David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 5 and 12, 2013

Jerry Hochman

“La Sonnambula”, “Prodigal Son”, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”

Janie Taylor and Sebastian Marcovici in "La Sonnambula" Photo © Paul Kolnik

Janie Taylor and Sebastian Marcovici in “La Sonnambula”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

“Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” is a glamorous-looking ballet that appears to be excised from a larger whole. “La Sonnambula,” is also a glamorous-looking ballet that appears to be part of a larger whole. But while ‘Namouna’ looks incoherent, George Balanchine’s classic short story ballet is clear as a bell. That you can’t quite figure out what’s going on is your problem, not the ballet’s. It may be a gothic love story, or a gothic ghost story, or a murder/mystery, but its enigma is part of its brilliance, and part of its charm. Based on a story by Vittorio Rieti, and on musical themes from a variety of operas by Vincenzo Bellini (including “La Sonnambula”), Balanchine’s ballet is as gorgeous, alluring, and mysterious as a beautiful hothouse flower that has never breathed fresh air.

The ballet takes place at the darkly enchanting but somewhat claustrophobic and atmospherically sinister home of a haughty aristocrat who is hosting a masked ball attended by opulently dressed couples. This host (identified as ‘The Baron’) is escorting a girl identified as “The Coquette.” We do not know the relationship between the Coquette and the Baron, only that there is one. A man identified as “The “Poet” enters the ballroom.  He may have been an unexpected guest, but he’s welcomed by the Baron.  There is an immediate attraction between the Poet and the Coquette (as if, perhaps, they had known each other previously). The Baron then leaves the room, and while he is absent the Poet ardently pursues the Coquette, and the Coquette circles the Poet as if she were a bird suddenly released from captivity and the Poet was her prey. The host subsequently returns to the ballroom, invites the guests to dinner, and separates the Coquette from the Poet.  Now alone in the ballroom, the Poet suddenly sees a woman in white emerging from an area of rooms outside the ballroom, holding a lit candle. The woman, who appears to be sleepwalking, moves like an apparition – but she somehow senses any obstacle in her path. His curiosity piqued, the Poet plays with the Sleepwalker, manipulating her as if she were a dandelion flower in the breeze. The fascination turns into something more, and when the Sleepwalker leaves the ballroom, he follows her.  After all the guests return to the ballroom, the jealous Coquette tells him what transpired between the Poet and the Sleepwalker.  The Baron then storms after them, returning knife in hand. The Poet reenters the ballroom, mortally wounded. As the guests watch awestruck, the Sleepwalker cradles the Poet in her arms, and carries him off to wherever she dwells in the house.

We don’t know who these people are (other than their character identities), the nature of the relationships between them, why the Sleepwalker is imprisoned (or if she is), and what she does with the Poet’s lifeless body. But none of this matters. Balanchine’s exquisite and clever choreography is unforgettable.

As the Sleepwalker on the 5th, Janie Taylor was a perfect, other-worldly vision, with Sebastien Marcovici her bemused and bewitched Poet.   At this same performance, Amar Ramasar (the Baron/host) and Faye Arthurs (dancing the Coquette like a coiled viper) were both excellent.  For me, this was Ms. Arthur’s best performance to date. The pas de deux (within a series of divertissement during the masked ball) was danced engagingly by Lauren King, in her role debut, and Antonio Carmena.  And Daniel Ulbricht brought the house down as the Harlequin (also one of the masked-ball divertissement).

The cast last night yielded a very different impression.  Robert Fairchild reprised his role as the Poet, and Sterling Hyltin, who had debuted in the role the previous night, was the Sleepwalker.  The Baron was played by Justin Peck, and Lauren Lovette (who also debuted in her role the previous night) and Craig Hall danced the pas de deux.

Mr. Fairchild, whom I had not previously seen dance the Poet, was extraordinary. In every role I’ve seen him dance that requires a dramatic component, he gives it an edge, an extra dimension, which no one else does. This Poet was not simply impassioned and bewildered (which he was) – he was stunned and awestruck by what he was seeing.  It was an electrifying portrayal.

