[Pending receipt of performance photographs]
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 12 and 14, 2018
Afternoon of a Faun, Other Dances, Moves, Something to Dance About
Theme and Variations, Concerto Barocco, A Suite of Dances, Todo Buenos Aires (De Luz Farewell)
The first time I saw Joaquin De Luz was when he portrayed the Bronze Idol in American Ballet Theatre’s La Bayadère, which I then understood (though I’m not certain) was his first featured role with that company. Although I’ve never seen that bit of performance excitement executed poorly, with the possible exception of Daniil Simkin I have not seen anyone attack it with the explosion of energy De Luz did. Instantly, he became unforgettable.
I have now seen De Luz’s Farewell performance, this past Sunday, with New York City Ballet, the company he joined as a soloist (a rare lateral) in 2003 after leaving ABT. A Principal Dancer since 2005, he’s still exciting after all these years. But now, there’s far more to his performances than excitement.
I’ll elaborate on De Luz’s Farewell celebration shortly, after first addressing several outstanding performances two nights earlier. But if there’s one feature that unites all of these dances on both of these programs, it’s the welcome sense of unbounded joy that wafted over the DHK Theater stage and into the audience like a benevolent blast of fresh air.
NYCB dedicated a significant portion of its Spring 2018 season to celebrate the centennial of Jerome Robbins’s birth. It was a sensational retrospective of many of his ballets, and was the occasion to honor that most human of choreographers. This season, the company continued that celebration with a program devoted entirely to Robbins. I saw this program the day following Robbins’s “real” hundredth birthday, and the program was extraordinary not just because of Robbins’s choreography, but because of the performances. Tiler Peck and De Luz danced an exquisite Other Dances, and just prior to that were the sensational role debuts of Lauren Lovette and Kennard Henson in Afternoon of a Faun.
Robbins’s take on the Nijinsky original converts the environment from a forest glade to a ballet studio, the characters from a bevy of nymphs and a lone faun to self-absorbed male and female ballet dancers, and the action from an erotic encounter to … an erotic encounter. Most significantly, instead of fantasy animal-like humans responding to their impulses, Robbins’s characters are portrayed as stereotypical dancer/narcissists in love with their images as reflected in the studio mirrors (the fourth wall) into which they stare at their perfection. The ballerina intrudes on the male dancer’s preening (as the bevy of nymphs intrudes on the faun’s solitude), and they subsequently connect in way that appears to be some emotionally remote interruption of their self-absorption. The ballerina then exits, leaving the male dancer again alone with his muted memory, and, significantly, the ballerina with a registered memory of her own.
The ballet is far more than the brief emotional connection of two unfeeling dancer / automatons. While he adds an essential measure of fluidity into the sense of primitive two-dimensionality that was dominant in Nijinsky’s original, the real genius of the piece, and of Robbins, is to retain the ballet dancer stereotype while injecting in both characters emotion beneath the surface; in the process, while observing and commenting on their narcissism, making the characters real.
Ideally, every dancer in these roles should project the combination of narcissism and barely concealed intimacy that resonates through this ballet, and although I usually see portrayals that err on the side of self-absorption, all to one extent or another do. But Lovette and Henson took their portrayals to another dimension.
Lovette should have been cast in Afternoon of a Faun several years ago, but her debut was worth waiting for. Now every inch the ballerina, she nevertheless has retained that irresistible combination of innocence and experience that has marked her stage persona since day one. The result, in this performance, was the gradual display of an emotional disturbance of the narcissistic force that simmers beneath the surface of a ballet that demands no obvious display of emotion. The operative word there is “simmers.” Nothing in Lovette’s response to the encounter cracks the stoic, self-absorbed veneer, but her emotional response is nevertheless radiantly palpable, unmistakable, and unavoidable.
And Kennard Henson, a relatively new member of the corps, was Lovette’s equal in under-the-surface emotional expression and semi-stoic arousal. More significantly, especially for one so inexperienced, is his display of partnering ability. The piece requires more in the way of partnering than would be immediately apparent, but different from the usual “keep her centered,” “lift her securely and effortlessly,” and in the best cases “present her as the focus of attention.” Here the partnering was more subtle and measured, but no less demanding, and Henson executed flawlessly.
I rarely describe a performance as “perfect,” because I’m not exactly sure what “perfect” is, and there’s usually something, however minor, that my hypercritical mind can find to nit-pick. But, aware of the irony of describing a ballet featuring characters whose artistic and life goal is unattainable perfection as perfect, this one was. And Lovette and Henson seemed to know instinctively that they’d nailed it: during their curtain calls, they seemed barely able to contain their joy. And somewhere, Robbins is smiling.
The pieces that followed took the evening’s joyous emotional level, primarily because of De Luz, in a different but equally satisfying level.
Other Dances is another Robbins masterwork. To Chopin music that he had not already used for his Dances at a Gathering, Robbins crafted a series of dances that gently merges folk roots with a sense of the joy of being alive, and of being alive to share that joy with one’s partner. It’s been a very long time since I saw the piece’s premiere in 1976 with Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, but the memory of that performance is not easily forgettable, and on Friday Peck and De Luz did that memory justice. It should go without saying that both executed brilliantly, but Peck added her impeccable phrasing and timing, De Luz added his indomitable and irrepressible energy, and together they ignited the joy that has illuminated all of their performances together.
