Square Dance, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Le Tombeau de Couperin, This Bitter Earth, The Concert

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 18, 2014 (m)

Colleen Boresta

New York City Ballet in 'Le Tombeau de Couperin'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Saturday’s Masters at Work program gave the audience the gift of three Balanchine ballets, one from Robbins and a Christopher Wheeldon pas de deux.

The afternoon began with “Square Dance”, which Balanchine set to the music of Vivaldi and Corelli. When the ballet was first created in 1957, it featured an actual square dance caller. That was removed in the 1970s, when Balanchine also added a solo for the lead male dancer.

The lead dancers (one female and one male) take over the role of the caller. They present the steps and corps de ballet repeats them. On Saturday afternoon the leads were danced by Abi Stafford and Taylor Stanley. Stafford is a dancer I have never quite gotten. Her dancing is always clean and she doesn’t make mistakes but I rarely find anything special about her performances. In “Square Dance”, her footwork lacked the sparkling precision needed.

Taylor Stanley, however, was absolutely delightful.  Corelli’s and Vivaldi’s music sang through every pore of his body. In his solo he showed great refinement and control. The corps de ballet also performed very well.

Balanchine’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music by Georges Bizet is loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. A toy soldier falls in love with a paper doll. He gives her his heart as a sign of his affection.  She returns his feelings and becomes so excited by her passion that she opens the windows, the resulting draft causing the doll to fall into the fireplace. The only thing left is the tin soldier’s heart.

Erica Perreira and Daniel Ulbricht were sweetly poignant as the two toys in love. Ulbricht impressed with exciting leaps and barrel turns while still looking like a mechanical figure. Perreira whirled across the stage at a breakneck pace after receiving the soldier’s heart. Their pas de deux was rich with both humor and emotion.

Balanchine set “Le Tombeau de Couperin” to a score by Ravel, written for six of the composer’s friends who died during World War I. The ballet features no soloists. Instead eight couples are divided into left and right quadrilles. Both the music and dancing are very pretty, but “Le Tombeau” does not hold my attention. The choreography is very repetitious, making this relatively brief work seem endless.

“That Bitter Earth” is a pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet “Five Moments, Three Repeats”. Set to a reworking by Max Richter of Dinah Washington’s 1960 song “This Bitter Earth”, the duet is absolutely magical.

Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon’s most spellbinding muse, was partnered by Tyler Angle. Together they took the audience to another world; a world so hauntingly beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. This was my last time seeing Whelan dance with New York City Ballet. She will be greatly missed. I doubt I will ever be able to see one of Wheeldon’s ballets – such as ‘Liturgy’, ‘Polyphonia’ and especially ‘After the Rain’ – without wishing Whelan was still dancing the leading role.

The afternoon ended with what is, in my opinion, the funniest ballet every created – Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert”. This work shows concertgoers transported by Chopin’s music to realms of make-believe or just plain silliness.

The piece starts with the pianist Elaine Chelton arriving on stage. She really sets the mood for Robbins’ comedy, scrubbing her eyeglasses for quite a bit of time before wiping the piano, causing a gigantic amount of dust to float into the air.

After this the audience enters with their folding chairs. They are all different. There are two gossipy ladies; a severe woman taking no guff from the rest of the concert goers; a vulgar, cigar-chomping man with his overbearing wife; a milquetoast student; and an exquisite young lady so enraptured by Chopin’s music that she nestles up to the piano and embraces it.

As they listen to Chopin’s music, several of the audience act out related fantasies. The cigar-chomping man imagines killing his wife with a knife, then dreams about becoming a hussar who carries off the gorgeous music lover. Even in his fantasies, however, his domineering wife puts an end to his fun.

Six ballerinas dance “The Mistake Waltz” where the girl on the end is always out of step. The beautiful music lover pictures herself trying on several hats. She is ecstatically happy when she finally finds the right one until she runs into another Chopin lover wearing an identical hat. The now unhappy music lover slinks off the stage.

Next the audience hold up big black umbrellas to the tune of “The Raindrop Prelude”. None of them are sure that they have really felt a drop of rain until they lift up the enchanting music lover who twirls her open umbrella and discovers there is no rain. She closes up her umbrella as she gently descends to the stage floor. The dance is both hauntingly beautiful and very funny.

As the pianist plays Chopin’s “The Butterfly Etude” all the concertgoers imagine they are butterflies fluttering around the stage. The pianist gets up, seizes a big butterfly net and starts chasing the audience members from the stage.

“The Concert” is over far too soon. I could have stayed with that bunch of Chopin lovers forever. All of the performers are absolutely splendid, but a few deserve special attention. Sterling Hyltin as the gorgeous music lover, Andrew Veyette as the cigar-chomping oaf and Lydia Wellington as his bossy wife all showed off their spot on comic timing. What a perfect ending to a wonderful afternoon.