David Koch Theater, New York, NY; January 25(m) and 29, 2014

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet in "Kammermusik No. 2" Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in “Kammermusik No. 2”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

“Concerto Barocco” is one of George Balanchine’s signature pieces, a short (18 minute) masterpiece that not only integrates ballet and J.S. Bach’s baroque music, but, for its time and in a timeless manner, assembles and presents ballet steps in a different way. “Kammermusik No. 2,” although generally well-regarded, is not considered in the same league. Both ballets opened New York City Ballet’s Winter Season at the D.H.K. Theater, and I saw performances of each, as well as the third ballet on the program, “Who Cares?,” this past Saturday (part of NYCB’s annual “Saturday at the Ballet With George” program), and again last night.

Commentators may want to reconsider their evaluation of “Kammermusik No. 2.”  Based on the performances I saw, it’s every bit as masterful, in its own way, as “Concerto Barocco.”  But “Concerto Barocco”  itself can look less than the masterpiece it is, as it did Satuday afternoon, if the performance for whatever reason is not of the highest caliber

Choreographed to J.S. Bach’s “Double Violin Concerto in D Minor,” “Concerto Barocco” has been a staple of NYCB’s repertoire from its opening company performance in 1948. It was created on a predecessor company, American Ballet Caravan, and premiered in 1941 in Rio de Janeiro, during Ballet Caravan’s tour of South America.  Balanchine’s “Kammermusik No. 2,” to the composition of that name by Paul Hindemith that is part of a series of chamber pieces he composed between 1923 and 1933, is considered by many to be the inverse of “Concerto Barocco” in that it has a similar structure, but instead of a corps of eight women it has a corps of eight men, instead of contrapuntal violins it features contrapuntal pianos, and instead of a classical appearance it looks contemporary. Be that as it may, “Concerto Barocco,” for its time, is the more revolutionary work, resembling little, if anything, that preceded it, while “Kammermusik No. 2” is remindful to me of pieces that Balanchine previously choreographed (eg., “Symphony in Three Movements” (1972), and to a lesser extent “Agon”(1957), each to Stravinsky).

But that doesn’t make “Kammermusik No. 2” any less of a work of genius – and based on the two performances I saw, it resonates today at least as much, if not more, than “Concerto Barocco.” Not only is the choreography as contemporary-looking today as it must have been in 1978, it masterfully integrates relatively novel (for the time) movement qualities – flexed hands and feet; backward thrusts for the women, for example— but adds both dynamism and an inherent sense of excitement. It’s alive – not preserved in aspic.

The casts for the two “Kammermusik No. 2” performances I saw were quite remarkable.

On Saturday, Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford, the lead women who dance in counterpoint to each other and to the male corps, executed the piece with crystal clarity and manifest enthusiasm (particularly in contrast to the preceding performance that day of “Concerto Barocco”), bringing out not just the jazzy overlay of the piece, but also its somewhat opaque heart. They complemented each other well. Although the piece has no plot, it has abundant energy and style, both of which were clearly and enthusiastically delivered.

The performance of “Kammermusik No. 2” last night was equally strong, if not more so. Led by Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns, one sensed drama, as well as clarity and enthusiasm. Ms. Reichlen was at her best, which is first-rate. She was neither mechanical nor overly expressive, and she executed to perfection. I’ve often found Ms. Mearns to be either overly dramatic, milking pathos from every pore, or confined emotionally to her own world. Last night I saw a different Sara Mearns. Although she wasn’t the center of attention, she seemed to relish the role, dancing with extraordinary attack, but attack spiced with verve. Aside from her celebrated performances in “Swan Lake,” to me this was Ms. Mearns’s finest effort to date.

At Saturday’s performance, Ms. Krohn and Ms. Stafford were ably partnered, respectively, by Jared Angle and Amar Ramasar. Last night, Mr. Angle was a refined partner for Ms. Reichlen, and, in a role debut, Zachary Catazaro, proved an attentive and capable partner for Ms. Mearns. The male corps (Devin Alberta, Daniel Applebaum, Cameron Dieck, Joseph Gordon, Ralph Ippolito, Lars Nelson, Andrew Scordato, and Joshua Thew), which was identical at both performances, executed with superb precision and appropriate enthusiasm.

“Concerto Barocco” will always be a masterpiece, not only for its neo-classicism in general, but for integrating more contemporary concepts (contrapuntal and syncopated choreography) and intriguing movement qualities (slides, for example) within the neo-classic framework. However, Saturday’s performance was disappointing. Nothing looked ‘wrong’ about it technically – but the performance, led by Maria Kowroski and Ms. Mearns, lacked the crispness and spark that should be given in any performance, and certainly in the performance of a Balanchine classic. It looked unexceptional. And, worse, it looked dull.

