New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 19, 24, 27, and October 5, 2019
Raymonda Variations, Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir, DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse
Opus 19/The Dreamer, The Shaded Line, Lineage, Symphony in C
Dances at a Gathering, Everywhere We Go
New York City Ballet’s Fall, 2019 season was relatively brief and with a few exceptions, relatively uneventful. Although a four-week season might be considered lengthy in other venues, for NYCB it’s short, with only six programs (including an opening week devoted almost entirely to Jewels) consisting of ballets not infrequently seen, and few major role debuts. I saw four of the programs, on September 18, 24, and 27, and October 5. But there were two significant world premieres. I’ll consider the programs generally in the order I saw them, but the premieres should be addressed at the outset. As for the remaining ballets, most are familiar, so I’ll try to keep my comments on all but a few to a minimum.
The September 24th program included the two ballets that premiered at NYCB’s Fall Gala the previous night. Of them, Edward Liang’s Lineage is by far the more enjoyable: lovely to watch, impeccably executed, and filled with movement variety based on a “folk” sensibility merged with ballet form. Lauren Lovette’s The Shaded Line is a statement dance: didactic, argumentative, annoying at times, and confusing, with a message that is both transparent and opaque. What might get lost, however, is how beautifully put together the ballet is, whether one understands and agrees with the cause(s) or not. Some of the corps movement and images (and I’m not just talking about the costumes, which are a creature of the statement, and to me overwhelm it) are striking and original, and demonstrate an admirable facility with moving bodies in space.
If Lineage has a particular intended meaning, beyond the obvious connection provided by the ballet’s title between generations and between folk and ballet, it eluded me. While the ballet’s folk roots are apparent, the particular folk references aren’t – reportedly they’re based on Georgian folk dances, but that wouldn’t be obvious to one not familiar with Georgian folk dances, and in any event there’s a similarity among folk dances from country to country that denotes a common sensibility and, perhaps, a common origin tempered by localism as evolved over centuries of relative isolation. So the folk connection is significant for the fact that it’s there and for the sensibility it transmits, not (at least to my eye) for conveying any particular meaning or relating to any particular event(s) (as in Alexei Ratmansky’s masterwork, The Russian Seasons). But whether Lineage has an intended meaning is less important than how well-crafted it is.
The dance is a knockout for the folk-connected costumes created by Anna Sui. Vibrantly fluid, the costumes (the women’s long skirts particularly, most of which are jettisoned as the dance evolves from folk with ballet characteristics to ballet with folk antecedents), present like richly infused moving mosaics or tapestries, with flecks of multiple different colors interweaving (but not merging) in the costume. As illuminated by Mark Stanley’s lighting, one significant color appeared to be gold – although seen afterward there’s no “gold” in them. Regardless, these costumes reflect a level of refinement that conveys a sense, if not of ceremony, than of an honored status.
Liang’s choreography embodies similar qualities. A former NYCB soloist and now Artistic Director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, Liang’s choreography is crystalline. For all its movement variety and varying emotional gloss it has a purity to it reflects an honored status as well.
Lineage’s abstract structure has a distinctive form, with the sixteen dancer cast and small groups weaving in and out of focus, and three of the four lead couples (Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen, and Ashley Bouder and Peter Walker) dancing independent pas de deux. But the most impressive performances in terms of the ballet’s content were by Indiana Woodward and Roman Mejia, whose presence made the dance live. While the three lead couples, on a large scale, presented in a more typical format (squared to the length and width of the stage) within which they danced their pair-distinctive choreography, what impressed me with the choreography for Woodward and Mejia was the sense of diagonal, of a lack of confinement, that Liang provided for them – enlivening the ballet like blood-pumping vessels that feed a heart. Megan LeCrone, Preston Chamblee, Brittany Pollack and Andrew Scordato in featured roles, and Kristen Segin, Sarah Villwock, Ralph Ippolito, and Lars Nelson completed the cast.
Lovette’s ballet gets the blood flowing in a totally different way: it doesn’t make you feel good; it makes you think.
Watching Lovette evolve as a choreographer has been almost as exciting as having watched her evolve (and continue to evolve) as a dancer from the first time I saw her with the company. I’ve enjoyed her two prior choreographic efforts for NYCB, and although the commitment to the dance’s underlying impulse has always been apparent, her facility with it, at a surprisingly high level to begin with, has been an understandable work in progress. Not any more. With The Shaded Line, Lovette emerges as a full-fledged, potent choreographer, with the ability to deliver a message and to craft an intriguing ballet at the same time.
