Letter from New York
Peter Boal, who is retiring from New York City Ballet in June after 30 years with the company, began to perform for Balanchine in “The Nutcracker” at the age of 10, shortly after he had entered the School of American Ballet. Many readers have watched him mature as a dancer and as an artist during the entire course of his career. His mastery list of leading roles in the Balanchine repertory begins with the “Nutcracker” Prince, which Boal performed when he was 12 and for which he is still celebrated; contains the Prodigal Son, Melancholic, and Oberon, which he probed deeply over many years; and extends through the formidable challenges of the male solos in “Square Dance” and “Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fée.’” He has said that he considers the highlight of his career to have been the time when Jerome Robbins came backstage and kissed him on the forehead after his performance in the leading role of “Opus 19/The Dreamer.” Boal was an outstanding exponent of classical male technique in “Les Gentilhommes” of Peter Martins; and his rendering of the lead in the first movement of “The Beethoven Seventh,” by Twyla Tharp, was one of the peaks of the ballet. He has also gone outside NYCB in an effort to broaden his range, and in every such collaboration that I’ve witnessed, he has elevated the choreography. His dancing for Molissa Fenley several seasons ago was simply transformative to Fenley’s work.
Last year, Peter Boal & Company, a small group on the order of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project, made its debut at the Joyce, where it returned this week, led by Boal and featuring NYCB’s Wendy Whelan and Sean Suozzi, with a brief appearance also by company dancer Andrew Veyette. Boal only appeared in the first half, opening the program with a vulnerable solo made for him by Wendy Perron (whose day job is editor of Dance Magazine)—to Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush,” played live by pianist Elaine Chelton—and closing the section with Whelan in a pas de deux by former NYCB dancer and fledgling choreographer Edwaard Liang. Liang, who spent some time on Broadway after leaving NYCB, is now affiliated with the New York Choreographic Institute; his dancemaking has provoked an appreciative buzz already, and this dance, called “Distant Cries” and set to the Albinoni Adagio (on tape), demonstrates why. It is finely constructed, with some formal surprises based in the vocabulary of classical ballet. It is also lyrical in feeling and respectful of the artists for whom it was made, as well as knowing about their stage effects. The choice of the Albinoni does give me pause: this is gorgeous music; however, its fullness of expression and glacial stateliness have defeated many choreographers before Liang, and, for me, Albinoni came off the victor in his case as well. There’s no room in the Adagio for dance. I was alone in this response, though; the audience on Friday was enthusiastic.
Whelan—who, like Boal, has wrenched herself from youthful virtuosity to mature artistry over the past decade—seemed to transform herself as we watched her from flesh and bone to a filament of steel. She has the most remarkable ability to distance herself from her body in performance, sometimes, as here, producing warmly spiritual images and, at other times—as in Shen Wei’s solo for her, “Body Study III,” performed in the second half of the program—producing icily analytic ones. Set to piano pieces (on tape) by Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis, “Body Study III” was almost alarming in its clinical deconstruction of Whelan’s idiosyncratic figure, which, like a pipe cleaner, draws curves in the air that are positively voluptuous in formal terms. It’s a dance that’s interesting to see once, yet I wouldn’t go near it a second time.
Apparently, some years ago Boal had wanted to dance one of Daniel Nagrin’s physically challenging character solos: the 1948 “Strange Hero,” the one about a gangster. What a great idea! Alas, in Boal’s retirement season, this was not to be. On this year’s Joyce Program, the dance (staging uncredited) was performed—and brilliantly—by the young, quicksilver virtuoso, Sean Suozzi, whose dazzling moments included one where he seemed to hang in the air, like a playing card, then fell full-body to the floor without suggesting that he weighed more than playing card, either. He also snapped up the gangster mannerisms, although his “hero” seemed to be an act, a let’s-pretend gangster, rather than, as when Nagrin performed the solo by all accounts, an element of his psyche. (His gangster’s Armani-like suit, designed by Mark Zappone, is also a little far removed from the thick shoulder pads and pegged-leg zoot suit of the original.) The program concluded with an ambitious misfire: “Soft Watching the First Implosion”—a Broadway-cum-Capoeira-cum-Hip-Hop trio (to taped Vivaldi) for Suozzi, Veyette, and the choreographer, himself, Victor Quijada. After three or four minutes, the dance began to repeat its images and effects and, most miserably, its blackout lighting cues, which eventually made me, at least, seasick. Was Boal originally supposed to appear in this, too? When the final curtain came down he did not return for a bow.
