New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
May 19, 25, and 29, 2022
Piano Pieces, The Four Seasons, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Amar Ramasar Farewell
Question: If you’re New York City Ballet, after two weeks of the 50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival, what do you do for an encore? Answer: You bring back one of the most beloved full-length ballets in your repertoire, and add a seriously heartwarming Farewell for the last performance of the run, which was also the final performance of your Spring 2022 season.
That’s what NYCB did, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
Amar Ramasar and I have at least one thing in common: we were both born in the Bronx. Other than that … not much. But there’s something about him that strikes a common chord in others, regardless of their place of birth or background. I’ll touch on that below, when I discuss his May 29th Farewell performance.
For now, suffice it to say that his Farewell included some special circumstances that made it different – aside from the fact that every Farewell is different from another. I had heard that Ramasar had been injured, which his subsequent removal from his originally-scheduled May 25 appearance confirmed. So whether he would actually perform at his Farewell was in some doubt.
He did, splendidly, but the knowledge that there was yet something else for him to overcome made this Farewell even more memorable than it might otherwise have been, difficult as that may be to believe.
But first…for the four evenings between the end of the Stravinsky Festival and the beginning of the eleven performances over eight days run of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, NYCB caught its collective breath and presented four consecutive programs of two Jerome Robbins ballets: Piano Pieces and The Four Seasons. I’ll address them briefly.
The Robbins Ballets
Robbins is no stranger to piano ballets. Of course, in 1969 he created one of his masterpieces, Dances at a Gathering, to piano music by Chopin; seven years later he returned to Chopin with Other Dances. In between, in 1971, he created one of the finest of his ballet masterpieces, The Goldberg Variations (to Bach, for piano rather than a harpsichord). And then there is the most famous piano ballet that’s not just a piano ballet, The Concert, which he created in 1956. And these examples only scratch the surface of the piano keys.
In 1981, for the company’s Tchaikovsky Festival, Robbins created Piano Pieces to a suite of piano compositions that, according to the program notes, Tchaikovsky knocked out, like baking musical pancakes, to make some easy money. He may have viewed them with contempt, but they’re delightful. As is Robbins’s ballet. It’s other Other Dances, this time to Tchaikovsky.
For Piano Pieces, Robbins used 14 of Tchaikovsky’s musical pancakes (the program note says 15, but there are only 14 identified). Some are several minutes long; some several seconds. Regardless of their length, each has an individual character, which Robbins’s choreography picks up on. If there’s a dominant overall sense, it’s Russian / Central European Folk Dance, but not all the ballet’s component parts fit that characterization.
I won’t spend time discussing each of ballet’s mini-dances. Since there are more timely matters to get to, I’ll save that discussion for a subsequent review. But the piece is another exquisite Robbins ballet, piano or otherwise, that displays what I’ve previously described as that Robbins “quality of humanity” with every step; and the cast (nearly all the featured dancers in role debuts), including the corps, danced with exuberant radiance throughout. Those performances that most impressed were by Isabella LaFreniere (a friend observed that in many ways LaFreniere resembles Kyra Nichols; except for appearing to be taller, my friend is right), Unity Phelan (who looks increasingly comfortable as a principal with each outing), Indiana Woodward (ditto), Sebastian Villarini-Velez (I’ve commented previously on his significant and continuing growth as a dancer over the past couple of seasons), and Anthony Huxley. Huxley and another dancer apparently received advice (although I don’t know this for a fact) during the past winter season that their consistently serious and/or sour-looking demeanor should be changed. Beginning toward the end of last season, as if turning on a switch, the advice took, and Huxley began to look far more relaxed and happy to be doing what he was doing. And he smiled – a real smile, not one pasted-on. It seemed so remarkable that I commented on it in a subsequent end-of-season review. And it continues. Even though Huxley’s technical ability has always been abundant and manifest, the change in his demeanor has made a huge difference in the visual quality of his performances this season.
