February 25: La Stravaganza, A Place for Us, Todo Buenos Aires
February 27: Bal de Couture, DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse, The Four Seasons
David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
Much of New York City Ballet’s 2013-2014 season reflects a ‘holding pattern’. That is, the programs consist of less than the usual quota of masterpieces within the company’s historic repertoire, and more than the usual quota of repeated programs, presumably to cut costs. Nevertheless, the final week of the winter season featured more memorable performances from its outstanding dancers, including its current crop of super-soloists.
Translated from the Italian, ‘la stravaganza’ means ‘extravagance’. But it can also mean ‘craziness’ or ‘weirdness’ or similar, depending on the context. To me, Mr. Preljocaj’s “La Stravaganza”, which premiered in 1997, fits neatly within the latter definition. Like “Spectral Evidence”, his second piece for NYCB which premiered last season, it’s a ‘concept’ dance. But unlike “Spectral Evidence”, it doesn’t work nearly as well because it doesn’t say anything or have a point of view – it’s just the visualization of a very weird idea.
Mr. Preljocaj imagines a culture clash between contemporary dancers and dancers from the 17th Century Baroque era. But he gives this idea, which itself is a reality twist, another twist – he also envisions the contemporary dancers moving to Baroque music (selections from Vivaldi), and the Baroque dancers moving to contemporary electronic music (from a potpourri of sources). On to this premise he concocts a ballet in which never the twain shall meet – except at times they do (whether in a dream or in ‘real time’ within the fantasy ballet is not clear), and at times one of the contemporary women is drawn to the Baroque dancers (or maybe to the electronic music to which the Baroque dancers are moving) but is forbidden to switch sides. Maybe the twain are never supposed to really meet. Or maybe they should, but can’t. Or maybe she’ll be vaporized if she really time travels. Whatever, it’s strange and somewhat intellectually tickling, and at times lovely to watch unfold, but nothing more.
Weird concepts often have been translated into effective dances. Indeed, much of ballet can be seen as a visualization of strange concepts. But the double-twist of the idea, and the murky references to a potential reconciliation between the cultures, renders any ‘read’ on what Mr. Preljocaj is trying to say impossible. Although clarity of intent is not a requirement, the absence of it here converts an interesting visualization into a head-scratching puzzle. It could have been so much better. On February 25th, Sara Adams, Brittany Pollack, Gretchen Smith, Devin Alberda, Joseph Gordon, and Allen Peiffer were the ‘contemporary’ dancers, and Emilie Gerrity, Clair Kretzschmar, Lydia Wellington, Daniel Applebaum, Craig Hall, and Sean Suozzi were the Baroque-era dancers.
Mr. Martins’ “Todo Buenos Aires” is considerably less complicated, and considerably more successful. The piece, which originally premiered in 2000, was revised to its current, expanded, form in 2005 (led at that re-premiere by guest artist Julio Bocca). It’s all Argentine tango (to five different tangos by 20th Century Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, who expanded and revolutionized the form by adding jazz and classical elements, resulting in a style known as ‘nuevo tango’) converted into ballet steps in a relatively standard ballet form of presentation. That is, although the emphasis throughout is on the tango’s emotional passion and aggressive, testosterone-driven action, this sense is communicated through the music using ballet vocabulary, and in the context of a ballet divided into discrete segments into which one group of dancers or another dance (as pairs, trios, all male, or solo). It’s not the tango, but it is. And it’s not ballet, but it is. But whatever it is, it works – perhaps not with the finesse evident in Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” (with respect to ‘Western’ American dance forms and music), but it’s very entertaining. Maria Kowroski and Ashley Laracey, smoldering appropriately and matching each other in intense aloofness, shuttled between their respective partners Jared Angle and Robert Fairchild, and Adrian Danchig-Waring and Amar Ramasar. Joaquin De Luz, whether dancing solo or leading others, tied the piece together with extraordinary vitality and pizazz. The music, arranged by Ron Wasserman, was played with consummate skill by Kurt Nikkanen on violin, Steven Hartman on clarinet, Mr. Wasserman on double bass, Nancy McDill on piano, and JP Jofre on the essential instrument of the tango, the bandoneon.
The program was completed by “A Place for Us,” performed by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. It premiered last spring with the same leads, and, though superbly executed, is not one of Mr. Wheeldon’s best efforts. Intended as a ‘thank you’ to Mr. Robbins, the piece structurally resembles “Other Dances”. But to me the music (by Andre Previn and Leonard Bernstein) doesn’t have the compositional substance to which dances, even brief duets, would naturally adhere in the way the Robbins dances do so naturally to the Chopin music he used. The music fades into the background, and the dances lose focus.
On the other hand, “DGV” is a memorable ballet, one of Mr. Wheeldon’s finest efforts, and one that is thrilling to watch from beginning to end. On 27th, and except for a repeat performance by Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia as the second couple, the cast was different from that seen and reviewed several weeks earlier.
As the initial featured couple, Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild assumed the roles that I previously saw performed by Teresa Reichlen and Craig Hall. Although I preferred what I saw as Ms. Reichlen’s more crisp, less balletic, execution, Ms. Mearns, with Mr. Fairchild’s attentive partnering, danced the role impeccably.
