In the first of what we plan to be a regular column, Jerry Hochman looks back at some of the wealth of dance in New York City this winter.
New York dancegoers are a tough breed. It takes a lot to keep the combination of well-heeled patrons, cultureholics, committed ballet regulars, smitten fans, would-be critics (everyone in New York is a critic), casual attendees (increasingly rare) and tourists from their appointed rounds. As relatively mild as this winter was, it included a blizzard of epic proportions, and a record-breaking cold snap – but that didn’t stop anyone from seeing dance. In the midst of the 30-plus inch snowfall, for example, a horde of hearty ticket holders braved the weather, a public transport suspension, a car ban, and barely passable streets to get to an afternoon New York City Ballet performance on January 23, only to be told shortly after arriving that the performances that day had been cancelled (as they were for Broadway shows too). And on February 13, an eager audience nearly filled the David H. Koch Theater for a Valentine’s Day weekend NYCB performance of La Sylphide, despite having to brave merciless sustained wind and sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures that made breathing, much less moving, a challenge.
Be that as it may, Winter, 2016 provided multiple dance performance opportunities for intrepid New Yorkers, or New Yorkers for the day, with an overwhelming number of programmes available in any given week in theatres large and small, in nooks and crannies in every corner of the city.
New York City Ballet
Even though on paper its six-week winter season promised little excitement, more often than not with NYCB, what’s on paper isn’t particularly indicative of programme or performance quality. And with little in the way of ballet competition until the six week season’s closing weeks, the company had the field largely to itself.
George Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina and Christopher Wheeldon’s Estancia have been absent from the repertory for several years. I had not seen Ballo since its 1978 premiere with Merrill Ashley in the lead, but its return with Tiler Peck, in her role debut, provided a welcome reunion with this wonderful ballet. Peck handled Balanchine’s wicked choreography with apparent ease, but it was her characteristic display of stretched phrasing that made the role hers. Like all world-class ballerinas, Peck elasticises time without breaking the limits of the underlying musical or choreographic phrase. The result is a visual combination of awe and ecstasy.
I also remember the 2010 premiere of Estancia, not just because I enjoyed the ballet, but because the audience response was so over-the-top enthusiastic. Time has not diminished the dance’s craftsmanship or its spirit – and it includes a lovely pas de deux, one of Wheeldon’s best, for Peck and Tyler Angle, and sequences that give new meaning to pas de cheval. Although some continue to feel that Estancia is too similar to Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, to me the comparison is at best superficial.
Intensity and charisma
Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free is welcome at any time, but was particularly enlivened by Amar Ramasar’s ‘Latin lover’ sailor. Ramasar is a superb partner, but also brings a level of intensity to a role that is uniquely his. He used to be one of NYCB’s most underappreciated dancers, but that’s no longer the case.
Robert Fairchild took some time off from starring in Broadway’s An American in Paris to rejoin the company for, among other appearances, the lead male role in Balanchine’s Who Cares? on opening night (which also included Peck at her most spectacular) and Agon at the season’s final performance, showing no loss of the Gene Kelly-like charisma that marked his performances even before Broadway. Reportedly he will rejoin NYCB full time in the spring. Megan Fairchild and Teresa Reichlen delivered particularly fine performances as well. The season closed with one of the finest ballets of this or any other century, Balanchine’s 1946 masterpiece, The Four Temperaments, which was given a superb performance by the superb cast, in particular Anthony Huxley’s Melancholic and Ashly Isaacs’s Choleric variations.
Not the most incredible thing
But perhaps this season will be best remembered for the world premiere of Justin Peck’s first narrative ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, which unfortunately was not a most incredible ballet. Hyped almost as much as another NYCB disappointment several years ago, Martins’ Ocean’s Kingdom, to a score by Paul McCartney, TMIT was doomed before it really got off the ground, with a dismal-sounding overture leading to an equally dismal-looking dungeon-like castle interior populated by an inexplicably conjoined dual-bodied king. But even allowing for certain artistic choices not making any sense, the ballet failed on its own terms.
Peck’s ballet is essentially is a series of twelve divertissements, one for each hour on the most incredible clock, in search of a beginning and end. Considering that the score was commissioned, surely something could have been done to create a concluding duet of substance between the Creator (Taylor Stanley) and the Princess (Sterling Hyltin). As it was, the ballet only came to life with the appearance of the Destroyer (Ramasar), and a pas de trois of sorts between him, his oversized metal club of an arm and the Princess. Some of the dances aren’t bad (particularly those for larger groups, Peck’s strength), but most are either dull or internally repetitious or both. Although I disliked many of them, I found a possible saving grace in Marcel Dzama’s costumes, which are sufficiently eye-popping to be a draw for those who can put aside the choreography and focus on the outrageous, whimsical artwork that makes what happens on stage more interesting-looking than it is. Like Oceans Kingdom, there’s a ballet here somewhere, just not this one.
