New York City Ballet

November 25, 2004

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater, Lincoln Center

New York, New York

November 25, 2003—February 29, 2004

Reviewed by Clive Barnes

[Note: This is an expanded version of the review that appears in the June, 2004 issue.]


From its opening-night gala onward, through the customary Nutcracker to the closing two-week bombardment of The Sleeping Beauty, New York City Ballet’s Winter Season was hardly business as usual. The entire 2003/04 season is dedicated to the centenary of the company’s founder, George Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 22, 1904. The gala program was naturally all Balanchine, opening with the 1934 Serenade, the first ballet he created in America, and ending with the 1947 Symphony in C, a work that, although created for the Paris Opéra Ballet, soon became a signature piece for City Ballet. Between these two landmarks was a fine example of Balanchine the innovator: His stylishly erotic 1963 Japanese wedding ritual, Bugaku, was given for the only time during the centennial season.

The first two ballets were beautifully rehearsed and performed, with the first movement of Serenade piquantly being given over to students from the company’s School of American Ballet. By contrast the last ballet, Symphony in C, looked both a tad ragged, with only the svelte Maria Kowroski, in the ballet’s exquisite slow movement, standing out against the rest. Most impressive perhaps were Balanchine’s own last two ballerinas—45-year-old Kyra Nichols, rhapsodically marvelous in Serenade, and 39-year-old Darci Kistler, stealthily sexy in Bugaku.

Because this yearlong celebration was given over to documenting Balanchine’s heritage, the company presented all three of the full-evening Tchaikovsky classics, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker (although the last-named was the only one actually choreographed by Balanchine himself). Ever since February 1954 The Nutcracker has held a special place in City Ballet’s life and history. Few holiday traditions are more typically New York, and the performances went along as unsurprising as holly, as Christmassy, snowflakey, and festive as ever.

However, the two major events were undoubtedly the world premiere of Susan Stroman’s full-evening work Double Feature, first given on January 23, and a restudied and redesigned staging of Balanchine’s 1967 masterpiece Jewels, which premiered on February 6. Stroman’s piece is actually two contrasted ballets combined into one seamless entertainment, and it has all the quality and look of a major hit, Broadway style. Quite a few critics have questioned whether Double Feature was appropriate for City Ballet’s elite audience or even its elite dancers. In fact—although the work’s commercial potential was doubtless eagerly recognized—Peter Martins’ idea behind commissioning a Broadway ballet was to pay tribute and homage to Balanchine’s own Broadway past: During the ’30s and ’40s the classic master worked extensively on the Great White Way. And what better way to commemorate that Broadway connection than with a creation by the current queen of Broadway choreography, Susan Stroman.

Stroman found her inspiration in silent movies, instinctively noting the commonality of expressive technique between the silent actors and the silent dancers. Then she went to the style of American pop music that Balanchine himself appreciated, and, together with her fellow librettist and music arranger Glen Kelly, devised two extraordinarily neat stories.

The first, “The Blue Necklace,” is a wildly comic melodrama set to Irving Berlin, a sort of Tinseltown Cinderella story featuring a betrayed mother, an abandoned baby, a wicked stepmother, and, finally, a silver-screen prince. The second, “Makin’ Whoopee!,” has Walter Donaldson music and is based on the play Seven Chances, in which a meek, Buster Keaton-like hero has to get married in twenty-four hours in order to inherit millions.

Balanchine believed—it was his “no mothers-in-law” principle—that only the simplest of stories are suitable for dance, and neither “The Blue Necklace” nor “Makin’ Whoopee!” have simple stories. But Stroman and Kelly, taking up the example of the silent movies, very adroitly bring back those old title-cards that used to tell in jerky sequence the onrush of the plot. It’s corny, but it works, adding a special, crazy flavor to the proceedings. The same movie concept is pursued by Robin Wagner’s sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes, and Mark Stanley’s lighting, which made the staging wonderfully stylish in black-and-white and various shades of gray.

Stroman did an earlier short piece for City Ballet, but Double Feature marks the first time she has been given a complete company of sixty, and she lets them fly. Although her use of classical technique tends toward the classroom simplistic and her original invention is meager, there is a craftsmanship about her choreography. She uses the superb dancers with a devil-may-dazzle daring that few classicists would risk—and it pays off. Indeed the dancers—all but swept along by the music vibrantly orchestrated by Doug Besterman and Danny Troob and idiomatically conducted by Andrea Quinn—dance with a carefree zest unusual on the ballet stage.