In a review in June, 2009, while commenting on an American Ballet Theatreperformance of Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” I complained about dancers performing Balanchine classics ‘reverentially’ (and complimented ABT dances Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns for not doing so). And as I’ve previously noted, in recent years NYCB dancers also have replaced simple reverential execution with vivacity, converting what often appeared to be a performance homage into a performance celebration. This renewed enthusiasm, coupled with NYCB’s usual flawless execution, has been a component of NYCB’s recent extraordinary rebirth and renewal. But these qualities were absent from Saturday’s performance. The performance wasn’t helped by Ms. Kowroski and Ms. Mearns appearing to be, at best, indifferent to each other. They were like identical magnetic poles that could never connect: they were independent, vacant, robotic entities capable of perfect execution but little more. And try as I could to think otherwise, and heretical though it may be, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d rather have been watching a different piece choreographed in part to the same composition — Paul Taylor’s magnificently joyous “Esplanade.”

Last night’s performance, on the other hand, made me remember why “Concerto Barocco” is the masterpiece it is. A different cast brought it back to life. Ms. Krohn and Ms. Stafford, who danced the lead roles, not only complemented each other and crisply executed the steps, they added that quality of contagious excitement that was completely absent from Saturday’s performance. Perhaps more importantly, neither hesitated to express the spiritual and emotional pleasure that is inherent in the Bach music. It wasn’t a reverential performance – it was a joyful one. Even the corps (Sara Adams, Faye Arthurs, Likolani Brown, Alina Dronova, Meagan Mann, Kristen Segin, Gretchen Smith), which was identical at both performances, executed at a higher level than on Saturday.

For Ms. Krohn and Ms. Stafford, these performances were particularly noteworthy. After being promoted to principal a couple of years ago, Ms. Krohn seemed to have lost a degree of confidence – or was simply taking awhile to adjust to new roles. Whatever the reason, based on these two performances, she’s back. Always a somewhat reserved presence, Ms. Krohn now is dancing with her usual finesse and inherent sensuality, but with added fervor. Ms. Stafford’s transformation has been even more remarkable. In recent years, her performances have seemed lackluster to me, as if she’d decided to stop trying (though this may have reflected a gradual recovery from an injury). So far this season, she’s back in total control, executing flawlessly and with bubbly effervescence.

Both programs were completed by “Who Cares?,” Balanchine’s gloriously entertaining tribute to George Gershwin and the spirit of American popular music. As in previous performances I’ve seen and reviewed, the piece brought the house down. Highlighting individual performances would be prohibitively lengthy, but there wasn’t a less than stellar effort by either cast of four principals, ten soloists, and ten corps dancers. But I must recognize, once again, the outstanding efforts by the lead couple, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild on Saturday, and Sterling Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar last night. I’ve seen each couple dance their roles previously, but they outdo themselves each time, and their most recent performance is always their best one.

JR Art Series Photo © Jerry Hochman

JR Art Series
Photo © Jerry Hochman

Saturday’s performance also marked the return of NYCB’s “Saturday at the Ballet with George” festivities. Nominally a tribute to Balanchine on the anniversary of his birth, on a more global level the day is a tribute to NYCB and a gift to those balletgoers fortunate enough to atten, or knowledgeable enough to know not to miss it. It’s a hugely popular event. In addition to special classes offered for children, the day featured a presentation showcasing the evolution of an SAB student through ‘class-like’ exhibits by students at different levels, as well as the evolution of performance execution once the student enters the company. Anchored by Ashley Bouder, who had performed brilliantly in “Who Cares?” moments earlier, class exhibits were explained by former company members and now teachers Darci Kistler for the younger classes; Kay Mazzo for the older classes; Arch Higgins for the older boys; and Jonathan Stafford (who will retire from the company later this season) narrating a partnering class. The program then segued into Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins leading two promising young dancers through corrections in the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux, followed by an out-of-costume performance of the pas de deux, demonstrating the way the choreography should look, danced impeccably by Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild.

JR Art Series Photo © Paul Kolnik

JR Art Series
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Finally, NYCB has renewed the Art Series it began last year, which features exhibitions of artwork by contemporary artists. While I thought last year’s effort was disappointing and more an example of artistic egotism than merit (concededly, an opinion not shared by others), the current effort, by French artist JR, is wonderful. Essentially, the NYCB dancers were photographed in various non-performance poses, which JR then assembled and converted into a new first promenade (mezzanine) floor. The images of the dancers were assembled so as to collectively appear to form an eye – representative, perhaps of another way to ‘see’ the dancers. Ballet patrons walk across this image-filled floor, trying to identify a particular dancer or just marveling at the extraordinary images beneath their feet. To me, and irreverent though it may be, it looked like the DHK Theater’s mezzanine had been transformed into a sort of a secular shrine.  And as the Sistine Chapel has its ceiling, the D.H.K. Theater now – at least for the time being – has its floor.

It’s my understanding that this exhibition will be open to the public at various times next week. Don’t miss it.