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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Winter Season Diaries, continued

Hyltin and Veyette, photo by Andrea Mohin
There is something useful about seeing the exact same program done by three completely different casts. NYCB's frantic winter season usually doesn't allow such luxuries, but eight straight performances of La Sylphide/Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 (aka Ballet Imperial) allowed for this kind of microscopic comparisons.

The casts I saw:

2/13/16: La Sylphide: Woodward, Huxley, Gordon, LeCrone, Anderson/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: Reichlen, T. Angle, Scheller

2/14/16: La Sylphide: Hyltin, Veyette, Ulbricht, Pollack, Pazgocuin/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: Mearns, LaCour, Lowery

2/17/16: La Sylphide: M. Fairchild, Garcia, Schumacher, Pollack, Gretchen Smith/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: T. Peck, Ramasar, King


NYCB's performances of La Sylphide both this winter and last spring have for the most part been superlative, at least in terms of casting the leads. Where they still need work is the "non-ballet" part of the piece -- the mime, the acting, the character dancing, and, well, the Madges.

Marie Taglioni
Andrew Veyette had to dance 4 James in three days so I'm not going to judge his performance -- I'll just assume the slumped shoulders and hard landings were a result of fatigue. Sterling Hyltin's Sylph however was a wonder -- she simply embodies the elfin woodland sprite in a way no other NYCB ballerina can. Right now no one in the NYCB roster comes close to her in this role. It's the little accents that make a great Sylph, like that wonderful moment in Act Two when the Sylph hears the bird and her hands and fingers flap to simulate the bird. Hyltin's arms, hands, and fingers vibrated to the music in such harmony that you could understand why James would give up everything for this creature. Marie Taglioni's father famously said that if anyone could hear her land from her jumps he'd disown her. Hyltin was absolutely noiseless as the Sylph -- so soft, light on her feet that she'd have no fear of getting disowned. She was also the only Sylph to really articulate the forward leaning Romantic ballet poses made so famous in the lithographs. Daniel Ulbricht was an energetic, funny Gurn and one wonders why he isn't given a chance at James.

Anthony Huxley was by far the best James in terms of pure dancing -- he has the clean style, the fast, high beats, the elevation and ballon. He also really "gets" the deep plie as the key to the amazing elevation Bournonville demanded of his male dancers. I only wish he did the bi-directional double tours en l'air. NYCB as of now has a bunch of great partners but is short on classical virtuosos. Huxley is rapidly filling that role. Indiana Woodward made a beautiful debut as the Sylph. Some of the mime could have been more clearly articulated, and she was a bit introverted in characterization (could have shown more mischief), but the basics are there: the soft, rippling arms, the light direction changing jumps, the pliant back. All she needs to do now is to make those Taglioni lithograph poses more distinct. She's already on her way though to becoming a great Sylph. Joseph Gordon (Gurn) is another dancer that seems to inherently get the Bournonville style.
Woodward and Huxley, photo @ Irving Chow

The Fairchild/Garcia performance was odd -- it was maybe technically the weakest, but dramatically the strongest. Fairchild tries, but she doesn't have the long, soft fluttery arms and buoyancy of Hyltin and Woodward. She also had unusual moments of unsteadiness on pointe. Her interactions with Garcia however were adorable. Fairchild and Garcia made this a story about love -- in Act Two you could sense the Sylph's joy at introducing James to her world. Garcia struggled in both his Act One and Act Two variations -- he stumbled out of those bi-directional double tours. But Garcia created a likable, believable character. His mime was clearly articulated and expressive. He showed real affection towards Effie (Brittany Pollack), so his dilemma was more moving. He interacted with Madge not as a perfunctory gesture, but like a foolish young man ready to buy what she was selling. It helped that Gretchen Smith's Madge was by far the most human and believable of the three Madges. Likewise, Troy Schumacher (Gurn) had trouble keeping his back straight and his beats clean, but his interactions with Effie, James, and Madge were organic and heartfelt. Unlike the other performances you believed this was a Scottish community, and not just dancers thrown together onstage for kicks.

Effie's and Madge coaching could be improved. Ideally Effie should be a perfect foil for the Sylph, and in the  Royal Danish Ballet version she is exactly that -- a bouncy, bubbly "home and hearth" girl. In the New York City Ballet the character is very throwaway and the charming Scottish folk dances are danced without any joy and conviction. Megan LeCrone in particular was so grim as Effie one wonders why she wasn't cast as Madge instead. As for Madge, the gleeful malevolence of the character is here played in such broad strokes that the ballet loses its sinister edge. James is just a sap with a wandering eye. No sense of being entranced/bewitched by Madge. Only Gretchen Smith actually interacted with the characters in a believable, non-campy way. I wonder why Peter Martins doesn't play Madge himself, or have an older faculty member of SAB play Madge.

