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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All Stravinsky Closes Season

de Luz and Fairchild in Baiser, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The true mark of a NYCB devotee is how much they look forward to the all-Stravinsky programs. The leotard ballets and spiky scores can still bring the jitters in people who adore Jewels, Serenade or Theme and Variations, but if just the thought of that diagonal of soldier-girls in Symphony in Three Movements gives you the tingles, then I'd say you're all in. So it's fitting that NYCB ended its winter season with an excellent all-Stravinsky/Balanchine bill of the rarely performed Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée and long with repertory staples Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. For one, it's a test of the company's resilience. It's also a test of the audiences' loyalty. The dancers more than rose to the occasion. And the audiences' enthusiastic responses indicated that company loyalty among ballet-goers is still strong.

Coll and Hyltin as the lovers, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Earlier in the season I saw a performance of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet that had a lovely, lyrical Juliet in Sterling Hyltin, an appealingly ardent Romeo in Harrison Coll (making his debut), and some virtuosos in the roles of Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht), Tybalt (Joaquin de Luz), and Benvolio (Joseph Gordon). But Martins' version of this warhorse still fails to sing. Martins' version is best in the fight scenes, where the violence escalates in a very organic, tense way, and there's also some realistic pushing/shoving that mimics the kind of fighting of hotheaded adolescents. But in the extended love duets the choreography is simply too static. There's an over-reliance on Juliet stretching her leg in arabesque and throwing her arms up in ecstasy, and also the predictably acrobatic lifts. But unlike the versions of MacMillan or Lavrovsky, with Martins you never feel the buildup of passion that culminates in the passionate kiss that ends the balcony scene nor does the despair of the lovers in the bedroom scene register. In fact, they're still giggling like little kids. Still, this has been a breakout season for Harrison Coll who has brought an irrepressible energy to everything he's danced, and a great showcase for Sterling Hyltin's talents.

I also disagreed with the decision to eliminate Lord Capulet's slap of Juliet as she disobeyed his orders. Shakespeare (and Prokofiev) created a violent world and Juliet's rebellious headstrong nature is very much in both the play and ballet's DNA. Lord Capulet striking Juliet was one of Martins' rare moments of correct dramatic instinct -- the audience has to know that Juliet is a maverick. Without the slap the scenes with Juliet's parents fell flat. Ask La Cour and Maria Kowroski didn't inject much personality into their roles either. The best acting performance actually came from Russell Janzen who played Paris as exactly the kind of nice young man parents love.

There's more feeling in the last five minutes of Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée than there is during the entirety of Romeo + Juliet. To the strains of "None But the Lonely Heart" the lovers are inextricably separated. The once-jolly corps (dressed in neat village frocks that remind one of Act One of Giselle) turn into implacable Wilis who pull the lovers apart until they are no longer aware of each others' presence. One by one they step between the embracing lovers who eventually give up trying to fight the force. They end the ballet barely aware of each others' presence. Patricia McBride, the originator of the role, was brought in to coach this ballet. I saw two casts. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz brought more depth to their roles. Megan has a sweetness and tenderness that suits this ballet well. Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley were technically smoother but dramatically opaque. Otherwise the ballet is not one of Balanchine's finest. The first 20 minutes seem like filler until the drama-filled final moments of the ballet. Unlike, say, Serenade the ominous, mystical feeling is not accumulated throughout the ballet.

Peck, Stanley, Finlay, Bouder, Kowroski, Danchig-Waring
Agon is a full-blown masterpiece and the ballet is looking great. The pas de deux which has looked formulaic in some recent performances was given a sizzling rendition by Maria Kowroski and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Kowroski, who can seem overwhelmed in the classical Balanchine tutu roles was amazingly sexy and daring, and managed all the quick changes in center of gravity with aplomb including the most famous moments where the woman suddenly wraps her leg around the man's neck and the promenade balance in which she has to drag the man who is lying on the floor. Danchig-Waring is so strong, so solid, that the pas de deux truly became a dangerous mating ritual. It was an overall great performance -- Anthony Huxley, Lauren King and Ashley Laracey were very fine in the first pas de trois. Savannah Lowery had some shaky balances in the second pas de trois but Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum cleverly disguised this with expert partnering.