The Four Seasons is not an unfamiliar piece. Created to Verdi’s eponymous composition (a divertissement from I Vespri Siciliani) as well as other Verdi music, the piece is a highly entertaining and masterfully crafted dance, enthusiastically greeted by audiences since its premiere in 1979 (I was there).
At the performance on the 19th, Emma Von Enck, in a role debut, sizzled through Winter’s ice; Sterling Hyltin and Chun Wai Chan (a newly-promoted Principal, in a role debut) breezed through Spring, Mira Nadon, partnered by Aaron Sanz, was appropriately languid and sensual in Summer (her performance had me thinking “Coffee” from beginning to end), and Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia blasted summer out of the way with a scintillating Autumn that brought the audience to its feet, abetted by pyrotechnics from KJ Takahashi (Mejia and Takahashi in role debuts).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Speaking of seasons … there’s nothing as rare in the New York City area as a spring day in spring. While winter 2021-22 was neither particularly snowy nor extraordinarily frigid, the seemingly constant barrage of cold, wet air was debilitating. So the almost annual return of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Dream”), which closed New York City Ballet’s Spring, 2022 season and its 2021-2022 performance year, was a particularly welcome breath of fresh air.
Shakespeare’s story requires no elaboration, and Balanchine’s adaptation of it only minimal comment. Balanchine essentially covers the story’s basics in Act I of the ballet, and creates an Act II, which includes much of the dance’s choreography, seemingly out of thin air by transferring the “Wedding” to the beginning of Act II and then creating a celebration of it. The highlights, aside from the comedy and how the four dancers playing the human lovers carry it off, are the portrayals (both characterization and execution) of Titania and Oberon, the Act I pas de deux for Titania and her Cavalier, the Act II divertissement pas de deux, Puck, Hippolyta (the Amazon Queen), Butterfly (who leads the corps, and more, through Act I), and the young dancers from the School of American Ballet who play butterflies and fairies. In other words, the highlights are most everything about it.
Although not part of the story per se, for me the most magical part of the ballet (aside from its concluding image) is the Act II pas de deux. I can’t say that it’s Balanchine’s most romantic pas de deux – there are so many of them – but I suspect it’s his most obvious paean to love. In one dance it encompasses what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about. And Balanchine choreographically summarizes it in one brilliant moment: the pas de deux’s final moving image of the danseur cradling the ballerina in his right arm, and then almost imperceptively nudging her into a momentarily unsupported “free fall,” only to be again cradled within his waiting left arm. In a ballet filled with magical moments, this is the most choreographically magical of them all.
Singling out individual performances for praise is not necessarily a wise thing to do, especially since the entire cast on Wednesday was praiseworthy. Miriam Miller was a most lyrical and liquid of Titanias: in a prior life, her Titania might have been a mermaid. I’m aware that some found her performance insufficiently regal, but I’m not one of them. Her Titania tempered regality with a Fairy Queen’s sensibility, and to me it worked well. And in case there was any doubt, Daniel Ulbricht’s Oberon shows that he can still execute the demanding choreography with panache. He may no longer be able to jump as high as others, but his technique is still awesome.
In a role debut, Aaron Sanz excelled as Titania’s Cavalier, Kristen Segin did the same as Butterfly, Lars Nelson repeatedly made the audience giggle with his Bottom, and Mejia’s Puck is as electric as it was when I first saw it. As the lovers, LaFreniere, in yet another role debut this season, was a marvelous Helena, and, in her role debut, Sara Adams delivered a superb Hermia. Daniel Applebaum and Anthony Scordato reprised their roles as, respectively, Demetrius and Lysander, with Scordato having improved to the point where, at least to me, he was barely recognizable. Megan LeCrone’s Hippolyta and Preston Chamblee’s Theseus were sufficiently powerful. [LeCrone is the second dancer who appears to have received advice to smile; she now does; and, like Huxley, it’s improved the appearance of her performances – though she needs to keep in mind that there are still some roles (like the Dark Angel role in Serenade) where smiling through it is definitely not appropriate.] And in the Act II pas de deux, Hyltin and Jovani Furlan danced impeccably. Although Furlani’s demeanor was overly serious (not unusual for such a high-profile role debut); it was a quality, and auspicious, performance.
