New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 9, 2021 Matinee: Lauren Lovette Farewell
Opus 19 / The Dreamer, AMARIA, Serenade
October 9, 2021 Evening: Ask la Cour Farewell
Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Rotunda, Chaconne, After the Rain pas de deux
October 16, 2021 Matinee: La Valse, Other Dances, After the Rain pas de deux, Agon
October 17, 2021: Maria Kowroski Farewell
Chaconne (excerpt), Opus 19 / The Dreamer, DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse (excerpt), AMARIA, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
New York City Ballet ended its post–pandemic 2021 Fall Season last Sunday with the last of a series of Farewell performances by retiring members of the company. This season included many more departures than usual – a total of four Principal Dancers and one Soloist, and at least two more Principals are scheduled to leave in the Winter and Spring 2022 seasons. For NYCB, these are challenging times.
This review will focus on each the three Farewell performances I saw, but first I’ll comment on other dances I was able to see during this four-performance period.
Other dances, including Other Dances
The October 16 matinee performance included interesting casting that I’d not previously seen in dances that I’m familiar with. The most significant was in Jerome Robbins’s Other Dances, where Tiler Peck was partnered by newly-announced Soloist Roman Mejia, who debuted in his role a couple of days earlier.
Peck delivered her usual stellar performance, including her incomparable sense of phrasing. Hers was an earthy, into-the-ground folk-based interpretation, the interpretation that one most often, but not always, sees. In contrast, for example, was the performance in the same piece by Sarah Lane with American Ballet Theatre a couple of years ago, which I described as no less folk-based, but with an added and complementary sense of lightness and ethereality. I bring that up because Mejia conveyed exactly that with his airy albeit true-to-the-choreography performance. When he dug his heels into the stage floor, he wasn’t drilling a hole – it was into the ground and emphatic, as it had to be, but it was done without unnecessary and self-important emphasis. I wouldn’t describe his execution as being lighter than air, but it was far softer than thuds. And when the choreography allowed him to leap off the floor, he flew. It was fascinating to watch him make Robbins’s choreography soar, and to mark his continuing progress.
In other respects Peck and Mejia complemented each other well – to a point. There was a much greater sense in this performance of Peck and Mejia being independent entities who happened to be dancing together in the same ballet. There was occasional eye contact, with smiles at each other that went with it, but it looked programmed. I sensed little chemistry – which may have been a function of Peck’s being so much more experienced, and/or the fact that she replaced the dancer originally scheduled for this performance on relatively short notice. Aside from that, both performances were first-rate.
La Valse, which opened this program, is infrequently performed, but is no less unusual and mysterious now than when I first saw it. Although it lacks little of Balanchine’s usual brilliance, it’s one that’s tougher to grasp than most others.
La Valse (the Waltz) is a ballet essay visualizing the imminent fall of a way of life. Maurice Ravel’s accompanying score, composed in 1919-20 (its original title was “Wien”), was intended to be a ballet from its inception: it was a commission from the Ballets Russes, though Diaghilev ultimately rejected it. It is considered by some to be a backward-looking visualization of the decline of the waltz form. Indeed, according to Ravel, it had nothing to do with the disintegration of a European way of life (which culminated with the end of World War I) in general, or of Austria-Hungary’s Hapsburg dynasty in particular.
To me as well as others, however, that’s disingenuous. Ravel planted the ballet in Vienna in 1855, a period when European empires were entering a decline that began prior to and continued after the tumultuous year of 1848. And the combined romantic and macabre nature of the score portends far more than “they don’t make waltzes like they used to.” On the other hand, musically recognizing the decline of the waltz form can be seen as a metaphor for something of far greater significance – though I suppose that’s debatable.
The first ballet choreographed to Ravel’s La Valse was performed in 1926, and other ballets were created subsequently (including one choreographed by Nijinska in 1928-29). Balanchine created his in 1951, emphasizing the decadent, the romantic, and the macabre characteristics of the score. In his iteration, Balanchine included Valse Nobles et Sentimentales, which Ravel had composed in 1911, as a sort of preface (which, in sentiment if not intent, is what it is). Accordingly the ballet is in two parts: one basically capturing the form – albeit with an atmosphere of imminent catastrophe; and the second, to the La Valse composition, the occurrence of that catastrophe, as a death-like character kills the lone female dancer dressed in pure white, who is first tempted by the death-figure and then is poisoned by him (or by whatever he represents), and dies.
