Saturday, October 8, 2016

New York City Ballet: Matinee on Sunday, September 25th . . .



DIVERTIMENTO NO. 15: *Pollack, Pereira, *Laracey, *Isaacs, M. Fairchild, *Finlay, *Ball, *Gordon [Conductor: Litton]

EPISODES: A. Stafford, Suozzi, Lowery, J. Angle, Phelan, *Chamblee, Mearns, Janzen [Conductor: Otranto]

VIENNA WALTZES: Krohn, Janzen, Bouder, Garcia, *Pollack, Stanley, Schumacher, Lovette, Finlay, *Reichlen, J. Angle [Conductor: Litton]

* First Time in Role on Friday, September 23

The Company's rationale for this program is that it brought together three works by George Balanchine to music of composers who lived and worked in Vienna.  While I admit that this is true, it doesn't explain the enormous differences in both the music and the choreography.  In fact, the greater miracle of the program is that all three works were choreographed by a single choreographer.

George Balanchine had first choreographed 'Caracole' to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's  'Divertimento No. 15 in B-flat major, K. 287' in 1952.  Four years later when the Company was invited to participate in a Mozart Festival at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, CT, Balanchine used the music and much of the earlier choreography for a new work that he titled 'Divertimento No. 15'.

'Divertimento' uses eight soloists -- five women and three men -- and a corps of eight women.  The costumes by Karinska evoke Vienna with tutus for the women that are based on Viennese window shades and vaguely military tunics for the men -- all in shades of yellow and pale blue.  The dancers are deployed in a kaleidoscopic array of patterns -- ever evolving and dissolving.  With its odd numbers of male and female soloists Balanchine seems to take great delight in creating shifting arrangements -- two trios and one couple; two couples and a quartet; five women and three men in same-sex circles; a line of five women supported by three men; on-and-on.

In the opening movement, 'Minuet', the soloists are introduced weaving through the corps more regimented patterns.  At the end of the movement the eight soloists are left center stage as the corps bows and withdraws.  In the following 'Theme and Variations' each soloist is shown individually in variations of crystalline grace.  

The 'Andante' has been called a pas de deux for five ballerinas and three cavaliers.  In it each ballerina in succession is partnered by one of the three cavaliers -- the exit of each couple overlapping with the entrance of the next.  The movement ends with a dance for all eight soloists to a cadenza for violin and viola by John Colman that was added in the 1960's.  The five women and three men then form two same-sex circles each with one arm raised before bowing to each other and leaving the stage.  The 'Finale' brings together the entire cast in an exhilarating romp.

The five ballerinas of Balanchine's 'Divertimento No. 15' from a recent performance.
 (Abi Stafford, Meagan Fairchild & Lauren King, I think).
Photo by Paul Kolnik for NYC Ballet
'Divertimento No. 15' often serves as an introduction of promising young dancers to the Company's audience.  At Sunday's matinee six of the eight soloists had made their debuts the previous Friday evening -- Ashly Isaacs, Erica Pereira, Indiana Woodward, Harrison Ball, Chase Finlay and Joseph Gordon.  Dancing the 'Theme' of the second movement Mr. Ball and Mr. Gordon were refined and elegant.  Ms. Woodward was a bit edgy in the 'First Variation', taking particular delight in its shifts of weight and emphasizing its off-centeredness.  Ms. Pereira danced the 'Second Variation' with delicate crispness.  The veteran, Ashley Laracey, performed the 'Third Variation' with a mixture of natural graciousness and politisse.  Ms. Isaacs bounded through the 'Fourth Variation' with vigor and grace.  Mr. Finlay danced the 'Fifth Variation' with dignity and ballon.  Megan Fairchild, dancing with a new expansiveness since her return from Broadway, sparkled brightly in the 'Sixth Variation'.

In this most egalitarian of ballets, Balanchine takes care to provide interesting passages for each of the soloists, but it is Ms. Fairchild and Mr. Finlay who occupy the center of his formations and provide the overall focus.  This was a beautifully executed performance and provided a coolly effervescent start to our 2016-17 ballet season.

Egged on by Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine conceived 'Episodes' in 1959 in conjunction with Martha Graham as a piece that would use all of the orchestral music of Anton von Webern.  In the first section to Webern's 'Passacaglia and Six PiecesGraham choreographed the rivalry between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I as a tennis match.  Graham herself played Mary with Sallie Wilson, a NYC Ballet ballerina at the time, as Elizabeth.  Balanchine choreographed the remaining five sections -- including a long solo for Paul Taylor, who was a dancer with the Graham company at the time.  Currently, 'Episodes' is performed by the Company without either the opening Graham section or the Taylor solo. 

In 1986, Paul Taylor taught his solo to Peter Frame, one of the Company's principal dancers.  From 1986 until 1989, Mr. Frame danced the 'Taylor' solo in the Company's performances of 'Episodes'.  When Peter retired from the Company in 1990, the 'Taylor' solo was also dropped.  Peter Frame discusses learning the solo from Paul Taylor in his blog here:

As you will learn, Peter mounted the 'Episodes' solo for Miami City Ballet in 2013.  Peter is on the faculty of Ballet Academy East and teaches Weight Training for Men (a preventive injury program) at The School of American Ballet.

