Symphony Space, New York, NY; March 7, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Petipa's rarely seen 'Cavalry Halt'.  Photo © Luis Pons

Dawn Gierling and Anderson Souza in Petipa’s rarely seen ‘Cavalry Halt’.
Photo © Luis Pons

The first time I ever saw Gelsey Kirkland dance, she was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. What I saw in that first performance (in Jerome Robbins’ “The Goldberg Variations,” and also the first time I saw NYCB) was not only obvious capability, but personal magnetism and an aura of youthful elegance and regality that was unique to her. When she defected to American Ballet Theatre, these qualities continued to mark her performances until other factors interfered. That she also was a perfectionist is not unusual – I think all professional dancers are – but her perfectionism extended beyond nailing the steps to nailing the style.

No one could duplicate Ms. Kirkland’s personal attributes. I’ve kept searching over the years, and although some ballerinas have come close, I’m convinced at this point that Ms. Kirkland is sui generis. But her demand for performance perfection is something that she obviously still carries with her, and that she is inculcating in her new company, Gelsey Kirkland Ballet (known as ‘GKBallet’), which premiered the second program in its inaugural season on Friday at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was an extraordinarily ambitious program, not entirely successful but much more successful than it had any right to be, largely because of the attention to detail and style, the desire for perfection, which her company’s performances reflect.

The program looked like an ABT Gala without the fanfare or the furs – a series of excerpts from larger pieces, followed by a brief ‘chamber’ ballet, and then a complete one-act ballet, all of which gave the company and its dancers a chance to show what they could do. But it was a much more eclectic gathering of ballets and styles – not the ‘usual’ gala pas de deux warhorses. And although the company’s dancers aren’t yet on the level of the dancers in major companies, this wasn’t the point of the performance. Rather, the point was how far they’ve gotten in such a short time, and that the company’s expectations are high.

The highlight of the evening was its second ‘Act’, given over entirely to “Cavalry Halt,” a ballet created by Marius Petipa in 1896 that is rarely performed in this country. I had never heard of it – which perhaps says more about me than it does about its rarity. But even those balletgoers I informally surveyed who knew of it only had the knowledge through online videos, and had never seen it live. It’s wonderful, and was given a rousing performance by GKBallet company dancers, apprentices, and students of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet.

Not surprisingly, “Cavalry Halt” resembles other comedic ballet that Petipa created or refined. I saw images that briefly brought to mind his “Don Quixote” (1869/1873), “Coppélia” (1884), and “La Fille mal gardée” (1885). But it’s not a carbon copy of any of these. It enlivens the music of Johann Armsheimer and Johann Strauss (the music sounds a little schmaltzy, and a little central-European John Philip Sousa), and tickles on its own merits.

The story tells of the rivalry between two peasant girls for the affection of a peasant boy, and the complications that arise when the cavalry briefly bivouacs in the village, and three soldiers of various rank and personalities fight for the affections of one of the girls – who tolerates and plays with them but is not at all interested. The story was fun enough to begin with, but the performances, in addition to being competently danced, demonstrated superlative ability to capture the essence of character. Granted that the characters in this ballet are cartoonish, with little need for character nuance, but for what they were, the performances were top notch.

Dawn Gierling and Katrina Crawford were the peasant girls Maria and Theresa – the former the town sweetheart, the latter the town firecracker – and Anderson Souza was the object of their affection. All three of the lead cavalrymen brilliantly portrayed, and skewered, the character-types they represented. Erez Ben-Zion Milatin played the romantic, love-starved, and clueless Coronet (lowest rank) perfectly. As his superior, the Rotmeister, Johnny Almeida was nouveau-full-of-himself, as irresistible to women (in his mind) as he was to himself. And The General, Alexander Mays (a student at the GK school) was a lovable buffoon (similar to Gamache in “Don Q”, but more funny than fey), who knew that women would, or at least should, fall at his feet because he was the leader of the pack – unless he fell at their feet first. The remainder of the cast (eight Cavalry Men, seven Peasant Men, ten Peasant Ladies including featured soloists Nicole Assaud and Michelle Katcher, and eight GK School students in the Hungarian divertissement) did an equally fine job. The piece was effectively staged by Nikolai Levitsky and Vera Solovyeva.

“Cavalry Halt” was as impressive as it was because it was so well executed. And it was so well executed because, apparently, it was prepared and rehearsed so well. But it didn’t lose any of its appearance of naturalness, or of spontaneity, as a result. The performance of “Raymonda Suite,” which opened the program, didn’t fare quite as well.

“Raymonda Suite” is an excerpt from the evening-length Petipa ballet “Raymonda,” which once was a frequent component of ABT performing seasons but hasn’t been performed in some time. The piece shows the GKBallet dancers’ remarkable facility given their level of experience, but also that it’s a stretch – particularly for the men.