Reichlen and Angle, photo by Paul Kolnik

If Bournonville is a taste that the New York City Ballet is still acquiring, their performances of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 aka Ballet Imperial were like a declaration of supremacy. Better just overlook the 2/14 matinee performance. Ask La Cour and Sara Mearns had a bad fall in that segment of the ballet where the guy pulls the ballerina backwards in a circle while she glides on one foot and the performance never really gelled after that. Bad days. It happens. I look forward to seeing Mearns grow in this ballet -- right now she's more muscled than elegant but that will change. But the Reichlen/Angle/Scheller and Peck/Ramasar/King performances were tremendous.

Peck and Reichlen gave equally compelling performances of the fiendishly difficult lead female role. Their performances are completely opposite, but one is not better than the other. It's like comparing Callas to Tebaldi, or Taglioni to Elssler. Teresa Reichlen, who can seem so shy and constricted, was jaw-dropping in the ease and effortlessness with which she handled all the hurdles of the role. The overall impression was not one of someone dancing individual steps -- everything was so seamless it looked like gliding. Her tall, princess look along with her cool stamina were a perfect fit for the role. But Reichlen also in this role had something that I've never seen before in her: tenderness. In the second movement the ballerina is standing upstage, the male facing her. There's a line of corps de ballet women who slowly part ways as the ballerina rushes upstage to give her partner an embrace in deep arabesque penchée. Reichlen gently laid her head on Tyler Angle's shoulder -- the intimacy of the moment was startling for a ballerina who often exudes such chilly serenity. Tyler Angle partnered her beautifully, and did surprisingly well with those turns in the air that have to land in a kneeling position behind the ballerina (the same sequence gave Ask La Cour a lot of trouble). I do wish his form was cleaner but oh well. Can't have everything. The small, perky Ana Sophia Scheller as the turning ballerina was the perfect foil for Reichlen.

Peck, Ramasar, Villarini-Velez, King, Coll

Tiler Peck in her debut made it a different ballet. Whereas Reichlen just sailed through the role with the nonchalance of a queen greeting her subjects, Tiler is so strong, so powerful, so dynamic that it was more like a monarch exerting her divine right to rule her kingdom. Peck was a bit stiff in that famous opening sequence where the ballerina has to do these off-balance pirouettes with her free leg extended in tendu. I thought she'd lose her balance. But once she was past that hurdle she gained confidence and by the time she powered through her ménage of coupé jetés en tournant the crowd was cheering loudly. There are things Reichlen has Tiler doesn't have -- namely, height and extension. Tiler has things Reichlen doesn't have -- she is more extroverted and exciting of a dancer. Reichlen was effortless beauty and grace. With Tiler the ballet became a seat-of-your-pants experience. It helps that she is a human gyroscope. In the last movement the female has to make a ménage of finger turns around the stage with only her partner's arm for support (actually, she has to this twice). Tiler's turns were so fast her skirt flew in every direction. She finished her series of fouettés with a triple that again caused the crowd to start cheering and screaming. But Tiler didn't sacrifice elegance for the sake of triple pirouettes. It was just a different kind of elegance than Reichlen. Tiler: Aurora in Rose Adagio. Tess: Aurora in Vision Scene.

Her partners were also making debuts. Amar Ramasar had some bumps in the road. In that gliding circle sequence that caused Ask and Sara to tumble to the floor Ramasar seemed to miscalculate just how far he'd have to take Tiler. The trick to making the sequence look like "gliding" is for the male partner to take tiny little steps with bent knees, much like the Balanchine angels. Ramasar took too many big steps, and all of a sudden realized Tiler was in an awkward angle, and they were no longer making a circular "Frozen"-like pattern. He took her upstage-ish, swung her around, and ended the sequence. His body was unusually tense -- he was hunching his shoulders tightly. Other parts of the choreography seemed to challenge him (particularly the cabrioles to brisé volés in the first movement), but still, it was a fine debut and I expect him to improve. Lauren King as the turning girl didn't have the precision of Scheller but she had a radiant smile and extroverted personality that lit up the stage. She also seemed to get stronger as the ballet progressed.

One thing that's been great about seeing the back to back to back Piano Concerto performances is noticing the new crop of corps, particularly the men. Balanchine choreographed some of his most beautiful corps work in this ballet. My personal favorite: when the males link hands and travel in a circle counterclockwise while the females travel clockwise in their own ménage. Harrison Coll and Sebastian Villarini-Velez in the Peck/Ramasar/King performances were by far the strongest demi-soloists. And you could see the tall, beautiful figures of Preston Chamblee and Silas Farley in the back. The future of the company looks bright.

So I think that's it for me and the Winter Season. Ten performances in five weeks. All I can say is: what a great company, what a great season.

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