David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
October 11, 2015
Sunday afternoon’s program of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 and Liebeslieder Walzer, both New York City Ballet staples over the years, marked the final time that the dances would be performed this season. That they were danced impeccably by their respective leads was no surprise, but the evening and the audience belonged to Jennie Somogyi, whose farewell performance it was.
Somogyi’s career with NYCB has been marked by both extraordinary talent and an extraordinary amount of true grit. She was nine when she joined the School of American Ballet, on full scholarship, and was cast as Marie in Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in her first year. After a year as an apprentice, she became a member of the NYCB corps in 1994, was promoted to soloist in 1998, and to principal two years later, when she was 23. Three years later, she tore a tendon in her left foot. She eventually came back, slowly, but subsequently injured her right Achilles tendon. She came back from that too. In 2014, she tore her left tendon again. A friend who witnessed this stage injury wrote to me that surely this must have finally ended her career. But Somogyi knew better and she returned once again.
Based on Somogyi’s exquisite performance in the afternoon’s Liebeslieder Walzer, she still has years of dancing left, but she has decided now is the time to say goodbye.
Before Somogyi’s emotional farewell came Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, one of many superb examples of Balanchine’s collaboration with Tchaikovsky. While a paean to Russian classical ballet, it’s much more than that. From the fluid and emotionally nuanced opening movement, to the second movement’s melodrama, to the rapid-fire explosiveness of the third – each in relatively dim light and with ballerinas wearing Romantic tutus and with their hair down – to the magnificent visual clarity of the classical Theme and Variations, each taking place under the watchful eyes of opulent chandeliers beaming like proud fairy godmothers, the piece is one of Balanchine’s most glorious masterpieces.
The lead dancers in each segment performed marvelously: Rebecca Krohn and Russell Janzen in the opening Elegie, Megan LeCrone and Justin Peck in the Valse Melancolique, Ana Sophia Scheller and Antonio Carmena in the Scherzo, and Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette in Tema Con Variazioni. I had not previously seen LeCrone in this role (she debuted a few days earlier), and she executed with the appropriate air of mystery. Peck demonstrated yet again why she is a world-class ballerina, weaving nuance and breathtaking phrasing into her performance beyond what’s already in the choreography, and Scheller, who herself has returned after a lengthy recuperation following an injury, was particularly noteworthy in her role.
Liebeslieder Walzer, created in 1960, is one of Balanchine’s more opaque pieces, but it’s a masterwork nonetheless. It is comprised of two related works by Johannes Brahms, Liebeslieder Walzer (Op. 52) and Nieu Liebeslieder Walzer (Op.65), composed in 1869 and 1874 respectively. Unlike Vienna Waltzes, a grand monument to the waltz form and to the Vienna of the Hapsburgs and which NYCB will revisit during its Spring, 2016 season, Liebeslieder Walzer is intimate and romantic, as Brahms intended (‘liebeslieder’ translates as ‘love songs’). The dance takes place in a large room in a stately manse rather than in an ornate ballroom, with two pianists and a vocal quartet sharing the stage with the dancers, as they likely would have in a chamber setting in mid-19th century Vienna.
Brahms’ music is more complex than one might expect from a series of waltzes, and Balanchine’s choreography is appropriately dense and nuanced, with changes in the dancers’ mood reflecting the changes in the musical mood, from effervescent to sorrowful, from love declared to love lost, and from the mundane to the spiritual. All four couples – Sterling Hyltin (continuing where she left off after her brilliant season last spring) and Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey and Justin Peck, Sara Mearns and Ask la Cour, and Somogyi and Tyler Angle – performed with particular flair.
But this was Somogyi’s performance. She danced with exquisite luminosity and emotional grace throughout, frequently prompting cheers from the knowledgeable audience, which clearly was there to see her. To say she went out on a high note would be an understatement.
After the curtain came down on the post-performance bows, the usual farewell festivities began. The curtain rose again to show Somogyi alone at center-stage, and the audience immediately rose in joyful salute. She is a dancer who, it seems, everybody on stage and in the house not only appreciates for her courage, but genuinely likes. As the cheering continued, she was presented with bouquet after bouquet of roses by the dancers who shared this last performance with her, individual roses by individual principals (including those who had not performed all season because of their own injuries and recuperations), and salutations from members of the corps. Peter Martins joined them, as did recent retirees, including Wendy Whelan. Finally, wiping back tears, she was joined by her husband and young daughter, who looks like she could be a budding dancer herself. Somogyi invited her to share the final bows with her, but she was too shy – or too smart – to interfere with her mother’s individual acclaim. But I suspect she’ll remember her mother’s ovations for a long time to come. And perhaps she’ll also remember how her mother overcame repeated adversity, and ended her NYCB dancing career triumphantly and on her feet.