Amar Ramasar’s Farewell
As fine as the performance on the 25th was, everything, without exception, was taken up a notch on the 29th.
The house looked as full as I’ve ever seen it: even the Fifth Ring (box seats on the theater’s side perimeters with only a partial view of the stage and close enough to the ceiling to leap to the chandelier) looked full. And the roller coaster NYC area spring weather finally got it together for a picture perfect day.
The performances, not surprisingly, were spectacular. Chamblee, this time, made Theseus a noteworthy and powerful character (as compared to his performance on Wednesday), and Emily Kikta contributed an extra degree of power with her Hippolyta. Phelan’s marvelous Titania was as regal as one would expect without sacrificing fluidity in the process, Ulbricht’s Oberon was even more memorable than on Wednesday (his jumps were higher; his entrechats somehow crisper), and Chan, who debuted in the role five days earlier, was an excellent Cavalier.
LaFreniere’s Helena, Ashley Laracey’s Hermia, Peter Walker’s Demetrius and Sanz’s Lysander, all displayed impeccable comic timing as well as flawless execution, as did Gilbert Bolden III as Bottom. Harrison Ball’s Puck may not have Mejia’s magnetism and flair, but as I’ve observed previously, his mischievous characterization provides Puck with a fresh and interestingly different character. And Alexa Maxwell’s top-flight Butterfly helped bring Act I to life. [During the Act I intermission, I overheard one woman exclaiming somewhat incredulously to her companion: “Was that the same Alexa Maxwell?” Indeed. Yet another NYCB diamond no longer in the rough.] And somehow the always exceptional NYCB Orchestra, conducted, as were all the Dream performances, by mini-dynamo Clotilda Otranto (who has achieved cult status of her own over the years), somehow sounded better than ever.
When Act II segued from the wedding dances to the pas de deux, a hush seemed fell over the house. The program indicated that the pas de deux would be danced by Hyltin, Ramasar, and Andrew Veyette. Obviously, as a consequence of Ramasar’s injury, it was determined that his role would be split with Veyette.
When the pas de deux started, Hyltin emerged with Veyette for the first, allegro, section of it (the part that would likely have been difficult for an injured Ramasar to perform). Upon its conclusion, Veyette received polite applause. He deserved better (and a merit badge for dancing a role that he had to know would effectively be ignored no matter how well he performed it). When the pas de deux pair reemerged later from the stage right wings for the memorable adagio section, Hyltin’s partner was Ramasar. The changeover was smooth as silk. And, upon seeing Ramasar (and a particularly effervescent Hyltin), the crowd erupted.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether Hyltin and Ramasar executed this segment well, but they did – as usual, brilliantly (I think that over the years I’ve seen Hyltin and Ramasar in these roles more than any other pairing). But this time, Hyltin looked reborn, and Ramasar danced with his feet seemingly never touching the stage floor. Of course every audience-member’s eyes were on them, but I noticed also that every dancer on stage whose face was not in a fixed position elsewhere looked at them, and smiled. This was special for them too.
When the corps left the stage as the pair continued through to the end of their pas de deux, I watched Hyltin, as I often do. Like other ballerinas, while being partnered she always looks at her partner – it’s a necessity. But this time Hyltin’s look appeared significantly different to me. She wasn’t just marking his position; she was displaying a warm, calming, and as I read it, grateful smile. Then with her eyes aglow, I saw her gently encouraging him and then, as the pas ended, celebrating with him as she fell safely into his welcoming left arm. Maybe I was imagining all that, but I don’t think I was.
All romantic pas de deux are supposed to look … romantic. This one did too, but it said so much more. And the audience erupted. Again.