The second cast of Agon was not nearly as inspired. Chase Finlay is an odd choice for the pas de deux -- partnering has never been his strength, and Tess Reichlen who I've seen totally rock this pas de deux tried but she couldn't hide the labored partnering. As a result the iconic moves seemed to chug along awkwardly. The famous drag across stage barely happened. And in the pas de trois Peter Walker didn't seem comfortable with the role. Ashly Isaacs also had a few moments of hesitancy but Harrison Coll and Joseph Gorden were great in the second pas de trois. I went back the next day for a second performance and there must have been some major cleanup/rehearsals because while Finlay is still not ideal the partnering between him and Tess was much smoother.

Hyltin, Danchig-Waring, Fairchild, Janzen, Huxley, Peck
Programs closed with two extremely opposite ballets: the intimate, romantic Duo Concertant and the aggressive, militaristic Symphony in 3 Movements. Symphony in 3 ends with the men crouching down as if preparing for trench warfare, whereas the women are making signs that seem to be rallying the troops for battle. Duo had two different casts -- Bouder and Finlay were physically well-matched but both too self-absorbed to get the sweetness of this ballet, while Fairchild and Janzen did capture the romance but were physically mismatched with Janzen toweing over Fairchild. IMO the performances of Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild set the standard very high for this ballet and no other combo has been able to match their magic.

Symphony in Three Movements also had two very different casts. Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley/Daniel Ulbricht/Erica Pereira/Megan LeCrone/Joseph Gordon had the better supporting cast, but this role doesn't really seem to fit Tiler Peck. She can do that ménage of pique turns where the ballerina has to weave in between the jogging girls with breathtaking speed but there's something too square about her presentation for the pas de deux to make its full impact. She doesn't get the undulating arm movements of the pas de deux, nor do the famous lifts where woman covers her eyes as she's being hauled in the air look as bizarre as they should. To see what I mean here's some footage NYCB put up. It's way too much arm and hand flapping without the shoulder/back movement that gives those arm movements momentum. How do those Russian ballerinas get such great swan arms? Because they know that the movement comes from working the back and shoulders, and not just the arms.

Hyltin and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The second cast had Sterling Hyltin/Adrian Danchig-Waring/Troy Schumacher/Lauren King/Savannah Lowery/Sean Suozzi was overall superior. Lauren King did not really get enough height and distance on those sideways leapfrog jumps, but Hyltin and Danchig-Waring (making his debut!) were simply fantastic. Hyltin is not technically as strong as Peck, but she finds ways to make her performance of this role more exciting -- for instance, in the ménage of pique turns she starts out slowly and accelerates into the wings with so much force she looks like she'll crash from the momentum. In the pas de deux she and Adrian were just about perfect -- physically and stylistically well-matched, with both of them paying close attention to the Oriental accents of Balanchine's choreography. And Hyltin DID use her shoulders and back to push the movement through her arms.

So that's a wrap for the Winter Season. A few MVP's:

- Adrian Danchig-Waring, who had a potentially career-ending injury, dancing almost every night in so many different ballets (Apollo, Chaconne, Agon, dance odysseyFour Seasons, Symphony in Three Movements) and knocking each performance out of the park.

- Russell Janzen, whose partnering is smooth as silk and whose range is expanding -- he was once mostly a prince/cavalier type but his awesome Phlegmatic in Four Temperaments and tender Duo shows an artist growing in leaps and bounds.

- Joaquin de Luz, who at age 41 is showing the youngsters how it's done. His barnstorming performance of Four Seasons was extraordinary.

- Harrison Coll who is a corps member but dancing like a soloist, and Joseph Gordon who is a soloist dancing as a principal. I am supremely bummed that I missed the Gordon/Pereira Baiser performance as it was apparently great.

- And finally, that stable of female principals (Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Tess Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild) who go out there night after night and do their thing, and do it with humor.


  1. This:

    "It's way too much arm and hand flapping without the shoulder/back movement that gives those arm movements momentum. How do those Russian ballerinas get such great swan arms? Because they know that the movement comes from working the back and shoulders, and not just the arms."

    Amen. I have been thinking the exact same thing for years now in reference to Peck, and sometimes about Mearns as well, especially when she's moving fast. I don't understand how professional dancers can have been at this for as long as they have been without understanding (or seemingly getting called on) this. Seems so basic. Adolescent female Russian figure skaters, anyone?

    1. Especially since there are females in the company who do use their shoulders and back for a more expressive back. Sterling Hyltin for one used her shoulders and back to move her arms in Symph in 3 and it made such a huge difference.

  2. But it’s all in the training - City ballet has so little epaulment, but look at the vaganova training and the detailed use of the head a shoulders. It trains the back.