The dancers were all terrific, with outstanding performances coming from a radiantly cute Ashley Bouder as the Cinderella-girl and a coruscating Damian Woetzel as her Hollywood prince in the first section, and Tom Gold, with masterly comic timing, as the dumb-luck hero and a perfectly perfect Alexandra Ansanelli as his prim sweetheart in the second. But everyone was so good—Kyra Nichols, Maria Kowroski, Megan Fairchild, Jason Fowler, Albert Evans, Sean Suozzi, and Arch Higgins all found a place in Stroman’s sun, as did two little girls from the School of American Ballet: Isabella Tobias as the mean stepsister and an astonishingly accomplished Tara Sorine as the infant Cinderella-girl. Even the smaller parts—Daniel Ulbricht as a newsboy or Ask la Cour as a Central Park dropout—were given with zest and amazing pace. And then there was the best performance by a dog I have ever seen in classical ballet! I mean a real dog, a little Boston terrier. And when the whole company is arrayed as a nutty, whirling, leaping bouquet of brides, enchantment runs wild.

Nearly forty years ago George Balanchine (inspired, it is said, by a window display in Van Cleef and Arpels) gave his New York City Ballet and the world a new three-act ballet, Jewels. There was no story, just wonderful dancing—for “Emeralds” to the music of Fauré, for “Rubies” to a jazzy touch of Stravinsky, and for “Diamonds” to the chandelier-blaze of Tchaikovsky. It triumphed then and triumphed again this season when it reappeared for the first time since 1999. It now has been given three new and spiffily magnificent settings by the original designer, Peter Harvey, each spontaneously cheered by the first-night audience.

So the new production looks marvelous, but the ballet’s genius remains in its dance variety—three fantasticated, varied, yet austerely assured demonstrations of the jewel-like riches of classic ballet’s basic vocabulary. Here we had Kowroski, new to her role, staunchly partnered by Philip Neal, glittering magnificently in “Diamonds”; Miranda Weese and Jenifer Ringer, also a newcomer to the work, silkily elusive in “Emeralds”; and the jauntily assertive Woetzel in “Rubies,” which also boasted terrific role debuts from Ansanelli and the young Teresa Reichlen. Was this cast the match of that first all-star line-up back in 1967? Different, certainly, but on balance, certainly as good. This was City Ballet at its grandest. And alternative casts—Stephen Hanna and the injury-plagued Robert Tewsley in debuts in “Emeralds,” Peter Boal superbly couth in “Rubies,” and Charles Askegard gallantly partnering a somewhat shaky Kistler in “Diamonds”—by and large kept up the exceptional work.

This heritage season was intended as an exploration of the origins and first steps of what was to become the iconic figure of Balanchine. Thus we had revivals not only of Martins’ stagings of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty but also Balanchine’s own Coppélia (staged in collaboration with Alexandra Danilova), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (most notable perhaps for a stunning debut as Oberon by Joaquin De Luz), and another Maryinsky throwback, Harlequinade.

Swan Lake, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, had been around for only eighteen years when Balanchine joined the Imperial Ballet School in 1913. Of course that production, the acme of ballet romanticism, was a very far remove choreographically, scenically, and even aesthetically from the Martins version. Unusually long, although cast in only two acts, this staging, first seen five years ago, has oddly and inappropriately abstract settings (designed by the Danish Per Kirkeby), and retains hardly any of the original choreography. Its new replacement proves coldly inferior. The company danced it without much period style or feeling, and it is not nearly as effective as City Ballet’s other grand Russian classic, The Sleeping Beauty.

