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Saturday, May 7, 2016

Spring Season Diaries Part 2: Listless Rhapsody

Wheeldon's American Rhapsody, photo @ Paul Kolnk

I attended three performances of week 3 of Spring Season of the NYCB. It chugged along with the usual amount of welcome returns to the repertoire (the ever-lovely Vienna Waltzes that made its usual impact despite some apparent pre-performance chaos), standout performances (Tiler Peck in Ballo della Regina, Sterling Hyltin and Joseph Gordon in Symphony in 3 Movements, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Amar Ramasar in Kammermusik No. 2), disheartening injuries (Ana Sophia Scheller seems to be out again just after returning from a long injury), corps de ballet members who have leaped above the pack (Unity Phelan, Indiana Woodward, Sara Adams), and I also unknowingly witnessed Sara Mearns' "farewell" to the Flower Festivals of Genzano.

But the big "event" of the spring season was the world premiere of two ballets: Nicholas Blanc's Mothership and Christopher Wheeldon's American Rhapsody. I missed the splashy spring gala but did catch the 5/7 performance which featured both new works, Justin Peck's Belles Lettres, and Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH.

Belles Lettres, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Belles Lettres was obviously Peck's attempt to do something different. Peck's ballets are usually distinguished by their energy and youthful vigor. Belles Lettres (set to César Frank's lush score) is like a cross between Liebeslieder Waltzer and Serenade -- four waltzing couples (the women eventually let their hair down), plus a lone disruptor (the always astonishing Anthony Huxley). I liked the mood and romance of the piece ... until I didn't. Eventually the swoony, emo waltzing and Huxley again disrupting the couples overstayed its welcome, and that's hard to do in a 20 minute ballet. Perhaps it's the lack of truly distinguishing choreography for the 4 couples (Lovette/J. Angle, Laracey/Danchig-Waring, Pollack/Stanley, Krohn/T. Angle). They're all the same, and they don't grow during the ballet -- curtain up, curtain down, and there's no sense that these couples have gone on an emotional or spiritual journey.

Backstage rehearsal for Mothership
Next on the program was Nicolas Blanc's 8 minute Mothership, set to a vaguely electronica score by Mason Bates. Not much to say about this one -- it was developed by the N.Y. Choreographic Institute, and looks like something that belongs in a small contemporary ballet exhibition rather than a huge theatre. There's a lot of guys jumping across the stage and girls in big overhead upside down split lifts. The best thing about this piece is that the cast of eight featured all corps members and apprentices -- of the men, Silas Farley and Sebastian Villarini-Velez again distinguished themselves as two of the tallest and most handsome dancers in the company, while apprentices Christopher Grant and Alec Knight showed remarkable energy. The women were completely anonymous, sort of there just to be hauled into upside down split lifts. Moving on.

Christopher Wheeldon's American Rhapsody. Ugh. Where do I start. This is a classic case of striking when the iron is hot. As the program notes, "American Rhapsody is Christopher Wheeldon's 20th work for the NYCB and his first since directing and choreographing the Tony-Award winning music An American in Paris, which is currently running at the Palace Theatre on Broadway." Get it? It even gives you directions. So of course Wheeldon's new ballet is set to another iconic Gershwin piece (Rhapsody in Blue) and stars (you guessed it!) Robert Fairchild, the erstwhile (and future) star of An American in Paris -- in March 2017 he will again reprise Jerry Mulligan in London's West End production.

Too bad that Wheeldon's choreography is as slick, trite and empty as his choreography for An American in Paris. Everything about this ballet was a big fail. Janie Taylor's hideous costumes didn't help -- the tops made all the women appear thick and trunk-like, while the peplum skirts made them look like they were in junior high. Balanchine once said that choreography is supposed to make you "See the Music." Wheeldon's choreography is so busy and pointless that it makes you un-see the music. The grand sweeping melody of the piece is lost when for so much of the ballet you have the dancers lying on the floor (why?) or being lifted in awkward, static lifts. When the music soars the dancers are on the floor. When the music speeds up to a climax the dancers are stiffly posing.

Ramasar, Phelan, and Peck in American Rhapsody
The choreography also brought out the worst in the soloists. Amar Ramasar and Unity Phelan (the red couple) were at least energetic and Phelan's movements have a grand sweeping amplitude. But when Robbie Fairchild spent most of the ballet making his "jazz hands" and Tiler Peck (real-life husband and wife) made her entrance with a fast but joyless series of chaine turns I knew that Wheeldon's ballet would allow Fairchild and Peck to indulge in their least likable mannerisms. Fairchild still seems out of shape after his year-long stint on Broadway -- the lifts with Peck were effortful, and his smile is slick but his dancing is slow and leaden. Peck, who at her best is just an explosion of joy, energy and amazing par terre footwork (yesterday she bounced through those difficult circular hops on pointe and that sequence of pique turns to arabesques in Ballo della Regina like it was child's play) can also be remote and calculating. It was so here -- there was nothing appealing about her, no reason for Fairchild to chase her until she finally succumbed to his charms. I've seen them in Who Cares? (also set to Gershwin) so I know they can have a lot of onstage chemistry, but this ballet doesn't bring it out of them. Peck looked like looked like she was doing her taxes. Rhapsody in Blue deserves more inspired choreography than Wheeldon provided.

Concerto DSCH, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The evening was looking like a total wash but thankfully it closed with Concerto DSCH. This was one of Alexei Ratmansky's earliest pieces and for my money it's still his best. As always with Ratmansky's strongest work there's a sense of warmth and community -- of love, friendship, joy. Almost like if Karl Marx's dream of a utopian, egalitarian communal farm come to life. Shostakovich's catchy and jaunty Piano Concerto #2 is so danceable, and what's more, it brought out the best in its dancers. Brittany Pollack, Anthony Huxley and Gonzalo Garcia (the "blue" dancers) all breezed through the first movement. Pollack can often read as an efficient but dull soloist. Not here -- she actually smiled! I have also seen Gonzalo Garcia struggle with the bravura steps of many ballets, but tonight he completed a series of fast double tours without a single stumble. Huxley was of course excellent, but he always is.

The real miracle, however, was Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in the second movement. The choreography calls for the woman to be repeated twirled in the air (Ratmansky revisits this step often -- it's also in Pictures at an Exhibition).  It's a picture of young love at its most joyful. Usually this role is assigned to very light, sparrow-like dancers (Wendy Whelan, for example). Mearns is not that kind of dancer, but Angle managed to twirl Mearns over and over as if she were a little child. Mearns, who at her worst tends to gracelessly punch out the steps while over-emoting (she did that again in Flower Festivals of Genzano two nights ago) was in this ballet lyrical, playful, even sweet, and with Tyler's expert partnering she flew. You not only saw the music, you saw the dancers responding to and being inspired by the music. That's great choreography.

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