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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Greek Trilogy at the NYCB

The New York City Ballet kicked off its fall season with a two-week tribute to the extraordinary musical collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky. The first program was entitled "Greek trilogy" and featured three seminal works in the NYCB canon -- Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon. All three are important works in the company's history, and it was a nice gesture to the company's faithful audience to start off the fall season with such a program. (It almost made up for the horror of the Valentino gala.) These works, however, don't exist in a vacuum. Strong dancers are needed to breathe life into these ballets.

This was made painfully apparent by the two Apollo casts I saw. Last night, I saw the cast of Chase Finlay as the god, and Rebecca Krohn as Calliope, Teresa Reichlen as Polyhymnia, and Maria Kowroski as Terpischore. It wasn't a bad performance, but it had enough mishaps and slip-ups that the overall impact was muted. Chase Finlay had a lot of trouble with his last variation. He stumbled out of the final pirouette and landed in an awkward position and as a result was behind the musical cue for the Apollo/Terpischore pas de deux. He wasn't helped by the surprisingly dull Terpischore of Maria Kowroski. She can be a gorgeous dancer, with perhaps the most beautiful legs in the business, but sometimes she seems to coast on her beauty.  Last night was one of those times. There was little chemistry between the muses -- a grim-faced Rebecca Krohn was dancing in an altogether different, extremely tragic ballet, while Teresa Reichlen was too regal for the playful Polyhymnia. Finlay's definitely a promising Apollo, but I've seen him dance this three times now and each time he's made mistakes in his variations, or gotten behind the musical beat.

This afternoon's performance of Apollo, however, was a sharp reminder of what this ballet can be. Robert Fairchild doesn't have the blond, Adonis looks of Chase Finlay, but he had authority, technique, and musicality in spades. There were no stumbles or miscues -- Fairchild danced every step with a crispness and attack that gave the choreography an expansiveness and shape that wasn't there last night. One famous example might be the "soccer kicks" -- Fairchild kicked each leg playfully to the beat of the music, really like a young god dancing. It was a masterful performance. He was helped by this afternoon's trio of muses -- Ana Sophia Scheller, Tiler Peck, and Sterling Hyltin. The three ladies do not resemble each other, but they danced as if they were from the same sisterhood -- always together, always on cue, body language always mirroring each other perfectly. Their variations had much more snap, playfulness, and fun than last night's trio. If I were Apollo I would have picked all three ladies. Peck's Polyhymnia was just fantastic -- her pique turns into arabesque practically sparkled. Sterling Hyltin has grown so much in the role of Terpischore. Last year I found her lightweight. This year, there's a newfound sweetness and tenderness to her portrayal that made the pas de deux with Fairchild a revelation. She'll never be of the aloof Suzanne Farrell type of Terpischore but it works.

I couldn't stay for the remaining two ballets on the bill today (wasn't feeling well), but I did watch them last night. Orpheus is proof that not everything Balanchine touched turned to gold. When it premiered in 1948 it so moved Morton Baum that he invited Balanchine's company to become the resident company at City Center. Today, the ballet looks firmly lodged in the modern dance/Broadway aesthetic of 1948. The costumes and decor by Noguchi now look tacky -- the women are wearing "nudesuits" except for these white plates that cover up the breasts and crotch, the depiction of Hades literally has dancers cavorting in bodysuits with horns sticking out. There's very little actual dancing -- only a desperate pas de deux between Orpheus and Eurydice in which Eurydice employs all her feminine charms (including straddling Orpheus) to get Orpheus to look at her -- is recognizably Balanchine. The campy, even cheeky treatment of this famous, tender Greek myth is surprising. Orpheus ends up getting torn to pieces by the Bacchantes in a scene that plays like a parody of the Wili scene in Giselle. Sebastian Marcovici was Orpheus, Jonathan Stafford was the Dark Angel, and Janie Taylor was Eurydice. None of the dancers made much of an impression to be honest, but it might be that this ballet is just not that strong and whatever impact it might have had in 1948 is gone.

If Orpheus seems trapped in a time capsule, Agon remains as fresh, innovative, and challenging today as it must have been at its premiere in 1957. The choreography and score are sharp, witty, and provocative. Last night's performance was all things considered very strong. Maria Kowroski who sleepwalked through Apollo woke up for Agon. For many years this role belonged to Wendy Whelan, but seems like Maria is now the go-to Agon pdd girl. She brings something very different to the role. Wendy was cool, clinical, angular, Maria's shapes and style are much more naturally voluptuous. The famously spidery pas de deux became a dance of seduction with Maria, as she seemed to relish every straddling, leg-wrapping, body-contorting pose. It's Kama Sutra, onstage. There were a few shaky moments of partnering with Amar Ramanasar and I kind of wish their body lines were better matched, but overall, no complaints. The first and second pas de trois were also excellent, with Sean Suozzi and Teresa Reichlen both capturing the snappy, sharp nature of the choreography. Only the finale seemed a bit sluggish, as if the dancers were out of gas. Time really hasn't dulled the shock value of this ballet.

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