New Jersey Ballet
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown, New Jersey

March 9, 2024
Leap Into Spring” Program: Concerto Barocco, After the Rain, Don Quixote Pas de Deux, Not Our Fate

Jerry Hochman

When I last attended a New Jersey Ballet repertory program, four month ago, I commented that the trajectory that NJB has followed in the past year [since former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Maria Kowroski took the reins as its Artistic Director] has been quite remarkable. Based on this program, titled “Leap Into Spring,” the trajectory is still going strong. And the company has developed authentic star performers, dancers I look forward to seeing because of the quality of their work and their stage personalities. More surprising still is that they even have stage personalities. For a little regional company, New Jersey Ballet has come a long way.

The program presented three dances new to it, plus one they performed last year: George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, the Don Quixote Pas de Deux, and an encore performance of Lauren Lovette’s Not Our Fate. All were performed quite well, but the first piece set the tone.

Concerto Barocco is a “pure dance” piece choreographed to J.S. Bach’s “Double Violin Concerto in D Minor.” Created as an outgrowth of a School of American Ballet class exercise, it first premiered during a South America tour of American Ballet Caravan in 1941, was first performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1945, and in 1948 was one of the pieces on the first NYCB program…ever. It’s still a NYCB staple, and is in the repertory of many ballet companies around the world.

New Jersey Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco”
Photo by VAM Productions

The ballet is generally considered to be one of Balanchine’s early masterpieces, not only for its neo-classicism in general, but for integrating more contemporary concepts (contrapuntal and syncopated choreography) and intriguing movement qualities within the neo-classic framework. And it’s spawned many comments by newbie ballet audience-members thinking that many corps dancers were dancing “off the beat” in one of the penultimate sections of the piece – which, rather than being mistakes, are intentional applications of movement to Bach’s complex composition.

Ilse Kapteyn (leaping) and New Jersey Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco”
Photo by VAM Productions

But it’s not always performed well. Even NYCB at times presents it without paying the ballet the attention it deserves. In one 2014 performance, for example, I observed that that particular performance lacked the crispness and spark that should be present in any performance, and certainly in a performance of a Balanchine classic. And I noted further that the two lead ballerinas seemed to be at best, indifferent to each other, like identical magnetic poles that could never connect: they were independent, vacant, robotic entities capable of perfect execution but little more. One of these two leading ballerinas in that performance was Maria Kowroski. So it goes. [Kowroski was one of the finest interpreters of Concerto Barocco, as well as many other roles. And to my recollection her performance in the referenced program was not the source of the problem.]

No such issue was present for this performance. Indeed, it was as if Kowroski had personally coached both ballerina leads as well as corps dancers – which may be accurate. Regardless, this NJB presentation was so well-performed, by the corps as well as the leads, that I have no hesitation recommending it for those who don’t care to travel to New York City to see it – or even for those who do. It was that well done. The lead dancers (Se Hyun Jin, Ilse Kapteyn, Jonathan Philbert), and the eight dancers in the corps (including two trainees and an apprentice) presented as fine a performance of Concerto Barocco as you’ll see anywhere. And credit should also be given to Deborah Wingert, a former NYCB dancer who staged this for NJB.

Denise Parungao and Joshuan Vazquez
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” pas de deux
Photo by VAM Productions

And the excellence continued. Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain is a ballet in two parts that he created for NYCB in 2005 to music by Arvo Part. The first segment is a dance for four; the second a pas de deux. It’s the second part, choreographed to Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” that is most often performed.

I’ve seen After the Rain pas de deux many times, primarily performed by NYCB, but also by other companies. It’s an unusually compelling dance, partly because Part’s music is so spiritual, and partly because the choreography is. I’m not quite sure what’s going on here (whatever may have happened before and during the rain is intentionally left to the viewer to determine), but that doesn’t matter. The fact is that the sense of ecstasy that permeates the music and the choreography is enough to enrapture audiences. And when I use “ecstasy,” I mean it in a spiritual sense as well as the sense of inherent sensuality embedded in the choreography.

