Monday, April 26, 2010

New York Theatre Ballet: The Best of Time Is Now


“You see handsome young people – girls and boys with a bounding or delicate animal grace…To watch their lightness and harmonious ease, their clarity and boldness of motion, is a pleasure.” So wrote poet and dance writer Edwin Denby (1903-1983) in 1943 of the most basic of pleasures of watching ballet, but I’m sure he must have been prescient enough to mean the New York Theatre Ballet, which I had the pleasure of seeing Saturday evening. This chamber ballet group, now in its 31st season, presented four ballets that were as old as 70 years, but fully ready for inspection with nary of fleck of dust to be seen.

I was really there to see Three Virgins and A Devil, Agnes de Mille’s 1941 work, mostly because of that awe-full ballet word, legacy. The cast of its original Ballet Theater production included – just imagine – Lucia Chase, Eugene Loring, Jerome Robbins, and de Mille herself. (I’d been reminded of Robbins’ extraordinary career just the night before when seeing Sondheim on Sondheim.) Well, I forgot all about THEM while watching the crystal clear performances of Amanda Garrett, Carmella Lauer, and Elena Zahlman, as the Priggish, Greedy, and Lustful Virgins, respectively.

Are those words out of date? Well, not one program note was needed for the audience of all ages in the hall, a credit to the late Sallie Wilson who staged this production. Wilson, one of this country’s finest dramatic ballerinas, was a Ballet Mistress and coach with NYTB for 22 years until her death in 2008. I didn’t even have a chance to reflect that this ballet’s point of view was dated as the characters were so specifically drawn. And if any tale teller lends himself to the three virgins’ bumps and grinds interspersed with prayerful attitudes, it’s Boccaccio (the libretto is by Ramon Reed after a story by Boccaccio. I’m sure the old fellow would have enjoyed seeing his tale enhanced by the striking costumes and set courtesy of American Ballet Theater).

Capriol Suite, Frederick Ashton’s imaginative and delightful musings in 1930 of sixteenth century dance forms, comes to us from the Ballet Rambert family tree. Sixteenth century courtly dance consists of slight movements and gestures that can carry playful or erotic significance, and while this may be difficult for us to fully appreciate on our side of history, Ashton puts that point across in two ways: first, by alternating the courtly dancing with more lively peasant brio and second, by inserting into the dance an amusing rivalry of lovers (Steven Melendez and Stephen Campanella) for their charming partner (Carmella Lauer). Placing this piece in the program, before the de Mille and Limón pieces, also underscores the roots of ballet itself – from popular dance to royal court to ballet forms that continue to evolve. The luscious costumes, loaned by the Rambert Dance Company, were made by Anne Guyon.

José Limón’s Suite from Mazurkas (1958), set to music by Chopin (winningly played by pianist Ferdy Tumakaka) further demonstrated that relationship of popular and classical forms as well as music and dancer. I liked that Limón has the dancers pay ever increasing homage to the pianist, from a bow or a nod to an open flirtation in Rie Ogura’s solo. It’s a wonderful piece, which perhaps inspired Robbins’ own Chopin offerings, particularly Dances at a Gathering (1969). I particularly enjoyed Elena Zahlman’s precise and here-I-go-ready-or-not attitude (she always was) and her partner, Kieran Stoneley’s fine-with-me-let’s-go response. Mazurkas was staged by Sarah Stackhouse, who was a principal dancer and partner to Mr. Limón from 1958 to 1969.

Throughout the evening, the dancers were well served by both pianists, Mariko Miyazaki and Mr. Tumakaka, the latter who also played Debussy’s Valse Romantique as a musical interlude, underlining the importance of music to this company.

I’d purposely not studied the dancers’ names or pictures before sitting down, and I particularly did not pay attention to the notes about the guest artist. I preferred to get acquainted on my own. With NYTB’s chamber group, you can see a dancer in several pieces during the space of two hours; the Florence Gould Hall is intimate enough so you can know a dancer pretty well in that time – and that’s a pleasure, too. I was drawn in particular to one young man whose dancing was both intelligent and fervent, not to mention funny in the Mattachins section of Capriol Suite. His solo in the Mazurkas, in its back and forth of self wrestling and noble fire proved mesmerizing and moving.

Well, it turns out he was the artist I had tried not to know, namely Steven Melendez, who’d begun his training at age 7 in NYTB’s LIFT, their community outreach program that provides scholarships, books, clothing, mentoring, and other help to children from New York City shelters. Melendez is currently a principal artist on leave from The Ballet Company of Yokohama. And while I don’t mean just to single him out solely – there was an awful lot of happiness and intelligence danced on that stage – he distilled it all in his dancing.

The company opened the evening with Antony Tudor’s charming Soiree Musicale (1938), which I would like to see again. This is its first performance in decades and was dedicated to Sallie Wilson’s memory. The company staged this piece from its 1962 Labanotation score (which the cast learned to read). It seemed far from the darker worlds of other Tudor pieces and nicely introduced us to the company’s “bounding animal grace.”

Back to Denby who also noted that “…as you watch, [the dancing] will often evoke in passing an intensely poignant fantasy image of human relations…it is fantasy of the highest imaginative honesty.” Denby was writing about George Balanchine’s works specifically then, but his point can be extended to all ballet, which is always in the present and always with the past, just like the rest of us, be that such fantasy comes alive. Legacy is a difficult word for ballet because it’s – well – difficult when “in the moment” is assumed to be only “in the moment,” and when it’s assumed that audiences are only interested in the new. Nevertheless, forward thinking ballet companies treasure their legacy works as if they are works for today’s audiences, admittedly a daunting task. This company manages that task beautifully. The question, beyond a work’s history is, Do you want to see it again? The answer here is, in this context, is oh, yes.

New York Theatre Ballet will recreate classic ballets by Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, and José Limón on May 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. at Florence Gould Hall, 55 E. 59th St. Tickets are $25; student tickets are $15 (plus a $1 facility fee). Go to for online reservations or call Ticketmaster at 212-307-4100 or the Box Office at 212-355-6160.

The program features live music and an informal discussion following the performance. Founder and Artistic Director: Diana Byer; Executive Director and Associate Artistic Director, Christina Paolucci; Ballet Master Lance Westergard; Lighting Design, Brett Maughan; Set Design, Gillian Bradshaw-Smith; Costume design: Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan.

Writer and singer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, song recitals, and cabarets, including several performances of her Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 after she earned a Master of Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary. Her novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a 1988 gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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