The four remaining movements of 'Episodes' as currently performed by the Company are austere -- verging on arid.  In the first, 'Symphony, Opus 21', Abi Stafford and Sean Suozzi fronted a corps of three couples -- the bland leading the bland thru a bleak musical landscape.

Abi Stafford and Sean Suozzi in the 'Symphony, Opus 21' section of George Balanchine's 'Episodes'.
Photo by Paul Kolnik for NYC Ballet

Savannah Lowery and Jared Angel danced 'Five Pieces, Opus 10' -- a series of five short duets on a dark stage under spotlights that includes the grotesque but memorable 'antlered man' image plus several other uncomfortable and slightly erotic moments -- always ending abruptly and inconclusively.
Savannah Lowery in the 'Five Pieces, Opus 10' section of George Balanchine's 'Episodes'.
Photo by Paul Kolnik for NYC Ballet
Here's a link to a video of part of the 'Five Pieces, Opus 10' danced by Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour on the Company's website:

Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee danced 'Concerto, Opus 24' with a corps of four women.  The focus here is on the manipulation of the ballerina by her partner through a series of convoluted, evolving steps and poses -- almost as if she is a puppet and he the puppet master.  Ms. Phelan and Mr. Chamblee are to be congratulated on presenting these knotty movements with a semblance of continuity despite the Webern music.  Mr. Chamblee's whose first performance in this role was on the previous Friday evening continues to make very positive impressions as he takes on an ever expanding selection of the Company's repertory.

The 'Ricercata in six voices from Bach's Musical Offering' was lead by Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen backed by a corps of 12 women.  Webern's use of Bach's 'Musical Offering' as the basis for his composition makes it by far the most accessible music of 'Episodes'.  Ms. Mearns, ably supported by the tall and confident Mr. Janzen, amplifies whatever shreds of lyricism and drama exist in the score and makes another strong case for her musicality and sense of theater.

In 'Episodes' I am always put off by Webern's music which mostly seems like disjointed squiggles and burps.  It is certainly one of the most problematic scores for the Company's dancers to interpret since it lacks much character or continuity and often lacks any dance rhythm.

I wrote extensively about 'Vienna Waltzes' in a post last spring which you can read here:

So here I'll concentrate on the cast in this performance.

In 'Tales of the Vienna Woods' Rebecca Krohn and Russell Jansen were convincing as a shy couple whose love blooms over the course of the movement.  Their waltzing in the woods of silvery trees with ten supporting couples conveyed both the innocence of the mid-19th century and of their relationship.

Ashley Bouder -- recently returned to the stage from maternity leave and partnered by Gonzalo Garcia -- led 'Voices of Spring' with confident elan and controlled bravura.  It seemed surprising that the audience response to Ms. Bouder's performance was fairly muted while Mr. Garcia's solo was greeted with a large (and disruptive) ovation.  Perhaps Ms. Bouder's failure to call attention to her technical feats with her pre-motherhood look-at-me antics left the audience without sufficient clues to her virtuosity.  Let's hope that her return to the stage brings greater maturity worthy of her undisputed artistry and technical brilliance.

Erica Pereira and Troy Schumacher did what they could to enliven the 'Explosion Polka' -- executing the very fast heel-and-toe footwork with extraordinary precision even at Maestro Andrew Litton's breakneck pace.  Still, they can't get through this section fast enough for me.

Lauren Lovette -- another Friday evening debutante -- and Chase Finlay lead the 'Gold and Silver Waltz' from Lehar's 'Merry Widow' which makes allusions to the characters and plot of that operetta.  Ms. Lovette who dances many bubbly lyrical roles in the repertory seemed wildly miscast as the mysterious woman in black.  While I love her dearly in most other roles, she lacks the physical presence and temperament to portray the aloof, worldly widow.  Her partnership with Mr. Finlay here (they were engaged to be married a little over a year ago, then broke up) seems awkward here and they never rose to the heights that can make this most complex waltz sequence memorable.

Teresa Reichlen had also made her debut in the 'Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier' on Friday evening.  In the opening sequences she was compelling as the innocent waif dreaming of an imaginary ballroom with ghostly waltzing couples and a materializing/dematerializing dance partner -- Jared Angle.  With a deep, deep backbend she left the stage just as the chandeliers blazed on for the finale.  With 25 waltzing couples -- including all five principal couples -- magnified by the wall of mirrors across the back of the stage, it was once again a magnificent theatrical spectacle.

Massed waltzing couples in the finale of Balanchine's 'Vienna Waltzes'.
Photo by Paul Kolnik for NYC Ballet
There is no question that every performance of 'Vienna Waltzes' that we see carries whiffs of nostalgia for dancers who have long since retired from the stage -- the original cast, memorable replacements, even some casting misfires along the way.  Here is a video of the 'Der Rosenkavalier' section with the incomparable Suzanne Farrell -- for whom Balanchine created the role -- dancing with Adam Luders.  It's taken from the 1983 Balanchine Tribute which was aired by the PBS show 'Dance in America': 

Still, 'Vienna Waltzes' remains a showcase for each succeeding generation of dancers to leave their own after images as they deepen their interpretations of a role or advance from one role to the next.  Sometimes they remake themselves to fit these roles, sometimes they simply emerge in them fully formed and occasionally their interpretations evolve into memorable artistry.