Lovette’s subject here, in a general sense, is the difficulty fitting in in the ballet world where that world appears incompatible with an individual dancer’s presence, abilities, or predisposition. That description is a way of dancing around what appear to be Lovette’s particular targets here – casting based on body type (with certain dancers who don’t fit the requisite image not being cast in certain coveted roles), and having to perform roles that may be incompatible with their sexual identities (e.g., male dancers assigned to be a ballerina’s romantic interest who have a different predisposition). [And as to the former, I may be reading that into the ballet because of my understanding that the central figure in Lovette’s ballet, NYCB soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, has faced such obstacles in the course of her career.]
Putting aside intellectual arguments for or against these positions, there’s no question that the art form (not unlike other performing arts) requires a certain appearance, or that dancers act romantically interested in dancers of the opposite gender when they’re not (or who they just don’t like, for whatever reason), but I don’t think that this, and whether anything can or should be done about it, is really Lovette’s concern here. Rather, it’s the damage that these requirements (whether justifiable or not) impose on those who cannot possibly fit the requirements of the art form (or someone stewarding it), or who must pretend to be something they’re not. That’s certainly a legitimate issue, and one long overlooked.
However, the difficulty I have is that The Shaded Line appears to be taking shots at the art form, primarily through the outrageous costumes perpetrated by designer Zac Posen (although it seems apparent that the responsibility for them ultimately rests with Lovette, who I assume approved and maybe encouraged the designs). Generally, the female dancers wear tutus – not tutus in the traditional sense, but with the backs of the tutus deliberately angled upward, exposing the dancers’ legs through to their derrieres. There’s nothing beautiful about this – to me, as presented, it’s gross (and intended to be) regardless of the “beauty” of the body exposed.
I’ll grant that there must have been a reason for designing the costumes this way – likely intended as a reflection on the art form’s (or the artistic director’s, or the audience’s) determination as to what’s beautiful, or to reference objectification of a ballerina’s body. And that kind of focus, Lovette’s argument might go, is at best distasteful and at worst an example of legitimizing lust and virtual degradation. It’s “everything is beautiful at the ballet” seen from a different point of view.
And then there’s the even more obviously point-driven costume for Taylor Stanley (the only featured male) – who wears a female outfit while he “partners” one of the women.
The Shaded Line does not address other inequities faced by ballet (and other performing art forms) – nor could it, since there are so many that could be seen that way, reflecting inequities in life – not as to what the particular dancer can or cannot do (as in execute fouettes or lift a ballerina over his head), but that are a consequence of genetics – male dancers who are too short; females who are too tall; of either gender who are too heavy, too thick, too thin, too young, not beautiful enough, or in an age of political correctness, too beautiful). And it works both ways: I’m aware of dancers who won’t dance a role involving tutus because they think they don’t look good in a tutu.
As indicated above, these matters may not be Lovette’s real concern – the damage done to people who don’t fit in or who have to conceal (at least for the stage) their sexual identity and preference is. And that’s a worthy issue for debate. But the ballet’s emphasis, as illuminated by the costumes, on appearance prerequisites and scrambled gender-preference performance requirements, to me unnecessarily takes The Shaded Line to a place where there’s considerable controversy.
The cast (three featured dancers – Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Unity Phelan, and Stanley,twelve female corps; and eight male corps) all executed well, but Pazcoguin was the ballet’s soul, the one who visibly suffered throughout (though the reason for her particular suffering isn’t particularly clear), and she was magnificent.
Liang’s ballet will be enjoyed, and will endure in the repertory. Lovette’s ballet will be digested, debated, intensely admired or intensely disliked. The unanswered question is which one is more likely to be remembered, and to be remembered for what it says and how it says it. I suspect it will be Lovette’s.
Balanchine’s Jewels is well-known in every nook and cranny of the ballet world, so I’ll focus on the performances.
The most noteworthy of the September 19th performances was the debut of Mira Nadon as the “tall girl” in “Rubies.” A member of the corps since joining the company in November, 2018 (following a year as an apprentice), she stood out immediately – not just for her height (which, frankly, I don’t consider particularly important), but because of the way she presented on stage. Last February, after a lengthy period of trying to identify her, I commented that she was a dancer to watch. The waiting period was relatively short.
The role of the “tall girl” is too often delivered as just that – a tall girl, but Nadon’s performance was more impressive than her commanding presence and her sky-high extensions (which the other “tall girl” for this run, Emily Kikta, matches so well). It’s an attitude. In addition to nailing the choreography, Nadon portrayed her character with a level of understated but undeniable sensuality that appears to come naturally to her based on other performances that I’ve seen, and that perfectly complemented the outstanding performances by Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia as the lead couple. To say Nadon’s debut was impressive is an understatement.
The other highlight of the performance was Sara Mearns’s “Diamonds,” her first of several performances of that role during this run. I’ve seen her dance this role many times previously, and have always found Mearns’s portrayal far too tragic, far too anguished, and far too Odette-ish, sacrificing the majesty of the role for misguided pathos. But not this time: the pathos that dominated her previous portrayals was gone, replaced by a natural regality that to me is the way the role is supposed to look. Her portrayal was perhaps not as technically perfect as her usual (but not noticeable unless you’ve seen her in the role many times before), but was far more masterful overall.
