New Jersey Ballet
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown, New Jersey

November 17, 2023
“A Night on the Town” Program: Fancy Free, Reencounter, This Bitter Earth, Rubies

Jerry Hochman

New Jersey Ballet’s initial program in its 65th Anniversary Season, “A Night on the Town,” proved another noteworthy success since Artistic Director (and former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer) Maria Kowroski took the helm.

The trajectory that NJB has followed in the past year has been quite remarkable. Beginning last fall through this recent program, NJB has presented two pieces choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, one by Lauren Lovette, one by Peter Martins, one by Jerome Robbins, and three by George Balanchine – each of which is in NYCB’s active repertory, as well as a new piece by then NYCB Principal Harrison Ball. That they all have been executed well should no longer be surprising.

Friday’s program, which was a repeat of a program presented two weeks earlier in Red Bank, began with Robbins’s Fancy Free. Initially created for American Ballet Theatre, Fancy Free premiered in 1944, and first entered NYCB’s repertory in 1980. With its score by Leonard Bernstein and its all-American story line, it was received rapturously, and became the precursor of the Broadway success, On the Town (which, obviously, was the impetus for this program’s title).

Now Fancy Free is something of an antique that hearkens back to an America that once was, and has been subject to politically correct updates (minor, in the overall scheme of things). With its plotline of three sailors on leave chasing after (at times literally) whatever females pass by, and the passers-by being open to the possibility (though ultimately chased away by the sailors’ rowdiness), I’m pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t met the same fate as other ballets with subject matter that through a contemporary prism are considered unworthy, or too risky to present.

(l-r) Joshuan Vazquez, Eunice Suba, Louis DeFelice,
Denise Parungao, and Brian Sevilla
in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”
Photo by VAM Productions

Accordingly, a question in any presentation of Fancy Free is not only how well they execute the choreography, but how well the dancers communicate that 1944 spirit, without any overlay. In most of the performances I’ve seen, the acting aspect of it is communicated quite well. NJB’s presentation is no different. With one possible exception, if it was deficient in any way, I, and apparently the audience as a whole, didn’t notice.

The heart of the piece is a set of three solos performed to impress the two female passers-by who they’re pursuing. Each is difficult, but each focuses on a different quality of character for each sailor: one ebullient, the next a sweet boy next door, and the last the most sensual and insistent. [In Bernstein’s score, they’re titled the “Galop Variation,” the “Waltz Variation,” and the “Danzon Variation.”] By far the most difficult in terms of conveying a personal style is the solo danced by the second sailor – here performed by Louis DeFelice. While the choreography was well-executed, the characterization, at least in my eyes, didn’t take the sailor beyond being sweet. But I don’t think that this is the dancer’s issue – I’ve rarely seen that solo carry the same weight as the other two.

The initial dance emphasizes speed and agility, and Brian Sevilla performed that aspect of his role admirably. As for the rest of his portrayal, he executed very well but was a bit too much the hyperactive puppy. The most successful of the renditions (and of the characterization in general) was the third, danced by Joshuan Vazquez. Vazquez comes across as larger than life and more muscular than the others, and in his solo he delivered the requisite Latin sizzle. Indeed, because of his physical as well as performance qualities here, his portrayal brought to mind that of ABT Principal (now retired) Jose Manuel Carreño, which should be considered high praise.

The two “passers-by,” danced by Eunice Suba and Denise Parungao, made solid impressions here; they’re appearance and demeanor captured the period attitude well, and Parungao, the company’s prima, did very fine work in the early pas de deux. My only issue was with the portrayal of the third passer-by that, to my eye, was played with a sexual personality that looked overbaked and inappropriate for a girl in the 1940s. Her character was more 1950s, reflecting the entry, at least in the entertainment arena, of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

Regardless, the ensemble did very fine work here, abetted by the original set (by Oliver Smith), and no doubt informed by former ABT and NYCB Principal Robert LaFosse’s staging, coaching by Edward Villella, and likely also by the evening’s guest artist, Daniel Ulbricht, the former a NYCB legend, the latter a long-time NYCB Principal who is also one of the finest ballet ambassadors that the art form has had. At a minimum, this NJB production is sufficiently authentic to save a trip into Manhattan.

Risa Mochizuki and New Jersey Ballet
in Goerge Balanchine’s “Rubies,” from “Jewels”
Photo by VAM Productions

The evening’s final piece was Balanchine’s Rubies, a component of his evening-length ballet Jewels, which is frequently presented independently of the other segments, Emeralds and Diamonds.

