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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, Part 3: Sylvia, and more NYCB Classics

Murphy and Gomes in Sylvia, photo @ Andrea Mohin
It's that time of spring dance season when ABT and NYCB go head-to-head almost every night and balletomanes often have to make agonizing (not a hyperbole) choices about what to see. This week I saw one performance of Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia at ABT (May 9), and three performances at the NYCB (May 10, 14th matinee and evening).

Sylvia at its best is a perfect little concoction -- the combination of the beautiful Delibes score, Ashton's sensitive choreography, and a great bravura part for the title character (originally choreographed on Margot Fonteyn) give this ballet is continued appeal. Unfortunately, the performance I saw on Monday was sluggish, poorly attended (entire swaths of the orchestra, grand tier and dress circle were empty), and simply reinforces the feeling that right now ABT is going through an ebbing of talent and morale.


The usually sterling Gillian Murphy made some uncharacteristic mistakes -- she had a bad slip in the Act Two "sexy" dance and in the famous pizzacato polka I saw her shortening some phrases, clipping them before they could make their full impact. Several times she did not fully stretch out her arms and legs to the full arabesque position. Her posture and demeanor all night was tense and joyless. (She later canceled her second performance due to injury.) Marcelo Gomes is still a wonderful partner. He was able to carry Murphy in that difficult Act Three entrance lift (where she's draped over his hand and shoulder, her body leaning backwards) without any apparent effort. But in his solos the age showed -- years and years of heavy lifting have made his back stiff, his footwork leaden. At times even lifting his leg in arabesque seemed to be a struggle. These are two beautiful dancers who are perhaps no longer right for this ballet.

ABT has a tendency to overdo the cutesiness of Ashton choreography, making him seem more quaint than he is, and so it was here. Gemma Bond and Joseph Gorak pranced and mugged as the dancing goats, James Whiteside also pranced and mugged as Orion (although to be fair, the role is meant to be hammy). Craig Salstein (Eros) and Devon Teuscher (Diana) were both magnificent -- regal, godlike, imposing. The corps had a few sloppy moments but what was most disheartening was their sluggishness, as if they themselves didn't believe in this ballet. Beautiful music, choreography, costumes, sets, but the whole evening was listless and routine.

Maria Kowroski, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The next night at NYCB Anthony Huxley made a magnificent debut in Ballo della Regina. The flying entrances, the soft landings, they were amazing. Megan Fairchild wasn't as able to luxuriate in certain sequences of the ballet (in particular the pique turns to arabesque) as much as Tiler Peck, but her performance was just as charming and her allegro footwork always stellar. The four demi-soloist ladies (Alexa Maxwell, Brittany Pollack, Sara Adams, Emilie Gerrity) were all so impressive that their consecutive solos became rather hair-curling in their open competitiveness. The soloist/corps level is so crammed with talent that no one can afford a bad variation, let alone a bad performance.

Maria Kowroski made a welcome return in the Der Rosenkavalier part of Vienna Waltzes, her flexibility greatly diminished but her charm as present as ever. She has such an open, friendly stage face that projects across the footlights -- she dances, and you want to dance with her. The corps looked more settled in the grand finale -- less traffic jams. Otherwise the second cast of Vienna Waltzes was mostly inferior to the first cast -- only Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Voices of Spring caught any of the joy and sweep of the 3/4 time music. The second cast for Kammermusik No. 2 had a huge improvement in the female casting. Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen blew Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford out of the water with their strength, speed and amplitude. I've watched this ballet and while I'm finding more interesting things in the all-male corps and the open athleticism of the two women this ballet still remains "fairly unappealing," as Arlene Croce said.

"Eddie and Patty," original cast of DAAG, photo @ Martha Swope

I saw a double header of Dances at a Gathering/West Side Story Suite twice in one day. End of season injuries have mounted, so as a result Chase Finlay had to dance both DAAG's in one day PLUS Tony in WSS. Not much to say about WSS -- it's an awkward "ballet." The dancers are obviously lip-synching and doing a horrible job at it, and once you've seen the whole musical the "suite" of dances comes across as a weak-sauce sampler. Robbins' choreography loses its edge and "Cool" when reduced to a 30 minute romp. With that being said, the afternoon performance of WSS Suite was a hot mess. Obviously poorly rehearsed. The evening performance was much better. Everyone was well cast -- you had Robert Fairchild FINALLY getting his mojo back as Riff, Gina Pazcoguin owning HER role (Anita),  Justin Peck hamming it up as Bernardo, Chase Finlay (Tony) and Mimi Staker (Maria) luxuriating in their all-American basic Aeropostale model personas as the young lovers, Gretchen Smith doing her thing as Riff's bitch (no other way to put it).

DAAG is the more interesting and fragile ballet. It's very much a 1960's concoction where dancers have to appear like they're just frolicking in a happy place for over an hour. Free love with neat dresses and ribbons. The Chopin piano pieces can either sound enchanting or boring, depending on how musical the dancers are. Both casts had their treasures and problems. For the record:

5/14 matinee: Robert Fairchild (brown), Jared Angle (purple), Antonia Carmena (brick), Chase Finlay (blue), Amar Ramasar (green), Sterling Hyltin (pink), Megan Fairchild (apricot), Lauren King (blue), Rebecca Krohn (mauve), Sara Mearns (green).

