Friday, May 28, 2010

We Never Knew Just What It Was: Symphony in Three Movements, Why am I not where you are, and Fancy Free at the New York City Ballet


It’s true what they say about me. After I leave the ballet, for about 10 minutes, I am convinced that I can dance. I’m sure other people have this feeling. I’m a little surprised other women don’t run up to me to form a line on Lincoln Center Plaza where we rise up on our toes and do our Symphony in 3 Movements changing of the guard. How practical that would be: We would stop the taxis right in our tracks.

Symphony in 3 Movements appeared on the first evening of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival (can you believe that this ballet and the Violin Concerto had premieres on the same day?), when Balanchine rose from the ashes and showed the dismissive critics he was still alive and kicking.

So I always get a little misty eyed at the opening and closing of this ballet. I remember in my earlier ballet-going days when I thought this work was depressing, with all that machinery running and the pulse of the great impersonal century, the dancers moving their elbows like pistons as they sprint around the stage, ponytails flying. Eventually, I realized that the piece is about triumphing over that mentality. On Saturday, years after I’d passed through that threshold of excitement about Balanchine and Stravinsky ballets (I remember at a matinee when the curtain went up and a woman behind me sighed, “Oh, it’s one of THOSE ballets.” I’ve been there.)…

Let me start that sentence again.

On Saturday, I tried to watch Symphony in 3 Movements as if for the first time. I realize that when you look at new ballets for the first time, you’re reaching back to other ballets to see what it looks like. Yes, that is silly, but what else is there to do? With this work, the music leaves you breathless and the images, too: I saw what could have been some bits and pieces of a tribute to Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol with Abi Stafford’s birdlike movements and the fluttering of her hands and fingers in the pas de deux. With the ballet’s ending picture of lines of arms and the faces looking right at us, I always feel I have to do something. (Same thing goes for the end of Balanchine’s Episodes. Who, me? Dance? But, wait, I think I can.) I noticed how the music and dancing fit like cogs into a machine. Even a little circling foot making a simple move to the back of the other foot, over and over, fitting into the music exactly. There are times when I think I’d like to watch this ballet while following a music score.

I missed the Stravinsky Festival by several years. My history at the New York City Ballet goes back to the late 1970s and great discernment on my part: I went to NYCB because the seats were cheaper than at ABT and because NYCB had Vienna Waltzes. I didn’t know Balanchine from Baltimore. NYCB wasn’t what I thought ballet was – you know, Sleeping Beauty and cavaliers and scenery and effects up to the wazoo. NYCB taught me not to mind about scenery; the dancers were the scenery and the special effects and everything. So how strange after all that training to read brochures about the theme of NYCB’s current season, Architecture of Dance. I was puzzling through the essay, when halfway through I realized it was all about an ARCHITECT (Santiago Calatrava), and there was nothing about the dances or dancers. What the…? I was a little worried about all this “architecture” business.

When the curtain went up to mystical and creepy music on Benjamin Millipied’s ballet, Why am I not where you are (a quirky enough title, or was it a silly enough title as how many works could those words fit?), I was charmed by the set. Okay, some people have compared it with a Slinky, and I guess the archway does look like it. But Slinky is such a comforting toy! To me, the archway looked clean and graceful, and it shimmered as it moved. While even the movement of its “strings” has added to the Slinky comparison (others have compared the arch to a fan), the movement delighted me. I thought, it’s a musical instrument, a lyre, the symbol of NYCB and Orpheus’ instrument. Orpheus is a symbol of NYCB, a singer who loves the dance. Well, okay, maybe that’s just me.

The commissioned score was fairly interesting if derivative; I could hear Stravinsky’s Firebird in it as well as the emotional La Valse (Ravel). Even the costumes resembled those of La Valse. The ballet was interesting, too, and maybe I’m being a bit too kind. Is it just me or are the new ballets just collages of other ballets or is it that I’m falling into the same trap as everyone else and seeing the past in the present? (You don’t have to answer all those questions.) This piece struck me as being made by a dancer who had danced in many of Balanchine’s works (La Valse, Sonnambula to name the obvious ones) and who also went to a lot of clubs or had a miserable high school experience. I had a sinking feeling that the mysterious plot of people at a party who don’t see boy in white TO guy makes deal with some Mephistophales Type so girl can see him in right clothes TO girl becomes girl in white and the people at party including the boy can’t see her – got that?) was really just a story of an encounter at a club that ended oh so sadly but the sun came up the next day. Oh, but it was lovely, really it was – swoopy music, swoopy tulle dresses, and Sean Suozzi in white, sweetly and earnestly playing the innocent. Again, a young man in white! (See Namouna.) There were dancers chasing each other around a stage; a mocking siren type (Sara Mearns) so maybe throw Prodigal Son into the mix, why not, and the boys confronting Suozzi could certainly add to the comparison; the tempter from La Valse (a compelling Amar Ramasar); and the girl Suozzi loved eventually lost to view in somnambulistic white (Kathryn Morgan). Everyone’s quite good, and with all that racing around, it might have been the dodo race in Through the Looking Glass. Really, I did like it, even though it sagged a bit with too much running around in the middle, for the dancers were enthusiastic and enjoyable, and even the scenery was tickled. What do you want? Significance?

Amar Ramasar was back for Fancy Free, and was he ever sassy and elegant. The curtain went up and everyone was happy; this piece, father to On the Town, says I love to be in America, says fun, and these are anything but innocent sailor boys in white (Tyler Angle, Joaquin De Luz, and Ramasar). You don’t have to look for other ballets (although even here I could catch something of Symphony in 3 Movements in the Bernstein). They sauntered around, preening for the girls (Kaitlyn Gililand, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Tiler Peck), and who cares. I usually don’t care for Robbins’ pieces, with a few exceptions, and I’ve always had trouble with this one. They grab her purse for heaven’s sake. It’s a mugging! But this cast differed from others in that they started with the assumption that they were giving us one big wink. Well, I’m a sucker for a sailor. So was my mom, in that same year, 1944. And I’m a sucker for Fancy Free, especially when it’s brilliantly danced. Don’t forget to tip the bartender (David Prottas).

As I left the theater, thinking that I could dance (as you undoubtedly recall), I was humming the Bernstein. One of those gracious elderly gentlemen, who had certainly been at the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, came up and said, “Do you feel like dancing?” And so we did a little dance with us both humming the Bernstein. For a few minutes only, we were darn good. Took me a while to get a taxi, though.

SYMPHONY IN THREE MOVEMENTS: Choreography by George Balanchine; Music by Igor Stravinsky; Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: June 18, 1972, New York State Theater.
Why am I not where you are: Choreography by Benjamin Millipied; Music by Thierry Escaich (commissioned by New York City Ballet); Scenic Design by Santiago Calatrava; Costumes by Marc Happel; Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: April 29, 2010, The David H. Koch Theater.
FANCY FREE: Choreography by Jerome Robbins; Music by Leonard Bernstein; Scenery by Oliver Smith; Costumes by Kermit Love; Lighting by Ronald Bates. Premiere: April 18, 1944, Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York. NYCB Premiere: January 31, 1980, New York State Theater.

The New York City Ballet spring season goes through June 27 and features seven new ballets and four commissioned scores in its “Architecture of Dance” theme at the Koch Theater. Tickets are available at the theater’s box office and through the company’s engaging Web site,

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of 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 ( Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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