Mearns’s excellent performance was matched by that of her “Diamonds” partner, Russell Janzen. I thought recent performances of his last season were somewhat sub-par, but not this one. His execution in every respect was not just impeccable, but dazzling, with turns a la seconde that prompted roars. Their performances, as well as the performance by the sterling corps, sparkled.
I can’t say the same about Thursday’s performance of “Emeralds.” This jewel is considered the weakest of the three (it doesn’t dazzle or excite; it draws you in), but even if that’s true, it’s received far more glowing performances than I saw here. Indeed, until the trio of dancers (Kristen Segin, Sarah Villwock, and in a remarkable debut, Roman Mejia), by comparison, set the house on fire, it was at best an unpolished gem. Even a solid effort by Megan LeCrone as the featured soloist (obviously making an effort here to not just execute well, but to project a character) couldn’t overcome the sense that Ashley Bouder and Taylor Stanley (who appeared to me to be uncharacteristically uncomfortable, until his solo) really didn’t want to be there. I’ve frequently described the gorgeous set (complementing the other gorgeous sets, all designed by Peter Harvey) as appearing to me to be in an underwater grotto, I never before sensed that this underwater area was Davey Jones’s Locker. “Emeralds” is the perfect gem to be led by dancers who are new to the roles, who might add a level of freshness that would bring this jewel to life.
Balanchine + Wheeldon
Variation Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir
I have difficulty fathoming a more diverse or more problematic, evening of Balanchine than the program presented under the title “Balanchine + Wheeldon.”
The most problematic of the three program pieces, to me, was Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir. I saw it initially in 1974 (I think at its premiere, but I’m not certain), and remember disliking it intensely – as, based on the grumbling within earshot, did the audience that night.
Times, and audiences, change.
Creating something that’s a departure from the norm was a Balanchine characteristic from his earliest choreography – but it was an evolutionary more than revolutionary statement. To a large extent, Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir (“Porte / Soupir”) was revolutionary: a journey into the avant-garde that seemed uncharacteristic.
But recent viewings, including this one in particular, show that it’s not inconsistent at all: just wildly different. Indeed, the problem that I still have with Porte / Soupir is the score by Pierre Henry (composed eleven years before the ballet was choreographed), which remains painful to listen to – although seen through Balanchine’s eyes, even this music comes alive. There’s limited movement here compared to what is usually displayed in a Balanchine piece, but it’s there, and it’s clever and cunning and not in any way describable as minimalist – there’s a lot going on here.
The music, an example of what’s called musique concrete, is a regulated exchange between sounds of a door and sounds of a sigh after an initial period limited to sighs. And here the sounds are not ambient sounds, but created sounds delivered in a particular form (the composition is divided into 24 movements, each named – e.g., Sommeil, Breathing, Chant, Death – so the composition is not in any way random. The ballet omits references to the movements, rightly emphasizing the ballet’s unity). The variations in the score are not just variants of time, but variations of the sounds themselves. The door can creak, squeak, bang shut; the sigh can be a whimper, a whine, a low-grade shriek, and even a quiet roar.
Balanchine, as he always did, makes you see the music … differently than you otherwise would. Porte / Soupir amplifies the score, and creates a story of sorts prompted by Henry’s sounds. It seemingly makes no sense, but the door and the sigh have pseudo-human character (respectively female and male), with personalities. The sigh jumps with each sound, and more often than not ends a segment wearily prone. The door is a majestic, unfeeling, dominating presence, both barrier and entryway. And after a few segments (the ballet is divided into 14 “duets” corresponding to the movements) one senses that the door and the sigh are communicating with each other, until the black-caped door, to a rising crescendo of sound, envelopes the sigh, maybe to remedy his misery; maybe to let him pass through.
As the door, Mearns created an imposing, goddess-like presence. She doesn’t have as much movement to do as the sigh, it’s mostly posing and manipulating that cape, but it’s overwhelming. Daniel Ulbricht’s sigh was tougher to pull off (I remember other “doors” that I’ve seen, most significantly Maria Kowroski, but I don’t recall any of the “sighs”), and he made this sigh a living, breathing, personification of emotion: at times like a cat on a hot tin roof; at times like that same cat who’s exhausted its nine lives.
I don’t know if I’d want a steady diet of Porte / Soupir (let me correct that – I know I wouldn’t), but it’s quite an extraordinary piece, which should be seen the next time NYCB presents it.
Of the several dances that Balanchine created to Alexander Glazounov’s music for Raymonda, the full-length ballet, Raymonda Variations, being the most disconnected to any story, is the least interesting. Even though the excerpts that Balanchine uses here can and do stand on their own, there’s still the sense that something is missing.
