New York City Ballet Kicks Off Winter Season

“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed …Something Purple!"
Opening Night Benefit 2006
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
November 21, 2006

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2006 by Susan Reiter

Some galas are about glitz and star power; this one certainly didn’t aim for that. There was no true bona fide star turn until the evening’s final entry, when Damian Woetzel lit up the stage with his exuberant, engaging performance in “Stars and Stripes.” It was certainly not a gala aimed at trotting out all the principal dancers, since only 11 of the 23 on the roster appeared on stage.

It was mostly an evening of brief, crisp samplings, with an emphasis on the sleekly contemporary. Jerome Robbins was represented by a brief but powerful excerpt, the opening section of his 1958 “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.” This has now been in the company’s repertory long enough for the dancers to find their way inside its cool abstractions of hipster toughness and simmering resentment. The ensemble of twelve dancers provided one of the evening’s most electric—and brilliantly crafted—moments.

The evening’s big drawing-card was smartly chosen: “Middle Duet,” by Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet director whose “Russian Seasons” provided NYCB with a highlight of last spring’s season. Given the positive impression made by that work and his full-length “The Bright Stream” which the Bolshoi brought to New York last year, he is one of the few choreographers from whom a new — or at least, unfamiliar— work is eagerly awaited.

“Middle Duet,” given an exceptionally focused and stylish performance by Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans, was an American premiere. It was created for the Kirov Ballet in 1998, as the middle segment of a triptych; the other two sections were set to Stravinsky and Scriabin. Standing on its own, it wove artfully designed variations around a basic, insistent theme. Kowrowski and Evans faced one another (her back to the audience), and proceeded to swerve, swoop and slice through face-to-face partnering moves, holding both hands and veering off from center only to return regularly. They were located downstage within a rectangle of light whose patterning resembled a window pane,

The music by Yuri Khanon, a Russian composer who is a contemporary of Ratmansky, was muted and quietly hypnotic, emphasizing piano and percussion. The choreography kept closely to its repetitive rhythms, but also found room for freedom and invention within the confined limitations. Kowrowski, in a short maroon tunic, sculpted her long, expressive legs through the twists and angles with witty elegance. Evans, in dark pants and tight top, added his solid, supportive presence and was her match in sustaining an element of surprise and wit. He broke free to move out to the space upstage before returning to their assigned space as both collapsed to the floor in the final moments, remaining immobile there as the stage darkened.

Excerpts from two recent NYCB premieres, emphasized speed and potentially dangerous-looking partnering. Three sections of Jorma Elo’s popular “Slice to Sharp” set four couples moving at breakneck speed to the crisp rhythms of Vivaldi. It is all chillingly efficient, but to what purpose? There was one lovely moment when Sofiane Sylve, who truly seems in her element in this choreography, and Edwaard Liang, conveyed sheer delight and spontaneity and elevated the bustling activity to a higher level.

The hectic, disjointed final section of Peter Martins’ “Friandises” always looks like a rush-job. In the context of the full piece, and presented alone here, it flew by in a blaze of empty, frantic busyness.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance),” the only complete work on the program, opened the evening. There were debuts in the central roles, and the re-casting altered the work’s impact. With Damian Woetzel as the central, Billy Bigelow-like figure, the ballet had a powerful center, since he created a dashing, robust figure. Seth Orza looked handsome and danced very well, but lacked the devil-may-care ease, sustaining a look of intense, even worried, concentration throughout. Kathryn Morgan, an apprentice (who made a very strong impression in the SAB Workshop) took over the role originated by Alexandra Ansanelli. Dewy and girlish, she seemed cast to ally the role more strongly with the young Louise figure in the major ballet that propels the drama of the complete Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But the relationship between these two is left vague. Their extended central duet progresses form wariness to burgeoning passion, but concludes with her running off and him following — as does the final moment of the work. Still, Wheeldon’s way of honoring and incorporating traditional ballet conventions within a bracingly contemporary frame works wonderfully, and this brief but resonant work has a thrilling momentum in the fascinating ensemble passages than accumulate power as Rodgers’ fantastic music builds and swells.

The rather unfortunate title pasted onto the evening [see heading above] was not only embarrassingly cheesy but difficult to parse. Was the Ratmansky work the “new” or the “borrowed”? No other work really fit either label, although the Elo is (relatively) new. The “purple” referred to was the revival of the central duet, titled “Purple” of Peter Martins’ 1987 “Ecstatic Orange,” which helped define and solidify the Heather-Watts-Jock Soto partnership that was featured in many other Martins works. It was receiving its first performance since 1994, and its first by a cast other than the originals.

The duet was carefully chosen as a comeback vehicle for Janie Taylor, after a year off the stage due to injury. Her tensile delicacy and partner Sebastien Marcovici’s muscular, responsive support made this mix of yoga-like pliability and acrobatic contortions have its intriguing moments, despite its rather gimmicky overall approach. Taylor’s quiet glamour gave it a very different tone compared to Watts’ edgy quirkiness, although her endlessly cascading ponytail was distracting in a duet that’s mostly about shapes. And the twisty kneework Martins demand sin this piece looks like something that could itself cause an injury.

Also very purple are the dresses worn by the the bevy of beauteous women bounding through Balanchine’s “Walpurgishacht Ballet.” Four sections were performed to open the second half of the evening, ushering in the welcome sight of Kyra Nichols, certainly more reserved in this role than in earlier years, but still able to produce moments of sublime connection with the music and reminding us of what makes a true ballerina. Abby Stafford, in the demi-soloist role that features choreography that rides along the music with sublime grace, managed to flatten out and diminish the opening section she led.

Woetzel’s all-American zest and dashing dynamism helped make the concluding “Stars and Stripes” excerpts (the showpiece duet and finale) the rousing highlight it should be. Ashley Bouder danced with her special brand of high-intensity wattage, but her rigid smile gave her a somewhat robotic look. Her role of Liberty Bell was originated nearly 50 years ago by Melissa Hayden, and the work was performed on this occasion “in loving memory” of that exceptional ballerina, who died in August.

Photos, both by Paul Kolnik:
Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans in Alexei Ratmansky's "Middle Duet."
Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici in the Purple section of Peter Martins' "Ecstatic Orange."

Volume 4, No. 42
November 27, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView