Thursday, July 1, 2010

Let’s Face the Music and Dance: NYCB Wraps Up Its Spring Season With Two More New Ballets and Some Old Friends


When New York City Ballet announced its “Architecture of Dance” series for its 2010 Spring season, informing us that architect Santiago Calatrava would provide the scenery for the seven new ballets (and five new commissioned scores) of the season, I sensed trouble. Ballet is about human bodies in space becoming metaphors for our lives with the collaboration of choreography, music, and scenery, and all I heard on the PR end was scenery, architecture, and Calatrava. And perhaps I’m dense, but I didn’t get the concept. “Architecture AND Dance,” perhaps? I told my suspicions to be quiet, that everything would be all right.

Not all of the new ballets used Calatrava’s designs (I missed Barak’s and Wheeldon’s works), but for those that did, his inventions proved fun to watch and often beautiful. I could understand Peter Martins’ fascination with designs that lived and breathed, but I don’t know if they helped the ballets to live and breathe or even occupied the same universe (with the possible exception of Luce Nascosta).

On the whole, the new scores were wonderful. Richly colored with orchestral effects and instrumentation, often both dramatic and lyrical, and vigorously played by the NYCB orchestra, I found myself wondering whether I liked the ballets (and I liked a few) because of their scores. I fear, looking back, that was mostly the case, as most of the dancing was to the music and not inside it, but why ask for the moon?

Wait! Why shouldn’t I ask for the moon from a ballet company that claims to be about music all the time? Or is that just press agentry? Maybe so. Balanchine knew music intimately; is it a crime that these guys don’t? Liking music and dancing to it, and dancing with and inside the music, are not the same. What we ended up with are ballets danced by good dancers to new scores with interesting scene design but no coherent idea that unifies the works individually or as a group except for some vague idea about the “architecture of dance.” It seems to be the Martins approach: toss a lot of ingredients into the pot and maybe something will come of it.

The series often felt more like the “architecture of loneliness and alienation.” The ballets I saw emphasized feelings of loss and confusion, and they often took place in dark universes with dancers disguised by strange headgear or lighting that denied their individuality. And why didn’t all of the new ballets use Calatrava’s work?

Because Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins was hogging them for his ballet, Mirage. That’s why.

During Martins’ piece, the last of the new ballets to be presented, the circular steel structure kept changing shapes with its rods moving as if they were plucked strings, which I enjoyed watching. I also enjoyed watching that structure morph from two soft round semi-circles (incorporated into the not too distinguished but okay costumes), to a maw biting the edges of the floor, to a circle, to a bird with wings spread, which then dipped down to become two canopies over the dancers that went from black and white to colors at the very end – pink, blue, yellow, and purple. I wasn’t sure if I should be offended, as in the colorization of a black and white classic, or delighted, as if I’d just discovered how to see in color. It was just one more thing tossed into the pot.

The effect of this design on Martins’ choreography, however, was interesting. Martins tends to focus on steps as if that’s all you need to do (hence, his “new combinations” misunderstanding of Balanchine), and the scenery is sort of there: He does not focus on the big picture although he likes his ballets to look nice, and they do. There are exceptions, especially in his early works, but Martins’ ballets are usually class exercises against nice scenery that seem indifferent to the presence of an audience.

Well, in Mirage, all of the above gets turned inside out. Because Martins concentrated on the scenery from the start, the big picture apparently was a major focus – ah, but at the expense of the steps. The piece becomes a collection of partnerships – Martins’ expertise – but you’d never know it because there’s nothing there’s nothing that’s interesting happening on the floor that’s as interesting as what’s happening in the air, ie, Calatrava’s work and the music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rich and satisfying Violin Concerto, which he conducted, with the fabulous soloist Leila Josefowicz, is a mysterious and lyrical piece, rich and inventive. The ballet wasn’t, though it was well danced. I should call attention to lovely work by Jennie Somogyi and Jared Angle, who were real and in the air. The piece began with two vigorous men, stretching, emphasizing and exaggerating line, line, line. Two couples came to do the same. The partnering was eloquent but then became repetitious and a little simple, which I do not expect from Martins, who can be incredibly inventive. Melody brought out stretched limbs and pencheés. When the music drew on the percussion section, the dancers made sharper, quicker moves. I started predicting how the dancers would move – correctly. As the violin increased its tension and the drums reigned steadily, the violin soared lyrically over them all, but the dancing could not match the music’s tension or its passion. I found I was listening to the music and watching the set evolve – I could never predict that. Perhaps the dancing, monotonous after the first half but completely inoffensive, was the mirage. Thanks to Calatrava and Salonen, Mirage looks better than it deserves to; although it says little about the dance or its architecture. I’m not sure it was supposed to.