Since the role of the Sleepwalker has no facial expression or extraneous body movement, it’s curious to see how different dancers can give different nuances to the role solely by their appearance and demeanor. I’ve seen Ms. Taylor dance the Sleepwalker many times previously, including last week. It is a role she does very well. Her ‘Sleepwalker’ comes across as ethereal and ghostly, a lovely moving spirit.  But her character is also vacant. The only part of the Sleepwalker’s brain that appears to be functioning is that which allows her to move and to sense the presence of an obstacle in her path.

Ms. Hyltin’s performance was not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than Ms. Taylor’s – just different.

Although the choreography is the same, Ms. Hyltin gave the role a slightly different character just by her appearance. Through her performances, it’s clear that Ms. Hyltin doesn’t just dance a role – she thinks it, and I doubt that she could look ‘vacant’ if she tried. Accordingly, her ‘Sleepwalker’ was very different. This was a woman whose brain, as well as her body, was functioning as she walked in her sleep. You could see it in her face. Just that small difference carries huge significance. Ms. Hyltin’s “Sleepwalker” is a more complete and complex person, not just a presence. She’s not just ethereal (indeed, Ms. Hyltin didn’t convey the incorporeal sense of being a leaf blown by a breeze as Ms. Taylor did). She’s curiously strong and fragile at the same time, but not weightless. And perhaps as a consequence, instead of just observing the Sleepwalker do what she does, and wondering where she came from and how she can sense obstacles in her path, with Ms. Hyltin’s Sleepwalker you wonder about her – who she is; what happened to her; what will happen to her. It’s more real.

With the same choreography and no facial movement, some of the ‘different character’ I sensed in Ms. Hyltin’s portrayal must be subjective. But enough people I spoke with after the performance shared my impression, so it’s clearly something about ‘her’, rather than something about any particular audience member’s idiosyncratic response to her.  [The first “La Sonnambula” performance I saw featured Allegra Kent in the role of the ‘Sleepwalker’ late in her career. Ms. Kent attended last night’s performance. I would love to have heard her impression of Ms. Hyltin’s performance, but was unable to get close enough to speak with her.]

At this same performance, as the Baron/host, Justin Peck lacked the intensity that Mr. Amasar brought to it previously.  But in the pas de deux, Ms. Lovette and Mr. Hall had intensity to spare.  Each was superb.  In this pas de deux, the female dancer must perform the stylized choreography, but be believably seductive at the same time. Ms. Lovette cut through the exaggerated choreography with razor-sharp precision.  As for the quality of seductiveness, other dancers I’ve seen in this role have the sensuality grafted on – they perform it well, but they’re performing. With Ms. Lovette, it comes from within.

“Prodigal Son,” an early (1929) and indisputable Balanchine masterpiece, remains as compelling as ever. I would have appreciated more power from Joaquin De Luz, and more of a siren from Teresa Reichlen (she’s too mechanical – an automaton more than a siren), but both have grown in their roles since I saw them previously.  Although he too lacked the inherent power (particularly in the use of his hands) that I’ve seen in previous portrayals, Jonathan Stafford was the commanding but loving patriarch.  Troy Schumacher and Giovanni Villalobos were very good as the Servants who enthusiastically convert to the found debauchery.  And displaying once again that there are no small roles, Marika Anderson and Likolani Brown were the vibrant Daughters.

I reviewed “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” last Spring, and Balanchine’s classic, lifted from the Broadway musical “On Your Toes,” is as skillfully staged and performed as it was then, with the same extraordinary performances by Maria Kowroski and Mr. Angle. And seeing ‘Slaughter’ immediately following ‘Prodigal’ enabled me to see a connection, both thematically and choreographically, between the Siren in ‘Prodigal’ and the Stripper in ‘Slaughter’ that I had not previously considered. The connection tickles, but it’s a thesis for anothe