Fairchild and Joseph Gordon led the ensemble and danced two variations each. Since her return from maternity leave Fairchild’s danced as if reborn herself – not so much with new maturity, but with greater facility and confidence. She’s a pleasure to watch in anything, and here she executed with authority. Gordon continues to impress, executing Variation III superbly and seemingly everywhere at once in Variation VIII. The remaining five variations were completed by Sara Adams, Segin, Kikta, Mary Elizabeth Sell, and Ashley Hod.
DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse
Created for The Royal Ballet in 2006, DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse (“DGV”) is a magnificently conceived dance; one of those rare pieces where everything works and contributes to a whole that’s far greater than any of its individual parts. Celebrating the 1993 inauguration of a super-fast train known as the “train a grande vitesse” (“TGV”), Michael Nyman’s score (Musique a Grande Vitesse, or “MGV”) delivers the sense of constant motion, power and speed – with breaks for the train to let passengers on or off and “visit” a destination; the costumes and set by Jena-Marc Poussant (particularly the set) evoke the ultra-modern machine that TGV was, and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting bathes the whole in the dark, night-like atmosphere within which the train flies. It may be on land, but it’s essentially a ship in outer space (as the choreographed references to a ship’s prow emphasize). But Wheeldon’s choreography pulls it all together. When I first saw it, my only criticism was that the piece ended too abruptly. With increased viewings, I’ve come to realize that even this is brilliantly conceived. Stopping when they arrive at their destination is exactly what trains are supposed to do.
Led by eight pairs of dancers and a corps of sixteen (8/8), the performance on the 24th was scintillating, with Kowroski and Tyler Angle, Mearns and Stanley, and Phelan and Amar Ramasar bringing the audience to cheers.
Bracketing the two world premieres were pieces by NYCB giants Robbins and Balanchine. Opus 19/ The Dreamer opened the evening. It’s not one of my favorite Robbins dances – to me it never quite makes the central male figure compelling: he’s just there. And the conception of the female lead is unclear: is she a mirror of his emotions – his “ethereal counterpart” (as the program notes indicate), or a creation of his emotions – that is, a dream? To me it’s the latter. Hyltin’s performance was exactly that: a dream. Gonzalo Garcia’s Dreamer wasn’t danced poorly – on the contrary, it was executed well. But the stage came alive when Hyltin was on it, which, conveniently, was most of the time.
Balanchine’s Symphony in C, one of his many masterpieces, needs no comment. At this performance, Fairchild and Gordon led the first movement, Teresa Reichlen and Jared Angle the second, Baily Jones and Sebastian Villarini-Velez the Third, and Erica Pereira and Andrew Scordato the Fourth. All excelled, but Jones, in her NY debut in the role, sparkled.
Dances at a Gathering is one of those rare ballets the title of which is not only recognizable on its own as Robbins’s ballet and as a landmark “piano ballet,” but as a reference standard by which other dances relating to a gathering of people is measured. [I’ve often described a piece as “dances at a different type of gathering.”] While some consider it too long – and it does tax the capabilities of tired baby boomers or some millennials with short attention spans – I can’t think of any part of it that should have been cut. Every facet of this gem is wonderful. Hyltin (in pink), Fairchild (in apricot)l, Lauren King (in blue), Phelan (in mauve), Tyler Angle(in purple), Adrian Ganchig-Waring (in green), Garcia (in brown) and Mejia (in brick) led the cast. Bouder and Peter Walker looked mismatched.
I’ve heard criticism of Justin Peck’s choreography that runs something like: they all look alike. Well, there is a similarity from piece to piece, especially in the larger pieces involving considerable manipulation of the corps. But having a basic similarity of style from piece to piece is not unusual, and Balanchine’s ballets to Tchaikovsky frequently display a basic similarity when he manipulates the corps, particular in his arrangement of regiments of dancers sequentially moving downstage led by the leads. It’s a signature, of sorts, and when it’s done well, it doesn’t matter that the choreographer has visited the physical venue before.
So it is with Everywhere We Go. It’s one of Peck’s best dances, and never ceases to send the audience home energized by the energy on stage. Kowroski and Janzen, Mearns and Stanley, Woodward and Garcia, and Reichlen led the 25 dancer cast.
Overall, this Fall, 2019 season marked another in which there were relatively few major role debuts, with the casting for Jewels being particularly disappointing in that respect. As good as the legacy ballets are, and as well-crafted as many of the “post-legacy” pieces are, the lack of the casting adventurousness that characterized the company for most of the past decade has devolved into a sense of sameness, creating viewer fatigue as well as a sense that a dancer who’s been assigned the role dozens of times can phone it in. That doesn’t apply to most of the company’s senior dancers, but when it’s there, it’s apparent. One hopes that the upcoming Nutcracker and Winter, 2020 seasons will display more of what made NYCB the most exciting ballet company in New York.