The primary characters are that woman in white, the man who she meets and becomes enamored of at a ball, and the ‘messenger of death’ who fascinates and ultimately kills her, here played respectively by Sterling Hyltin, Joseph Gordon, and Andrew Veyette. Hyltin was quite extraordinary as she went from being an innocent to the victim of a fatal attraction; Gordon, her heartbroken suitor, believably transitioned from besmitten to bewildered to broken; and Veyette was calculated, merciless, and ice cold as his character orchestrates her destruction.
Of the pairs of dancers featured in the first part of La Valse, Georgina Pazcoguin and Daniel Appelbaum, Ashley Laracey and Andrew Scordato, and in particular Lauren King and Devin Alberda executed very well.
This was King’s final NYCB performance – she’s the soloist who is retiring this season after 17 years with the company, including 8 as a soloist. To her apparent surprise, she was honored with a seemingly impromptu farewell celebration by the cast (including being presented with a silver crown or tiara to memorialize the occasion), prompting cheers from those in the audience who had known this was to be her final performance (it was not publicized), and from the rest when they figured out what was happening. The celebration very much reflected one of King’s performance qualities: being genuine.
After the Rain, Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux that was ubiquitous this season, followed Other Dances and was given a remarkably fine performance by newly-promoted Principal Unity Phelan, who debuted in the role two days earlier, and Preston Chamblee, who had debuted in his role on October 8. It concluded with Balanchine’s Agon. Although overall this performance sufficiently conveyed the neoclassic angularity in Stravinsky’s then-contemporary atonality (I’ve described it previously as a Balanchine ballet masterpiece that one can appreciate more than love), to me it lacked the connectivity and timing that makes a brilliant execution of Agon … brilliant. As good as it was, compared to others it was no contest.
There was one Farewell performance earlier this season that I was unable to see. On September 26, Abi Stafford gave her Farewell performance following a 22-year NYCB career (1999-2021; promoted to Principal in 2007), appearing in one of the pieces in that program – Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. I’ve seen her performances many times, but the bulk of her NYCB career took place outside my view. Of her many roles (she danced in at least 50 different roles), the one I remember most vividly was her leading role in “Emeralds,” from Balanchine’s Jewels. This is a particularly difficult role to make credible because the segment, at least to me, is far more amorphous than the other two. But she was one of the few to execute it and look comfortable and believable doing so.
Lauren Lovette Farewell
It’s difficult to find words to write about Lauren Lovette’s NYCB career that haven’t already been written.
Lovette joined the NYCB corps in September 2010 (the same SAB class as Taylor Stanley) and within four months was already being given featured roles. The first time I saw her I didn’t recognize her: she was the girl who popped up from behind a bench at the conclusion of “Frankie and Johnny…and Rose” as Amar Ramasar’s third temptation /conquest (after Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns) in the first segment of Susan Stroman’s two-part For the Love of Duke, and I remember saying to myself how remarkable it was for NYCB, which at the time already had an embarrassment of riches, to find yet another “new” gem. Later that same evening, I saw her first featured role (not realizing that I’d seen her in the earlier Stroman piece): her debut in Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. It was January 28, 2011, and sometimes you just know. In my subsequent review I wrote: “… Ms. Lovette was mesmerizing….It was an unexpectedly exceptional performance that was well-received by the usually restrained NYCB audience. Ms. Lovette appears small and pretty enough to be a cute soubrette, but she also appears to be talented enough to be a lot more than that.”
Nine months later, on September 30, 2011, on the occasion of the Jerome Robbins Award (in that year it was awarded to those NYCB ballerinas who had who performed Robbins’s pieces and who were cast and rehearsed by Robbins), I and a full audience had the opportunity to assess Lovette again. On stage that night was not only the sight of the generations of ballerinas honored, but also the generation-spanning view of NYCB’s then current crop of ballerinas who performed – from Wendy Whelan to … Lovette. I observed at that time: “Ms. Lovette, who is still in the corps, has developed into a dancer with an individualized stage persona and an innate ability to project beyond the proscenium. It is premature to discuss Ms. Lovette as if she were already a complete dancer – she isn’t yet (I haven’t seen her assay roles that require NYCB-style speed), and lots can happen. But she already does more than just execute steps (which she does very well); she infuses a dramatic quality full to the fingertips in everything I’ve seen her do, while still looking like a fresh-faced ingenue.”