Dream’s ending is too astonishingly beautiful and legitimately heartwarming to ignore. So following their pas de deux, the ballet continued to its fantasy-in-the-forest conclusion. But like every other aspect of this performance, even this never before has looked quite so perfect. As I confessed to a friend, in addition to others in the audience, I lost it.
Ramasar is an unusual danseur. He doesn’t have the flair that other danseurs may have, and maybe doesn’t have the technical facility of some (though I’d dispute that). But everything I’ve seen him perform over the course of his NYCB career has been exceptional, because every role he played illustrated how fully committed he was to the role and to the ballerina he was partnering. It’s always supposed to be that way, and NYCB danseurs are among the finest of partners anywhere in ballet, but Ramasar didn’t just display his ability as a matter of routine; he cared. Maybe all do (I would hope so), but with Ramasar, you could see it in his … eyes.
It’s easiest to remember the most recent performances, and that’s the case with Ramasar as well. A few weeks ago, in Agon, Ramasar was assigned to partner Phelan in her role debut in the central pas de deux. It was crystal clear that he would let nothing stand in the way of Phelan’s successful debut. You could see it. That he practically threw himself onto the stage floor in order to be certain to be in position to catch Phelan’s descending hand in time to avoid any awkward appearance, or worse, says everything about his commitment, and his intention that his ballerina look as good as she could, not that he look as good as he could. [The review of this performance, part of the Stravinsky Festival, has now been updated with performance photographs, including one that specifically illustrates this moment.]
This was significant (as I reported, their pas de deux stopped the show), but it was only additional evidence of Ramasar’s uniquely palpable commitment and concern, a quality he’s possessed from the beginning. When I first started reviewing, commenting favorably on Ramasar’s performances, NYCB audiences hadn’t quite gotten it yet. For example, on those occasions when he was announced as a substitute for an originally scheduled danseur, I often heard some in those NYCB audience groan, obviously because some didn’t consider him to be at the level of the dancer he replaced, whoever it was. In that respect, I’ve written before – admittedly too frequently – that at one point I wrote that Ramasar was the most underrated of NYCB male dancers. [I tracked that down – it was in a comment at the end of NYCB’s Spring, 2013 season, summarizing the 2012-2013 performing year.] Within a year or two, the audience tide turned in his favor.
Then there was that glitch along the way that everyone knows about but that no one except journalists and publications with a particular agenda talk about, even though there’s nothing any longer to talk about. I had formed my own opinion of Ramasar’s character based on his stage persona, even though I’d never met him and probably never will. But stage personalities can be deceptive or inaccurate. Far more significant to me was the way Ramasar’s colleagues visibly and publicly supported him. This was more than respect for or loyalty to a colleague; this was real evidence of that character quality that I’d sensed.
And this character is what was particularly evident during the Farewell celebration that followed the Dream curtain calls. It was the usual NYCB Farewell: colleagues and former colleagues, choreographers, company staff and administrators, and family paid their respects, and sometimes joined in the fun. Gradually, the stage perimeter filled with dancers (corps dancers usually don’t participate in the promenade unless they appeared in the final piece or there were special circumstances, both of which were the case with Maxwell). And the flowers, and the confetti, and the final farewell wave to the still full house.
But at one point, after bowing to the audience, Ramasar left the stage, descended the few steps from the stage to the seating area, and approached certain members of the audience who were seated in the front right side of the orchestra. I’d never seen that before – and apparently it’s never happened before. I thought he was receiving congratulations from, and giving thanks to, members of his family who’d supported him. As I later learned (and which has since been documented on the internet), Ramasar left the stage to greet and thank Peter Martins, NYCB’s former Ballet Master in Chief.
At the outset of this review, I mentioned that Ramasar and I have at least one thing in common. I think there’s another, one that I find embarrassing at times, but that I can’t get rid of even if I wanted to. I saw it in Ramasar’s performances; I saw it in the love so many of his colleagues have for him; and I saw it in his sense of obligation to one who supported his career when, perhaps, few others did. In addition to being from the Bronx, we both wear our hearts on our sleeve.