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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: The Groundhog Says Six More Weeks of Winter ...

Amazing Groundhog Day Four Seasons cast
February 2, 2018 - Groundhog Day. And according to the weathermen, the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter! It was fitting then that NYCB's second week of the winter season showed a company getting its mojo back. The first week had a few uncharacteristic stumbles, bloopers, and sloppiness, but after the Groundhog Day performance of, fittingly, The Four Seasons, all felt right with the world. The fact that last night was one of those ART series performances where all tickets were $30 and they gave free beer and kaleidoscope glasses to everyone after the show sweetened the deal.

The evening actually started out rather unpromisingly: an unexpectedly sloppy performance of Square Dance with Ashley Bouder being off the music (the coda was particularly bad, as she seemed to be on a different beat than the rest of the corps), with leaden jumps. The gargouillades and coupé jetés usually bring about applause but not tonight. She also displayed her worst instincts of constant mugging to the audience. If this was another ballerina we'd probably say "good job" but Bouder has set the bar so high on this, one of her trademark roles, that when she's below par it's immediately noticeable. Taylor Stanley was very fine in his adagio solo. Very flexible back. I went back to a later performance on February 6 and the Ashley got both her jumps and her speed and musicality back. This time her feet did go "wickety wack" so much that it got spontaneous applause.

Bouder and Stanley in Square Dance, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Oltremare suitcase pose
Then we got Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare, or Ellis Island Orgy as I like to call it. The whole stage is dressed in vaguely early 20th century clothing. They are all carrying suitcases. They start the ballet sitting on their suitcases in a semi-circle. Then they dance. And there's basically one step for an entire minute ballet: man turns woman upside down, woman spreads eagle and in an upside down crotch baring split. There were two main pas de deux (Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, then Tiler Peck and Peter Walker) but they basically contained that same move. Only difference: Maria's long legs made those upside down crotch splits slightly more aesthetically appealing. The worst part is: this went on for about 35 minutes. This is one of those "never again" ballets.

The ageless Joaquin de Luz and Tiler Peck in "Fall", photo @ Andrea Mohin
Thankfully Robbins' Four Seasons saved the evening. It was one of those "perfect" performances. By perfect I don't mean not a step was out of place and there were no mistakes. But the performance had a joy, energy and momentum that made you leave the theater on a high. Props must go to Joseph Gordon, Harrison Coll, and Indiana Woodward for their debuts in Winter -- this is the one part of the ballet that can be a bit precious with all that shivering but this trio (and the wonderful corps) was so naturally ebullient that it was cute rather than cutesy. Spring brought a charming, lyrical performance from Sterling Hyltin (subbing for an injured Sara Mearns). Jared Angle partnered her admirably. Their "walking" duet was particularly lovely. The move in Spring that brought about the biggest applause was when the four corps men (Daniel Applebaum, Spartak Hoxha, Lars Nelson, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez) did their simultaneous frog leaps. On February 6 Sara Mearns was back in Spring with Jared Angle and she brought a very different kind of grandness to the role.  I love them both.

Dieck, LaFrenier, Farley, Frances, Chamblee, photo @ Paul Kolnik 
Reichlen and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring looked like sultry mythical deities in Summer. Tess shines in roles where she is asked to be sexy. Danchig-Waring seems to be getting stronger in every performance. He did have a slight problem with the final lift which goes from a fishdive to a shoulder sit. Finally, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht as the Puck figure brought down the house in the bacchanalian Fall. Peck of course did multiple fouettés, de Luz is in his 40's but still has fresh legs and amazing pirouettes a la seconde, and Ulbricht continues to maximize his limited stage appearances. It's hard to compete with the virtuoso technique of a role that was created on Mikhail Baryshikov but de Luz did himself proud. He even did those mid-pirouette jumps which were a Baryshnikov speciality. What a lovely performance of a ballet City Ballet dancers obviously love doing.