Peter Boal leaves the New York area with his family later this year to take over as artistic director at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet on the retirement of PNB’s co-directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell. As the new head of the company, he has announced a remarkable season that includes the company premières of Balanchine’s full-evening “Jewels,” staged by Suzanne Farrell (with whose own company Boal has productively danced), and “Nine Sinatra Songs” by Twyla Tharp. As one person doing the work that has been accomplished by two, and as an artistic director who is not also a choreographer, Boal will have his work at PNB cut out for him. He does bring knowledge, judiciousness; intellectual flexibility, and taste to the job, however; and he seems to be one of the most emotionally well-grounded ballet stars in the country. One wishes him, and that excellent company, well.
Last week, on a trip to the Pacific Northwest, I ran into Russell and Stowell in Portland, Oregon’s Keller Auditorium, where they had traveled to see the newest program by Oregon Ballet Theatre, the company to which one of their sons, Christopher Stowell, was appointed artistic director in 2003, following the departure of founding director James Canfield. On this occasion, the younger Stowell also had a new ballet on the program—“The Impending Hour,” a rueful yet shapely suite of dances to Ravel’s String Quartet in F minor. (Those who have followed Russell and Stowell’s tenure at PNB from the early days were led to remember Stowell’s “L’Heure Bleue,” to a different Ravel composition.) Christopher Stowell spent the better part of his dancing career with Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet, where a certain kind of European scenic design is an important element in the repertory; and although one performance isn’t enough evidence to say anything general with certainty, it did look to me as if he has carried that concern to OBT, which, itself, has a heritage of lavish (and sometimes wonderful) scenic design, such as Henk Pander’s set and Ric Young’s costumes for the “Schéhérazade” of the late Dennis Spaight. Still, the computer-generated “rain” that constituted the backdrop for “The Impending Hour”—whose gentle, Oregon downpour is redesigned anew at every performance by visual and costume designer James Buckhouse—was, for this viewer, a distraction from the stage events, which were interesting and beautifully danced. And it also seemed, like the portentous title, an attempt to narrow the ballet’s interpretation by the audience. A ballet needn’t “mean” anything specific to give pleasure; it just needs to be. (I realize that this is as comically antique a position on dance as the lines of poetry from Archibald MacLeish to which it alludes; yet I still champion the perspective that attempts by choreographers to narrow the frames of reference for their ballets are patronizing to their audiences.) The last ballet on the program, Charles Czarny’s “Concerto Grosso,” to Handel, is a simple—perhaps the word is reductive—series of poster-sized jokes that are built from commedia dell’arte and analogies between dance and sports. Until this OBT evening, I hadn’t seen it since the Netherlands Dance Theater brought it to the U.S. in the 1970’s. There is more to it than I’d remembered in terms of its requirements for spot-on timing and athletic precision; and I was fascinated to see that, reductive as it is, it is also as exactly crafted as a successful vaudeville routine. The audience was delighted by it, and, against my better judgment, so was I.
For everyone, though, the greatness of the evening was OBT’s performance of Jerome Robbins’s “In the Night,” staged for the company by Bart Cook. Stowell has inherited some wonderful dancers from Canfield’s tenure; however, he has also brought some of his own choices, and one of them, Gavin Larsen—the ballerina in the first section (who has trained with a variety of teachers, including Dick Andros and Francis Patrelle in her native New York City)—gave a world-class performance. Indeed, given the very high level of the dancing by the entire company throughout the evening, it is heartbreaking to remember the pre-curtain fundraising plea that Stowell and a local television personality had to issue (and which, I’m told, Stowell gives at every performance). The Keller is a 3,000-seat house, and although it wasn’t packed to the rafters on this occasion, it was full of people who were excited to be there and who, at intermission, were animatedly discussing the ballet. They knew the treasure they have: they just don’t seem to be able to support it to the full measure of their admiration.
This Just In: “Swan Lake” Causes Bi-polar Syndrome!!
“Dancing, famously, is sex done upright. But for people raised on the say-what-you-mean naturalism of film and television, artificial conventions of narrative dance can be confounding. The stories often seem incoherent even if you read a synopsis. As for sex, the dancers look more interested in their jetés than in each other, and the homoeroticism is so suppressed that it seems comically antique: the love that dare not dance its name. The divide between what you’re interested in and what you’re supposed to be interested in can make the experience of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘The Nutcracker’ almost schizophrenic.
“You need not be a philistine to notice. . . .”—Jesse Green, “Matthew Bourne Does the Horizontal Ballet,” Arts&Leisure, The New York Times, Sunday, March 13, 2005
You gotta love a paper that keeps up its, uh, standards. —Mindy
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.