Equally fine was Brittany Pollack’s execution of the role performed earlier this season by Ms. Peck. Although she appears taller than any of NYCB’s ballerina speed demons, Ms. Pollack nevertheless seems to thrive on speed, dancing with engaging abandon to accompany her secure technique. I haven’t seen her misfire in any role in which she’s been cast since she was promoted to soloist last year. But the most significant cast change was evident in soloist Lauren Lovette’s performance in the role danced previously this season by Ms. Kowroski.
I was unable to see Ms. Lovette’s “DGV” debut two weeks ago, but word travels fast. During intermission at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s opening night, a friend with whom I was speaking received a text from another friend who was attending NYCB that night. He wrote excitedly that Ms. Lovette had just killed the role. For those uninitiated in ballet-goer jargon, that means she nailed it – only more emphatically. Ms. Lovette, who seems to generate excited ‘buzz’ in whatever she dances, ‘killed it’ at Thursday’s performance as well.
This role in “DGV” is almost painful to watch. It requires meticulous execution, but because it’s unveiled slowly, it also looks particularly tortured and difficult to perform. There’s no margin for error; it’s either danced flawlessly, or it’s not. With her extraordinary extensions and remarkable control, Ms. Kowroski dances the role perfectly; seemingly no one could dance it better. And perhaps no one can. But based on the performance on February 27th, Ms. Lovette already dances it extraordinarily well herself, and brings with it a personal style that makes her performance of it yet another particular and individual triumph.
Ms. Lovette is several inches shorter than Ms. Kowroski, but somehow her performance delivered the same physical impact. Her legs couldn’t be as long as Ms. Kowroski’s – but they looked as long. Her extension couldn’t be as dramatic as Ms. Kowroski’s – but it looked equally dramatic. And, aided by superb partnering by Mr. Hall, her control was equally remarkable. But more importantly, she added a personal quality that converted what usually comes across as a cold and mechanical role where technique is everything into a performance to appreciate based on it being danced by her. In the middle of this demanding role, which looked excruciating, Ms. Lovette broke the automaton barrier and smiled, either very pleased with her performance, Mr. Hall’s partnering, that she had gotten through the toughest part, or, most likely, because that’s just her infectious personality. It made her portrayal human, and gave it a quality of warmth I have not previously seen. And it prompted a text from me to a friend that I might be a little late leaving the theater in order to gather my socks – which Ms. Lovette had knocked off.
When she danced her first featured role in Mr. Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” three years ago, I observed that Ms. Lovette appeared small and pretty enough to be a cute soubrette, but also to be talented enough to be a lot more than that. With her stunning debut performances in both this role and that of the ‘girl in apricot’ in “Dances at a Gathering” a few weeks earlier, she accomplishes exactly what I saw in her then, perhaps more than any of the other roles that she has successfully assayed to date – excellence in roles that require dramatically different features of character as well as choreographic requirements. It also is indicative of, and demonstrative of, the extraordinary range required in a principal dancer.
The final ballet on the evening’s program was “The Four Seasons,” a crowd-pleasing piece that at the same time skewers and enhances, and perfectly visualizes, Vivaldi’s score. I’ve seen Erica Pereira dance the lead in ‘Winter’ previously, and her natural effervescence continues to make her rendition particularly special.
I’d not seen Sterling Hyltin previously dance the lead in ‘Spring,’ so her portrayal was new to me – but her performance in this role proved no different from her performances in others that I’ve seen. I’ve written before that Ms. Hyltin adds a measure of individuality and intelligence to whatever she does – she thinks through every step and gesture. That’s not exceptional – every professional dancer does that. But Ms. Hyltin doesn’t think it through just to get the performance technically ‘right’, but to get it to conform to her independent idea of what the role should look like. She doesn’t reinvent steps, she just executes them in a way that gives the role added meaning. So she did here, abetted by her partner Tyler Angle. The position of her head, hands and arms when she responded to some musical or visual stimulus communicated spring ‘awakening’ as much as anything in the steps, the music, or the set. This is not one of the more complex roles in her repertoire, but that doesn’t seem to matter – as Ms. Hyltin often does, she made this role look just a little different, and made it look just a little better.
The portrayals in ‘Summer’ and ‘Fall’, by, respectively, Ms. Reichlen and Mr. Danchig-Waring, and Ms. Peck and Mr. Veyette, were fine performances, matching the excellent portrayals I had seen in these roles two weeks earlier. However, in the solo male lead in ‘Fall,’ Antonio Carmena was sufficiently puckish, but could not match the ebullience or crisp execution of Daniel Ulbricht in the same role.
A repeat performance of “Bal de Couture” completed the program, and was notable for the return of Chase Finlay following a lengthy period of injury recuperation. He partnered Ms. Lovette. His return, and their appearance on stage together, reawakened images in my mind of Farrell/Martins (which I’ve mentioned previously), and even in a lackluster ballet, illuminates NYCB’s future. And it makes the imminent disappearance of the JR Art Installation on the Koch Theater’s mezzanine floor, arguably this season’s greatest new artistic success, a little less difficult to take.