A Hard Look at City Ballet’s Season

sleeping beauty A Hard Look at City Ballets Season Several months ago, I received a letter from a New Jersey couple who were distressed over the schedule for City Ballet’s current season. (“I reviewed it with disbelief and shock.”) Out of the 56 upcoming performances, they specify, 37 are of five full-evening ballets. “What’s going on? Why this concentration on such a narrow range, and such a dominance of Martins choreography? Fourteen Sleeping Beauty performances? … I can only hope that 2010 isn’t a model for future seasons.”

On that last score, at least, they can rest easy: The company has announced that next season will feature seven premieres, four retirement galas (Yvonne Borree, Philip Neal, Albert Evans and Darci Kistler), and not a single full-evening ballet! The big question is, which will prove the better deal, feast or famine?

Amid all this season’s Swans and Beauties and Juliets there have been two premieres—Peter Martins’ endless and tedious Naïve and Sentimental Music (already reported on here, and not on the schedule for next season), and a true peculiarity, The Lady with the Little Dog, by a young Russian choreographer named Alexey Miroshnichenko, who we hear has done some good work for the company’s Choreographic Institute. Here is a ballet about which absolutely nothing is right, except the highly exposed, beautiful bodies of its two principals, Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette.

To begin with, the idea of making a ballet based on Chekhov’s deeply subtle and moving story is demented, even though the astounding Maya Plisetskaya already did it during the Soviet era. (She’s never been accused of good taste.) Did no one at City Ballet actually read this masterpiece before commissioning a ballet based on it? The score, by Plisetskaya’s husband, Rodion Shchedrin, is dull to the max. The dance vocabulary is 100 percent unoriginal—you can always spot a choreographer in trouble when he pours on the sexy lifts.

And then there’s the story. After some adorabilità involving eight guys in gray unitards, who are listed as “Angels” but cavort around like puppies, “Anna Sergeevna” and “Dmitri Dmitrievitch,” married though not to each other, appear in late 19th-century beach resort garb, along with her little dog. (It’s an inside job: The doggy belongs to Hyltin.) The couple meet, connect, and the next thing you know, the Angel-pups reappear and strip them down to their flesh-colored undies so that they can adulterate. (Yes, I know that’s incorrect usage, but you get the point.) Which is where the sexy lifts come in. And then—in what has to be a ballet first—poor Dmitri has to put his shirt back on, button it, climb into his pants, buckle his belt and zip up. And then he gets to zip up the back of Anna’s dress. And then the Angel-pups strip the lovers a second time, before they exit upstage hand in hand into a blazing light. For this Petipa and Balanchine (and Chekhov) lived and died?

 

The season—like all City Ballet seasons—has been a roller-coaster ride.

The lows, apart from the two new ballets, included Martins’ Romeo and Juliet, which is light on passion and pallid in atmosphere. I was eager to see the lovely young Kathryn Morgan’s Juliet, and her exquisite lyricism was the high point of the evening. Her Romeo, the usually satisfying Robert Fairchild, seemed clumsy beside her, but then Martins’ conception of Romeo is clumsy. The two of them seemed more like affectionate kids than burning, tragic lovers.

As for the rest of the cast, the nurse just can’t be played by a cute youngster doing shtick—Georgina Pazcoguin is simply miscast. But then City Ballet, unlike companies like the Royal Danes and Britain’s Royal Ballet, doesn’t have a tradition of using its mature dancers in character roles. (That’s why we get 20-year-olds as the grandparents in The Nutcracker.) In this Romeo, though, we do get the definitely mature Darci Kistler and Jock Soto as the Capulets, and their coeval, Albert Evans, as the Prince. In fact, we get a lot too much of them. Joaquin De Luz was a virile and properly threatening Tybalt.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Balanchine’s great story ballet, was uninspired. Who Cares? was humdrum except for a ravishing Tiler Peck in the sublime Patricia McBride solo, “The Man I Love.” Peck is the company’s most musical dancer; her wit, intelligence and charm add up to glorious phrasing. Whereas Ana Sophia Scheller, for all her polished technique, shows no expressivity. She gives you the steps accurately and smoothly, but she doesn’t give you the dance; her “My One and Only” is efficient, but hardly Gershwinian. Sterling Hyltin’s praiseworthy “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” would be more effective if she reined in her long, blond ponytail—it distracts from her dancing.

And then there was a misbegotten revival of one of Balanchine’s less-than-major works, Cortège Hongrois, which he manufactured in 1973 as a farewell gift to Melissa Hayden. It has two contrasting groups of dancers—classical and folk—and it employs the wonderful music Glazounov wrote for Raymonda. (Balanchine had used this music twice before.) This season the Czardas couple—Rebecca Krohn and Sean Suozzi—were terrific, tearing up the stage and giving their all, as they both always do. Unfortunately, the classical couple was subpar: Maria Kowroski is gorgeous, and in the right roles (Titania, “Diamonds,” Slaughter on Tenth Avenue) she can be stunning, but she doesn’t have the strength, the command, the dance authority for this kind of role, and she clearly knows it. As a result, she appears tentative—a fatal quality here. Far worse, however, was the classical corps, obviously under-rehearsed if rehearsed at all. These girls are the responsibility of the principal ballet mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy. Where was she?

I can guess: working with them on the revival of Peter Martins’ The Sleeping Beauty. And it was worth it. The first performance, with a cast from heaven, was the most satisfying evening I’ve had at City Ballet in a decade. This is Martins’ finest work as a choreographer-stager. He’s loyal yet not slavish to the Petipa text; the story is clearly, sympathetically told; he’s trimmed it judiciously and added effectively to the divertissement. It’s a swift Beauty, but it doesn’t seem rushed—attention is paid. And this time around, someone has actually worked on the mime—maybe Martins himself; after all, coming from the Danish school, he must know it well.

Not a single one of the company’s seniors was on the stage, holding things back. Here were the best and the brightest, beginning with Ashley Bouder as Aurora. She has superb technique—it’s been evident since she first stepped on the stage 10 years ago—but she’s softened it, refined it, and found a lovely youthful approach to the part: lovingly attentive to her parents; excited by her birthday party and the four magnificent princes summoned for her inspection; and well up to the technical demands of the “Rose Adagio,” apart from an unsteady moment or two. Not only was she strong, but throughout—and particularly in her solos—she demonstrated subtle and delicious phrasing. And she rose to an appropriate maturity and regality in the climactic pas de deux. Her handsome Désiré, Andrew Veyette again, gave the most secure classical performance I’ve seen from him. And what a relief that in Sleeping Beauty, he didn’t have to strip.

Another of the company’s most talented young ballerinas, Sara Mearns, was a blooming Lilac Fairy—expressive as always, open, full; more feminine, perhaps less emphatic, than the usual Lilac. Tiler Peck again revealed her musical brilliance as the best Princess Florine I’ve seen in years—more than holding her own opposite Daniel Ulbricht’s flashing Bluebird. And then we had the treat of welcoming back Merrill Ashley, thrillingly malign as ever as her black rattlesnake of a Carabosse. She began with the company in 1967—yes, that’s 43 years ago.

There was no dead weight in this performance. The company looked revitalized. The theater’s new acoustics enhanced Fayçal Karoui’s vigorous conducting. Balanchine’s wonderful “Garland Dance,” wisely included by Martins, carried us right back to Petipa and 1890, and gave great joy. But then so did the entire performance.