David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
May 6 & 13: Raymonda Variations, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Symphony in C
May 10 (mat): Glass Pieces, Opus 19/The Dreamer, The Concert
May 17 (mat): Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertanze’, Union Jack
New York City Ballet continued its Spring, 2014 season with performances of six classic ballets by George Balanchine and three by Jerome Robbins that exemplify the extraordinary legacy of both, as well as the company’s incomparable repertoire. These ballets, several of which were performed during the company’s inaugural season at Lincoln Center fifty years ago (which this season celebrates), are as significant now, and as entertaining to today’s audiences, as they were when they premiered.
When “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertanze’” premiered in 1980, the audience, didn’t seem to know what to make of it. I recall it being received with respectful applause, but not the rapture that accompanied the premiere of “Ballo della Regina” two years earlier (and which is long overdue for a revival). It had none of the excitement and accessibility of those Balanchine ballets that were instant classics, but also none of the quirkiness of his experimental works. It was different, and with its overwhelming somber ambience befitting testaments or chronicles on the eve of judgment, it was a difficult piece to like. And yet, despite its dark tone, there was something about the ballet that struck a nerve, and I’ve remembered that performance vividly ever since.
It’s been thirty four years since I’d seen ‘Davidsbundertanze’. It looks the same now as it did then, but its craft is more apparent now, and its significance is more clear. It may be ‘about’ Balanchine’s own reflections as he approaches death, as I and others thought on that first viewing. How else to interpret the ‘messenger angels/scriveners’ who briefly emerge from the wings dressed in black, appear to notate the confessional memories, and then depart? How else to view the fearful, remorseful, and mortified – in the truest sense of the word – danseur who withdraws into himself at the ballet’s end, than as a Balanchine surrogate judging himself before being judged? But its appeal strikes as more universal now.
Choreographed to Robert Schumann’s piano suite of the same name, which purportedly was a celebration of Schumann’s reconciliation with his future wife Clara Wieck, the music is heavy with emotional weight, alternating between expressions of joy and of grief. The composition is considered by many to be Schumann’s finest achievement. The ballet is certainly one of Balanchine’s. On one level, it’s a suite of exquisite dances that break relationships into component emotional parts. On another, it’s a monumental ode to the human condition as one particular human approaches death and takes account of the joys and agonies of those relationships that are the real building blocks of a life. It’s a startling, astonishing piece of work.
The set, by the estimable Rouben Ter-Arutunian, reportedly was inspired by the work of the 19th Century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It provides for a space that, in another work, might have been a palatial ballroom. But instead of glittering lights and an air of pageantry or celebration, here the space appears as old as eternity, draperies sagging with the weight of years, a sense of dimly-lit weariness, a place to wait for something else to happen. A piano is set mid-stage right. As the Schumann composition is played (by Cameron Grant, with appropriate passion), four couples take turns dancing. The dancers at times dance solo or change partners, but the four pairs generally reflect separate memories, recounting episodes of joy and turbulence within each relationship – dances at a different kind of gathering. Eventually, one of the men becomes the central figure, but it isn’t clear whether the other men are different men or different incarnations of the same man.
In the May 17 performance, each role was a debut, but each dancer performed as if he or she had been dancing it for years. The couples were Rebecca Krohn (looking extraordinarily like Suzanne Farrell in the original) and Zachary Catazaro, Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen, Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, and Ashley Laracey and Sean Suozzi. Each performed memorably, but Mr. Janzen did a particularly remarkable job with the role that required the most emotional resonance. I can still see Adam Luders in that role on opening night, but Mr. Janzen’s performance now blurs the memory.
As I’ve observed previously, the company, particularly its young principal and soloist ballerinas, is performing at an extraordinary level, top to bottom. And its corps is unusually strong. Exemplary of this are the two performances of “Le Tombeau de Couperin” on May 6 and 13, with the same cast in each. The score, in the style of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin, was originally composed by Maurice Ravel in 1919 as a piano suite with six movements to commemorate the loss of six friends in World War I. In 1920, Ravel orchestrated four of the movements, and Balanchine choreographed the ballet to this orchestration for the company’s Ravel Festival in 1972, incorporating, according to the program notes, a French Baroque style and devices. The eight pairs of dancers are separated into left and right quadrilles, both of which form varying geometric patterns that morph into new patterns as the piece progresses, and the steps are within the chosen stylistic boundaries. At times it resembles a French Baroque Square Dance.
But this description makes the ballet sound dry and academic. It’s not. On the contrary, for a ballet with its feet in 17th-18th century France, it’s remarkably modern-looking. It’s exciting to watch the interplay of the dancers within and between the quadrilles, and the patterns form and dissolve and re-form. And one can see a connection between this piece and ballets by contemporary choreographers, including NYCB soloist Justin Peck’s recent success, “Wherever We Go”.
But how the ballet works is only half the story. What matters equally is how it’s performed. The eight couples, all members of the corps in role debuts, were given an opportunity to shine. And shine they did. Each dancer executed very well, and performed with the enthusiasm essential to make something obviously abstract into a collage of personal statements. The pairs of dancers were Marika Anderson and Ralph Ippolito; Olivia Boisson and Andrew Scordato; Likolani Brown and Troy Schumacher; Jenelle Manzi and David Prottas; Gwyneth Muller and Austin Laurent; Gretchen Smith and Devin Alberda; Lara Tong and Daniel Applebaum; and Lydia Wellington and Allen Peiffer. And at each of the two performances, the audience saluted them with sustained applause and well-deserved repeated curtain calls.