Giving talent its chance
Beyond the programmes, what NYCB brings to the table for those interested in more than the pieces on any given programme is its continuing emphasis on nurturing its young talent. This is nothing new – NYCB has been providing opportunities for its particularly gifted corps dancers for years. But beginning six or so years ago, NYCB found itself with an embarrassment of riches, and what had been a trickle became a torrent. I find it curious that some who complained that NYCB in the recent past had been promoting its young corps dancers and soloists too much now trumpet it as a sign of the company’s strength, which has always been the case.
Soloists Ashley Laracey, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Isaacs had particularly fine seasons, but it was the corps dancers who stole the show. Of those cast in leading roles during the season, three particularly stand out. Unity Phelan appeared as one of the three featured women in Who Cares? (adding a much-needed sense of buoyancy to I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise), and the lead, opposite another promising corps dancer, Preston Chamblee, in Martins’ The Infernal Machine. In both cases, she added something different to roles I’ve seen many times before. Joseph Gordon, who has been threatening to break out of the corps for several years, is finally landing significant opportunities. In Who Cares?, for example, he debuted in the lead and acquitted himself well.
The sylph next door
The season’s most plum assignment went to Indiana Woodward, who made her debut as the sylph in Martins’ production of La Sylphide. While capable of handling her neoclassical assignments appropriately, her strength has been her lyricism and sweet stage persona, which made the sylph a perfect vehicle for her. She replaced the injured Lauren Lovette in the role, and like Lovette, Woodward is the sylph next door.
PNB and Crystal Pite’s theatrical dynamite
Pacific Northwest Ballet returned to the Joyce Theater in late-February. Given he’s a former NYCB principal, artistic director Peter Boal’s affinity for Balanchine and his desire to demonstrate that his dancers can dance it, are understandable. But if you’re going to bring Balanchine to his home turf, rightly or wrongly you’re going to be compared to the dancers in the company for which Balanchine is part of the dancers’ genetic material. As I did following PNB’s prior visit to City Center, I felt that the three ballets presented were not danced at the same comfort level with Balanchine’s technical demands as by NYCB dancers. They got through it, but the stretch was apparent. PNB’s best effort was with Stravinsky Violin Concerto, led by Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, and Noelani Pantastico and Seth Orza, in the central ‘aria’ duets. Prodigal Son, welcome at any time (and particularly since NYCB hasn’t assayed it in several years), was less strongly danced by the leads than it should have been. But perhaps it was opening night jitters – which also seemed to plague Square Dance.
The second programme, while not exactly cutting edge, showed off the company at its best. David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin, a sparkling celebration of the joy of movement, and William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, one of his few pieces familiar to New York audiences, were each given superlative performances.
But Crystal Pite’s Emergence was dance theatre dynamite. Its nonstop action is interestingly choreographed and was brilliantly executed by the company as a whole. It’s considerably more than the exploration of life in an insect colony that it appears on the surface to be. There are echoes here of The Rite of Spring, Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, the Borg from the television series Star Trek TNG, and Act II of Giselle – and it gave me the willies.
Maillot’s Cinderella at City Center
For this year’s visit by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo (celebrating its 30th anniversary) to City Center in mid-February, Jean-Christophe Maillot chose to bring his Cinderella. More akin to his Romeo et Juliette than the more recent LAC, it’s an interesting and accessible ballet, albeit quite different from more commonly performed versions such as Ashton’s, or more recent, ones such as Wheeldon’s. On opening night, Anjara Ballesteros was a sweetly engaging (if not terribly oppressed) Cinderella. Gabriele Corrado as her tortured Father was wonderfully gripping. The concept of making the Father an integral part of the story, if not its central figure, and giving that character depth, made this Cinderella particularly memorable, even accounting for Maillol’s at times hyperactive choreography.
A Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya
The Mariinsky brought only two principals and “hand-picked” others to the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the end of February for a Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya, but when the principals are Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina, one can’t complain too much. What one might complain about, however, were the less than legendary vehicles brought to display these legendary dancers. I saw two of the four distinct programmes, and although Vishneva danced two complete works, Lopatkina, whose programme was largely a gala-like assortment of excerpts, fared better.
Vishneva appeared in Alberto Alonso‘s Carmen Suite, a dramatic, stylised reduction of Bizet’s opera. Perhaps it’s my prejudice, but I could not believe Vishneva as a cold-hearted serial witch (or similar-sounding word). The problem, however, was not so much her as the ballet’s one-dimensional concept of the character.
Vishneva fared better with the more elusive Woman in a Room by Carolyn Carlson. A successor to Carlson’s Man in a Room, it is maddeningly opaque unless one is aware of the earlier piece. But she is so skilled at creating and manifesting nuances of character that even though the piece is one-dimensional, she gives her portrayal multiple facets. Vishneva’s face never looks the same from minute to minute. That she figuratively (and almost literally) made lemonade from the lemons her character (and choreographer) had given her to work with shows how truly remarkable a dancer she is.
