DanceView Times, New York edition
NYCB's Evening in Vienna: Some Stunning Debuts
No. 15/Episodes/Vienna Waltzes
New York City Ballet honored Austrian composers on Thursday night as part of their European Festival. The program is one they’ve done before; after Vienna Waltzes was made these three ballets were programmed several times as a tribute to Viennese composers and Vienna. It may all be Viennese, but it’s a balanced diet containing the variations of music, mood and even sets, costume, and lighting that Balanchine strove for when assembling a performance.
Ashley Bouder had a marvelous debut in the fourth variation of Divertimento No. 15; it had the freshness of novelty combined with a security that made one think she had been doing the part impeccably for years. Technically assured, she nailed every step, and it allowed her the freedom to navigate the part’s expressive landscape with confidence and joy. She steps out on stage beaming her Cheshire Cat grin; she’s delighted to be there and you’re delighted to see her. Bouder has an interesting range as a dancer. The fourth variation isn’t necessarily a soubrette role; in my viewing it’s been cast with strong turners: Jennie Somogyi, Abi Stafford (who danced the first variation tonight) and Darci Kistler, in recent memory. Bouder is vivid, but doesn’t dance like a soubrette; her Firebird was anything but. But in Divert, she stepped directly out of one of Mozart’s operas and flirted with the audience, peeking out from under her upraised arm as she raised her legs: a teasing Despina. Yet there was grand sweep and authority in her adagio as well.
Alexandra Ansanelli nailed everything in the sixth variation and her pas de deux too, especially her rapid footwork and fast, accurate turns. Her impressive strength in that delicate body is always surprising. She isn’t yet a natural choice for the role; Ansanelli is the ingénue of the company right now, and the central ballerina role in Divert is a figure of quiet authority. It’s not just that the variation is faster and harder and it’s not just that she’s at the center of every design. She presides over the dance, and Ansanelli tends to dance in her own magical world. She’s an enchanted princess in a queen bee role. The performances are investments for later; she’ll gain the authority needed with time.
Also making debuts were Robert Tewsley in the male lead and Stephen Hanna as the first of the Themes (he’s already danced the second). Hanna is developing nicely, and acquiring the polish of a soloist. He moves big and just needs to close his positions a touch tighter. Both he and Tewsley have leading-man looks. Tewsley did a pleasing job, dancing his solo with clean punctuation. His pas de deux with Rachel Rutherford had an unfortunate spill; you could see it coming from the moment she set her foot on the floor in a balance and her shoe started to wobble alarmingly. It was a shame; she danced the third variation expansively and elegantly otherwise, but it was also a star-cross’d night—that was only one fall of three in the evening.
Episodes (1959), to the music of Anton Webern, covers the same twelve-tone landscape as Agon or Monumentum/Movements but it hasn’t remained structurally intact. Originally paired with a dance by Martha Graham about Mary, Queen of Scots, the work has been performed decoupled from that since 1960. A solo Balanchine made for Paul Taylor was deleted by 1961 after Taylor no longer performed it but was reconstructed by Taylor on Peter Frame in 1986. A tense dance that Balanchine described to Taylor as “like a fly in a glass of milk,” it balanced the work structurally. Placed amidst the austere and abstract music visualizations of the "Symphony," "Concerto" and "Ricercata," it offered a counterweight with the enigmatically expressive Five Pieces section.
The Balanchine and Graham sections were not collaborations, but joint performances with a few dancers exchanged. Even if they did not mesh, they braced against one another like the piers of a bridge; Graham’s historical evocation of the English court against Balanchine’s anatomization of formal court dance in the "Symphony."
Although it was made only a year after Agon, and the look and vocabulary of it is similar, the worldview of Episodes seems closer to Monumentum/Movements (1960 and 1963 respectively) but in reverse. Agon is almost good-natured in its display of new territories and feats; there’s a geniality to the audience even in its total novelty. At the end of the opening section of Agon, the dancers face us as if in a group photo posed elegantly but still poised to spring.
Episodes and Movements don’t offer that sort of contact; in the "Symphony" the formal patterns of the four couples are like a barrier with the interchanging port de bras that begins the dance blocking us off. Both Monumentum and the final "Ricercata" in Episodes are Renaissance compositions reorchestrated. In both Balanchine hews to the humane ideals of the time and offers harmony and order to the viewer, in Episodes as a solid floor after the shifting sands of the previous sections. With Movements, he takes the certainty of Monumentum and throws it off balance. Balanchine treats Monumentum more intimately than the "Ricercata;" the massive structure and large brass orchestration of the Webern prompted the larger monument. In a coaching session with Melissa Hayden in 2000, Francia Russell recalled the "Ricercata" as “almost like being in a cathedral.”
The work is as the title suggests, episodic, and with all of the structural corsetry binding it together long since removed it can’t maintain the cogency of its sister works without perfect casting. I saw Peter Frame in the 1986 revival of the Taylor solo; his performances made you understand why Balanchine wanted the solo in the ballet and also why he chose to delete it after Taylor no longer performed it.
Episodes came off rather blank-faced on Thursday night. Jennifer Tinsley and Edwaard Liang debuted in the "Symphony" section of Episodes. The entire cast’s synchrony to difficult music was impressive; but the complexity and newness led to a frozen performance. Teresa Reichlen debuted in the "Five Pieces," partnered by James Fayette. Her calmness in the part doesn’t yet have the shifting undertones in demeanor to make the section more than extraordinary contortions. Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans have done the "Concerto" for quite a while now and they’ve gone well beyond contortions. What strikes one about Whelan in this dance is just how coordinated she is. She can connect the most knotty of movement segments and turn them into a phrase. This is a ballet that could use time in the studio to refurbish and renew it. The cathedral needs some judicious restorations.
Fayette also danced the lead in the "Vienna Woods" section of Vienna Waltzes. He’s one of the strongest partners and when he’s onstage his character always seems fleshed out. Here with Rutherford, he was ardent and suggested that their flirtation might have been illicit. I like Rutherford more in brighter roles; I lose her here in the shadowed woods.
Miranda Weese was paired with Damian Woetzel in "Voices of Spring." She looked marvelous, a thinking man’s dancer, and they looked marvelous together. Kyra Nichols was passionate and elegant in the "Rosenkavalier section," but she isn’t a shapeshifter. In this finale, reality changes moment by moment. Is her partner there, or is she dreaming him? Is this the present, the past, or an imaginary future? Are the other dancers just multiplications of her fantasy? She and her partner Charles Askegard are among the most sunny and reasonable dancers in the company, and phantom roles aren’t their specialties.
The ballet has Karinska’s final designs in it, and it’s her show as much as anything else. You can spend as much time traveling your gaze down the seam lines of the basques in the ball gowns trying to discover their cut as you do watching the choreography as the dancers move through nearly a century of waltzes in the kaleidoscopic whirl of history.