A Turning Tide at City Ballet? Company Buoyed by Ballerinas

Ballet-at least, New York City Ballet-is woman; so George Balanchine pronounced, and so it has always been, despite the male stars on whom he made great roles and those first-rate dancers who have held down the male repertory in the 20 years since his death. But since it was Woman above all who inspired him, it has always been the health of the ballerina contingent that’s determined the health of the company.

Soon after the ascendancy of Peter Martins to ballet master in chief, the ballerinas of the previous generations began to fade away like a succession of Cheshire cats: Farrell and McBride, then Merrill Ashley, Nichol Hlinka, Heather Watts and-disastrously-Maria Calegari, the natural successor to the Farrell roles. Except in the case of Calegari, where misunderstanding and hurt feelings were involved, this was all in the natural order of things. Martins’ luck (and ours) began to run out when the newest girl in town, Darci Kistler, suffered a series of devastating injuries-she had been the hope of the future, and she’s remained a pivotal figure, but her immense promise was never fully realized. Only Kyra Nichols, an exception to every rule, serenely rode out Balanchine’s death, Martins’ aesthetic and the fact that, given her Olympian classicism, she more and more looked less and less at home in the company. Miraculously, she’s still with us.

To fill the gap, Martins rushed in Wendy Whelan and Margaret Tracey. Tracey proved to be a mistake, but Whelan has more than justified his belief in her: She’s not only strong, modest, reliable and hard-working, but she’s overcome or masked or compensated for her angularities of physique and style to become essential to the repertory. She was outstanding this season in such diverse works as the dramatic The Cage , the classical Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 , Christopher Wheeldon’s spiky new duet, Liturgy , and Ballade (she’s come far toward capturing its delicate romantic style, which eluded her last season).

The greatest piece of ill luck to befall City Ballet during the post-Balanchine period was the collapse of its hopes for Monique Meunier, an immense talent now to be seen soldiering on as a soloist for A.B.T., still displaying her amazing amplitude and musicality, still unsettled and unfulfilled. Peter Martins believed in Meunier-who didn’t?-but some malign fate interfered with what should have been a great career. No wonder Martins propelled Miranda Weese into the ranks of the principals. Weese had line, technique, work ethic; what she lacked was expressivity-watching her was like watching a dance clinic: step, step, step, all accurate, all sterile. And then there was the glamorous Maria Kowroski. We’ve been watching her now for eight years as she wavers between unfocused and glorious, at her best in anything with a story or with humor, her strength not up to the big classic Balanchine roles, ravishing as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

This was the top line-up only a few years ago, more holes than cheese. Last season the tide began to turn, and things looked even more promising these past nine weeks. Weese, having returned fairly recently from a serious injury, has profited by her enforced absence: In Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 , she’s begun to offer style as well as steps; in the McBride role in Who Cares? , she’s now often vivid, actually playing with the music. You feel she’s finally giving thought to what these ballets are about . As for Jennie Somogyi, with her fierce attack, rock-solid technique and developing romanticism, she’s dominating a large part of the repertory; she’s the first dancer in years, for instance, to conquer the daunting first movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet , which requires both relentless strength and emotional engagement. Her ascendancy takes the pressure off Whelan and releases Nichols from any temptation to step back into roles she can no longer easily handle.

During these weeks Alexandra Ansanelli, promoted mid-season to principal, asserted her right to what you could call the Patricia McBride repertory-not that McBride (or Ansanelli, for that matter) can be confined to a single niche. When Ansanelli scored a deserved success as Swanilda in Balanchine’s Coppélia -with poetic justice, replacing the decidedly replaceable Yvonne Borree-she revealed an irresistible combination of charm and precision. As for other McBride roles, she was not at ease in The Steadfast Tin Soldier , but she was effective in Tarantella and best of all as a passionate Helena in the first act of Midsummer . Yet she’s also compelling in dark modern pieces like Wheeldon’s Morphoses , and she’s girlishly appealing in his Carousel (A Dance) and in Jerome Robbins’ jaunty Piano Pieces . In all these roles, you can sense her dance intelligence at work just a little too clearly; she has to learn to appear less intelligent. But the audience has already taken to her. She’s assumed the place that pretty, soft Jenifer Ringer might have held if she danced large rather than small.

