Friday, February 11, 2011
Swinging the Jinx Away at the New York City Ballet
By Mary Sheeran
I’m always struck by modern dance’s claim that it is so much freer than the restrictive vocabulary of ballet! I thought that comparative canard had been laid to rest, but I do still bump into it, usually in dancers’ biographies as to why they chose one form over another. Somehow, no one seems to single out “tap” or “ballroom dancing” as a choice. It’s either modern or ballet, even though those universes have been overlapping for a couple of decades. But after a little time at the Joyce watching David Parsons’ repetitive dances followed by an hour-long program of the Summation Company at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where despite all good intentions, the choreographer simply ran out of ways to express deeply felt emotions, I found myself reminded of another old canard: That the language of ballet, that happily absorbs other forms, actually is much more versatile now when you come down to it.
Last Saturday afternoon, the New York City Ballet fell right into proving that canard when it presented three quite different ballets by three quite different choreographers: Susan Stroman’s For the Love of Duke, George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. It seems that you can do almost anything with ballet, except make a good movie with it.
Stroman’s piece, For the Love of Duke (she added a first section, Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, to her 1999 commission for NYCB, Blossom Got Kissed) opened the program. Both sections of the work use music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and both enlist the fabulous David Berger Jazz Orchestra right up there on stage with the dancers, playing “Single Petal of a Rose,” “Such Sweet Thunder,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Lotus Blossom.” I love seeing musicians on a stage because they’re playing with the same vibrating air as the dancers, and the atmosphere feels more energized.
It certainly looked fabulous up there, thanks to someone’s design (the program didn’t say) and Mark Stanley’s lighting, and there was considerable lovely, romantic dancing from Amar Ramasar (the piece shows off both his flair and intelligent phrasing), Tiler Peck, and Sara Mearns.
I almost wish Stroman hadn’t decided to add a plot, and although the dancers looked to be having fun, Stroman’s story was not very original, and it got less so when Savannah Lowry and Robert Fairchild kicked in for the Blossom section. There is silly stuff, like Fairchild kissing tutu’d Lowery, who then flings off her tutu and becomes as scarlet clad as the other ladies strutting their stuff. (It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that man.) So much for Sisterhood. Ramasar as Johnny is continually tempted by one vixen after another, and Tiler Peck is sweet Rose, but here comes that vamp, Sara Mearns. The dances themselves aimed at being large but betrayed some hesitation of form, even though the dancers were all get up and go.
Well, okay, even if the story wore a little thin and there were a couple of stale ballet jokes in there, I can’t help thinking that NYCB is a good place for Stroman to come to, every so often. She has a profound sense of the big picture, a visionary imagination, and the skills to bring that vision to life. She is, after all, behind a few other enterprises such as Scottsboro Boys, The Frogs, The Producers, and marvelous rethinkings of Oklahoma and Show Boat. She is also the first woman to choreograph a full-length ballet for NYCB (if you overlook Alexandra Danilova’s work on Coppelia) --Double Feature in 2005. This is no small thing given the company’s and the art’s history of chauvinism often masked by romantic claims that ballet is woman, so let’s keep her in her place. And I feel, based on the concept and some teasing bursts of originality in this latest piece, that Stroman’s holding back on us, and I wonder why. It just seemed that there was another ballet in there somewhere. I also was thinking that For the Love of Duke might have looked better in a more intimate house than the erstwhile New York State Theater, which seats over 2500.
Yes, Duke is slick, it’s light, it’s Broadway, and that’s to the good for the repertory and the dancers. The critics seemed disappointed by this piece, but I am remembering something from my research. In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay presented Balanchine with the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest award for contributions to cultural and intellectual life, but critics carped at the slight work Balanchine presented that night. It was called Who Cares, and it’s still got that swing.
For the Love of Duke wasn’t Prodigal Son, but who cared because that was next on Saturday’s program. Balanchine’s 1929 work for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes still affects us with its simple, spare, yet expressive choreography. I still am moved to tears by the son’s struggling return to his father as he crawls on his knees, arms behind him, tense with the struggle to stay put or to reach out.
Maria Kowroski proved an aloof and even stern Siren although her dancing lacked the necessary resistance to the air; the Siren should control absolutely everything. Even without the headdress, she towered over her captivated prodigal (the vigorous Joaquin DeLuz), who didn’t have a chance in that serpentine pas de deux. She ate him alive, and he’d better like it.
Prodigal Son may seem simple, but it is generous to the imagination and the effect on audiences is gripping, so that the final dramatic moments enfold us in the father’s grasp. You can quibble that the ballet ignores the whole point of the Christian parable by not including the older brother in the story, you can quibble at the too blatant contrast between the two sweet sisters and the Siren, and you can protest that the story’s subtext champions patriarchal power and bourgeois life. But all these quibbles fade with the power of the story that told on stage and the power of the youthful rebel granted wise, unconditional forgiveness. I wonder if the father had ever been the son.
Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces closed the program with a stage flooded with energy in the first and last sections. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall soared in the haunting middle section, Façade, as the corps performed the equivalent of a figured bass to their melody. I was glad to see it again, and glad too that Retta Blaney was with me, seeing it for the first time. She liked it so much that she rushed to the library to find a CD with Philip Glass’ music. Hear the ballet, see the music, and dance! And, yes, there are so many ways to do it.
For the Love of Duke, Music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Choreography by Susan Stroman, Costumes by William Ivey Long., Premiere Jan. 28, 2011. Prodigal Son, Libretto by Boris Kochno, Music by Sergei Prokofiev, Choreography by George Balanchine, Premiere May 21, 1929; Glass Pieces, Music by Philip Glass; choreography by Jerome Robbins; Production design by Jerome Robbins and Ronald Bates, Costumes by Ben Benson, Premiere May 12, 1983.
New York City Ballet’s Winter season continues through Feb. 27. For information and tickets, go to www.nycballet.com.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and
Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.