Second cast of Divertimento
February 3 - the last of the Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne all-Balanchine bill. The second Divertimento #15 cast had stronger men (Chase Finlay/Joseph Gordon/Cameron Dieck) but women who while on their own are fine dancers were just unsuited to the lyricism of this ballet. Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira, Unity Phelan, Ashly Isaacs and Ashley Bouder all have strong, straightforward technique but except for Woodward they aren't very lyrical. This was especially apparent in the andante, when none of the women could really transport you to another world. This included perhaps the most famous moment of the ballet, when the men and women both make a circular "petal" pattern -- you could see that the women were not really stretching their fingertips to maximize that effect. Perhaps the most disappointing was Unity Phelan as the third variation -- compared to Ashley Laracey Phelan projected nothing but a rather geometrical strength. Mozart needs to be about more than that.

Four Temperaments also was less taut and exciting than last week -- there were some last minute substitutions and the ballet had an under-rehearsed look. Mearns was out of Sanguinic and Savannah Lowery replaced her. She's good, but doesn't have the sharp attack of, say, Tiler Peck or Sara Mearns. In turn Megan LeCrone replaced Lowery in Choleric. Lecrone is one of those soloists who works hard but is rarely compelling to watch. Olivia Boisson (who danced the first theme) had a scary wipeout in Choleric -- she just toppled over and the audience gasped. Later she seemed to have trouble holding herself up in a supported arabesque. Hope she's not injured. Sean Suozzi is an old hand at Melancholic. Russell Janzen shone in Phlegmatic -- he really emphasized the arm twisting positions of the variation more than any recent Phlegmatic that I can remember. There have been better performances of 4T's.

Adrian and Maria
Thankfully Chaconne saved the day. Maria Kowroski is much more suited for Chaconne than Mozartiana. This role allowed her to show off what she still has -- long, beautiful lines and pleasing adagio work. Adrian had an easier time partnering her than he did Sara Mearns and his solo work continues to get stronger as he's danced every Chaconne since the season started. Harrison Coll and Lauren King were a very charming and spritely in the "blue" pas de deux. In the Mandolin trio Andrew Scordato overdid the strumming (it looked more like air guitar) but Ashley Hod and Isabella La Freniere continue to be two of the loveliest female corps members. Overall a good performance of a rather fragile ballet.

dance odyssey, photo @ Andrea Mohin
February 9 - Went to this performance mainly to see the sole "new ballet" of the winter season, Peter Walker's dance odyssey. This is Walker's second ballet for the company (the first being ten in seven) and other than a pretentious e e cummings-like disdain for capital letters, Walker has some good instincts as a choreographer. The first is that he's not afraid to make his ballets pretty. The curtain goes up and the stage is awash in a palette of pastels -- lavenders, aquas, blues. There is a neon strip-light that emits a warm glow. The music by British composer Oliver Davis is similarly tuneful, pleasing to the ears. There's no screeching dissonant violins.

Peck and Catazaro, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Unfortunately the ballet doesn't ever develop beyond "nice." This isn't an "odyssey," it's more like a stroll in the park. There first pas de deux was between Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro. He lifted her high like a crane. She spread her legs towards the heavens. More turning, more lifting, more athletic partnering, more, more, more. But the duet remains blank and anonymous and at the end we don't know anything more about these two dancers than at the beginning. The final moments of the ballet are dominated by a slower pas de deux between Ashley Laracey (in a floaty lavender dress) and Peter Walker (subbing for Adrian Danchig-Waring). Similar type partnering, but again, anonymous. The corps have a flurry of steps that are too busy to give the feeling of jauntiness that I think Walker was aiming for.

The ballet's one moment that definitely had character was an idyllic pas de deux between the two male soloists Devin Alberda and Sebastian Villarini-Velez (subbing for Anthony Huxley). The two men dance playfully, mirroring each other's steps. The mood is light and flirtatious, much like a Fred-and-Ginger "getting to know you" number. The Michael Jackson moonwalk is cleverly referenced. This pas has all the intimacy and sweetness the ballet's heterosexual pairings lacked. It will be interesting to see where Peter Walker goes from here. Right now he definitely has talent, but not enough maturity to package it all into one great ballet. But that's okay. I recently revisited Justin Peck's Year of the Rabbit and found it rather amateurish.

