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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. B!

Tonight the New York City Ballet celebrated Mr. Balanchine's birthday with a rousing all-Balanchine program that I just had to attend. All-Balanchine programs are becoming rarer and rarer, and judging by how packed the house was on a frigid and icy winter night, balletomanes all over recognize how special it is to be treated to a program of Balanchine masterpieces. Happy Birthday Mr. B!

The program began with Mozartiana, one of his last ballets. It was designed for his last muse Suzanne Farrell, and was a ballet that touched upon Farrell's deeply religious persona (so Catholic that she stubbornly refused to marry the divorced Balanchine, a rift that ended up with Farrell leaving the NYCB for 5 years). Its most famous part is the opening Preghiera, when the Ballerina leads a group of young girls in prayer. There is a video of Farrell dancing this role, and you can see her face rapt in prayer, and the naturally queenly manner in which she interacted with her cavalier during the Theme and Variations section.

Wendy Whelan danced the Farrell part tonight in what I'd call an interesting failure. Whelan used to be one of those hard-edged NYCB ballerinas, all spiky elbows and an almost geometric sense of line. Her thin, muscular limbs didn't slope Romantically, and to complete the look she hard pitch dark hair and dark lipstick. But in recent years, there's been a makeover both in look and style. She dyed her hair blond, seems to have gained more weight, and there was more grace in her epaulement. That being said, this kind of purely adagio role still doesn't suit her completely. One can admire her without really loving her in it. Jared Angle as her cavalier seemed to exaggerate the courtliness of their interactions, when to me the choreography seems to call for the Ballerina and Cavalier to become less courtly and more intimate as the Themes continue.

The second ballet was Balanchine's early masterpiece Prodigal Son. The role of the Prodigal Son was heavily associated with the small dynamos Edward Villela and, for a time, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Joaquin de Luz certainly can jump, twist, and finally, crawl his way through the role with relish. His interpretation however is overly boyish and there doesn't seem to be much growth in character from beginning to end. And Maria Kowroski was maybe the best I ever saw her as the Siren. The role emphasizes her snakelike legs, her jelly back, and her sultry face. She wrapped her legs every which way around the Prodigal Son with relish. The servants and drinking companions also turned their feet in, and stomped their way through the ballet with a lot of energy. But ... was the ballet always played so broadly, for laughs? Somehow it doesn't seem right. After all, Edward Villela in his autobiography spoke about how he felt the ballet was an allegory for his relationship with Balanchine. (His autobiography was appropriately entitled Prodigal Son.) Now, the dancers can do the steps but the spiritual and mythic elements to the story are missing. The audience laughed throughout the ballet, and the final crawl back to the Father (Ask La Cour) was even played in a slightly cutesy way. I always felt like this ballet was steeped both in Biblical allegory and traditions in Russian myth and folklore, and the dancers don't seem to be able to give the ballet the weight it deserves.

The evening ended with Stars and Stripes, Balanchine's gentle parody of Petipa's divertissements and also his tribute to his adopted country. The four different variations are called "campaigns," and they're filled to the brim with exercises in classical ballet. The Sousa music even has the oom-pa-pa rhythms of so many Minkus/Pugni/Drigo variations. The corps de ballet is asked to dance nonstop -- developpes, pique turns, fouettes, entrechats, cabrioles, it was exhausting just watching them. In the First Campaign I thought Erica Pereira was too tiny and indistinguishable from the corps de ballet. In the Second Campaign Gwyenth Muller stood out only for her unusual body (broad-shouldered and tall) but her strong, confident dancing, as the corps girls did a Can Can on pointe. In the Third Campaign Daniel Ulbricht was a huge hit with the audience, as was the all-male corps de ballet as they took part in the fiendish series of Bournonville-like steps. Entrechats, cabrioles, double turns in air, it was exhilarating. Of course all of this was just a set-up for Liberty Bell and El Capitan, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette. Ashley Bouder was just an absolute dynamo tonight -- funny, sparkling, both a powerhouse and fairy-like in the twinkle of her toes as she balanced, fouetted, jumped, marched, and brought down the house. The series where she crosses her legs in beats and then split leaps, then repeats the step over and over again in a diagonal across the stage, was breathtaking. The evening ended in triumph as the stage flooded with the four campaigns, and the flag lowered, and the often-reserved NYCB audience cheered noisily.

Please, programmers at NYCB: the audience loves all-Balanchine programs. It shouldn't take his birthday to have an all-Balanchine program. Every day should be a day to celebrate this great man's great work.

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