Martins has staged Beauty in a version close to the original 1890 choreography by Petipa. The great thing about this somewhat Freudian fairytale is the magnificent Tchaikovsky score unfurling majestically through the evening, and Petipa’s inspired choreography makes it probably the very peak of nineteenth-century ballet. The company had not performed it for four years; the run opened with a cast led by Ringer and Neal as Aurora and the Prince who wakes her from her long sleep. City Ballet danced it very well, although their customary speed—so essential for Balanchine—could have been moderated for the leisurely eloquence this ballet demands. Here, speed too much resembles haste. The best performances came from Ringer as a charming, unaffected, almost unaccentuated Aurora, Kowroski as a gracious Lilac Fairy, and a superbly dashing and stylish De Luz as the Bluebird (excellent earlier as Franz in Coppélia), who was matched at a later performance by the powerfully elegant Adam Hendrickson. It is interesting to note how many good men City Ballet is nowadays attracting.

Another Maryinsky favorite of Balanchine’s youth was Coppélia, originally created in Paris in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon, but like most recent versions here, it was based on Petipa’s recension of 1884. This (apart from a now lost Raymonda and that happily eternal Nutcracker) was the only big nineteenth-century classic staged by Balanchine. With its sugarcoated but hard-centered music by Léo Delibes, the comedy about a girl duping, rather cruelly, an avaricious old toymaker and winning the hand of the village rake is charming, particularly if you don’t consider too closely the more dubious aspects of the story. And, luckily, no one does. You simply revel in the dancing, which here had a delicious Ringer as the village belle, Swanilda, and a dashing Woetzel as her bumptious swain, plus a delicately etched mime portrait of Dr. Coppelius, the toymaker, from Robert La Fosse.

Finally Martins offered two later aspects of the St. Petersburg school, Balanchine’s version of the old classic Harlequinade, with its tinkle-time music by Riccardo Drigo, and Michel Fokine’s early twentieth-century Romantic masterpiece, Chopiniana. Neither work fared particularly well. Harlequinade, perhaps one of Balanchine’s more forced efforts, has a quaint mix of the naive and sophisticated that can be both knowing and charming with the right cast. But with Yvonne Borree’s drab dancing as Columbine and Nikolaj Hubbe’s unexpectedly flaccid account of the should-be mercurial Harlequin (he at least had the excuse of recovering from the flu), the ballet fell flat on its commedia dell’arte.

Chopiniana (aka Les Sylphides) was danced by SAB students and was performed, for some totally unauthentic reason, to an unorchestrated version of its Chopin piano pieces and danced on a bare stage with the women dressed, for yet another inscrutable reason, in classroom tunics. This would have mattered less had Cynthia Gregory’s staging mattered more. This, while accurate enough in choreographic outline, was sadly lacking in proper Fokinean style. It was well enough danced by the students, who looked more as though they were performing Balanchine than Fokine. Even so, the classic promise of the ballet’s sole male dancer, Tyler Angle, was impressive.

Naturally enough, Balanchine’s two extant works for Diaghilev, Apollo and Prodigal Son, were also featured. Tribute was paid to Balanchine’s years between Diaghilev and America, when he was director of the Royal Danish Ballet: Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, two stars of the Danish ballet, delicately dazzled in Bournonville’s Flower Festival pas de deux. Balanchine’s tenure there led to an ongoing connection between City Ballet and the Royal Danes. Many Danish dancers have joined City Ballet—most prominently Balanchine’s successor, Martins himself—and Denmark’s great nineteenth-century choreographer, August Bournonville, influenced Balanchine’s style (witness Donizetti Variations).

The rest of the repertoire was drawn mostly from Balanchine’s early years in America: Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (both Kowroski and Sofiane Sylve proved subtly sexy as the Stripper causing the mayhem), Concerto Barocco, and Scotch Symphony (notable for Nichols’ windswept poise as the sylphlike ballerina). Best of all, the company’s brilliant dancing was demonstrated the night before with a glittering imperious account of Balanchine’s marvelous Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2—all fireworks and chandeliers—with Jennie Somogyi making a superlative debut as the leading ballerina.

Despite what must be an almost record spate of injury (Wendy Whelan was out all season), the company was dancing well, and even the orchestra perked up under Hugo Fiorato and that delightful speed demon, Andrea Quinn. But could I have just two centenary wishes? First, please restore the name Ballet Imperial to Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. And how about some properly imperial scenery and costumes for it—the best were the 1950 Eugene Berman designs for The Royal Ballet. Then, more significantly, City Ballet gives Apollo in Balanchine’s final version nowadays, which omits the prologue and changes the ending. This is a pity. Second, or even third, thoughts are not always best, as here Balanchine eloquently demonstrates.

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