Lopatkina and friends had the BAM audience in the palms of their hands in a series of pas de deux and duets. Collectively they showed she can handle anything, from breathing life into a cardboard example of Soviet-era athleticism (pas de deux from Grigorovich’s The Legend of Love), to ethereal (Messerer’s Melody), partnered flawlessly in both by Andrey Ermakov; and sort-of contemporary (an excerpt from Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse), in the latter accompanied by an effusively charming Vladimir Shklyarov.
Ferri and Cornejo: mesmerising and monochromatic
While it was great to see yet another legendary ballerina return to the stage on March 2 at the Joyce, the TRIO ConcertDance programme presented by Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo was marred by being too monochromatic. If we didn’t know beforehand, we get that the two of them are a couple. But as beautiful as they looked dancing together, and as mesmerising as Ferri can still be, the programme of duets was too much of essentially the same thing – various displays of physical passion, all delivered at a similar decibel level. The most exciting dance was Angelin Preljocaj’s pas de deux from Le Parc.
The little chamber ballet company that could
No longer one of New York’s best kept secrets, New York Theatre Ballet each year presents one or more programmes in a series titled Legends and Visionaries, which usually includes a combination of pieces by emerging choreographers, a contemporary chamber piece or two, and an overlooked or underperformed masterwork. I caught them at New York Live Arts at the end of February.
Both Jerome Robbins’s Ancient Epigraphs, staged by former NYCB principal Kyra Nichols; and Song Before Spring, a first collaboration by company principal Steven Melendez and American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Zhong-Jing Fang, exceeded expectations
Robbins’ ballet, an examination of women’s carefully concealed emotions played out in the context of a Greek frieze that comes to life and with a not so subtle hint of sapphic relationships (or the assumption of them), was beautifully rendered by the seven-woman cast. The next time NYCB programme it, I’ll see it differently, partly a result of catching it here in a more intimate setting, but also because of the quality of the performance.
Song Before Spring is strange. I’m not quite sure where Melendez and Fang were going with this examination of relationships and personalities in the context of an urban environment, and I can’t pinpoint high (or low) points. But aside from being a bit too long, it was a very noteworthy first effort that maintained interest throughout.
Modern dance that’s a pleasure to watch
Turning briefly to modern dance, David Parsons’ company has been around for a relatively long time, over 30 years, but its two week season at The Joyce in January showed that nothing has been lost. Parsons’ choreography remains accessible rather than overly complicated or cerebral, and a pleasure to watch.
His Finding Center is a blissful dance, illuminated pictures at an exhibition, the artist being American Rita Blitt. The artwork, projected across the rear stage scrim, has a kinship to the ‘floating clouds‘ of Mark Rothko, but Blitt’s images are of ovals of varying sizes, colours, and shapes. The images are delightful, as is the piece. Two other Parsons dances, Union and Caught, were very well done as well. The solo, Caught, was danced by the extraordinary Ian Spring. It includes strobe lighting that captures the performer at various locations on stage, making it appear as if Spring had sprung repeatedly from one point to another impossibly distant from the previous one with the aid of some supernatural force.
The company’s dancers were all quite wonderful, but one in is especially extraordinary: Elena D’Amario, who reportedly was ‘discovered’ after auditioning for Italy’s most popular talent show, is a particularly ingratiating chameleon, and it’s impossible not to be visually drawn to her.
The Imperfect is Our Paradise
On January 16 at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, I saw San Francisco-based Liss Fain Dance in The Imperfect is Our Paradise, an installation piece inspired by the William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury, excerpts from which are presented in a taped reading, each dance episode roughly corresponding to and illuminating the text. Although I didn’t think that the installation part of it worked particularly well (it’s essentially theatre-in-the-round), the atmosphere of weary exhaustion and hopelessness and the notion that in the overall scheme of things the imperfect world is not that bad, essentially, turning Faulkner’s Shakespeare reference (“sound and fury signifying nothing”) on its head, which may have been Faulkner’s intent, is delivered beautifully.
Finally, as a co-founder of Pilobolus, it’s not surprising Alison Chase likes to push dance boundaries, but the two new dances on the January 15 Alison Chase/Performance programme at the Five Angels Theater lacked strength and depth. In the Forest of the Night, based perhaps on William Blake’s poem (the programme was silent), is more atmosphere than substance. While very well performed, the forest populace could have used a ‘tyger’ to liven things up. More focused is Tracings, which features a siren-like central bird, danced sensuously and compellingly by Jessica Bendig, who entices a group of bare-chested males until she no longer requires their services and moves on.
Most enjoyable was a former Pilobolus piece, Monkey and the White Bone Demon, in which a cagey monkey (Shane Rutkowski) tries to outwit a demon (Mark Fucik, who did a neat job dancing on silver stilts) to save a group of innocent wanderers. It was great fun.