"Episodes," "Tribute," "Vienna Waltzes"
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 27, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright 2007, Leigh Witchel

New York City Ballet’s “Tribute to Kirstein” program honoring Lincoln Kirstein’s centennial is an odd mix, as are other things NYCB is programming this year in his honor — “Romeo and Juliet”?  That has less to do with Kirstein than “Vienna Waltzes” — a ballet Kirstein spends much of his time in “Thirty Years at the New York City Ballet” justifying, mainly to himself, as being necessary for box office.  With “Vienna Waltzes” as a finale, the company presented “Episodes” and the NYCB premiere of “Tribute,” a ballet by Christopher d’Amboise that pays homage to the aesthetic that Balanchine and Kirstein championed.

“Tribute” was originally choreographed for the workshop performance of the School of American Ballet in 2005. Several of the dancers in it, including Devin Alberda, Robert Fairchild and Gretchen Smith, performed in it at that time, and subsequently joined the company. The ballet was a sampler, both of J.S. Bach’s music and of Balanchine’s aesthetic. The musical selections mainly alternated solo keyboard works with works for keyboard and orchestra. A piano, being louder, is more practical in a theater than a harpsichord, but judging from the pieces chosen d’Amboise may be another choreographer who found inspiration in Glenn Gould’s seminal piano recordings of Bach concertos.

The musical selections testified to Bach’s range and the choreographic quotations to Balanchine’s range. That also means things don’t always follow and the piece is quite derivative. Without particularly looking for them, I caught segments cribbed from “Symphony in C” and “Concerto Barocco.” D’Amboise’s take on Balanchine style also got fussy; his choreography tended to feminize the men. Still, “Tribute” was created for the school as a teaching ballet, and one is more tolerant of the derivative nature of a ballet for that purpose. It was an amiable but inconsequential work that was better section by section than as a whole. 

As with many ballets done by less frequent gueswt choreographers, the work introduced us to several dancers. Most prominent was Devin Alberda, a young man new to the company. His opening solo showed off his elegant lines and smooth attack as well as his ability to pull together his axis for centered turns.

More seasoned company dancers took on several of the roles originally done by students. Someone seems to have noticed Adrian Danchig-Waring; he’s gotten featured recently and is losing some of his earlier tentativeness on stage. Tiler Peck danced with Fairchild; she’s extremely strong but relentless about selling allegro dancing. Time and age should bring about some modulation and less grinning. Ashley Bouder took the lead; the most interesting aspect of having her in a ballet made for students was to see how far she’s traveled since her own student days. Bouder also had a hard sell that needed tempering, but she had grandeur early on. Now, she’s developing authority; she took the main pas de deux and imbued it with haughty passion. Tyler Angle, her partner, looked very good with her; she was in charge and that worked for him. Bouder’s still in her early twenties but acting like a woman ten years older; it sometimes seemed precocious, but she’ll be ready for maturity when it comes. With Miranda Weese leaving, the company will need a new Queen Bee and it looks like Bouder is getting ready for the part.

Completely against expectations in “Vienna Waltzes,” Nikolaj Hübbe plays younger rather than older and pulls it off. His performance in the opening ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ with Rachel Rutherford was textured with impetuous youth. Rutherford’s moment came in her quick sorrow when she lost sight of him, and her relief when he reappeared. Weese danced ‘Voices of Spring’ with Benjamin Millepied. She is appearing all too rarely; we only have until the end of the season before we lose her entirely. Sterling Hyltin made a debut in the ‘Explosions Polka’ but she’s a bit too nice a girl to be in a role like this.  For a refreshing change, Jenifer Ringer was not so nice; she played the Merry Widow character in the ‘Gold and Silver Waltz’ as acid.  I’ve never warmed to Kyra Nichols’ reading of the ‘Rosenkavalier Waltz’— she’s miscast in a role that needs a dancer more in thrall to her internal fantasies.

Kirstein was instrumental in the creation of “Episodes,” brokering the cooperation of NYCB with Martha Graham’s company in 1959 so each could present one half of an evening on stage.  Graham’s contribution was last seen in New York more than two decades ago; Balanchine’s version deleted his solo for Paul Taylor as soon as he no longer performed it, although the solo was revived briefly by Taylor for Peter Frame in 1986.  A pipe dream, but what a tribute to Kirstein it would have been to reassemble “Episodes” once again!

Webern’s serial music is far more uncompromising than the conglomeration of serial and tonal sections in “Agon” and Balanchine’s response is also a balder expression of a modernist aesthetic.  He explains the structure of the score in a way we couldn’t get only from listening by giving us a visual parallel.

Abi Stafford was a precision instrument in the opening ‘Symphony’.  She showed us what was there with clarity; it’s now time for her to find what’s behind the music. Wendy Whelan showed us that tense and mysterious world in the ‘Concerto’, but unlike Stafford, the black and white ballets are her métier. Teresa Reichlen gave a taut performance in ‘Five Pieces’ with Ask LaCour making his debut as her partner. Maria Kowroski was expansive in the ‘Ricercata’, but still the performance of the ballet as a whole didn’t have much electricity. That could have been the audience as much as the performers; to this day it sits there baffled by the music.

The real tribute to Kirstein comes next season, and not in the new “Romeo and Juliet,” but in the opening of the season featuring ten Balanchine works over six performances, and continuing with the Greek trilogy of “Apollo,” “Orpheus” and “Agon” as well as other Balanchine masterpieces. Stay tuned.

Volume 5, No. 5
January 29, 2007

copyright ©2007 Leigh Witchel

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