David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 6, 2013

Jerry Hochman

“Carnival of the Animals”, “Jeu de Cartes’’, “The Four Seasons”

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Megan Fairchild and Taylor Stanley in “Jeu de Cartes”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

While an evening of Balanchine short story ballets may have been too much of a good thing (like the evening devoted to Balanchine Black and White Ballets the previous week), an evening entitled ‘Family Fun’ might cause one without children in tow to run the other way. That would have been a mistake. Each ballet on this program was enjoyable, and one was extraordinary. I’ll discuss them in reverse performance order.

Jerome Robbins’s “The Four Seasons” is one of his classic pieces. It is not insubstantial, but it has a light mood, and is punctuated by humor throughout. The ballet is based on music by Giuseppe Verdi (“I Vespri Siciliani,” augmented with music from “I Lombardi” and “Il Trovatore”), and was intended to replicate the form of a third act opera ballet divertissement to accompany “I Vespri Siciliani.” The snowflake-like dancers in the ‘Winter’ segment try to stay warm, the dancers in ‘Spring’ move tentatively at first and then explode with vibrancy as the season progresses, the ‘Summer’ dancers are sultry and seductive, and the ‘Autumn’ dancers celebrate the refreshing air and the promise of the beginning of a new yearly cycle. Erica Pereira led the Winter dancers (abetted by Troy Shumacher and Ralph Ippolito); Sterling Hyltin, accompanied by Mr. Angle, was the breath of Spring; Rebecca Krohn, partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring, danced sultry Summer, and Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette (with Antonio Carmena the sprightly faun) were superb embodiments of refreshing autumnal energy.

“Jeu de Cartes,” choreographed by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins in 1992 to a 1936 score by Stravinsky of the same name, is somewhat of a puzzlement. It’s entertaining, but, except for the colorful costumes for the principals and the strikingly simple costumes for the corps (by Ian Falconer), it doesn’t have any particular relationship to a game of cards, nor does it sufficiently distinguish between segments of the score (shuffles of the deck). Since I was lukewarm to the other version of “Jeu de Cartes” I’ve seen (choreographed by John Cranko) for the same reason, I suspect that my problem is more with the score’s relationship to a ‘game of cards’ than the choreography. But whether there are sufficient ‘card-game’ relationships inherent in the music and the choreography to support the thematic simile, there is no doubt that Mr. Martins’s choreography is vibrant to watch and was executed with flair. In the principal roles, Mr. Danchig-Waring was a somewhat low-key King of Clubs, Joaquin De Luz an energetic Ace of Spades, and Taylor Stanley, a dynamic and thrilling Jack of Diamonds. As the Queen of Hearts, Megan Fairchild was wonderful, blending personality coloration with sparkling technique.

As good as these ballets and performances were, the highlight of the evening was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals,” and the highlight of that performance was Lauren Lovette.

At the end of last season, I complained that certain of the repertory choices for 2013-2014 had been poorly made, and with respect to Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography, I would have preferred something other than “Carnival of the Animals.” While I still would like to see again the other Wheeldon ballets I offered as alternative choices, my memory had dimmed as to how fine a piece Mr. Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals” is. It’s everything a ‘family fun’ ballet should be, and much more.

New York City Ballet in "Carnival of the Animals" Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in “Carnival of the Animals”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Choreographed to “Le Carnaval Des Animaux” by Camille Saint-Saens, the ballet tells the story of a boy (‘Oliver’) who falls asleep while on a class trip to the American Museum of Natural History. While he sleeps, the animals in the museum come to life, and resemble characters in Oliver’s life. Fine, you say. So we have a bunch of dancers running around in animal outfits like the mice in “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’”. Not exactly. The animals (and other inhabitants of Oliver’s memory) that come to life are recognizable dancers acting like animal characters in Oliver’s memory, most with minimal costume. Among others, Oliver’s classmates become weasels and rats, his teacher a lion, members of the school wrestling team morph into jackasses (it’s funny – not necessarily social commentary), an aunt becomes a swan-memory, and a bookish librarian becomes a kangaroo who dreams of, and becomes, a mermaid in a sea of humanoid fish. The choreography is uniformly ingenious, and the dancing was uniformly wonderful. It was great fun – great, and fun.

Lauren Lovette in "Carnival of the Animals" Photo © Paul Kolnik

Lauren Lovette in “Carnival of the Animals”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

It also was an excellent opportunity to watch NYCB dancers act. Every one of the dancers created an outstanding character that went beyond caricature. These were, after all, human animals. And they all seemed to be having a blast. While I cannot list each member of the superlative cast here, highlights include Ms. Kowroski’s remembered ‘Swan’, and Ms. Pollack and Georgina Pazcoguin’s tortoises. [I must also recognize Jack Noseworthy’s Narrator (reading the narration originally written and performed by John Lithgow), and the performance of Maximilian Brooking Landegger, an SAB student, as Oliver.]  Most noteworthy, however, was Ms. Lovette’s kangaroo/mermaid.  The kangaroo as envisioned by Mr. Wheeldon wears eyeglasses and is somewhat frumpy-looking, but at the same time moves its legs like they were intricate and precision mechanical stilts. The legs go up and come down and then go up and come down again in slightly different positions on the floor, at a rapid-fire pace.  Ms. Lovette’s kangaroo was a lovable bookworm with non-stop restless legs.  And when the librarian/kangaroo becomes a mermaid, she’s not just any mermaid, she’s Oliver’s dream of a mermaid.  As performed by Ms. Lovette, this mermaid floats through the imagined ocean like a waterborne sensual angel.  Ms. Lovette has a remarkable stage presence, with the ability to combine sensuality with innocence, and to make the most intricate of steps look lyrical. But I never expected to see all these traits in the same performance. As I overheard one observer say, her performances are magical. This was, perhaps, the most magical of them all. To date.