City Ballet’s Casting Crisis A Key to the Company’s Values

The biggest story at City Ballet this season wasn’t the Diamond Project-that was the saddest story; the biggest story was casting. An entire generation of dancers is fading or phasing out: Margaret Tracey into retirement (there’s a rumor that she mayteach;teach what?); Miranda Weese still out with a serious injury; Kyra Nichols only slowly coming back after an extended maternity leave; Yvonne Borree gone for the first weeks (but then why is she there in the first place?); Darci Kistler less and less like her former wonderful self. And halfway through the season, Heléne Alexopoulos followed Tracey into retirement-but with what a difference! Tracey long ago not only undermined her talent but betrayed it, while Alexopoulos is a textbook example of a dancer who understood her talent, never overextended herself, and made a singular contribution in the dramatic roles that were right for her. On her final night, she danced both an icy Siren in Prodigal Son , radiating antiseptic viciousness, and a ravishing “Gold and Silver” waltz in Vienna Waltzes . Alexopoulos, with the company 24 years, is one of its last dancers to have worked under Balanchine, who died in 1983. Seeing them vanish one by one is like watching Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians .

This is the season, then, that saw Jenifer Ringer, Jennie Somogyi, Alexandra Ansanelli and Janie Taylor graduated into responsibility, with varying results. Ringer remains a pleasing lyrical dancer with a pretty face and an endearing manner, but she’s suddenly being put forward as a major Balanchine classicist: In the last week of the season, she attempted the Midsummer Night’s Dream pas de deux, a role whose delicacy and tricky shifts of balance register properly only when they rest on unassailable strength. But Ringer, however charming, is underpowered, and this far into her career-13 years with the company already-she’s not likely to get much stronger. The problem manifested itself even more tellingly in Theme and Variations , a role that ruthlessly exposes technical weakness. Ringer just doesn’t have the requisite clarity and articulation, the easy unmannered command; she looked blurred, almost doughy. She’s not as overmatched in Raymonda Variations , but in the McBride role in Who Cares? (“The Man I Love,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”) she was pallid and nervous in her first performance, somewhat more vibrant in her second, but still light-years away from McBride’s playful assurance.

The company does have a brilliant Balanchine classicist in Somogyi. She’s admirable in the daunting First Movement of Symphony in C , except for underdeveloped beats in the supported lifts, and in Who Cares? (“Embraceable You,” “My One and Only”) she’s the one you can’t take your eyes off, she rips into the steps with such bold joy. A company’s values-and its capacity to nurture dancers-can usually be understood through its casting policies, so what does it mean that Somogyi wasn’t given Theme and Variations ? Do they dislike her can-do attitude? Her look? Do they think she can’t prosper in the big Tchaikovsky roles? Don’t they remember how Balanchine nursed Merrill Ashley from her brilliant allegro persona-by way of Emeralds -into Swan Lake and Diamonds ? At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Somogyi is being ghettoized.

Ansanelli is so hard-working, so hungry to dance, so intelligent that it’s easy to forgive her less-than-regal physique and her tendency to push too hard. She was vivid and convincing in the “Voices of Spring” section of Vienna Waltzes , she was quickly at home in the Stravinsky Violin Concerto after a shaky first performance, and she made a brave stab at the lead in Divertimento No. 15 , but she’s so modern and aggressive that it’s hard to imagine her exerting traditional ballerina authority. Yet consider how Wendy Whelan has extended herself these last years. Her latest triumph of will and hard work was the Dream pas de deux, where her problem has been the exact opposite of Ringer’s: She has the powerful technique that Ringer lacks, but it’s taken her years to find the lyricism, the poise, needed for this incomparably subtle choreography. What Whelan has taught herself is how to compensate for her essentially unclassical body and her jagged attack. It’s as if she’s imagined herself into being a Balanchine classicist; by her third Dream of the season, she was strikingly lovely, a word rarely used to describe her. And you can see the same transformation taking place as she gradually conquers Mozartiana . Whelan, like Ashley before her, has slowly earned her central place in the company; whatever her peculiarities, she’s become indispensable.

Young Janie Taylor is a talented enigma. She has buoyant energy and a huge jump, and she takes risks, but who is she? She’s being offered large chunks of the repertory, and she tears into roles, but she never looks as if she’s enjoying herself, so how can we enjoy her? So far she’s dancing behind a veil. And this is all too true of many City Ballet dancers these days: technical facility combined with a near-total lack of expressivity. (Miranda Weese blazed this trail.)