Lovette’s NYCB career grew meteorically thereafter: she was promoted to Soloist in 2013 and to Principal in 2015, along the way conquering roles that at the time seemed far beyond her years: including (among many other roles) the lead in “Rubies” from George Balanchine’s Jewels, a breakout performance as the Novice in Robbins’s The Cage, and a defining Calliope in Balanchine’s Apollo. In addition to conveying that dramatic “full to the fingertips” quality, she also had the rare ability to appear irresistibly sensual and sweetly innocent almost concurrently.
In 2016, Lovette choreographed her first piece for NYCB, “For Clara,” and her choreographic proficiency has increased exponentially since, creating two more ballets for NYCB as well as for the Paul Taylor Dance Company and ABT.
In her Farewell program, Lovette danced in the opening piece, Robbins’s Opus 19 / The Dreamer (opposite Joseph Gordon). While Gordon’s performance didn’t include the nuance that others (e.g., Gonzalo Garcia) bring to the role, the flip side of that is that he didn’t need to. A late substitute for the originally-cast Stanley, Gordon was a natural poet in the truest sense: an innocent dreaming of / searching for someone. Lovette’s character was more dream object than tease, throughout delivering that magical quality that also has marked all her performances.
Following a performance of AMARIA by Maria Kowroski and Ramasar (more on that piece below), the afternoon, and Lovette’s NYCB career, concluded with Balanchine’s Serenade. While other roles might have been more distinctive for her Farewell program than Opus 19 / The Dreamer, playing the “Waltz girl” in Serenade was a perfect concluding piece. With Tiler Peck as the “Jumping girl,” Russell Janzen as her cavalier, and Emilie Gerrity and Jovani Furlan completing the lead cast, the performance was … magical.
After Serenade came the celebration. As is customary with NYCB Farewells, to audience cheers, one by one company Principal Dancers, company artistic administrators, and those with whom Lovette has danced in the past presented her with flowers running the gamut from a single rose to bouquets. With her characteristic look of being dazed and overwhelmed by the adulation, and with teary-eyed appreciation, Lovette took solo bow after solo bow as the audience continued to stand and cheer, and as confetti and flowers filled the stage. And then it was done.
The final image of Serenade, in the concluding Elegy segment, of Lovette being carried to, and welcoming, whatever destiny awaits, was particularly poignant, and brought many in the audience to tears. It was also bittersweet. Lovette has indicated that she intends to concentrate on choreography, but also that she intends to dance again. In that latter respect, where she will continue what she’s described as the second half of her career is as yet unknown, but wherever she ends up, I suspect New York audiences will see her again.
Ask la Cour Farewell
NYCB has always had a close relationship with the Royal Danish Ballet.
The two companies have much in common. After Diaghilev’s death and the failure of Ballet Russes, Balanchine spent time with the Danes as Guest Ballet Master. Equally significant is that the Bournonville style preserved by the Danes emphasizes speed and precision, those qualities that distinguish Balanchine’s NYCB. So although most of the NYCB dancers were (and continue to be) graduates of the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet, it was not surprising that Balanchine invited several male Danish dancers to join his company. A partial list includes Adam Luders, Peter Schaufuss, Ib Anderson, and Peter Martins. Martins, in turn, invited, among others, la Cour.
I concede that I didn’t think that much of la Cour one way or the other after he joined NYCB in 2002, following two years with the Danes. Part of this is a result of my natural tendency to pay greater attention to ballerinas than danseurs, and part because la Cour was, at least in the pieces in which I saw him dance, somewhat of a nonentity to me. Aside from appearing taller and thinner-looking, I thought there was little to distinguish him from other male dancers in the company, even after he was promoted to Soloist in 2005. Indeed, despite his height, he almost faded into the woodwork.
