Checking in With City Ballet

starsandstripes bouderveyette Checking in With City Ballet A few months ago, I allowed myself to dream that after City Ballet’s dreary season of full-evening ballets last winter, followed by its drearier season of seven premieres and one architect, it might concentrate for a moment on rehearsing and coaching its core repertory. And that has actually happened. (I take no credit–they’ve just temporarily run out of scheduling gimmicks.)

In the current four-week fall season–a welcome new marketing strategy–the corps has been put through its paces and is actually looking alive. Example: In the third “campaign” of Stars and Stripes–those 13 lads in uniform–everything was sharp, smart, energized; not only their leader, Daniel Ulbricht, but right through the ranks. The two girl regiments were also brisk and snappy. Let’s salute them. And the 16-strong corps of Stravinsky Violin Concerto looked as if it was having a good time, not just keeping up.

But rehearsal isn’t always enough. The eight girls in Concerto Barocco, cast from strength, were accurate and pleasing, but they don’t seem to know what the ballet is. There’s no sense of its greatness, its significance. Corps girls used to be thrilled to be in Barocco–it was an honor. Today, it’s just another assignment; the exaltation is gone. But then who is there to inspire them? Abi Stafford, the first violin, has improved steadily–at first she was nothing but an accomplished technician, implacably dull. Gradually, she’s softened, grown more responsive to the music, but she’s still without the amplitude, the daring of a true Balanchine ballerina. And the crucial second-violin role has been abandoned to the rigid and glum Ellen Bar. At least a few of the corps girls–Lauren King, say, or Ashley Laracey, or Alina Dronova–would have been a substantial improvement.

And for that matter, why not put the company’s stars in the leading roles? They were good enough for Tallchief and LeClercq and Kent and Adams and McBride and Farrell. Today’s Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin and Jennie Somogyi and Janie Taylor and Tiler Peck and Ashley Bouder are clearly too busy reprising the junky new pieces held over from last season to participate in old-hat masterpieces like Concerto Barocco.

 

CASTING, INDEED, REMAINS a problem. Teresa Reichlen, a formidable but cool dancer, has nothing to do with the ripe, heated atmosphere of the “Summer” section of Robbins’ The Four Seasons. Erica Pereira is tiny and cute, but that’s hardly enough for the first Stars campaign; she was way out of her depth, leaving a hole at the very start of the ballet. And the sober Tyler Angle as the male lead in Ratmansky’s Namouna was not a happy substitute for the injured Robert Fairchild. (Too bad. Namouna was the only one of last season’s premieres worth presenting again. As for the rest, the company had no choice: They can’t spend all that money on new works and then drop them after one season.)

But let’s look at the bright side. Sara Mearns is beginning to conquer the “Spring” section of The Four Seasons: A few hours of coaching from Kyra Nichols, the great original, would do the trick. Andrew Veyette is coming into his own–he’s filled out physically and he seems to be working hard on polishing his technique. He’s also stretching to the showboat roles–“Fall” in The Four Seasons, and, even more demanding, “El Capitan” in Stars, in which he held up his end of things opposite the single best performance I’ve seen this season: Ashley Bouder as “Liberty Bell.” She has absolutely everything this killer role demands. She’s rocklike in her technique; she’s brassy; she’s funny; she’s both a powerhouse and an artist. She’s the closest I’ve ever seen to the original, Melissa Hayden, that relentless blast of self-confidence and hijinks.

We were given a peculiar program of three violin concertos–Balanchine’s Stravinsky, Peter Martins’ Barber and Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer (Prokofiev). Stravinsky is, of course, a masterpiece. Barber is a showy audience pleaser, but was more effective in its youth when the “modern” couple was danced by “modern” dancers–Paul Taylor’s wonderful Kate Johnson and David Parsons. Megan Fairchild can scurry, but she’s more of a gnat than a happy distraction. As for Opus 19, it’s as amorphous and pretentious as it was 30 years ago. Gonzalo Garcia and Janie Taylor did their best to wake it up, but they were hardly likely to succeed where Baryshnikov and McBride couldn’t.

A modest disappointment: the return to the repertory of Peter Martins’ The Magic Flute. He made it in 1981 for the School of American Ballet’s annual workshop, featuring the 16-year-old Darci Kistler. And then it was brought into the company for two years before disappearing. Martins tells the story smartly, but today the whole thing just looks too generic, the least interesting by far of all those villagey comic romances of which the greatest are Coppélia and Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée and Balanchine’s Harlequinade (whose mediocre composer, Riccardo Drigo, also wrote this Magic Flute–no connection to Mozart). Tiler Peck danced charmingly, but she has nothing original to do, and Joaquin De Luz isn’t really tall enough for her. Best in show was Adam Hendrikson in a brilliant, imaginative comic turn as The Marquis, but no one should be asked to fall on his butt that many times. T’ain’t funny.

Don’t think, though, that the company’s frantic efforts to attract a new audience have come to a halt just because the programming is returning to normal and attention has been paid to the repertory. The dancers have been photographed in today’s underwear-ad style, and are quoted endorsing ballets in which they appear. A series of dialogues about the music is meant to educate and amuse. The one I witnessed, between Martins and the company’s music director, Fayçal Karoui, was about Lalo’s amusing score for Namouna. Karoui is a card–all adorable, with Gallic gestures and winks and nods. Martins in his Danish way can be adorable, too. The whole thing was mortifying. As a friend remarked, all that’s left to try is handing out lollipops.

At the Guggenheim Museum, the “Works & Process” project brought us the Wheeldon-less Morphoses group, now being run by Lourdes Lopez, onetime Balanchine ballerina and ex-administrator of the Balanchine Foundation. Just like last year, a group of dancers–including ABT stalwarts Kristi Boone, Misty Copeland, Isaac Stapas and Blaine Hoven–performed in new pieces by two choreographers working with the same music. This year’s composer was the renowned David Lang. Jessica Lang (no relation), a Tharp alumna, has a strong intelligence, an analytical mind and an impressive sense of how to move dancers in natural yet seemingly inevitable ways. The Swedish Pontus Lidberg is fluent, more emotional than cerebral, his dancers more engaged with each other than with dealing head-on with the difficulties of the music.

This two-pronged response to a single challenging score was a highly stimulating experiment–let’s hope it has a sequel.

rgottlieb@observer.com