As for the strange case of Janie Taylor, one can only wonder who and what she is. She’s prodigiously equipped as a dancer, and not just with that remarkable leap, but she’s disjointed, almost out of control. For a while, she was doing the von Aroldingen role in Who Cares? -the jumpy, loose, carefree one-and looking morose. (It didn’t help that she was competing with her tempestuous blond ponytail.) Then, with Weese temporarily sidelined, she was transferred to the McBride role and flung herself around the stage in a frantic eruption of misplaced energy. (One outlandish fling almost put her and her partner in the hospital.) She was even more out of her depth in the third movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet -pallid, tentative, without a clue. When Taylor eventually finds herself in a role, she’s fine-as in the sly, parodic second movement of Western Symphony and as a wildcat of a Helena. Give her a part to play rather than a role to dance and she gets the idea and stops going off every which way. She’s not only a strange case, she’s an interesting one.

So the line-up now includes Nichols in her specialized roles, Whelan, Weese and Somogyi as power-hitters, Ansanelli and Taylor devouring large portions of the repertory. Darci Kistler still inhabits many important ballets, but she’s looking desperate, at times hard. It’s a particular mistake to feature her in Farrell roles, which above all require superlative musicianship. In Chaconne and Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze’ , Kistler has none of the largeness of imagination and breathtaking originality that Farrell’s musicality displayed at every moment. The Kistler Chaconne is purely ornamental-little mannerisms substituted for large-scale movement. And the frenzied lunge she makes at the Schumann is worse. Has no one shown her the 1978 video featuring Farrell and Martins? At least it would reveal Balanchine’s intentions to her. (I hate to think that she has seen it.)

There were some pleasant surprises from the female ranks throughout the season: the growing confidence and usefulness of soloist Rachel Rutherford; promising work from not-yet-soloists like Ashley Bouder, dynamic little Amanda Edge, hard-working Lindy Mandradjieff, pint-sized Megan Fairchild. And then there were the anomalies, starting with the big opportunities being given to soloist Abi Stafford- Square Dance , for one, on which she seems to hold an exclusive. Stafford can do steps, particularly allegro steps, but is there a stiffer and less musical dancer in the company? When she took over the von Aroldingen role in Who Cares? , I was mortified for von A., who was somewhere in the house watching this dreary reduction of Balanchine’s first gift to her. Von Aroldingen goes around the world staging Balanchine ballets for the Trust. Isn’t she allowed to coach at home the very roles Balanchine made on her?

Most anomalous was the treatment of Carla Körbes, who, by general consent among the observers I know, is the most promising of all the young girls. Martins used her in the revival of his attractive 1993 ballet Sinfonia , and the Robbins people used her in Ives, Songs and Interplay . On the whole, though, she was buried in the crowd-darting around in Mazurka drag in Coppélia while far less interesting dancers were awarded the Act III solos. Finally, at the last performance of the season, a Sunday matinee, Körbes was given a single shot at Titania, a role she had been loaned two years ago and lost (to casting rivalries? to injury?) a year later. She revealed what she consistently reveals: a lush style, a highly personal response to the music and to the moment, a unique expressivity-the qualities Farrell had in abundance. What Körbes didn’t reveal, though, was strength. How could she? Strength comes from challenge and overwork, not underuse. She may not meet the Peter Martins thinness test, she may be prone to injury, there may be other problems. But if we’re to be spared another Monique Meunier tragedy, something had better happen soon. You don’t grow into an important dancer on one major role a year.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest performance of the season for me came from Kyra Nichols. She is diminished in Chaconne , and she was never really abandoned enough for the Gypsy movement of Brahms-Schoenberg . Her problem in Farrell roles, though, isn’t lack of musicality, with which she’s resplendently endowed; it’s that her preternatural centeredness doesn’t lend itself to Farrell’s signature off-balance daring. But as the key woman in Davidsbündlertänze -the “Clara Schumann” role-she is supreme. I wasn’t the only one in tears by the end.

All in all, things are looking up at City Ballet. Despite the erosion of detail evident throughout the Balanchine repertory (due, needless to say, to lack of appropriate coaching), there are at last enough strong ballerinas in place so that a number of Mr. B’s ballets are looking better than they were. And that’s what City Ballet is all about, pace Martins’ often-stated dictum that the company mustn’t become a museum. City Ballet is a museum, the central Balanchine museum, as the Prado is for Goya. The small Robbins wing is well run by Robbins specialists, and presumably Martins and Wheeldon control their own work to their own satisfaction. But does the world really care? Without a healthy Balanchine repertory-which necessitates a group of outstanding female principals-City Ballet is just another ballet company; with its Balanchine in place, it’s a great and unique treasure house.