But after he was promoted to Principal Dancer in 2013, I began to take notice. There was something about la Cour that other danseurs didn’t have: a quality of serenity, of effortlessness, and most of all, elegance in whatever he danced – which made him a most unusual, as well as capable, partner. He also, in those rare pieces in which it was called for, exhibited a quality of joy that was infectious. In the process, la Cour accumulated a comprehensive list of appearances in featured roles in ballets choreographed by Balanchine, Robbins, and Martins, including (but by no means limited to) stellar work in The Four Temperaments and Agon.
The pieces in which I’ve seen him this year displayed all of la Cour’s rare qualities. In Lovette’s August, 2021 production “Why It Matters,” la Cour distinguished himself in “The Man I Love” segment from Balanchine’s Who Cares? (partnering Phelan), demonstrating those qualities of effortless, elegance, and joy that mark his best performance qualities. And earlier this NYCB season those same factors characterized his performance as the Cowboy in the effusive opening segment of Western Symphony.
For his Farewell, la Cour appeared in Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, partnering Teresa Reichlen in each. These ballets were separately created, and look quite different from each other. But beginning in 1966 Balanchine paired them, each with the same lead dancers, thereby emphasizing the contrasting, but also complementary, nature of these ballets (both of which were choreographed to Stravinsky scores). In each of these pieces, la Cour’s performance was immaculate.
Following Monumentum / Movements were two ballets in which he did not appear – Rotunda and Chaconne. I reviewed Justin Peck’s Rotunda following its premiere on February 26, 2020 – my last NYCB review before the pandemic. As I did then, I continue to find it a very pleasant, somewhat retro (for Peck) work that explores forms that Peck used previously, but with expanded breadth. The “subject” in this abstract ballet is circles, which he uses as starting and ending points for a variety of patterning that emerges from nowhere (a hallmark of Peck’s choreography) and more focused segments involving subsets of the whole. The cast, with one exception, was the same as it was at its premiere: Sara Adams, Claire Kretzschmar, Phelan, Gilbert Bolden III, Daniel Ulbricht, Mearns, Danchig-Waring, and Furlan. The addition was Megan Fairchild. All did superb work.
I’ll discuss Chaconne below.
Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux closed the program optimally, demonstrating, yet again, la Cour’s commanding yet effortless-looking partnering (here of Kowroski). It was a stellar performance of this emotionally moving pas de deux, and a perfect way to highlight the quiet excellence that la Cour has exhibited throughout his career.
And then the fun started. Literally. La Cour’s Farewell celebration was particularly ebullient, and it revealed an aspect of la Cour’s personality that I’d heard about, but not previously seen: his sense of humor (which reappeared in a post-retirement cameo appearance in the last Farewell of the season, discussed below). Here, in addition to being relieved that it was over, la Cour did little impromptu jigs in response to whoever was offering congratulations, especially when they carried mini Danish flags. Through it all, the audience stood and cheered. But unlike most other Farewells, there was no sense of sadness and no tears – just the euphoria of having completed a highly successful career.
La Cour reportedly will now teach with the Royal Danish Ballet School, and teach and coach with the Royal Danish Ballet.
Maria Kowroski Farewell
Perhaps the sweetest of these Farewells was the final program of NYCB’s Fall 2021 season.
I remember hearing the “buzz” about Kowroski that began as soon as she joined the company in 1995, following a year as an apprentice. That buzz quickly grew into a crescendo as she rocketed to Soloist two years later, and to Principal Dancer two years after that – and never stopped. During her 27 year career with NYCB, she was the one who was always there, dancing a multitude of roles in which her apparent personal character, as well as her seemingly endless legs, shone through. I can’t recall any role that she did not execute and execute well. She appeared in some 32 featured roles in Balanchine ballets, 12 in ballets choreographed by Robbins (and is the last ballerina to have worked directly with Robbins), and 15 by Martins (including 3 that she originated), among many others. Providing even a partial list of the ballets in which she excelled would take more space than even I am comfortable using. And she was always there, and ready. Indeed, following a pregnancy leave — from which many balletgoers I knew believed she would not return, not only did she return, but she returned dancing better than ever.