After a superlative performance of Robbins’s Moves, a ballet in silence (and one of the few of his ballets that I appreciate more than love) that was highlighted by a noteworthy performance by Unity Phelan in the opening pas de deux (with Taylor Stanley, whose season has been nothing short of remarkable), the evening concluded with Something to Dance About, Warren Carlyle’s heart-warming, tear-jerking staging of a collection of Robbins’s Broadway choreography that pushes every conceivable emotional button. I reviewed it when it premiered, and will not push those buttons again myself, but one of that performance’s highlights was Lovette and De Luz as Maria and Tony from West Side Story. Although they were in character, both were effervescent.
And now to the Farewell.
Aside from his obvious talent as a dancer, I didn’t really like De Luz after seeing several of his initial NYCB performances. First, there was envy. I thought that the world didn’t need another talented, good-looking short guy like me. [No, I’m not serious.] [Well, look, one out of three isn’t bad.] Second, for all his prodigious individual talent, I often got the sense that he was too much into himself and consequently less successful as a partner than he was when dancing solo.
But in the past few years, either De Luz has mellowed or I have, and to my eye his performances, though no less superlative than they were previously, were less about him than about his partner(s) and his audience. Perhaps the significance is one of my own making, but De Luz transcended it regardless. De Luz has continued to excel in his usual roles as dancer and partner, and there is nothing he did before that he seemingly cannot do now, but perhaps better now than he ever did. If not a shift of attitude, then maybe it’s only the maturing of an artist. Whatever it is, that quality is there now. And to a large extent, it’s about the joy, which seemed to come to a crescendo as his retirement approached.
I recall no one who has gone out on the artistic high that De Luz has. Instead of gradually winding down and no longer attempting roles that are too demanding, in this past brief season, among other appearances, De Luz danced his final Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (with Peck), La Sylphide (with Sterling Hyltin), The Prodigal Son (with Kowroski), Other Dances (with Peck), and maybe the most astonishing of all, Theme and Variations (with Peck). That array of dances might not be exceptional for one in his prime, but for a retiring dancer, it’s Herculean.
And Theme, which was the opening dance on this Farewell program, was particularly extraordinary. It’s Balanchine at his best and one of the ballets that first enlightened me as to Balanchine’s choreographic intelligence and genius, but it’s not for the faint of dancing heart, and certainly not one that would be expected on the Farewell program of a dancer whose hair is beginning to show strands of grey. De Luz not only got through it, but he executed thoroughly and enviably. His partnership with Peck is exciting whenever it appears – as was evident in their Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux earlier this season, and Other Dances on Friday – and was particularly electric on Sunday. When the piece ended, De Luz, joy etched on his face, was saluted not only by the ecstatic audience (which included a group sitting a row in front of me “bravoing” with particular joy, as well as many current and former dancers from ABT), but also by his cast, which included two corps dancers promoted to soloist the previous day, Peter Walker and Aaron Sanz, both of whom appeared particularly pumped (and with Sanz – like De Luz, hailing from Madrid – soaring toward the stage rafters as if he intended to personally fly the Event all the way to Spain).
After Theme, everything else on Sunday’s program was a relative piece of celebratory cake. Following a performance of Concerto Barocco that allowed him to change costume and catch his breath (and which was the same cast that appeared in the company’s first repertory program this season, except Kowroski was assigned to the lead pairing opposite Abi Stafford, and the result was a much better visual impression), De Luz closed his NYCB career with Robbins’s A Suite of Dances and Peter Martins’s Todo Buenos Aires. De Luz debuted in the Robbins piece during last season’s Robbins celebration, and at that time delivered a memorable performance in the role originally choreographed for Baryshnikov (another rare lateral from ABT}. Sunday’s performance, again accompanied by Ann Kim on cello, was no less sensational – and maybe it was more so, because by then De Luz seemingly couldn’t stop smiling. Todo Buenos Aires, while not one of Martins’s best pieces, is a showcase for the lead male dancer, and De Luz played it to the hilt, by then dancing on air.
Following the usual front-of-curtain curtain calls with Todo Buenos Aires colleagues Sara Mearns, Kowroski, Jared Angle, Ask la Cour, Andrew Veyette, and Stanley, the curtain opened on De Luz alone, and the audience roared. After a presentation of floral bouquets from a parade of the company’s female principals and single roses from the male soloists, the balance of the company and members of its artistic staff appeared, along with several people I didn’t recognize – including the group who had been sitting in that row in front of me “bravoing” earlier, who I was later informed consisted of De Luz’s family, including his mother, with whom he briefly but ecstatically danced beside a Spanish flag that De Luz had draped over the floral bouquets. Confetti was released from the rafters and the curtain calls continued until the curtain closed for the last time, after which a celebratory roar could be heard emanating from behind it.
I’ve attended many ballerina Farewells over the years, but have rarely done the same for retiring male dancers. There seem to be far fewer of them, and the emotional attachment isn’t quite the same for me. But I made it a point to attend this one because of the metamorphosis I saw in De Luz over the years from being another pint-sized dynamo of a dancer (size is relative; from occasional sightings off-stage, he’s not really that short), to being a pint-sized dynamo with a heart. Indeed, the last one I can recall seeing was when a soloist named Ethan Brown (Leslie Browne’s and Elizabeth Laing’s brother) retired from ABT in 2004 after a towering performing as Tybalt in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. I wrote at the time that one of Brown’s enviable stage qualities was that he appeared not to be some unapproachable Olympian god, but to be one of us, albeit one of us with talent. Coincidentally, and unless I’m mistaken, one of the former ABT dancers I spied at Sunday’s performance was Ethan Brown.
De Luz may be far more competent and explosive a dancer than any of us ever could be, but in a way he’s evolved also to be one of us. His presence, and the performance joy he brought with him, will be greatly missed.