I have somewhat better news about Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, also on the program (June 23). The ballet, one of Balanchine’s earliest (1929), has two athletic and dramatic roles, the Prodigal Son (Daniel Ulbricht) and the Siren (Teresa Reichlen). Ulbricht played the Prodigal more arrogantly than young and impetuous, and he was strong, albeit not dramatically overpowering. But Reichlen, to put it metaphorically, found the headdress too big for. She does the steps but oh, forgive her, for she doesn’t know what she is doing. Every step the Siren does must be deliberate and threatening. Reichlen just does what she’s told. When she wrapped her cape around her legs, well, that’s what she did, without sensuality or strangeness. This ballet is the story of the power of two capes: the Siren’s and the Father’s. Both must be used eloquently.

Still, nothing can diminish the power of this story as the Prodigal Son crawls to his father (Ask LaCour) who lifts him up and enfolds him in his cape. The libretto by Boris Kochno ignores the older brother and the fatted calf, both essential elements of Jesus’ parable, but why quibble about Jesus? This finale is one of the most moving moments in all of ballet repertory. If only they could find someone to play the Siren.

Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light) by Mauro Bigonzetti and a commissioned score by Bruno Moretti was an interesting piece (I saw this June 19), combining ballet with modern dialects, ferociously danced. The piece had a ritualistic ambience—mysterious with a hauntingly beautiful score -- and / we / could see the light, a golden orange sun? moon? that divided into smaller circles and then became one again. In this exotic land, the men were lyrical, while the women were aggressive – fast flying legs and toe shoes proved effective weapons. And yet, once again, I felt this ballet pointed toward loneliness. This piece seemed to be Part 2 of Millipied’s Why Am I Not Where You Are, but with more interesting costumes and movement. Or perhaps it was a neighbor of Namouna’s country. Some poo-pooed the sliding toward partners; to me it looked like fun and provided some needed whimsy, and it stopped before it became too much. I found myself thinking afterward, oddly, that this was a better ballet than it looked.

Thank goodness for sky blue backdrops and bright light. I hadn’t seen Balanchine’s champagne-esque Donizetti Variations in a while; it was like seeing it for the first time all over again, and it was lots of fun. Megan Fairchild sparkled with delicious toe work, while Joaquin DeLuz’s leaps and tours were exciting and strong. The ballet grows in crazed delight (or was that us?) as it moves on to a show-offy finale.

Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, a humorous piece from 1956, provided more giggles than the belly laughs I remembered from a decade or so ago. But the Raindrop Waltz is still one of the more brilliant few minutes of theater. Nancy McDill proved a droll pianist, and I had fun with Andrew Veyette’s cigar chomping husband—and evidently, so did he.

One wishes that most of the new ballets had not gone to such trouble to disguise or deemphasize the dancers’ personalities and often their power as dancers, several of whom said farewell this season: Yvonne Borree, Philip Neal, Albert Evans, and Darci Kistler, who has been saying goodbye for years; I’ll miss her, but all the talk about the end of an era is about a decade late. I will definitely miss the marvelous Maurice Kaplan, the conductor who looks like Santa Claus. I remember wincing through the early 1990s while listening to the orchestra; those days are over, and Kaplan harvested the fruit. The NYCB orchestra is, well, phenomenal, as demonstrated by their work in this season of those seven new ballets with those five new commissioned scores plus a repertory that includes Bach, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Prokofiev, and Gershwin. Martins’ idea to toss new music at the orchestra and at the audience is highly justified. The architecture of dance? It’s all inside the music, which is where the dancing belongs.

Mirage: Music by Esa-Pekka Salonen; Choreography by Peter Martins; Scenic Design by Santiago Calatrava; Costumes by Marc Happel; Lighting by Mark Stanley; Guest Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen; Guest Solo Violinist: Leila Josefowicz; Featuring: Jennie Somogyi, Jared Angle, Kathryn Morgan, Chase Finlay, Erica Pereira, Anthony Huxley.

Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light): Music by Bruno Moretti; Choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti; Scenic Design by Santiago Calatrava; Costumes by Marc Happel; Lighting by Mark Stanley; Featuring Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowroski, Tiler Peck, Teresa Reichlen, Tyler Angle, Gonzalo Garcia, Amar Ramasar, and Jonathan Stafford.

New York City Ballet’s Spring 2010 season ended June 27 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. NYCB will present its first Fall season September 14 through October 10, and will feature a new ballet by Benjamin Millipied set to a score by David Lang and a major revival of Peter Martins’ The Magic Flute. Other ballets for the season include George Balanchine’s Chaconne, Divertimento No. 15, Prodigal Son, and Square Dance; Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, Glass Pieces, and The Four Seasons; Peter Martins’ Swan Lake; and Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, as well as several of the ballets from the Architecture of Dance series. For more information, visit the company’s Web site at

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s 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. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory.

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