That Certain Feeling
and “Who Cares?”
Romance was in the air Friday night at Lincoln Center— two very different kinds of love in two late works of George Balanchine, "Harlequinade" and "Who Cares?" After years of casting about for some new identity, this spring New York City Ballet is focusing on what was there all the time: a legacy of great ballets, and a style of its own. Both were on view in this long and lovely program, though sometimes you had to look past the principals for the style points.
"Harlequinade," for all its silliness, has a subject: the game of love as played in the old world, the world that Balanchine was born into. He danced "Harlequinade" as a child in Russia, and remade it here in the style of the commedia dell’arte, with its stock characters: the greedy father, the daughter he keeps under lock and key, the dashing but poor lover, the lady’s maid who tries to bring them together, and the good fairy whose intercession makes the poor boy rich and provides the happy ending. In this case, the maid stole the show from her mistress. This is a dance of exquisite details, comic gestures with the hands and eyes, and Megan Fairchild as Pierrette had it all. Always on top of the lively dance tunes churned out by composer Riccardo Drigo, she bustled about stealing the keys, scolding her hapless husband and generally keeping the plot and the tempo flying. As the coquettish Columbine, Yvonne Borree was cute but sorely lacking in verve. Her energy never projected beyond her not-quite-fully-extended limbs; what a contrast from Fairchild, who sprayed energy from her fingers and toes. Joaquin de Luz was slim and dashing as Harlequin, with superfast turns, neat beats and, in the finale, a whirling grand pas de chat that that cut through the air like a scythe. One would have liked to pair him up with Fairchild, but of course in this type of society the hero can’t wind up with the maid.
In America, of course, anyone can wind up with anyone, and that was the stunning contrast that made this double-bill such a pleasure. "Who Cares?" is about love, American-style: boy meets girl. It happens in a cityscape of pure possibility, the splayed-out Manhattan skyline designed by Jo Mielziner back in 1970, but as timeless as the Gershwin tunes that ooze and ache with that certain feeling. The high point is the ultra-romantic duet to “The Man I Love,” where Miranda Weese, almost in spite of herself, floats backward across the stage to the guy who has finally “come along.” Her shyness and her wonder convey the idea that this is too good to be true, it can’t be, but in the end it is. “The Man I Love” was made for Balanchine’s most American ballerina, Patricia McBride, and Weese is a worthy successor. Her moves have the same sparkling clarity, and at this point she can even convey something like the combination of innocence and knowingness that McBride grew into.
Ashley Bouder is another all-American type, of a more contemporary variety. She’s like a teenage celebrity, a skating whiz, a gymnastic Olympian, with the kind of in-your-face good looks that we see splashed across the newsstands. Her “Stairway to Paradise” was a blowaway routine, full of slam-bang emphases. It was technically brilliant, but lacked the hint of ironic detachment that makes Gershwin taste so good, and last so long.
Sofiane Sylve, the other female principal, looked as though she had
wandered in from Act Three of "Swan Lake." She danced “Embraceable
You” as if it were a classical pas de deux, not the rare bird that
it is, an ordinary gal’s song of contentment in love. Maybe someone
needs to teach her the words. Balanchine choreographed "Who Cares?"
not just to the tunes but the lyrics, which he sang to his dancers as
he created, and until recently the program for the ballet included a sly
line, all by itself, “Lyrics by Ira Gershwin.” Of course no
one was singing, it was just the orchestra playing, but the lyrics were
in the audience’s mind, and in the dancers’ every gesture:
“He’ll look at me and smile; I’ll understand; and in
a little while, he’ll take my hand …” In 2005, that
program note has disappeared, and the lyrics seem to be fading from the
company’s collective memory. Who cares? George does.
"Harlequinade" also had its share of memorable bits, notably a pair of character parts from two masters of mime: Andre Kramarevsky nearly made his own eyes pop out as Colombine’s apoplectic dad, and Robert La Fosse used a pot belly, an oversized hat and a hanky to make her rich suitor into a hapless fop. But once again the action was in the corps: four elegant and swift-footed Scaramouches, most notably Rebecca Krohn; six drunken soldiers dragging themselves around the stage in what looked like an alcoholic variation of Stars and Stripes or Union Jack; and a cavalcade of high-stepping children in the Ballabile des Enfants that kicks off Act Two’s wedding feast. 'S Wonderful!