Her finest work, at least to me, was in ballets that took advantage of her flexibility and her ability to tie herself in knots without breaking, and those legs that went on forever. Perhaps the most significant of these, at least to me (and I know I’m not alone), was in the central pas de deux in Agon. Nobody does it better.
While the other Farewells I attended were appropriately heartfelt, the programs seemed to have been determined on the fly, constrained by the ballets scheduled this season. This was not the case with Kowroski’s Farewell. That Sunday matinee program seemed planned far in advance to provide the utmost tribute to Kowroski and to illustrate the breadth of her talent.
Kowroski seemed to have a particular affinity for those dances that may appear more contemporary than others, and which emphasize angularity. Indeed, she’s so good in those dances that it’s easy to categorize her as being fluent only in that limited category. As the opening dance of her Farewell program demonstrated, that would be wrong.
It began with an excerpt from Chaconne, Balanchine’s take on selected music from the opera score for Gluck’s Orphee et Eurodice. At la Cour’s Farewell performance, Chaconne was included on the program even though la Cour had no involvement in it. The execution in that performance was commendable, but in the dance’s climactic, romantic pas de deux, the leads (Mearns and Janzen) seemed emotionally distant. In the Chaconne excerpt in which Kowroski danced here (also partnered by Janzen), the emotional connection was apparent, and Janzen appeared far more relaxed than he did in that prior performance. Beyond that, Kowroski was simply sensational, displaying every ounce of the liquidity, romanticism, and lyricism that can make the role come alive. I suppose that no one in this audience would have questioned Kowroski’s facility in such roles, but if there were, any such misconceptions would have been immediately dispelled.
Opus 19 / The Dreamer followed, made part of the program seemingly to give Kowroski time to change costumes. I’ve reviewed this Robbins piece many times previously, including with the cast leads here (Hyltin and Garcia), and on this occasion they delivered another superb performance.
Kowroski returned thereafter, dancing the central pas de deux in Wheeldon’s masterful DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. To say that she and her partner, Tyler Angle, blew the roof off the Koch Theater would not be much of an understatement. Their execution was phenomenal – and nothing more descriptive need be said.
The Farewell program continued thereafter with AMARIA, the piece that Mauro Bigonzetti specifically choreographed for Kowroski. Partnered again by Ramasar, the emotional connection displayed lit the stage. I reviewed AMARIA favorably following its premiere, and nothing I saw on second and third view (it had been sandwiched into the Lovette Farewell) changed that opinion. One might see AMARIA as yet another relationship dance, but there’s more here than that. To my eye, it’s a comment on Kowroski’s retirement – more specifically on the internal conflict she endures knowing that she must leave although she doesn’t really want to, and on Ramasar’s efforts to pull her back.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (from On Your Toes), one of Balanchine’s Broadway ballets that was adapted and added to the NYCB repertoire in 1968, completed the Farewell program. Slaughter had not been performed earlier this season, and I have no doubt that it was included here especially for Kowroski’s Farewell performance. Not only did it allow her to show off those legs in the famous sequence of upward leg pumps, which always brings the house down (as it did here), it allowed the evening to end on an exhilarating note. Adding to the fun was a knockout performance by Angle as “Hoofer,” a brief star turn by Applebaum as “Morrosine, premiere danseur noble,” and, back from retirement for one hilarious performance only, la Cour as “Big Boss.” And it brought out yet another characteristic of Kowroski’s personality – one rarely seen in performance – her sense of humor. Seeing her first emerge (explode might be more accurate) from behind the pseudo stage curtain as “Striptease Girl” may have been the most priceless moment in the program.
When Slaughter ended, the audience, predictably, went wild … and this unbridled enthusiasm easily segued into the confetti and streamer-laden celebration that followed. As one friend described it, it was a love fest. The usual parade of flowers was perhaps longer than the others because, as a result of her extraordinarily long career, there were more former – and now retired – partners who kept emerging from the wings to greet and salute her. This was a joyous Farewell, culminating with the final celebrants bearing special gifts: Kowroski’s family, including her very jubilant young son.
It’s unclear what Kowroski will do following her retirement, although it was recently announced that she was named Acting Artistic Director of New Jersey Ballet. Regardless, it’s difficult to think of New York City Ballet without Maria Kowroski in it.