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Saturday, May 14, 2011

NYCB - Three Masterpieces and a Stinker

New York City Ballet
May 13. 2011
Concerto Barocco, Tarantella, Seven Deadly Sins, Vienna Waltzes

Tonight at the NYCB I saw three Balanchine masterpieces, and a total dud. Three out of four isn't bad is one way to think of it. On the other hand, to see some of the country's best dancers performing the junk that is Lynne-Taylor Corbett's Seven Deadly Sins is not something I will subject myself to anytime soon. Which probably means that it's going to be the "middle ballet" in some all-Balanchine programs for the next few seasons.

The evening started out with Balanchine's 1941 masterpiece Concerto Barocco. The two violins were Teresa Reichlen and Sara Mearns, and Justin Peck was the male partner for the First Violin. When I saw the casting I immediately thought that the violins should have been reversed -- Sara Mearns should have been First Violin, and Reichlen the Second Violin. Mearns is probably the best adagio dancer the NYCB has right now, and I would have loved to see her dance the pas de deux for the First Violin. Reichlen I think of as a more spiky, aggressive dancer, and thus more appropriate for the Second Violin. But Reichlen did an admirable job as First Violin, and Justin Peck was an excellent partner. The real flowers of the night belong to the eight corps de ballet girls who accompanied the Two Violins so beautifully all night. Last week I complained that the corps were unable to keep up with Ashley Bouder in Square Dance. Tonight they were on -- energetic, musical, sensitive. There are so many beautiful moments in this ballet that every time I see it I notice another moment. Tonight my mind focused on the lovely moment when the First Violin and all the corps link hands and walk in circles. Such a simple movement on the surface, but Balanchine is able to make it look so beautiful.

After Concerto Barocco, the curtain rose on Tarantella, which I like to think is Balanchine's nod to the Imperial Ballet tradition. Despite music from an American composer (Louis Moreau Gottschalk), this piece really resembles an old-fashioned whiz-bang pas de deux in design and feel. It's like Balanchine's version of the Don Quixote pas de deux. The male even has a solo where he sails around the stage in coup jetes. The tambourines, old-fashioned costumes, and emphasis on terre a terre allegro dancing made me think that this was something Mathilde Kschessinskaya could have nailed. This piece was created on the two dynamos Edward Villela and Patricia McBride, and tonight it was cast with the two dynamos Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht. What joy they brought to the theater! They are both such skilled allegro dancers and made the whole thing look like effortless fun.

After an intermission came Seven Deadly Sins. And well, there's no way to be nice about it -- the ballet (if it can even be called a ballet) sucks. I can understand how the idea looked good on paper. Balanchine had made two versions to Kurt Weill's music, once in 1933, and more famously, in 1958 with Lotte Lenya and Allegra Kent. The choreography for both versions has been lost. This new version stars Patti Lupone as singing Anna and Wendy Whelan as dancing Anna. The storyline is that both Annas travel from their Louisiana home, across the country, and encounter the Seven Deadly Sins . I have no idea what Balanchine's versions were like, but I think the point of the ballet is that the seven deadly sins are also decadent, erotic, and, well, fun. I found some pictures of the Lenya/Kent version, and clearly Balanchine meant to show off Kent's nymph-like sexiness.

In contrast, Corbett's version is a joyless, prudish affair. The "sins" aren't something likely to surprise even the most priggish Daughters of the American Revolution member. This isn't even good Broadway, this is like the type of show that would close after three weeks. Lupone pushes her brassy voice to the limit and often sounded strained and out-of-tune. Her diction is cloudy. Dancing Anna is supposed to the sexier, looser, more impulsive alter-ego to Singing Anna, but Wendy Whelan is not at the point in her career where she can project the kind of free-wheeling descent into sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy. She's just not sexy in that kind of way. When she was reduced to rolling around on the floor, I cringed for her. At other times, I felt like playing that Saturday Night Live game "Really?" Like, really, the best representation of "Sloth" is to have a big truckload of dirty laundry pushed across the stage? Really, for "Anger," you could think of nothing more than Sara Mearns (horridly bewigged but as unmistakable as ever in the grandiosity of her dancing) doing a samba, then getting mad at her partner (Justin Peck), stamping her feet, and giving him a kick in the groin? Really? In this day and age, there is nothing remotely decadent about dirty laundry and Latin ballroom dancing. I thought things might heat up with Lust, but instead, no, we got Wendy Whelan rolling around a bed with Craig Hall in a pas de deux that wouldn't even merit a "PG" rating. I kept thinking back to last week's performance, when Wendy Whelan danced Agon, and she laid on the floor and spread-eagled herself. Now, that was erotic. The ballet was only about 30 minutes long, but felt like 30 hours. I spotted Chase Finlay, who just made his spectacular debut as Apollo, in the corps de ballet, and felt embarrassment for him. In fact, as I said, I felt embarrassment for all of the NYCB dancers who had to participate in this mess.

Thankfully, the evening was saved by more Balanchine. Vienna Waltzes is a ballet that can't be killed, and so I notice that Martins often likes to cast Vienna Waltzes with the veterans of the company who aren't necessarily technical whizbangs anymore. Plus, only one section requires pointework (the Voices of Spring Waltz). Tonight, Ellen Bar (retiring after this season) danced the "Tales From Vienna Woods" section with Jared Angle. This is the most formal section of the ballet, so I didn't mind that Bar and Angle seemed, well, stiff and formal. There was a mess as one of the waltzing couples' skirt got caught up in the scenery, and for a moment, the dancer desperately tugged to release the skirt so she could finish the waltz. I love the finale the Tales section though, as Angle and Bar walk offstage arm in arm. Very romantic. A pleasant surprise was Megan Fairchild, a dancer I often find irritatingly small-scaled, positively sparkled in the "Voices of Spring" section, and Joaquin de Luz was her excellent partner. Ana Sophia Scheller and Adam Hendrickson were in the Explosions Polka, a section I feel might contain Balanchine's most generic, forgettable choreography. The disappointment was Jenifer Ringer (another veteran) and Ask la Cour in the Lehar Waltz section. Before I went to tonight's performance I pulled out my video of Heather Watts and Peter Martins' in this section, and both Watts and Martins were able to project more of a "mature lovers" feel than Ringer and la Cour, who seemed strangely disconnected from each other the whole time. But Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard were excellent in the famous final section, set to the Der Rosenkavalier waltz. Kowroski is a dancer I've seen give some really off performances. She's a veteran (principal since 1999) who can sometimes, in the middle of a performance, suddenly make a huge and noticeable mistake. But this year I saw her sizzle as the Siren in Prodigal Son, and tonight she was glamorous and mysterious in her solo waltz to the mirror. And the finale, with the room flooded with waltzing couples and billowing silver dresses, well, hard to beat in terms of a gorgeous tableau. The audience literally sighed and the evening ended with a hearty ovation to the entire cast.

This spring season has been heavy on Balanchine masterpieces, and please, keep it that way. I was thinking of the reason Balanchine was such a genius, and I think it can all be summed up in one sentence: "His ballets make people happy." On Sunday there's a program I want to see, but that would mean suffering through Seven Deadly Sins again. Ugh, what to do?


  1. Come to the ballet & lets have coffee during 7; I have a tkt but can't stand to see it again!

  2. Hi Susan, actually, I have tons of work to do today so I'll see Vienna Waltzes and Violin Concerto another time. Have fun though!