NJB’s presentation of this piece was also a very pleasant surprise. It was wonderful – even after the opening sumptuous, and intentionally sensual, array of ballerinas in red, which drew immediate applause, had passed. Aside from being a credible and thoroughly entertaining presentation, this production has its own merits, the most significant of which is its sense of joy, which primarily is the contribution of the evening’s lead ballerina, Risa Mochizuki.

Ulbricht was her partner (and, as with Fancy Free, it’s likely that he and Villella coached, even if unofficially. That kind of coaching is obviously invaluable, but here it’s more than that: each has danced Rubies, and Villella was the co-lead in the original NYCB cast. The quality of the coaching showed.

Risa Mochizuki and Daniel Ulbricht
in George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” from “Jewels”
Photo by VAM Productions

I suppose that Mochizuki’s performance might be criticized for not injecting a sufficient level of jazzy sensuality into her role, as Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s score require. I disagree with both prongs of that. The sensuality is in Mochizuki’s performance, it’s just not emphasized (or, worse, brazen), and I’ve seen performances by ballerinas with greater experience and more lofty positions in which that quality is emphasized, or overemphasized, and also ones in which it’s minimized. Regardless, any such supposed deficiency is more than compensated for by Mochizuki’s stage personality. I loved watching her burst with enthusiasm, and smile like it meant something.

As the “tall girl,” Raleigh Ledford also delivered a credible performance. While not at the same level as those in NYCB who currently dance this role, no one could have expected that. As it was, her serious and appropriately dominating demeanor complemented Mizoguchi’s buoyancy well.

Raleigh Ledford (rt) and New Jersey Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Rubies” from “Jewels”
Photo by VAM Productions

It’s not appropriate for me to review Ulbricht’s performance in this context. That having been said, and aside from his impeccable execution, it was his professionalism that I found particularly impressive. Ulbricht led the way, directly and by example, in every aspect of his appearance – including taking charge during the curtain calls (which he does at NYCB as well).

The other two dances were pas de deux.

Few may recall that Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth is an excerpt from a larger work, Five Movements, Three Repeats. I thought the pas de deux was a brilliant, gripping piece when I initially saw it at the first of what later became annual NYCB “Fall Fashion” galas (aka “The Valentino Gala”) in 2012, performed by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle; it is one of those rare pas de deux that looks better on its own than it does within the larger piece.

NJB presented This Bitter Earth before with this same cast, and I reviewed it at that time. Suffice it to say that this performance matched the high level of the earlier one, but I think both Parungao and Vazquez improved their execution since then. Where I’d like to see some change, if this piece is presented again, is greater communication of the inner agony that Dinah Washington conveys in the accompanying song. It did eventually develop, but much later in the piece than it should have. Having said that, however, communicating inner agony without providing a visible measure of it is a tough nut to crack, and not every ballerina, regardless of the quality of their execution, can deliver that level of nuance; not every ballerina can be a Wendy Whelan.

Denise Parungao and Jonatan Lujan,
here in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?”
Photo by VAM Productions

The other pas de deux, Reencounter, was new to me. Choreographed by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, it featured Ilse Kapteyn and Jonatan Lujan, each of whom has excelled in prior performances. Here, although well-executed, I found the piece to be strangely unsettling (not in any way a consequence of the performance itself). It’s a relationship dance – yet another such dance that changes from positive to negative and back, and back again, repeatedly (to an excerpt from Bizet’s Symphony in C , which made not thinking of the eponymous Balanchine ballet while this one was being danced difficult).

New Jersey Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” from “Jewels”
Photo by VAM Productions

Although the dancers go their separate ways at the end, one can’t help thinking that this is yet another pause in a very long journey: that there will be a re-reencounter – and that there had to have been an initial “encounter” prior to this one. Sure enough, in checking background information for this review, I found NJB rehearsal footage with Sansano coaching Kapteyn and Lujan, in which he mentions that Reencounter is an excerpt from a larger piece.

I appreciated both Sansano’s choreography and Kapteyn and Lujan’s execution of it. Sansano combines a distinct contemporary dance edginess with ballet sensibility, and consequently the movement as well as the message are handled in a sympathetic but distant manner, which makes the action appear at once impulsive and predictable, romantically sincere and sincerely inconsistent. If given the opportunity to see it in its original context, that might help explain the action dichotomy I saw here.

Overall, this was another excellent New Jersey Ballet program. At some point the company will need to expand its repertory to avoid being labelled a NYCB clone. But that’s down the road – for now, and maybe for the immediate future, there are far worse things than being a NYCB clone.