Ratmansky's Russian Seasons closed the program. This work remains pretty much indestructible. I've seen numerous casts from numerous companies tackle this ballet and the effects work every time. The predictability makes it a bit limited but one can admire the craftsmanship. Ratmansky draws out qualities from dancers that aren't immediately apparent in other ballets. Unity Phelan made an arresting debut as the bride -- there could have been more fear in her eyes at the close of the ballet but that's a small gripe. Otherwise the ballet is dominated by the playful antics of a flurry of characters. Ratmansky as early as 2006 was not afraid to be different -- the ballet has many unorthodox steps like males lying on the ground kicking their legs in the air, or people running in place, or chasing each other offstage. Megan Fairchild reprised one of her best roles as the Green Girl -- in the pas de quatre she was with three guys (Cameron Dieck, Ask La Cour, and Sean Suozzi) who could surround and isolate her but  could not dominate her. In a show of strength she performed the ballet's most iconic moment in which she "stepped" up the staircase of male hands. The role brings out her best qualities: her humor and spunk. Other standouts: Joseph Gordon and Kristen Segin as the Purple Boy and Girl, Emilie Gerrity being more dramatic than I've ever seen her as the Red Girl. The ballet's closing moments are haunting: the crowd watches this joyless, ritualistic marriage and then fall to the floor. Have they died? Is it a spiritual death? Ratmansky is smart enough to keep the audiences thinking and guessing.

Some noticings about the interim team that's currently running the company: they respect seniority -- Maria Kowroski is being given more assignments than she's perhaps able to take on at this point in her career. At the same time they clearly are grooming a few corps de ballet members for bigger things. Harrison Coll and Devin Alberda are dancing more than they ever had under Peter Martins's reign. They seem more open to having older dancers coach the current crop: this photo shows Patricia McBride coaching Megan Fairchild. There's still some untidiness that one imagines Peter would have fixed quickly. But overall the feeling is that the company is being run by people who are scrupulous and conscientious, and that's a good thing.


  1. I'd like to include another point of view: When I saw Year of the Rabbit last weekend, the audience was filled with sighs of pleasure. In New York City inadvertent aahs, and mmms of satisfaction were audible from every corner of the house. In that way it was a perfect program closer because people left the theater happy and fulfilled. I found Peck's use of space and the corps de ballet so varied, the many inventive formations keep your eye moving, fast-paced and entertaining without being overly busy. There is room for many different dancers to shine. Teresa Reichlen and Ashley Bouder are at their best. Indiana Woodward made a beautiful and touching debut. Taylor Stanley was crisp, clean and attentive as always.
    Year of the Rabbit has so many moments designed to elicit joy. You imagine the dancers are saying "wheee" as the women slide on the floor with their arms overhead. Where I was sitting, many audience members were inclined to join in. If that's "amateurish" I'll take it every day.

    1. I don't find Year of the Rabbit as coherent of a work as Peck's Belles Lettres, Rodeo and The Times Are Racing but to each their own. It's a fun ballet though.

  2. Yes, to each their own. I agree that Rodeo is a superior, more mature work. Belles Lettres didn't leave much of an impression on me, aside from the beginning formation. I may need to see it again. Times Are Racing deserves its own category. It covers more territory than most ballets with the crowds and the tap dancing duet. Mostly, I just enjoy Peck's work so much. Everywhere We Go is another of my favorites. I see something new on each viewing. What do you think of that ballet?

    1. I love Everywhere We Go too although in general I find that Peck's self-editing instinct is not as strong when he uses Sufjan Stevens' music. I really enjoyed Peck's Pulcinella Variations as well, and think it was definitely him stepping outside his usual comfort zone.