return to this ballet after nearly a two year absence due to injury, as well as a debut by Craig Hall; and the revival of “Antique Epigraphs” after several years out of repertory provided debuts for an entire cast of striking young women:  Mearns, Reichlen, Krohn and Lowery (who had all previously danced “Raymonda”) were joined in this by Ellen Bar, Saskia Beskow, Amanda Hankes and Ellen Ostrom.

The performance of “Faun” — Robbins’ idyll about two young dancers who find themselves together in a ballet studio, half–fascinated by each other yet only comfortable relating to their images in the studio mirror — was a memorable one. Taylor and Hall got the physical fascination and sultriness of the ballet right. Though she’s very blond and fair, she has the underlying sexiness and the dramatic quality that those who saw Tanaquil LeClerq dance the role comment on (and that indeed is still visible on the videotape of LeClerq and Jaques d’Amboise in the ballet). While Hall, a very strong boy with good weight and plasticity and one of the company’s few black dancers as well, was just as good a fit in the role made on Francisco Moncion. Together they gave a very physical performance with a kind of suppressed excitement to it.  If the couple’s attraction to each other was at times a little too overt, “Faun” can absorb that reading by the dancers. It depends so much on the rapport between the boy and girl (a very strong one here) that if you have to err in one direction or the other in performing it, it’s better to err in the direction of the couple’s sex appeal for each other than in the direction of their narcissism and inability to relate on that level. The ballet works better on the stage that way.

The dramatic momentum gained in “Faun” carried over to “Antique Epigraphs” which, with a similar Debussy score and hypnotic mood of dreamy gravity, flowed naturally out of what preceded it. The fact that many of the same women had previously danced “Raymonda” also drew the program together.

“Thank God for Jerome Robbins” could be the motto (or one of them) for this winter at City Ballet. For all the issues the company has had dancing Balanchine, the compensating interest has been watching a beautiful group of younger dancers, aged about nineteen to twenty-five, grow before your eyes night-in, night-out into a new repertory, and it’s been mainly the Robbins repertory where you could see this. Earlier in the season, his “Two and Three Part Inventions” was revived very strongly for a new cast. Last week the company revived “Dybbuk” and the young cast showed an unprecedented commitment to getting a ballet emotionally expressive, deep and right. “Emotion,” “depth” and “expressiveness” are not, of course, qualities that the dancers are called upon to deploy in Balanchine — “just do the steps” is the rule there, “you dance and let the ballet do the expression.”  But Balanchine unfortunately doesn’t look very good at City Ballet right now, and the quality of this defect is seeing the youngsters dig into this other corpus of material where, with smaller casts and more rehearsal, they get to express themselves.

This they certainly did in “Epigraphs,” a ballet that calls for this particular quality, with the women in toe shoes and costumed (by Florence Klotz) in transparent mock-Grecian gowns with white unitards beneath (Madame de Recamier in gauze but with modest underclothes once you look) and choreography that utilizes slow and plastic movements, where the dancers stop and start in measured passages that end in poses creating the physical illusion of a frieze of Greek statuary or the paintings on an antique vase.

The concept and the costumes sound a little trite, but they worked Friday night. theater is practice, not theory, and many a fine work of art lives on the edge of what’s clichéd or sentimental as long as it doesn’t go over that edge. And the cliché may even be a reason why the young dancers seem to find Robbins so much more stylistically accessible than Balanchine  right now: they’re able to invent it for themselves, they can figure out what to do. Ellen Bar in particular has to be singled out for her brilliant performance in this (she has a particularly strong pliee and gave the choreography an uncanny sense of weight) but all of the women got it right: the sense of silence, balance of movement and stillness, and use of theatrical space.

The performance of Wheeldon’s “Evenfall” that closed the evening was a special one for an expected and an unexpected reason. The expected one was one of Miranda Weese’s final performances with the company (she’s leaving after next week to join Pacific Northwest Ballet). The unexpected one was that conductor Maurice Kaplow fell ill during the second intermission and the ballet had to be danced to a piano transcription of its score (Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto) performed by Cameron Grant instead of a full orchestral accompaniment.

Instead of being a handicap, the performance actually seemed to gain force and focus from this last second crisis, but also from a change of leading man as Seth Orza made a strong debut in the role originally made on Damian Woetzel, The overall look of the ballet was much improved from last spring; it’s an architectural piece in how the large corps de ballet is deployed and in the initial performances the choreography appeared to be organized more around the resulting patterns than around the interaction of the principal dancers. Friday night this architecture had changed for the better. Orza was brilliant (forceful, with good elevation and a sense of doing everything with ease) and Weese discovered a vein of legato flow and lyricism in what had previously been a dry piece of choreography for the principal dancers.

For thirteen years now (eleven as a principal dancer) Miranda Weese has been a mainstay of the company. During the past decade she has given the definitive performances of an entire portion of the Balanchine repertory: the gut wrenching grand allegro tutu and tiara ballets, among others “Theme and Variations,” “Piano Concerto,” “Allegro Brilliante,” and “Cortege Hongroise, the very repertory the company is finding it impossible to cast right now. A “generation” for a dancer, the peak and prime period for a ballerina in killer roles like these, lasts on average about ten years, nearly her longevity here as a principal. Every generation someone has to carry these core roles in the repertory if they are to stay alive. The past ten years have been her time. She has carried these roles with honor, classicism and integrity. It’s her I will see in my mind’s eye now when I think of them, her particular legato quality I will look for, the way she could flow through the most complex enchainement in “Theme,” for example, showing you a hundred moments during the flow so vivid that you’d think she had stopped for a split second to pose in each of them and yet she’d never for a moment stopped moving. She is the most “musical” of dancers, that mysterious and indefinable word. These roles she now hands over but the question unfortunately at the end of the winter season is “To Whom?”

Volume 5, No. 8
February 19, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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