Essential Balanchine
“Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, “Liebeslieder Walzer”, “Symphony in Three Movements”
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
May 26, 2007

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2007 by Mary Cargill

Essential is certainly not a word anyone outside of a marketing department would use to describe the purple champagne of “Walpurgisnacht”, but I guess an evening of “Frivolous Balanchine” wouldn’t be considered high enough art for this Lincoln Kirstein year. But true, effervesant frivolity is probably harder to create than a more serious work.

“Walpurgisnacht” is set to Charles Gounod’s luscious dance music from the quintessential 19th century opera “Faust”, with its prettified version of the medieval myth. The dance music sets the scene for the quite macabre false Marguerite and her fellow witches. Little of this makes it to the ballet, which responds to the lovely music, and not the story. Balanchine’s frisky little bacchantes with their bounding hair are even less threatening than Giselle’s wilis, but equally enchanting.

Sara Mearns danced the lead, originally created for Suzanne Farrell. Curiouly, she has stamped this work far more than some of her more significant creations, and the odd, off-centered solos, with their combination of femininity, playfulness, and aloofness, have not quite fit a number of wonderful dancers. Mearns also missed some of the mysterious grace of the choreography, as she, too, tried to make it more upright; she could have been wilder and freer. But she is a plush, soft dancer, with an elegant musicality, and a lush upper body, so there was much to enjoy in her dancing. She has some of the most elegant hands going (not a usual compliment for NYCB dancers), with long, tapering fingers that seem to extend into streamers.

She was partnered by Ask La Cour, who had some trouble with the tricky maneuvers, making the pas de deux seem a little too careful. Ana Sophia Scheller was the soloist, and had no trouble at all. She is an extraordinarily polished dancer, with perfect classical proportions and an effortless technique; her little jumps just floated, and she too, has a beautifully modulated upper body. She is the type of dancer who seems to have been born wearing a tiara.

“Liebeslieder Walzer” certainly belongs on any essential Balanchine program, and the cast seemed to give it an extra dramatic edge. Rachel Rutherford has taken the Jillana role, and her Grace Kelly air makes her a natural for a ballroom. She seemed to have thought out the role carefully, and there was no sense of separation of character and dancing; she had an air of controlled restlessness, of hidden sadness, and she made the little gesture of resignedly touching her kneeling partner’s head seem infinitely sad. She also was able to subtly differentiate between the first and second half, as her dancing became just a little bit wilder and her face a little more distant. It was a haunting performance.

Kyra Nichols, in her last series of "Liebeslieders", was haunted by farewells, as the audience says its goodbyes to her, embodied by Nilas Martins desperately hiding his face from reality. She seemed to have turned into a sylph in the second half, phrasing the dancing so that echoes of the Sylphide poses paused long enough to resonate. She didn’t go all limp and wispy in the way some more mannered dancers approach Giselle; she was not a ghost visiting the earth, she managed to make the stage change into another world, which she inhabited.

Nikolaj Hübbe, too, managed to make the stage disappear; as he lay his cheek against Wendy Whelan’s, the power of that simple gesture seemed to resonate like a close-up from the most romantic movie imaginable. Their breathless, final pas des deux had a rapturous peace that was simply transcendent.

“Symphony in Three Movements”, for all its stark modern look, does use the 19th century convention of lines of girls in white doing the same steps—these are obviously all those old fashioned swans' and wilis' and bayaderes' modern day descendants and have the same hypnotic power. Abi Stafford and Albert Evans danced the odd, vaguely Oriental pas des deux. Stafford, a solid, reliable but often unadventurous soloist, seemed like an odd choice for the quirky, sultry choreography, but she gave it a wonderful sense of exploration. The steps themselves are not hard, and she couldn’t hide behind her technique. She seemed to lose herself in the movement, echoing Evans, gently pushing her arms into the odd shapes. It was an intriguing combination of “Agon” and “Bugaku” and she gave it a unique stamp. And that ability for dancers to make these roles their own is even more essential than just presenting the ballets.

Volume 5, No. 21
May 28, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Mary Cargill

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