The story excerpt is of the Hungarian wedding celebration of Countess Raymonda to her dashing knight, Jean de Brienne, and the style is classical/Hungarian folk. India Rose did a fine job with her portrayal of Raymonda, and although Mr. Almeida looked more starched than he needed to be, his portrayal of Jean de Brienne was well done. But overall the piece looks like it had been fine-tuned to within an inch of its life. Getting the style right is a commendable goal, and one expects the style to be executed appropriately both by the leads and the corps. But there’s a fine line between getting the style right and making it look regimented. It’s appropriate and essential, for example, to have the corps of white swans in “Swan Lake” dancing the same style and in unison. Here, however, the corps is supposed to be comprised of ‘real’ people celebrating, and to me the corps looked unnaturally uniform. Every hand gesture, every head cock, was exactly the same on every woman in the corps. They got it right – though to me they looked robotic. But perhaps this was also an understandable display of opening night/opening piece jitters. They all looked just a little stiff.

Dawn Gierling and Cristian Laverde Koenig in the pas de deux from Anthony Tudor's 'Leaves are Fading'.  Photo © Eduardo Patino

Dawn Gierling and Cristian Laverde Koenig in the pas de deux from Anthony Tudor’s ‘Leaves are Fading’.
Photo © Eduardo Patino

However, any sense of ‘stiffness’ disappeared as the program continued. Antony Tudor’s the “Leaves Are Fading” is one of my favorite ballets, evocative and sensitive without being overly syrupy, the ballet nudges the heart to remember things past with reflective joy. Its highlight is the central pas de deux, danced at its world premiere by Ms. Kirkland and Jonas Kage, and to this day, nearly forty years later, I can still see Ms. Kirkland balanced on Mr. Kage’s thighs, and can still feel my heart exploding out of my chest and the tears streaming down my face. It is one of the most choreographically unexpected, searing, and seminal images of ‘true love’ (as opposed to MacMillan-esque images of ‘passionate love’, which has its own merit but from a different emotional galaxy) that I know. It sounds soapy, but it doesn’t come across that way. It comes across real.

The pas de deux loses some of its magic when danced as an excerpt, and particularly loses its reason for being when it’s performed as some sort of representation of ‘mature’ love. It isn’t. As danced that opening night, it’s a representation of the realization by young lovers that their love is real and will endure. The GKBallet’s program note describes it as a meditation on ‘maturing’ love. I can accept that – it starts as one of many summer romances, but grows before our eyes to something much more wonderful. Ms. Gierling doesn’t resemble Ms. Kirkland, but she’s very sweet-looking and dances the role beautifully. Christian Laverde Koenig (who is not listed on the company’s roster of dancers or apprentices, which I assume was a copy-reading omission), nicely complemented her, and added an appropriate sense of mysticism – of being overwhelmed by a force that was suddenly…there. Their performances were a credit to the staging by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner (who also danced this pas de deux exquisitely during their years with ABT), to Ms. Kirkland’s coaching, and to their own dedication to getting it right.

“Ballebille” is an excerpt from the third act of “Napoli”, an iconic ballet by August Bournonville (other excerpts used to be a fixture in programs, years ago, whenever the Royal Danish Ballet visited New York). The Bournonville style is not the easiest to replicate, but the GKBallet’s dancers – including the men – did a very nice job with it. Madeline Graber (a company apprentice) and Mr. Souza led the piece.

“Ballebille” was followed by the pas de deux from “Flames of Paris” the only dance on the program that one might consider relatively familiar. Choreographed by Vasily Vainonen in 1932, the piece, and particularly the pas de deux, is a rousing paean to Russian classicism as well as Soviet ballet athleticism. Its subject is the French Revolution, and it’s a barely camouflaged salute to the triumph of the People over tyranny (see also “Spartacus”, which the Bolshoi Ballet is scheduled to dance in New York this summer). Mr. Ben-Zion Milatin and Ms. Assaad (another company apprentice) delivered a thrillingly exuberant performance.

Act I concluded with a performance of “Pas de Quatre”, the pastiche on, and salute to, the leading ballerinas of their time who originally danced the piece in 1845, each of whom was known for, and immediately recognizable by, her own particular style and strength. The ballet was reconstructed for ABT by Sir Anton Dolin in 1941, and was here staged by Jelko Yuresha. It’s noteworthy because it clearly and successfully displays differences that a particular ballerina, because of her unique performing personality, can bring to a performance, much as Ms. Kirkland brought her own particular style to performances. The GKBallet dancers executed remarkably well, delivering appropriate stylistic nuances that made their ‘characters’’ performances unique. Anastasia Barsukova was Lucille Grahn, Ms Katcher portrayed Carlotta Grisi, Nicole Fedorov danced the role of Fanny Cerrito, and Katia Raj was Marie Taglioni (and eerily looked like images I’ve seen of Ms. Taglioni).

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet is not yet a major ballet company. It’s too soon, and ballet companies, like swans, aren’t hatched fully grown. A significant turning point will be if, and when, the company develops a style of its own rather than replicating classical styles to perfection. But that’s far down the road. Or perhaps Ms. Kirkland (who did not take post-performance bows; my understanding is that she was ill) prefers that the company grow as an accurate repository of classical style, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing — it’s something that New York Theater Ballet has done successfully, with respect to more contemporary dances and styles, for many years. But I suspect that Ms. Kirkland and her co-Artistic Director Michael Chernov have grander ambitions, and New York will always have room for another major ballet company.