DanceView Times, New York edition
Gods, and Music:
Symphony/Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
By Susan Reiter
It is certainly not a chronological survey of George Balanchine's repertory that is being presented under the rubric "Heritage" during NYCB's winter season. After all, the first post-Nutcracker performance was of a ballet from 1962. But these two programs during that first repertory week did focus on some of the earliest extant Balanchine works and provide an opportunity for focusing on what he was doing just prior to, and soon after, he came to the United States in 1933.
In Apollo (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929), the two enduring masterworks that survive (having never long been out of the repertory) from Balanchine's five-year tenure with Diaghilev, he created two landmark male roles that have challenged stellar danseurs through the decades. Seeing them both this week reinforced how brazenly original the choreography is; even today these ballets have a contemporary feel, thanks to the way Balanchine incorporated off-center, edgy, sensual and jazzy movements into the ballet vocabulary.
It's also fascinating to watch these two works with such a strong masculine emphasis alongside 1941's Concerto Barocco and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, in which the men play such a supporting role. The lead male dancers in those later ballets must be elegant, gallant cavaliers, but they are there to serve the ballerinas. In the two Diaghilev works, both shaped around the idiosyncratic talents of Serge Lifar, the men propel the action. Their choreography has rough edges and a sense of unpredictability and reined-in wildness.
At these performances, these ballets featured two of the finest recent interpreters of their title roles: Nikolaj Hübbe as Apollo and Damian Woetzel as the Prodigal Son. (Interestingly, neither of them currently performs the other role with the company. Peter Boal, the other great NYCB dancer of this generation, has set a very high standard in both roles, but was not appearing in them this week.)
Hübbe was a dynamic, forceful Apollo, discovering his newfound strength in his first solo, finding a perfect balance between classical refinement and weighted emphasis that the role requires. His muscular, sculpted physique is ideal for the role, as is his spontaneity and the intelligence he conveys. This young god knows who he is and where he is going. He was not quite as playful in the section with the muses after they first appear as some have been, but treated them with tenderness and fascination.
Hübbe's trio of muses was a mixed bag. Jennie Somogyi, with her scrupulous clean technique and innate ability to dance within the music, shaped Polyhymnia's choreography into something vibrant and exciting. The difficult diagonal of pirouettes in her solo was a breeze for her. Making her debut as Calliope, Rachel Rutherford did well in the ensemble sections, but in the solo she was hesitant and tense, making the choreography look choppy. Yvonne Borree reduces the luminous glories of Terpsichore into something flat and limited. Her dancing doesn't fill space or radiate the sublime glow that could enrapture Apollo. At times, the tension of her neck and shoulders can interrupt the overall line and flow of her dancing.
Woetzel is by now a veteran in Prodigal Son, but his performance has lost none of its excitement and dramatic power. Within this highly stylized work, he creates a biblical character who resonates as a contemporary rebel as well. You can sense how he can endure the family obligations and burns to break away. His final explosion of turns before he jumps over the gate to begin his journey has the force of an expletive hurled at his father.
This performance made a fine case for the timelessness of this distinctive ballet. Maria Kowrowski's implacable Siren exuded erotic power that clearly overwhelmed the Prodigal. When she advanced lying back on all four, her amazing legs unfurling skyward, you knew he was a goner. Their duet had all the sensuality and excitement built into the choreography, without either of them exaggerating anything for effect. When he was reduced to a ragged, broken figure, crawling home in search of redemption, Woetzel sustained an intensity that made the final, rescuing embrace from his father (James Fayette) the moving final image it is meant to be.
NYCB's Balanchine repertory contains very little from the 1930s—just Serenade (not in this first week's repertory) and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which actually dates from 1968 though it is a rethinking of what was choreographed for On Your Toes in 1936. Balanchine spent much of that decade choreographing for Broadway and opera, and aside from Cotillon, revived by the Joffrey, the ballets from that decade have been lost—sometimes, as with the 1933 Mozartiana, to surface in later, different versions.
The fact that Balanchine spent the first year of that decade as ballet master at the Royal Danish Ballet justifies (chronologically speaking) the inclusion of Bournonville's Pas de Deux from Flower Festival in Genzano in this week's repertory. It also belongs there because Bournonville, along with Petipa and Fokine, is among the major choreographic influences on Balanchine.
Fortuitously, on the eve of the full company's performances at the Kennnedy Center, two leading dancers from the RDB were able to guest in Flower Festival. When this pas de deux entered the NYCB repertory as part of Stanley Williams' 1977 Bournonville Divertissements, it was performed by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, who seemed to have to tone down their grandeur to suit its airy, charming amiability. Merrill Ashley and Kyra Nichols also performed it with some success, but never seemed totally at ease.
Gudrun Bojesen (the RDB's current first-cast Sylph) danced it beautifully, with an ease and sunny openness. She's not a soubrette and does not try to force herself into anything quaint for period effect. She's clearly a contemporary dancer of considerable technical strength, but she is also able to make the giddily musical Bournonville choreography look as natural as breathing. Thomas Lund (who will be James to her Sylph), whom I last saw dance as a slender, exciting young "aspirant" before he had joined the company, has gained an authority and ability to fill space, and tossed off the pas de deux's challenges with flair and verve. His series of double-tours was flawless, and he took to the air with invigorating ease.
Both RDB guests seemed quite conscious of having to fill a large space, reaching out to an audience that is considerably larger than that in their home theater. In the pas de deux's first section, their efforts to project took away somewhat from their ability to relate to each other. Still, dancers sometimes overplay the cute interactions in this section, so one could appreciate their restraint. Lund was always attentive and reactive during Bojesen's solos, and their coming together for the final, brisk, slightly teasing side-by-side dancing brought the pas de deux to a deliciously satisfying close.
The ballerina roles of the two great 1941 ballets are eternally challenging and often difficult to fill satisfactorily. In this Concerto Barocco, Somogyi as the second ballerina caught the jazzy edge of Balanchine's pristine-on-the-surface choreography, capturing the wit within the poetry. Her fluid phrasing and elegant line even in repose stood out next to Borree's more tense, less expansive dancing. But Borree made the most of her duet, partnered by the elegantly noble Hubbe, relaxing and appearing to truly feel, and breathe with, the music.
Miranda Weese also displayed noticeable upper-body tension as the lead ballerina in the Tchaikovsky. In technical terms, she was commanding and amazingly unfazed as she charged through the role's fiendishly complex technical challenges. But what was missing was the air of regal grandeur, the ballerina glow that is called for. Ashley Bouder, in the secondary role that also requires considerable technical aplomb, had more expansiveness and performed with a true sense of joy and passion.
And speaking of ballerinas with authority, there was Kyra Nichols as the elusive, sort-of-sylph at the heart of Scotch Symphony. Not as plush a dancer as in her prime, and certainly not the technical firebrand she once was, she still phrases with a finesse and musical sensitivity that one hopes the younger dancers are observing and learning from. Supported by Andrea Quinn's bracingly clear, vigorous conducting of the Mendelssohn score (which in the first movement seemed a bit too brisk, making Carrie Lee Riggins have to rush through her solo passages), Nichols was able to convey the sense that the dancing is truly arising from within the music.
Photo: Nikolaj Hübbe and Yvonne Borree (with legs of Rachel Rutherford and Jennie Somogyi) in Apollo. Photo: Paul Kolnik.