The Interminable Centenary, A Jumble of Highs and Lows

The Balanchine centenary celebrations at City Ballet lurch on-we’re now one-third of the way through a second season of hoopla. There’s been so much spin and so much P.R. that it’s hard to remember just what it is we’re celebrating. In these first few weeks we’ve had French Tribute night, German Tribute night, Austrian Tribute night, British Tribute night, Italian Tribute night combined with Hugo Fiorato Tribute night. Welcome Home 200-plus Alumni Dancers night, and the Spring Gala (Sarah Jessica Parker in three cute outfits; Susan Stroman, fresh from the hackwork of Double Feature , explaining to us just how great Balanchine was), plus some guest dancers and one new ballet (Christopher Wheeldon). But once you’ve blown out the party candles, what do you have? More of the recent unpredictable, uneven level of performance that was unthinkable during the 35 years when Balanchine commanded the company. Of course there were arid stretches in City Ballet’s early history: silly ballets quickly forgotten; off nights; less than exciting principals; less than strong corps. But the bad moments were clearly aberrational; you always knew you were safe, in the best possible hands ballet had to offer.

Today it’s not only hit or miss, it’s sink or swim. There’s no knowing when delight or disaster will strike. Within two days in early May, we went from sublime performances of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer to the shipwreck-or was it the train wreck?-of another of his greatest works, Divertimento No. 15 . How can this be, in one of the leading ballet companies of the world?

Liebeslieder , created in 1960, was once unpopular-an hour of four couples’ waltzing to Brahms song cycles was too much for City Center audiences of the early 60’s, who would frequently walk out in droves during the brief pause when the ballerinas are offstage, changing from low-heeled slippers and ballroom dress into toe shoes and some of Karinska’s most glorious tutus. The ballet was out of the repertory for long stretches of time-partly due to the cost of hiring four first-rate singers, partly because of casting problems, partly for box-office reasons.

Today, the audience has caught up with it-and with the critics, who from the start and almost unanimously have adored this piece. Now people sit enraptured by what seems an almost sacral experience as the four couples reveal to us everything Balanchine knew about waltzing, about partners, about love. This year, the dancers seemed to grasp on some deep level what an important event they were part of: Despite varying degrees of ability, they came together as an inspired whole, rising above their individual selves to give us the thing itself. Balanchine once said that the first part of Liebeslieder was about men and women, the second part about their souls. As these eight souls bare themselves to the thrilling rush of Brahms’ music, you sense that we may all have a beauty threshold built into us in the same way we have a pain threshold- Liebeslieder becomes almost too moving to watch. As one cynical old hand, tears in his eyes, said to me as we left the theater, “Dancing like this reminds you that there once was a New York City Ballet.”

And then Divertimento . Why describe the sad inadequacy-the betrayal-of this wonderful piece? It was made in 1956 on five superb ballerinas. Today, it lacks even one; the strict classicism that underlies its melting charm is no longer the province of most City Ballet dancers. Of the five women on display, only young Ashley Bouder had what it takes-attack, musicality, security, a big jump, a joy in movement. Her dancing is up and out and full, not miniaturized or prettified like that of so many of the girls in the company, however pleasing they may otherwise be. But it’s not just lack of technique that undermines Divertimento -it’s that the dancers don’t seem to know what they’re dancing, or how they should be dancing it. Liebeslieder has the advantage of being overseen by Karin von Aroldingen, who appeared in it for many years and who stages it frequently around the world. Is anyone at all in charge of Divertimento No. 15 ?

On the plus side of the ledger was Episodes , that quirky modern masterpiece which even 45 years after its premiere seems to be taking things just about as far as they can go. I do miss the solo Balanchine made for Paul Taylor, and which was once temporarily restored to the ballet-surely there’s someone in the company who could handle it, and surely Taylor would be willing to teach it. But this season’s performances were far superior to what was on view a few years ago, when you couldn’t keep your eyes on the principals.

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet , however, is a disappointment. The first movement, with Miranda Weese at her full-out best, would be fine with a more appealing dancer than Ellen Bar as the second girl. The second movement resists the kittenish and underpowered Jenifer Ringer, and didn’t fare much better with the provincial Noelani Pantastico, imported for the occasion from Pacific Northwest Ballet. Yvonne Borree is trying harder this season-she was actually effective on Gala night in Duo Concertant -but she’s under-equipped for the third movement of Brahms-Schoenberg . And Wendy Whelan, who was superb in both Liebeslieder and Episodes , is simply miscast in the Gypsy finale. Whelan has so many virtues it seems ungrateful to criticize her, but there’s no point asking her to demonstrate abandon onstage-her prodigious success comes from unremitting, intelligent application, not from letting loose. She’s equally out of character in the throw-caution-to-the-winds Walpurgisnacht Ballet . Both these roles were created on Suzanne Farrell, and Whelan is an anti-Farrell.

