Enchanting Balanchine; Empty Feld; Phony Forsythe

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of George Balanchine’s greatest creations—and one of the greatest of all story ballets. Shakespeare gave us the enchanting play, Mendelssohn gave us the ravishing music, and Balanchine embodied them in movement so lucidly and fluently—so perfectly—that it’s hard to believe this wasn’t a collaboration, rather than the work of three geniuses plying their trades at 200-year intervals, give or take a few decades.

Because it’s a big spectacle with a huge cast, Dream can’t just be thrown on the stage, the way so many of the company’s works are today: It gets rehearsed. Which may be why it looks so good year in, year out—the company rises to the occasion because it’s been helped to do so.

Dream has also been lucky in its casting. With the possible exception of Baryshnikov during the short time he was in the company, no one has met the challenges of Oberon as brilliantly as Edward Villella, the original, but there have been many effective Fairy Kings, including one of the latest, Joaquin De Luz, who has style, brio and a grasp of the character. Titania also has had many superb interpreters. Balanchine’s filmed version preserves Suzanne Farrell’s great performance (as well as Villella’s Oberon and the Puck of Arthur Mitchell), and Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, both magnificent in their day, can still be seen in the role, though I wouldn’t advise seeing them: This is no longer their day. The loveliest Titania in recent years has been Maria Kowroski, not the strongest of dancers but one of the most striking, with the tall, willowy grace Titania requires.

Now Titania has been entrusted to Peter Martins’ latest discovery, Sara Mearns, whom he plucked out of the corps last season to dance Odette-Odile in his Swan Lake. She’s a self-confident and appealing performer, but not really the Titania type—she’s not particularly tall and thin (she reminds me a little of Lynn Seymour), and at this early point in her career she’s more of an adagio than an allegro dancer. (That’s why her Odette was markedly superior to her Odile.) Mearns’ Titania was lovable and charming in the wonderful duet with the luckless Bottom, who’s more interested in nibbling grass than in the infatuated Fairy Queen, and her beautiful lifts reveal an eloquently pliant back. But she doesn’t as yet have the haughty majesty to match Oberon’s.

Mearns is part of the Class of ’06—the nine corps members promoted to soloist last season. Several of the others also made excellent impressions in the Dream cast I saw: Rebecca Krohn, beautiful and intense as Helena; Sterling Hyltin, dancing strongly and cleanly as a somewhat taller than usual Butterfly. In fact, all of Act I—the plot act—was strong.

And then came the Act II divertissement, one of the most delicate, subtle and musical pas de deux in all of Balanchine. At this performance, it was entrusted to the company’s two most dismayingly inadequate principals, Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins, she with her touching little attempts at phrasing (in a role that’s all phrasing), he with his touching little jump and his thick glumness—or do I mean glum thickness? Was this yawn of a performance supposed to be the great Dream pas de deux? Where were the truth-in-advertising police?

WE’RE AT THE START OF CITY BALLET’S Diamond Projects: seven new works by a crowd of choreographers, some connected to the company, some not. Mysteriously, to lead off we had an all–Eliot Feld evening—that’s right, the Eliot Feld who performed the Little Prince in Balanchine’s Nutcracker back in 1954; who began a highly promising career as a choreographer 40 years ago; and who had no real history with the company until the American Music Festival in 1988, when he made The Unanswered Question to Ives. (Note: “The Unanswered Question” is also the name of the most famous section of Balanchine’s Ivesiana. In fact, Feld is constantly sidling up to Balanchine. We can see in this single program how his Intermezzo No. 1, to Brahms, created 37 years ago, is a reductive response to Balanchine’s sublime Liebeslieder Walzer, while the big solo for the boy in white in Feld’s Ives ballet looks like an audition for Apollo.)

For this year’s Diamond Project, Feld came up with two solos of numbing insignificance. A very young dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, not yet in the company, noodled around in Étoile Polaire—tall, beautiful, pointless (think moving wallpaper): minimalist movement to minimalist music (Philip Glass). All you need to know is that it opened and closed with Gilliland in silhouette against a yellow sci-fi sky, and that occasionally there was the sound of a heavenly choir. As for Ugha Bugha—to John Cage—it featured Wu-Kang Chen, a spry young man with canisters attached to his legs and body, leaping and clanking around the stage like a Mexican jumping bean on crank. He isn’t a City Ballet dancer—he’s imported from Feld’s Ballet Tech—and he’s O.K., but what are he, and Ugha Bugha, for that matter, doing on the stage of the State Theater?

Two other Feld pieces, both made two years ago for his own company, were thrown in: Backchat, which has three guys clambering up and down a wall, mainly showing us their backs (hence the title), and A Stair Dance—get the pun? No wall this time, just endless scurrying up and down … stairs, and Steve Reich in place of Glass.

These, plus the revival of the prop-laden The Unanswered Question (the high point of which is a very beautiful passage for Kowroski) and the City Ballet premiere of Intermezzo No. 1, constituted the evening. Intermezzo is a much-admired romantic work for three couples (Megan Fairchild was outstanding), but not much admired by me: Feld doesn’t go in for development, so although the piece isn’t all that long, it seems long. The overall effect is pretty and anodyne.

No one understands why Feld’s considerable promise has faded rather than flourished over the decades. But the real unanswered question is why City Ballet chose to put on a Feld retrospective at this time—or at any time. Is the purpose of the Diamond Project to resurrect old work by second-level choreographers? Does Peter Martins really believe this strongly in Feld’s talent? (Hard to imagine, since the company’s only other Feld ballet was the unbearably pretentious Organon of 2001, a major disaster.)

The all-Feld evening went on and on, almost three hours of it—you could see the audience wilt. But one person at least was having a wonderful time: Eliot Feld, in the front row of the first ring, was gleefully applauding each of his works as the curtain came down.

OVER AT B.A.M., THE LATEST WAVE inundated us with a big piece by William Forsythe, that American choreographer who went over to the Dark Side (Europe) and became King Koncept. It’s called Kammer/KammerRoom/Room—and it’s a prime example of what’s known as “dance theater.” Which means it doesn’t depend on steps but on theories and effects.

When you enter the theater, the performers are warming up with studious—and unconvincing—casualness. There are two main narrators. One is a young gay guy (Antony Rizzi) telling us about his unsatisfactory love affair with an older rock star; the other is an older gay woman (Dana Caspersen) pretending to be Catherine Deneuve while telling us about her frustrated passion for one of her female students. For all I know, Rizzi and Caspersen are gifted dancers, but they’re terrible actors—shtick, shtick, shtick all the way. There are video monitors all over the place diffusing your attention, plus large panels blocking most of the dancing. Who knows how good the company is—most of what they do is hidden, so that we get only glimpses of small groups tussling and rutting on big, obscured-from-view mattresses.

Here’s how it’s explained in the program notes: “The technological spectacularity is countered by the ultra-low tech materiality of bare mattresses upon which dancing bodies confront one another in swift and complex kinetic disfigurations. The radical multiplicity of dislocated space and movement in Kammer/Kammer nonetheless attains a powerful coherence in the minds of the spectators.” Not this spectator: I was out of there at the intermission.