There is a lot going on with City Ballet’s fall season at the Koch Theater. The new, the old and the revived are all on display and what is so remarkable is that it is available for fifteen dollars an evening if you care to stroll over to Lincoln Center. True, Fall for Dance comes in at a greater bargain at only ten but the kicker is you can’t get tickets . Perhaps best of all, along with the flashy dancing I got two performances of great violin concertos, the Stravinsky Concerto played by Kurt Nikkanen and the Barber Concerto played in all of its American splendor by Arturo Delmoni. Both are concertmasters with the NYC Ballet Orchestra.
Yet amidst all that exceptional music and the dancing that went with it the most riveting moments of the two evenings came in the second movement of the Barber Violin Concerto. Jared Angle and Sara Mearns as the modern dancer and the classical dancer respectively captured all the emotion and connection you could ask for in a pas de deux. Martins in his choreography delivers an extremely musical and thoughtful setting for four dancers, two of them classicists and two modernists. The partnering, unexpected and intricate, is perfect against the slow movement’s quiet romantic power–you couldn’t ask for more. When Angle protectively carrying Mearns backs off the stage into the wings at the movement’s conclusion, you feel you have just seen a kind of perfection draw to a close.
The ballet opens with the classical couple on stage. They are encased in kind of twilight and darkened sky which they acknowledge by their upward gaze into the surrounding space. They repeatedly retreat upstage on long diagonals with arms clasped behind backs. It establishes the choreography’s romantic appeal and the emotional quality that carries through the long arc of the first two movements. Least successful of the four dancers is Charles Askegard as the classicist who seems uncomfortable in the music. His overly fierce turns and awkward solo moments tend to isolate him. Megan Fairchild is all fast bare feet and bother in her role as the modern dancer in the pas de deux of the concluding movement with Askegard. It is the least satisfying choreography of the three movements, perhaps too whimsical and light weight for the music which remains power- ful, virtuosic and dark.
The piece is remarkable for sustaining interest with only four dancers pitted against a large symphonic score; only in the first movement are all four on stage together. The sonata form of the first movement lays down a structure which Martins follows precisely in his choreography. He makes careful use of musical climaxes and transitions. Not surprisingly the classical expressions tend to evoke Balanchine–even the choice of music is a bit of an homage–while the movement for the contemporary couple almost seems lifted from Paul Taylor in its attempt to define a generic modernism. The ballet is free of sets. The modern couple is barefoot and the male dancer shirtless. All are dressed in white.
Two of the three Balanchine pieces, Danses Concertantes and Stravinsky Violin Concerto Concerto, are good seen together. They were both premiered in 1972 and have structural similarities. They are both legendary as Stravinsky/Balanchine collaborations and work out ideas of presentation and opposing forces of soloists and ensemble in slightly different ways. It embraces characters, sets and costuming while the Violin Concerto goes for the neo-classic stripped down aesthetic adhering only to pure musical design. Danses Concertantes played with theatrical flare and charm the evening I saw it while Concerto suffered from an onstage collision between two of the women and later in one of the arias, a partnering mishap that was rescued at the last possible moment. The men came across with more finesse and virtuosity than the women in both pieces. Sterling Hytlin and Gonzalo Garcia were the soloists in Danses Concertantes. He was especially effective in capturing the witty quality of his character. The piece is a revival for the 2010 season. In Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the remaining Balanchine piece on the two programs, Ashley Bouder proved she could run and dive with the best of them in the coda section. She did everything with great virtuosic delight. Her partner Andrew Veyette seemed more comfortable and secure in his solo sections than in the partnering. The piece usually present in the City Ballet repertory, is now fifty years old. It garnered big applause.
Namouna, A Grand Divertissment and Estancia (which played on both nights) are one act story ballets. They premiered during the 2009 spring season. Namouna, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, is a humor laced re-imagining of Lalo’s original music for a two act ballet which premiered in Paris in 1881. It bombed, though one scene in it involving a harem girl smoking a cigarette created one of those ballet sensations with Parisian audiences. Ratmansky retains a reference to that scene in his version. In fact, the whole ballet exists as an overlay of 19th century classical ballet scenarios, gesture and technique but it steers clear of overt parallels to the original oriental tale. This Namouna barely has a story, nor is it set in an actual place, nor does it have characters with names but the recycled bits are a source of humor and serve as an organizing principle for a condensed one act ballet in which our leading man searches for the woman of his dreams. He finally finds her, of course, but it is a difficult business sorting out who you love when you are faced with a fleet of women who are perfect and all of whom look exactly the same. Their flapper inspired headpieces and cropped tutus turn out to be more disguise than costume. All of the daring and inventive costuming was created by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov.