Maria Kowroski, who does resemble Farrell, is finally coming into her own-I hope. In the Gala, she did the second movement of Concerto Barocco , and was ravishing in those great cross-stage lifts with which Farrell (and LeClercq and Kent and Kistler) used to thrill us. She is finally taking responsibility for the stage, and for the ballets entrusted to her in recognition of her natural beauty and talent. Kowroski has been a question mark too long-at last she’s beginning to give us some answers. She was again Farrell-like and appealing in the Wrens section of Union Jack , though she could afford to broaden her accents and vamp the audience more directly. The second half of Union Jack isn’t about subtle or tasteful-it’s a gleeful romp. The whole ballet was very efficiently mounted, the endlessly marching regiments of the first section both grave and stirring. Whelan was a knockout in the “MacDonald of Sleat” solo, and Alexandra Ansanelli’s cuteness worked for her in the “Green Montgomerie.” (It didn’t in Divertimento .) What I missed most was the sly cockiness of Peter Martins as a Royal Tar, but his son, Nilas, was an effective Pearly King to Ringer’s over-winky Queen.

At the moment, the Robbins repertory may be in more trouble than the Balanchine. Most serious was the misfortune of The Four Seasons . This underrated ballet received a unique performance: For the first time in its history, it was at its strongest in its notoriously weakest section, “Summer,” which usually comes across as languorous filler. As performed by Carla Körbes (everybody’s favorite-except the management’s), it was riveting-she made you believe something interesting was actually taking place. (Körbes may be a little weak, she may be a pound or two heavy, but what an expressive dancer she is! To watch her as one of the three girls backing up Ringer in Brahms-Schoenberg is as frustrating as it is depressing.)

Meanwhile, Ringer was wasting the great opportunities of “Spring,” the brilliant role with which Robbins made Kyra Nichols a star. Above all, this movement is about phrasing, and phrasing is what Ringer so flagrantly lacks. Can there be a good reason why the keepers of the Robbins flame don’t press Nichols to coach her? She’s right there, guys, still the greatest dancer in the company. Surely she would do her best to help: She owes a great deal to this role (and to Robbins). Is someone’s pride at stake? Or is it catching, the company’s resistance to coaching by original artists?

As for the slam-bang “Fall” movement, it was so limply under-danced by Benjamin Millepied that the whole thing vanished away without a trace. Weese tried hard, but this section needs two showboats who are every bit as (deliberately) vulgar as the choreography itself. Where is Damian Woetzel when we need him?

He’s in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering , that’s where he is-in the Edward Villella boy-in-brown role, and far from vulgar. In fact, he’s more lyrical in the part than the earthy, explosive Villella was. It works well, up until the macho-competition passage that was at its most outrageous when camped up by big Martins and small Baryshnikov. Woetzel and Jock Soto brought nothing to it, possibly because Soto, at his best in Liebeslieder , just can’t handle Robbins’ virtuoso demands any longer. There were felicities to this performance, though: Bouder as the girl in yellow was a sensation; Rachel Rutherford’s quiet lyricism was appealing; and strong, daring Sofiane Sylve will be effective as the girl in green if someone lets her know what the role is about. Ringer is at her best as the girl in purple. And then there is Kyra Nichols, magnificent as always in the Patricia McBride role, yet nothing remotely like her in approach, style or temperament. She reminds you that you don’t have to imitate a great predecessor to do justice to a role, you merely have to be great yourself.

The two guest artists who performed Ballo della Regina didn’t try to imitate their predecessors, but Merrill Ashley-on whom the ballerina role was created, and who owns the ballet-was on hand to show them what it was all about. Lorna Feijóo, one of two sisters superbly trained in their native Cuba, is with the Boston Ballet (her sister is in San Francisco). She has everything Ballo needs, beginning with speed and strength-like Ashley herself, she’s not only on top of its fiendishly difficult demands, she’s ahead of them. As a first-rate dancer with romantic looks and appeal on top of a steely classical technique, she’s what the company needs most. No-it needs her partner even more. The Spanish Gonzalo Garcia, now dancing in San Francisco, was a revelation. Big, handsome, at ease, grand in manner yet buoyant-he’s the potential danseur noble City Ballet lacks at this moment. Do something, somebody!

Finally, there was the new Wheeldon ballet, Shambards . (“Sham Bards,” to you.) It’s set to a new score by the Scottish James MacMillan, it has Scottish folk-dance themes and gestures, and it’s as intelligent and carefully worked as everything Wheeldon does-filled with intricate patterns and designs and original partnering devices. It takes advantage of Carla Körbes’ pliancy and intensity, it gives Miranda Weese some wonderfully romantic lifts and falls, it shows off the virtuosity of Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, of Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. But to me it seems like a choreographer solving problems rather than a ballet with an organic impulse behind it. One of these problems is the music-dense without being communicative. Everything that follows from it is glum and heavy. I’m afraid Shambards isn’t a keeper.