Many of the other ballets on these four programs included several notable debuts in featured roles, the most stunning of which was Stering Hyltin’s in “Opus 19/The Dreamer” at the May 10 matinee. It’s difficult to believe that there are roles that Ms. Hyltin still has not tried and conquered, but this was one. She always dances roles with a somewhat different interpretation, so even though she dances the same steps as everyone else, the performance looks and feels unique. Here, she was an equal partner in the ‘dream/search’ that is at the heart of the piece. She’s both the pursued and the pursuer, prickly and vulnerable, and totally her own character. Partnered by Gonzalo Garcia at his best, Ms. Hyltin delivered a performance of extraordinary depth, and one to treasure.
“Symphony in C” is one of those Balanchine masterpieces that one never tires of seeing. Choreographed to Bizet’s “Symphony No. 1 in C Major” in 1933 for the Paris Opera Ballet, and titled “Le Palais de Crystal”, Balanchine simplified the sets for the NYCB premiere the following year. The piece is danced now with no set, but the ‘crystal’ reference has been restored, to a degree, in the costumes created by Mark Happel in 2012, which are adorned with Swarovski gems. The ballet, and the costumes, look spectacular.
The ballet works well no matter who dances it, but at both the May 6 and 13 performances, it sparkled with renewed energy. Emblematic of this was the debut of Ashly Isaacs is the Third Movement. Following a lengthy absence (presumably the result of an injury), Ms. Isaacs is now back in full command, and her execution was on the mark in all respects. The May 6 cast was finished with fine performances from Abi Stafford and Andrew Veyette, Maria Kowroski and Mr. Angle, Mr. Garcia (who partnered Ms. Isaacs), and Lauren King and Adrian Danchig-Waring. On May 13, Ms. Peck, who had debuted as the lead ballerina in the First Movement a few days earlier, danced a scintillating First Variation with Mr. Catazaro; and Ashley Laracey, who also debuted in her role a few days earlier, excelled in the Fourth Variation with her partner, Taylor Stanley. The May 13 cast was completed by Ms. Reichlen and Mr. Angle in the Second Movement, and by Ms. Isaacs and Mr. Garcia.
“Raymonda Variations,” which premiered in 1961, isn’t in the same league as “Symphony in C”. It’s may be no less a masterwork, but to me it’s more academic. Using portions of Alexander Glazunov’s score from Act I of the full ballet, Balanchine did not so much distill “Raymonda” to its essence as remove the essence of “Raymonda” from his dance. The result is an abstract ballet that is considerably less interesting than either its plotted original or other abstract pieces. Be that as it may, the performances on May 6, led by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz, were crisp and vibrant. But of greater interest were the supporting featured roles danced by Brittany Pollack, Kristen Segin, Ms. Laracey (who is having an extraordinary season), Meagan Mann, and Savannah Lowery, all of which were role debuts. Of these, and although all executed admirably, Ms. Pollack first variation and Ms. Laracey’s fifth variation were particular triumphs.
These supporting roles were repeated at the May 13 performance, with the leads danced by Lauren Lovette and Anthony Huxley, in role debuts. Ms. Lovette was particularly exciting as her legs moved like pistons and she varied her phrasing and demeanor appropriately. Mr. Huxley executed with his usual classical clarity, but looked stiff (particularly compared to Ms. Lovette) and had a pasted-on smile that never varied – both of which are indicative of appropriate nerves. But in the partnering segments, some work still needs to be done. It wasn’t a major problem, but at one point, I saw Mr. Huxley pull Ms. Lovette slightly off center as he caught her mid-pirouette, and at another the timing or centering seemed off (I couldn’t see the cause from my vantage point), effecting the demeanor of both. They recovered, but the glitches marred what otherwise were excellent debuts.
These programs were completed with fine performances of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” on May 6 and 13, with Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht once again playing off each other brilliantly; a superb performance of Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” (led by Ms. Laracey, Ms. King, Ms. Wellington, Mr. Appelbaum, Peter Walker, and Mr. Janzen in the first segment, Ms. Krohn and Amar Ramasar in the second, and excellent corps work throughout); “The Concert,” a Robbins comic masterpiece, with Maria Kowroski, Mr. Veyette, and Ms. Muller, which closed the program on May 10; and “Union Jack,” featuring Ms. Fairchild and Mr. Ramasar in the ‘Costermonger Pas de Deux’, which served the same function on May 17.
“Union Jack” bears particular mention. I’ve previously written that it’s too much of a spectacle for my taste, and the pairing with ‘Davidsbundlertanze’ seemed unwise. But there’s something to be said for an audience ingesting a ballet like candy, and the audience on 17th did. From my vantage point, they looked as entranced as children at fireworks; smiling and wide-eyed and enjoying every colorful second. During the curtain calls, the cheers were enthusiastic and boisterous, and several people broke NYCB tradition and gave the cast a standing ovation. The reaction was epitomized by a man seated several rows in front of me in the orchestra, outfitted in shorts and a white tee shirt, who entered the theater with perhaps a second to spare (perhaps The Game ran late), sat through “Davidsbundlertanze” respectfully, but registered his pleasure with “Union Jack” at every opportunity with applauding hands held high over his head. At several points, the man’s hands stopped applauding, briefly, and each hand converted into a feigned ‘revolver,’ with index fingers pointed forward and thumbs upraised. With his arms still above his head, he slowly angled his hands toward the stage and directed his pointing index fingers toward the lead dancers, and with a serious grin on his face, saluted them as if they had just scored a touchdown or anchored a double-play. The pointed fingers said ‘you the MAN!’ It didn’t matter that the ‘man’ was a ballerina. Whatever it takes.