Certain reenactments are easy to pick out. We have a bit from Bayadere–The Kingdom of the Shades–which opens the ballet but the women finally swirl into a heap in the center of the stage. Another sequence riffs on the Snow Queen and her Cavalier waving good- bye to the snowflakes. We have the well worn cliché where our hero mimes his rapture for the face of his beloved. And the hapless hero, danced brilliantly by Tyler Angle is himself something of a clone for Napoli’s Gennaro. He is dressed in sailor’s getup and loaded down with Bournonville jetés and en dedans turns. Ratmansky knows his classics. He breathes new life into the comparisons but with a deft, smart touch . It’s still likeable even if you aren’t up on all the clever cribbing.
Namouna has a big cast with a corps of women and a smaller group of men. Three female soloists, Wendy Whelan, Jenifer Ringer and Sara Mearns are the objects of the leading man’s affections. They are as disinterested as he is ardent. It proves to be a good formula for pairings which deliver engaging partnering but never a result. He does finally make a choice but only because he understands that he is running out of music.
A vivacious trio (Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford ) breeze in and out of the action mostly supplying virtuosic distractions for no particular reason. I loved one section for them with the man creates a weaving pattern with the two women as he picks them up and sets them down repeatedly. They are costumed in gold and in constant flickering motion.
Namouna is long, perhaps too long. Just when it seems to ready to end it turns out there is another fifteen minutes to go. And though the music is better than most nineteenth century B list ballet fare I confess to a bit of divertissement fatigue by the end. But all of it is so rich and the great quantity of virtuosic dance that is in Namouna makes you glad finally you saw it all.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Estancia concluded both evenings. The music, Alberto Ginestera’s evocative recuerdo for the Argentine pampas was more powerful on the second evening and the spoken and sung parts by Thomas Meglioranza as the gaucho commentator had morphed from weak to forceful. The ballet suite in several sections follows the story of the Argentine epic poem, Martin Fierro. The music was composed in 1941 and was originally commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the American Ballet Caravan.
Estancia has a very familiar look and feel even if you don’t know the music. It can’t help but remind you of the famed American frontier ballets and music of 40’s: de Mille, Copland and Loring. But there is little in Wheeldon’s choreography that evokes Argentina. You know you are there because it says so in the program notes. Still it’s a good looking ballet and satisfying to watch even if the pamapas girls are curiously all on point. One of them even puts her foot in a pie and shucks it off so you know you’re on the range somewhere.
The story in twelve parts follows a day from dawn to dawn. A city boy loose on the pampas encounters a country girl and her companions. He gets it in his head to stay and eventually becomes one of them. The usual sparks fly and before you know it you are thick in the middle of a big time pas de deux with the usual outcome. The one element that is missing from Estancia is the force of the great lonely geography and some sense of how that wears on the people. Calatrava’s painted scenes for the ballet are delightful but old fashioned and the place is over crowded with ranch hands, ersatz horses and city folks visiting from Buenos Aires. I could have used a little more complexity in the love story too but Wheeldon diverts us with a romance that uses horse breaking as a metaphor and the true path to the romantic heart. There is a little bit of corn in every romance apparently, even in Argentina.
Wheeldon settles for a lyrical ballet style interspersed with character movement and the usual story telling clichés but the staging is a delight. Tyler Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring played the city boy roles. I preferred Angle, his dancing had more sweep and the acting was more believable. The costuming for the horses is clever and sexy. I liked the way they maneuvered the hand held switches they carried for tails. Both the high-flying Andrew Veyette and Georgina Pazcoguin made the most of their roles as the tough to tame horses. In the final scene, the rollicking Malambo, the entire cast is on stage for a great ride through its powerful repeated rhythms, percussion blazing. Horses, ranch hands and the newly minted couple are all facing out toward the audience, hats fly, arms reach for the sky …. yeehaw. It’s a long way from Stravinsky and sometimes that’s just what you want.