I’ve seen some of the finest ballerinas in the world perform this. One of them was Kowroski, including one unforgettable performance within an unforgettable program on the night post-pandemic performances resumed at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater. I recall Kowroski and her partner, Ask la Cour, mining new veins of emotion while maintaining that emotion subservient to Wheeldon’s crystalline choreography.

Denise Parungao and Joshuan Vazquez
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” pas de deux
Photo by VAM Productions

I can’t say that this NJB performance equaled that, but it certainly ranks among the finest I’ve seen. Denise Parungao and Joshuan Vazquez (both of whose performances I’ve praised previously) physically pulled every emotional ounce out of Wheeldon’s choreography, and added nothing beyond it. Perhaps because of the person who staged this it appeared flawless – and incredibly moving without an iota of superfluous drama, much less melodrama. That person who staged this for NJB was Kowroski herself.

If there’s one area of criticism here, it’s the absence of the depth of character that can at times be seen or sensed, and that takes the piece beyond the choreography even without any overt emotional display. It’s in the eyes and the way the arms move when physically connecting with her partner. But that’s nearly impossible to pull off – particularly since the lighting is so (intentionally) dim that minimal visual nuances like that can rarely be seen even if melded into a performance.

I haven’t attended that many NJB performances since Kowroski became the company’s Artistic Director, and there are some performing areas of competence that I’ve not yet seen Parungao attempt (including those requiring acting ability), but it’s evident already that Parungao is a ballerina whose performances should not be missed.

Risa Mochizuki and Akira Iida in “Don Quixote Pas de Deux”
Photo by VAM Productions

In a similar league is Risa Mochizuki, who, partnered by the highly capable Akira Iida, danced the subsequent Don Quixote Pas de Deux. Mochizuki is a tiny dynamo who’s so much fun to watch that any rare mistakes are easily overlooked. She prompts smiles on sight.

The two of them handled this ballet warhorse very well, particularly Iido, whose solo was exceptional (as was Mochizuki’s, but with her it’s no surprise). In the coda, Iido’s turns a la seconde were not as strongly positioned as I’ve seen by others, but they were thoroughly acceptable and, in context, as sizzling as they needed to be. Mochizuki pulled off a full complement of fouettés, spicing them with doubles every fourth. I’ve seen others also shift arm and/or hand-fan positions, which Mochizuki didn’t do, but that’s not problematic. Far more significant is that she barely travelled – and to the minimal extent she did, it was straight upstage, consequently hardly noticeable. While character isn’t necessarily a component of the excised pas de deux, Mochizuki demonstrated enough flamboyance to, eventually, be the foundation for a fine Kitri.

Risa Mochizuki and Akira Iida in “Don Quixote Pas de Deux”
Photo by VAM Productions

My only negative observation was the absence of the pas de cheval toward the end of Misoguchi’s solo. It’s not a requisite, and she performed a thoroughly satisfactory substitute, but it’s best executed (based on performances I’ve seen) by smaller ballerinas (e.g., Gelsey Kirkland), and consequently Mochizuki seemed a perfect candidate for it. Maybe next time.

New Jersey Ballet in Lauren Lovette’s “Not Our Fate”
Photo by VAM Productions

The evening closed with a repeat performance of Lauren Lovette’s Not Our Fate. The execution by the ten-dancer cast, led by Kapteyn and Felipe Valentino, was as exuberant and (to some extent) irreverent as it needed to be. However, I suggest that next time the eponymous poem that Lovette has said inspired her piece, which was written by NYCB corps dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell, be added to the program (as was the case at the dance’s NYCB premiere). It’s not lengthy, and I think it would have countered any thoughts that Lovette was simply catering to the norms du jour. The piece is far more than that.

It also was a perfect capstone to a superb, and superbly balanced, evening of ballet: each dance was different from another, each emphasized a different aspect and presentation of the art form, and each was both well-executed and entertaining. With programs such as this, performed as this one was, NJB is becoming a quality destination for area balletgoers.