The major exception among the younger girls is Carla Körbes, still in the corps. Until she suffered a serious injury to her foot a few seasons back, she was on the fast track, but this season she was used only sporadically: extraordinarily beautiful and moving (as a last-minute substitute) in the Elegy from Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 ; full of feeling as Helena in Dream . A few seasons ago, with Kistler injured, she was successfully rushed into the role of Titania, but it was withheld from her this year-seniority rules. So how is an important talent like hers supposed to grow? Körbes is so ardently responsive to music that it’s hard to imagine Balanchine waiting so long to propel her into prominence. Think of Darci Kistler: Balanchine handed her Swan Lake and Symphony in C almost before she had set foot onstage. Peter Martins was recklessly (and rightly) swift with Maria Kowroski, but her career exposes another of the company’s problems: Except in a few roles, she hasn’t developed; she’s the same gorgeous question mark she was at the beginning. And now the single most talented girl of the past 20 years, Monique Meunier, is leaving City Ballet-where she’s been a hapless principal-to become a soloist at A.B.T. We’ll soon see whether her bewildering failure to emerge as a great dancer reflects her own problems or the company’s.

Matters are equally precarious with the men. Peter Boal is nearing the end of his distinguished career-still a paragon, stylish and elegant, but slightly diminished. Damian Woetzel, in his 17th year onstage, puts on his usual good show, but his virtuosity is beginning to fray: His Oberon was surprisingly lackluster. Jock Soto is a magnificent partner-he’s spent most of the past 21 years valiantly lugging Heather Watts, Kistler and Whelan around the stage-but he does not present a pretty picture: He and Whelan in the Dream pas de deux looked like a role-reversed Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat. Nilas Martins-Peter’s son-was out the entire season with a foot injury, thus sparing us another season of embarrassment. Nicolaj Hübbe flings himself generously into things, but he has no real direction or identifiable repertory; he seems marginalized. Tall, rangy Charles Askegard-newly married to Candace Bushnell-is an appealing oddball, hardly a danseur noble . In a wholesale promotion designed to shore up the male contingent, Benjamin Millepied, Sébastien Marcovici and James Fayette were all made principals; we shall see. No, A.B.T. is where the boysare-including,ofcourse,the great one who got away from City Ballet, Ethan Stiefel.

And then, in a late June Dream , everything came together. The Titania was Kowroski, and this is her quintessential role. Not only does it display her radiant beauty and her extraordinary expansiveness, it also confirms that she is happiest onstage when given something to “act.” With her lush, deep penchées, her beautifully shaped lifts, her easy swing from mood to mood, she inevitably reminds you of Suzanne Farrell without making you miss her. Kowroski, however, was third-cast in Dream . First-cast was Kistler, once so glorious in this role, now, alas, a touch matronly and creaky. But her husband is Peter Martins, and who can argue with that? We can, however, argue the claims of seniority and greatness: Kyra Nichols was second -cast (her calm majesty carried her through). Even so, Titania is now Ms. Kowroski’s role, and only nepotism plus a kind of civil-service mentality could have kept her waiting in the wings.

Kowroski’sOberon,Benjamin Millepied, is closer to the elegant Helgi Tomasson than to the explosive Edward Villella (on whom the role was made). Millepied’s beats-basic to Oberon’s vocabulary-are shallow and unexciting, but his manner is pleasing, and he and Kowroski certainly make a handsome young pair. Somogyi, the Hippolyta, had the audience roaring with excitement: Her fouettés-the step that defines this role-are thrilling in their impact, not just the usual boring trick. The young lovers, particularly Ringer, were appealing. Taylor was a whirlwind of a butterfly, if a little tall for the role. The dozens of children were superbly coached-dancing hard, cuteness kept to a minimum. Perhaps most important, the company’s impressive new music director, Andrea Quinn, who has been specializing in the modern repertory,conductedthegreatMen-delssohn score in a way that retained its dancy lightness and charm yet brought out its symphonic implications. The whole evening was as enchanted as Shakespeare’s”forestoutside Athens”-a blessed antidote to so much that had gone wrong earlier in the season.

More on City Ballet next week.