Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Now You May Think That This Is the End (Well, it Is! – of New York City Ballet’s First Fall Season)

By Mary Sheeran

I used to dream up ballets I’d like to see. One of the ballets I imagined reflected the rhythm of the city streets I walked, the offices I worked in, the people who crowded around me always hurrying and yet some who kept lyrical thoughts and dreams of other kinds of walks. Then one day, I went to the New York City Ballet and saw Jerome Robbins’ new ballet (at the time) Glass Pieces, and I realized he’d created the ballet I’d wanted to see.

This later work of Robbins’ (1983) is a masterpiece set to Philip Glass’ music. It’s one of those pieces you understand as soon as the curtain goes up because for one thing, the scene – dancers against a grid – is emotionally recognizable immediately and also because of our relationship with Robbins’ works. You know without being told what he’s doing. And he knows you know.

In the first movement, walkers in colorful rehearsal clothes and unitards charge across the stage with fierce energy. A few of them stomp here and there, changing directions abruptly, and a few of them soar, as if they found in the pulsing music a beauty to grasp.

The second movement is the prize. Women in the shadows move almost as automatons in the background, alternating a few positions as if they form some kind of balletic assembly line.  As they move off the stage, they circle round the back and return on the other side, like a conveyer belt, or perhaps that office or factory we were all running off to. No one says a word, this being ballet, but you know there’s some threat, however subtle. These women are related to Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs, a small 1984 work easily forgotten except that it points its way back to this movement. These women may also be a faint reference to the Wilis in Giselle, women finding themselves with a job to do – and perhaps not liking it but not having much choice.  (Robbins referred most horrifyingly to the Wilis in The Cage [1951], where the women tear apart their male prey.) Well, they are not that dangerous in Glass Pieces. But they are formidable, always there, beautiful and deadly, something like the women who open Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (1972).

As the women move from position to position, following to the pulse of the strings, Rebecca Krohn and Craig Hall soar in a lyrical pas de deux to the horns. And when the couple broaches that other world of automaton women behind them, the implied threat simply disappears. Finding love and beauty has altered the power of the ballet assembly line and made it less threatening. So simple.

By the third movement, the grid is gone, and a dancer runs around the stage in total freedom. I recall Jock Soto taking the stage by storm years ago. (Don’t you just hate to hear people go on about how they saw it done better years ago?) This was just a nice run by a dancer who didn’t have the pronounced energy. This movement has some of the West Side Story energy, without the tragedy and violence, and for the most part it works, though I always giggle when the women enter daintily to the flutes. Back in 1983, I thought “sexist.” But soon, the corps is following the music, fusing the nervousness of conformity to something more lyrical and welcoming. I did have a nagging thought that the energy was turning into something way too easily lyrical, feet placed gently, an emphasis on a beautiful line rather than emphatic surging force. (This is my feeling about the company’s West Side Story Suite, too.) Even so, Glass Pieces is one stunning ballet. Robbins as the master.

 And speaking of energy, what a treat to see Tarentella again. The sassy attitudes of these two gypsies, Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, carried the day as they danced with remarkable clarity to Gottschalk’s delightful score (reworked by the underestimated Hershy Kay), even in this dizzy dance. And they played the tambourines well, too! Originally created by Balanchine in 1964 for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, Tarantella’s roles are demanding, spirited, and good fun.

 Alas, Benjamin Millipied’s new piece, Plainspoken, set to music by David Lang, followed. It’s a shapeless, senseless work that seemed to rip off Glass Pieces and Balanchine's Episodes in places (and not in a good way), but was just a “new combination” of steps. (Some think that’s all ballet is, thanks to a modest understatement by Balanchine that some have taken way too literally.) The dancers, some of NYCB’s best (Tyler Angle, Amar Ramasar, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, Sebastien Marcovici, Jared Angle), danced just fine. Enough said.

 Speaking of saying things, I finally got the chance to experience that new idea at New York City Ballet, that of dancers who come out in front of the curtain before a performance and talk to the audience. I’ve heard not many kind things about this experiment, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, necessarily. Even if the point eludes me. On the last evening of the new fall season, Charles Askegard did the talking. He was relaxed, spoke briefly about each ballet on the program, described the program as American themed (which we could tell from reading the program), mentioned that he wanted to do the Villella role in Tarantella, and that was that. The man next to me muttered, “And what did all that tell me I didn’t already know?” Askegard danced El Capitan in Stars and Stripes at the end of the program. He spun and leaped with flourish, and he was wonderful to watch. If he hadn’t talked, I would have still loved him. Talking about ballet in the theater is – just talk.

Stars and Stripes, again, after Gottschalk (and again orchestrated by Hershy Kay – it was his night!), is again the whimsical side of Balanchine (1958) who infused  Sousa’s music with bravura dancing, high strutting, all with tongue firmly in cheek, especially in El Capitan. Without a word being spoken, I picked up the clues for the words “droll” and “exhuberant,” although, at the end, with Stars and Stripes Forever blaring and a flag with stars and stripes coming up, I couldn’t help thinking the words, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother…” – words I thought I had forgotten by now, though I half wished the audience would start singing. They do it during Who Cares? – and I heard a little humming nearby. Seriously, this piece is Kitsch at its Highest, and salutes were merited for Askegard’s partner Ashley Bouder, Adam Hendrickson in Thunder and Gladiator, Gwyneth Muller of the Rifle Regiment, and Eric Pereira of the Corcoran Cadets. Just writing out the section names is fun.

Someone had asked Balanchine, Stravinsky’s pal, why he choreographed to Sousa. He said, “Because I like his music.” Okay, so it was a dumb question. But Balanchine said, “The French walk fast, and so do Americans. Why? Because of Sousa!”

Oh, those fast walking, fast dancing Americans! And we’re still doing it!

Glass Pieces: Music by Philip Glass; Choreography by Jerome Robbins; Premiere: March 12, 1983. Tarantella: Music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk; Reconstructed and orchestrated by Hershy Kay; choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Jan. 7, 1964. Plainspoken: Music by David Lang (commissioned for New York City Ballet); Choreography by Benjamin Millepied; Premiere: Aug. 6, 2010. Stars and Stripes: Music adapted and orchestrated by Hershy Kay after music by John Philip Sousa; Choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Jan. 17, 1958.

Performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet begin Nov. 26 and run through Jan. 2, at the Davis H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, followed by a full repertory season from Jan. 18 through Feb. 27. For tickets and information, go to

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new 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. 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 (

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I have not been to the ballet in years but I saw Glass Pieces many years ago and still have the music for it on CD . . .