#ThrowbackThursday: New York City Ballet Spring Gala 2005: Martins, Evans, Millipied, Liang, Wheeldon

10.16.2014

Bad News for the Muses


 May 5, 2005



Here's what I really want from a ballet: either to be transported out of my body into some fantastic heady realm, or to be transported into my body via some kinesthetic magic. What I don't want is to sit around thinking up snappy one-liners and experiencing various worrisome somatic symptoms, so that instead of drifting out of the theater, I hobble home cackling to myself like Carabosse, the embittered self-invited fairy spoiler in "Sleeping Beauty." 

Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal in "Distant Cries." Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Thus I am grateful to Edward Liang for "Distant Cries," his beautiful duet for Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal set to Albinoni, the 18th century Italian composer, which I saw first in the smaller confines of the Joyce Theater. It took well to the New York State Theater, gaining in poetry what it lost in intimacy. And how nice to see Boal, in his last season at the company before leaving to head the Pacific Northwest Ballet, take the stage in a piece he had commissioned for himself, so we might see that the excellent taste he has shown in his dancing runs deep. What a partner he has been, though it is his classical line and refinement that are usually most commented upon. He's been romantic with romantic girls, like Jennifer Ringer. He's been courtly. And here, with Wendy Whelan, he is a tragic lover. Nobody wafts or is wafted better than Whelan, who seems to be the choreographer's partner of choice for parting-gift duets. I've never seen a clearer dancer, except maybe Fred Astaire, whose gifts were of course otherwise altogether different—but for one other thing, which would be flattering one's partner. 

The stalwart Jock Soto, as it happens, is also retiring this season, but his tribute ballet by Peter Martins went on without him. While I am not saying he was lucky to be injured and not in it, one might as well look for the silver lining–because what a weird ballet "Tala Gaizma" is, starting with its inhospitable violin score by Peteris Vasks, and proceeding to its inevitable conjuring of Apollo, the Balanchine role Peter Martins himself danced with such blond godliness. Either he intended this piece to look like a retirement party for Apollo, or he didn't. Who knows? How can you conjure three Muses and not have people think of Apollo? And who knew Apollo was a hairdresser? 

You should see those Muses! With Jared Angle filling in for Soto, there appeared—I am making this up from looking at it, this isn't in the program—the Muse of Gynecology, played by the magnificent Sofiane Sylve, sporting an Afro; Miranda Weese, as Medusa, her hair done up in corn rows and a French twist; and Darci Kistler, her strawberry blonde hair streaming, who did everything but lean on Angle and murmur "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." This is a better idea than depending on the kindness of Martins, who, after interminable comings and goings of this ill assorted quartet, has a penultimate moment when you think he is going to kill off his hero, in a kind of symbolic retirement. (That's what Wheeldon did with Soto.) But no. Wait. The girls are down. Bad news, Muses! You're toast. 


Of course Apollo's not dead. How could he be? He's heading the New York City Ballet. Which to his credit has some talented dancers who are choreographers, another being Albert Evans. Here's the best thing about the two pieces he had presented at his home company—this new one called "Broken Promise," and the previous "Haiku," made in 2002 to a score by John Cage. They are really musical, and not in a decorative way, but in their basic impulse. The Cage laid down a huge floor of sound under the dancers, and so does this new score by Matthew Fuerst, who is currently completing his doctorate at The Juilliard School. You never wonder why Evans is making a piece. You don't feel he is idea driven. You see his response to what he hears. This is all good, as is how good he makes his dancers look. They, in turn, flatter him. As indeed Ashley Bouder flatters everything, including her partner here, Stephen Hanna. They both look a bit like Evans as they dance, and that's a good thing, too.

In an interview with Sylviane Gold in "The New York Times," Christopher Wheeldon—whose talent I very much admire—points out that if he had "stayed dancing," he'd still be in his prime. "I was always kind of a showman dancer," he says. "I could always strap on that smile and look like I was having a good time, even when I wasn't." And this is exactly what his "American in Paris" looks like. Fake. Never mind what looks like the dubious desire to complete with Broadway's Susan Stroman, creator of a full length pot boiler for this company. Never mind the wholesale doom that settles on the remaking of Gene Kelly vehicles for the stage. (Did no one recall Twyla Tharp and "Singin' In the Rain" and express doubt?)



Because how about this for hubris? Says Wheeldon to his interviewer, "Gene Kelly was the master at doing nothing.....he just runs around. And the pas de deux is very simplistic. He and Leslie Caron do nothing...."  Say what? I'm not one for giving instructions to choreographers, but here's a memo to Christopher Wheeldon: Do more nothing.

Damian Woetzel and company in the finale of "An American in Paris." Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Because what a French poodle's dinner this ballet is. The Gershwin score's fine, of course, very easy on the ear, but the ballet is like a sojourn in one of those souvenir stands on the Rue Rivoli, where familiar icons appear on t-shirts, dish towels, and lunch bags, and the notion is proposed that the French still wear berets. Adrienne Lobel has whipped up some sets that owe a lot to Robert Delaunay, and costumer Holly Hynes has conjured Madeline and her little convent school friends. and Miss Clavel, the nun who leads them around Paris; and a hooker; and a whole flock of girls who appear to be Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," with Carla Korbes as their dishy leader. Jennifer Ringer plays a beautiful love interest, which is no stretch for her at all—she is beautiful, and what's not to love? And then there is Damian Woetzel, who has turned choreographic dross into gold on more than once occasion, and is naturally splendid in anything naturally splendid. He's an excellent dancer, and he's full of manly ease, and if I had to pick someone at New York City Ballet to play Gene Kelly, I'd probably choose him too. But it's a thankless assignment. At least the choreographer didn't ask him to sing. 

It's strange how Wheeldon makes the occasional ballet that looks as if it were choreographed during the Eisenhower Administration. He told Sylviane Gold the Gershwin score "is accessible and exciting for an audience that doesn't normally come to the ballet," and I suppose that's what this ballet is meant to be. Accessible, and exciting. Yet to me this is a tragic misreading of the New York City Ballet audience, and culture. Alexandra Danilova, the prima ballerina assoluta of incomparable elegance who began her career by leaving Russia in a troupe headed by George Balanchine and ended it teaching at the School of American Ballet, was talking once about her years of touring the backwaters of the United States. "Even when there were chickens in dressing room," she said in her wonderful accent, "I never dance down."

Anyway, there was one real French deal on Gala night, and I will close here with it: Benjamin Millepied's duet for Maria Kowroski and Ask La Cour called "Double Aria." The score is a violin cadenza, composed for Millepied by Daniel Ott, and performed on stage. Thus the "Double Aria" of the title is about two duets—that between the dancers, and between the choregrapher and the musician. Millepied, who is actually French, gallantly puts the music first. His is a fine ear, and he is an elegant and modest choreographer who makes impeccable ballets. He draws from Kowroski a performance of great seriousness and no sweetness, rescuing her from the soubrette mode into which she is so readily cast, and she is well matched by La Cour, who is shaping up to be another in the succession of great Danes with whom the New York City Ballet has been blessed.



first published in  a slightly different version in DanceViewTimes, Volume 3, No. 18 May 9, 2005

copyright ©2005. 1015 Nancy Dalva