Sunday, May 29, 2011

La Sonnambula With Janie Taylor at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
Since I’ve written a novel called Quest of the Sleeping Princess, you would be correct that I would like George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula. Yes, I’ve always loved it (and it figures in my book!). The ballet takes its music from the opera by Bellini (the music is actually written by Vittorio Rieti after themes by Bellini) but the story is different. The ballet tells the story of a poet who falls in love with the Sleepwalker, who is actually the spectre of a Sleepwalker. Admittedly, the story’s always been a little difficult to “get into.” After all, to paraphrase the choreographer himself, how does one dance the role of a poet?
 Well, I had no trouble getting into the ballet last Friday, for the superb cast included Robert Fairchild as the Poet, Jennie Somogyi as the Coquette, Justin Peck as the Baron, and Janie Taylor in a “why hasn’t she ever done this before” debut. The whole production seemed richly human and approachable except, of course, for Taylor, who seemed richly spectral. The contrast illuminated the piece dramatically; I felt I was seeing it for the first time.
Taylor is blond, pale, tall, ethereal. When she floats out on toe, the Poet takes her candle and tries to get her attention. This produces a bit of Tom Sawyer/Becky Thatcher humor, which underlines the poet’s frustrations and our sympathy for him. Taylor seems a matter-of-fact spectre as she floats across the stage with nary a toe shoe pounding, but there’s a whimsy to her; we smile because we are both baffled and enthralled. She’s in her own world. Nothing the Poet does can get her attention, and when he even has her fixed for a kiss, their lips never meet. You feel for him and wonder about her. Perhaps she is searching for a lost love.  Well, she finds him in her future, as the story’s more operatic turn brings the Poet to her arms. Forever.
Fairchild is a believable young poet, brash, full of feeling, and more human than most. Somogyi is one of the few to bring real life to the Coquette, you can feel along with her. All this, plus the haunting Bellini music, particularly the aria (unsung, of course, but people around me were all humming) “Ah, non credea mirarti,” possibly one of the loveliest melodies ever written, underlined one beautifully haunting ballet.
 I also enjoyed, thoroughly, my first look at Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, a ballet now 10 years old, that started the buzz about this now busy and still wonderful maker of ballets. Wheeldon has a sensitivity to music that translates well into dance. The ballet’s cast included the remarkable Sara Mearns.
 The program also included Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, a nice Mozartean balance to the Bellini, with a quicksilver ending to the folksong Mozart borrowed, “The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat.” That Mozart had a sensitive ear for music, too, and his music haunts us with its crystalline purity, no matter how he got into it.
Divertimento No. 15: Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Choreography by George Balanchine; Costumes by Karinska. Premiere: May 31, 1956, American Shakespeare Theater, Stratford, Connecticut. Polyphonia: Music by Gyorgy Ligeti; Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon; Costumes by HollyHynes; Premiere: Jan. 4, 2001, New York State Theater. La Sonnambula: Music by Vittorio Rieti (after themes of Vincenzo Bellini); Choreographed by George Balanchine; Scenery and Costumes by Alain Vaes. Premiere: Feb. 27, 1948, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, City Center of Music and Drama; NYCB Premiere: Jan. 6, 1960, City Center of Music and Drama.
New York City Ballet’s season at Lincoln Center continues through June 12. For information and tickets, visit

Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.
Photo: Janie Taylor and Robert Fairchild in La Sonnambula. (Kolnick)

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