A Fresh Breeze at Ailey; New Faces in Nutcracker

Forget that great tree at Rockefeller Center: We dance-lovers know it must be Christmas because Alvin Ailey’s at the City Center and The Nutcracker’s at the State. Year in, year out, they anchor New York’s end-of-year dance experience. This year, though, Ailey is hoping to confound our expectations (terrific dancers, unterrific repertoire) at least a little bit. They still, of course, carry out the almost-nightly ritual of Revelations, the audience applauding at the first notes of “I Been ’Buked” even before the curtain goes up. And they still promote the notion that Ailey himself produced not just that one anthemic hit, but an entire repertory of worthy pieces that are only waiting to be trotted out in revival for us to recognize the breadth of his talent.

But the windows are beginning to crack open. The company’s artistic director, Judith Jamison, once a great Ailey star, is exposing her wonderful dancers, and her loyal audience, to outsiders—in this case, Karole Armitage and Twyla Tharp. The results are mixed, but the concept is a healthy one. Dancers thrive on new challenges and rarely seem to mind—or even notice—whether what they’re being challenged with has merit.

Armitage’s Gamelan Gardens is a new piece, and like most Armitage pieces I’ve seen, it’s intelligently put together but lacking a strong personal voice; in fact, it suggests all too many other voices. It’s driven less by a personal vocabulary than by its powerful music, Lou Harrison’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan, but there’s too much music for what Armitage can bring to it, so the piece drags on beyond what its virtues can sustain. (There’s a big finale, you think it’s all over, and then it starts up again, with a kind of Dances at a Gathering portentous walkabout, with one dancer touching the floor significantly, etc.) The central pas de deux, danced by the attractive Courtney Brené Corbin and Glenn Allen Sims, was dutifully sinuous—and dull. In a way, Armitage makes sense for Ailey, because she too is based on a mix of modern-dance athleticism and ballet—go-for-broke gymnastics decorated by conscientiously pointed feet.

As for Tharp, she gave the company The Golden Section—the 15-minute climax to (and all that’s left of) her ambitious The Catherine Wheel from 1981. This is a whirlwind of Tharpian off-kilter flings and death-defying lifts, somewhat in the mode of In the Upper Room, and it’s a challenge to any group of dancers who risk it. The Aileys had the right idea and they tried hard, but you could see they were scared—and who can blame them? I saw both casts, and they both were tentative—which means they don’t look like Tharp. (No one’s ever called her tentative.) The piece was staged by the celebrated onetime Tharp dancer Shelley Washington—it’s a specialty of hers—and staged properly, but it’s clear that there hasn’t been enough rehearsal time to make either cast of 13 feel secure. And Tharp doesn’t come naturally to them, the way Armitage seems to. Still, it was a pleasure to see these brave and brilliant dancers giving their all in a work of such quality.

The season’s other new piece is by Uri Sands, an Ailey alumnus, and its title— Existence Without Form—isn’t promising. But the dance itself has form. It’s a group piece, interrupted by an entrancing duet for two of Ailey’s most exciting girls: the ravishing Alicia J. Graf, the company’s recent refugee from ballet, and the powerful, passionate Hope Boykin. Graf is tall and thin, Boykin short and compact, and they complement each other in their playful musicality. The music (by Christian Matjias) is called Na razie, bez Ciebie, which might give a clue to Sands’ intentions if we knew what it meant. Even so, a happy surprise.

Two revivals: Portrait of Billie (John Butler, 1959), in which poor Lady Day suffers all over again as she’s done in so many books, movies and plays, to say nothing of real life. It’s a period piece, worth a look at every decade or so. And Ailey’s 1979 Memoria: “In Memory—In Celebration” of “the wild spirit of my friend, Joyce Trisler.” (Trisler, who died the year it was made, was a dancer/choreographer who, like Ailey himself, was a pupil and follower of Lester Horton.) A spirit on her way to heaven (?) weaves solemnly through a group of sympathetic angels (?). She’s danced by Wendy White Sasser, who grows more impressive with every season. Eventually, she arrives Up There, and now she’s in bright red and everyone’s having a grand old time …. I guess this part is the “Celebration.” The whole effort is disorganized and messy, a sad example of Ailey’s loss of powers.

The old Ailey order is passing—only about a third of the dancers have been around for more than half a dozen years—and new waves of talented youngsters are surfacing from the school and the second company. Plus, of course, Alicia Graf. She’s never going to be echt Ailey, but she’s a special new star in the Ailey firmament.

AND NUTCRACKER? YOU MAY HAVE SEEN weak dancers in it, but you’ve never seen a bad overall performance—the music is so glorious, the mechanics so perfect, the mood (or, rather, moods) so affecting, the story so resonant. What City Ballet obsessives follow obsessively is the casting of new dancers in important roles: During these endless Tchaikovskian weeks, and usually at tot-dominated matinees, new Sugar Plums and Dewdrops occasionally turn up—this season, two of the first, one of the second. And since these are the young women the company is singling out, we watch them with all the attention of Cold War Kremlinologists.

The two new Sugar Plums are very unalike. Sterling Hyltin, newly a soloist, is flush with energy and daring—she goes all the way, and occasionally it’s too far: Her partner, the talented Andrew Veyette, had some rocky moments when she tore into things (and him). But she gave a radiant performance, sailing through the great duet with daring and elegance. And Veyette’s series of jetés around the stage in the coda were smooth and vibrant. These two are well on their way.

Hyltin’s Sugar Plum was exciting; Ana Sophia Scheller’s was lovely. Still in the corps, Scheller is small, delicate, serene—and a beautifully secure classicist. She was restrained in her first solo, but sweetly welcoming and attentive to the little Prince and Princess. In the duet (with Tyler Angle), she retained her technical aplomb while glowing with openness of spirit and generosity. She’s a less well-known quantity than Hyltin, and equally promising. Good things lie ahead for both these young women—and us.

Sara Mearns, who last year was on the fastest of fast tracks, is just all wrong for Dewdrop. She’s more a lyrical dancer than a dynamic one; given her increasing tendency to plumpness, she’s at a disadvantage in Karinska’s great costume, originally designed for the tall, super-thin, elegant Tanaquil LeClercq; and she has no jump—an essential Dewdrop characteristic. Another current Dewdrop, Megan Fairchild, is also jumpless. So if you’re going to Nutcracker this season, hope for the real thing in Dewdrops: Ashley Bouder.

There were exemplary performances of many subsidiary Nutcracker roles. Aaron Severini brought slight but highly musical changes of emphasis to the Soldier doll; Georgina Pazcoguin (in a debut) was appropriately exotic and sexy as Coffee, without wandering over the line into vampy camp; Sean Suozzi was manly and exciting as Candy Cane; Ashley Laracey (another debut) was a delectable Marzipan.

As Herr Dross-elmeier, Kyle Froman had authority and vigor, though he does much too much with his hands. In the same role, Adam Hendrickson was youthful and playful, but he committed a crime against the fabric of the ballet: Towards the end of the party scene, Drosselmeier has a moment with the grandmother, but instead of partnering her in a scrap of traditional 19th-century social dancing the way Froman does, Hendrickson stood next to her, twisting the night away and grinning. This isn’t innovative; it’s aberrational. Speak up and clamp down, ballet-masters and -mistresses; I know you’re there in the wings, watching.