5/14 evening: Gonzalo Garcia (brown), Tyler Angle (purple), Joseph Gordon (green), Chase Finlay (blue -- again), Adrian Danchig-Waring (green), Tiler Peck (pink), Lauren Lovette (apricot), Brittany Pollack (blue), Sara Mearns (mauve), Megan Fairchild (green).

Overall the perfect cast would have been the afternoon's ladies with the evening's men. In the afternoon Robert Fairchild struggled with the "Eddie" role. The Brown Dude is the ballet's anchor -- he begins the ballet with a solo walk and near the end of the ballet he touches the stage in a homage to the audience and to dance. You have to believe in him as the Leader of the Happy Place. Fairchild is not that dancer. He still looks out of shape -- when he jumped, he had trouble matching the height of Jared Angle, the most senior dancer of the company. Fairchild did weird things to overcompensate, like making jazz hands. He could still whip off multiple pirouettes but it comes across as a calcified skill, like those ballerinas of a certain age who can barely stand on pointe but can somehow still churn out 32 fouettes. He used to be such an expressive dancer but now his face is a frozen, grim smile. He is a dancer who really needs to get his groove back.

Thankfully the ladies were stellar. Hyltin was enchanting as the Pink Girl. This is a dancer who always knows how to stretch out her limbs, feet, and back and to make each movement count. Her once budding partnership with Fairchild was revived briefly in their pas de deux. It was gorgeous. She put his head on his shoulder and happy memories of them flooded back. Mearns and M. Fairchild were also amazing -- Sara was funny and quirky in her "Violette" solo, and Megan was able to bounce through the ballet with total joy. Lauren King (blue) has a wholesome simplicity that's just a joy to watch. The rest of the men were very fine. Chase, Antonio and Amar managed that tricky throw/catch sequence with the three ballerinas (Rebecca, Lauren, and Megan) without a hitch.

Peck, Mearns and Pollack in DAAG, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Mauve role needs to be re-coached. It's the most conventional of the ballerina roles but it's still a simple, Dancing in that Happy Place role. Krohn (mat) and Mearns (eve) both looked like they were dancing Odette. So much angst and drama! Plenty of overwrought facial expressions, overly fussy rippling arms, and grand diva mannerisms (as well as too much red lipstick). Mearns also had issues being caught in that throw sequence on Saturday night. Tyler Angle seemed hesitant about throwing her, Chase Finlay hesitant about catching her, so both just sort of did a fake hand-off/non-throw.

Speaking of mannered performances, Tiler Peck (Pink) herself was oddly remote and made little impact. Her torso was always strong and a built like a brick wall -- it's the shape of many masterful terre a terre dancers. But now it's like she's gearing up for a quadruple pirouette no matter what she's dancing -- her upper body is stiff and unyielding. There's a very beautiful moment when the Pink Girl sits on the ground with the Purple Dude and they slowly hold hands. Hyltin looked shyly up at Jared Angle and placed her hand in his. Peck just mechanically took T. Angle's hand. That was it. All the evening ladies were problematic -- Lauren Lovette blank, charmless, and (deadly for this role) jumpless, Brittany Pollack efficient but unmemorable, Sara Mearns doing Mauve-Odette, Megan Fairchild too tiny for a role associated with taller girls.

Lovette is another dancer who needs to get her groove back. You can certainly see why she caught Peter Martins' eye -- she has a beautiful face and lovely proportions. She was promoted so quickly, but has been sidelined by injuries and never grew strong or secure enough for the principal roles Peter routinely gives her. Nowadays she exudes this glum energy despite the pasted on smile. She was this way as the Merry Widow in Vienna Waltzes, and she's this way in DAAG. She's just not enjoyable to watch.

The men were the ones to watch in the evening. Gonzalo Garcia can't do multiple pirouettes but he has the airy jumps, soft landings, and I'm in a Happy Place persona that Brown Dude needs. Tyler Angle (Purple Dude) was elegant and the strongest partner of the company, Joseph Gordon exploded in a volley of pirouettes and jumps as Brick Dude (he's my pick to get promoted to soloist this season), Adrian-Danchig-Waring (Green Dude) is quickly taking the place of Robert Fairchild as the All American Hunk of NYCB, and Chase Finlay fine as the Blue Dude. It's a role (like Tony) where his callow, pretty-boy personality isn't a drawback.

I remember the first time I ever saw DAAG. I thought it was the most boring hour of my life. Now I've seen so many color-coded piano ballets, from the excruciating (Millepied's Without) to sublime (Concerto DSCH), and also a bunch of Dancing in a Happy Place pieces (Paul Taylor's Esplanade being maybe the best of the genre). I can better appreciate how Jerome Robbins set a new template. DAAG's DNA is everywhere. Seeing the original enchilada was a revelation, flawed casts and all.

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