Power to the People—the People of NYCB

June 28, 2008

New York City Ballet’s first ever Dancers’ Choice program was a smash hit. The dancers proved that they could run the show, and they pulled in money to fill the coffers of the Dancers’ Emergency Fund. They produced an uplifting evening full of classical dancing, a range of moods, humor, and surprises. Peter Martins, in a curtain speech, explained that when he used to program the annual benefit for the Dancers’ Emergency Fund (which, he told us, was originally Jerome Robbins’ idea), the company lost money. He decided to hand it off to the dancers, and he chose principal dancer Jonathan Stafford to lead the charge. (It’s rare, as I’m sure you know, for any artistic director to admit that he can’t do something well.) Stafford spoke too, saying he got support from other dancers (about 15 helped him draw up a “favorites” list from the repertory), the stage crew, and patron Arlene Cooper.

Novelties included short, fun films of the dancers; a new ballet by dancer Adam Hendrickson with music composed by another dancer, Aaron Severini; and a souvenir photo book of stunning photos of dancers embedded in NY State Theater’s architecture by corps member Kyle Froman. The rest of the program was made up of excerpts that were well chosen to give dancers new opportunities and to give the audience a full plate of NYCB’s four main choreographers.

But the show did more than that: It took a big step toward allowing the dancers their adulthood. Ballet is a famously infantilizing field, where men and women are called boys and girls, don’t know their rehearsal schedules until the day before, and have no say in how they are cast. This was a big event to organize, and they kicked it up a notch, as it were, to a place where the dancers became individuals to the audience.

It must be daunting to have your first foray into choreography appear on one of the biggest stages in the world. Hendrickson’s Flit of Fury — The Monarch is for two pianists (visible, with their backs to us), four men, and one woman. Pleasant patterns and steps prevailed until Sean Suozzi, pining for the girl, did two thuddy falls forward that seemed as outré as if they were burps. But after that, he got the girl, and their duet had a few great moments. This ballet was a beginning. Hendrickson had said on film, “My biggest fear is that I am making someone else’s ballet.” Meaning, he wants to be himself. Hey Adam, be patient: That can take years.

The dancers had stitched together a film called “When We Were Kids,” with sigh-and-giggle-worthy footage of themselves performing as young children (e.g. Robby Fairchild throwing himself into what looked like a soft shoe routine complete with Jimmy Durante-style head-wagging) while the current-day dancers looked on. Kind of a neat idea. Another film preceded the premiere. Both films, I believe, were guided by NYCB’s media director (and former dancer) Kristin Sloan, who has a knack for non-expert interviews, split-second ultra close-ups, and decisive camera editing. The humor is not in what people say, but in the fits and starts of how they try to say it.

For me the surprise of the evening was the two Martins ballets from the past that were unearthed. Beethoven Romance from 1989 was a terrific pas de deux. I’ve seen Sara Mearns be gorgeous before, but this was beyond anything I’d seen her do. The lusciousness of her upper body and sense of surrender were ravishing. And choreographically, all I can say is, Bring that ballet back! The other was Purple (1987), a spare duet, with Janie Taylor and Craig Hall. A year ago, Hall couldn’t hold a candle to the incandescent Janie Taylor, but Friday night he was her equal. He has grown into an assured, virile, and powerful presence onstage—and that’s what City Ballet needs more of if the men are ever to equal their terrific women.

A couple dancers bravely performed solo excerpts, and others performed in roles they were never cast in. The short guy leading the “3rd regiment” of Stars and Stripes showed a level of bravura virtuosity that made me think That’s gotta be Danny Ulbricht under that military headgear. But it wasn’t. It was corps member Troy Schumacher.

An excerpt from Dances at a Gathering was hard to get into at first (as excerpts often are). But eventually it gave a glimpse of how Robbins built every episode carefully on human interaction. Whereas Balanchine’s brilliance was in building his ballets architecturally (as in the excerpt of Symphony in C, shown that night), Robbins’ was in building the emotional progressions of what happens between people, how two people in love respond to each other, or how one person pushes and pulls against a group. At a gathering of Robbins dances, there is always wit and humor and poetry.

At this particular gathering, the dancers sent us home with a smile—by dancing beautifully as well as by showing their spirit and leadership.