The all-Balanchine opening night at City Ballet this season was a discouraging affair. To begin with, it was ridiculously short–less than an hour and three-quarters. And then it was ridiculously slight. And ridiculously programmed. A satisfactory ballet program is more than four ballets flung serially onto the stage.
Walpurgisnacht Ballet is one of Balanchine’s lesser efforts, created in 1980 as a late vehicle for Suzanne Farrell. She managed to make it thrilling–if you were going in for wild abandon à la Faust, Farrell was your girl. Wendy Whelan is not your girl. She has many virtues, but wild abandon is not one of them. As always, she works hard to meet Balanchine’s demands, but she’s stymied here by her temperament. Not even Farrell, though, could have expressed wild abandon opposite Charles Askegard. He remains a first-rate partner, and this is a role that needs first-rate partnering, but he’s grown so stiff and creaky that you feel sorry for him for actually having to move.
This minor piece was followed, after a short pause, by Mr. B’s lovely Duo Concertant, choreographed on Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo for the Stravinsky Festival of 1972. Up on the stage are the two principals and the “Duo” itself–the piano and the violin. The dancers listen, join in, go from joyous participation to haunting comings and going in the dark. Duo suited Martins’ grave playfulness (yes, I know that may sound contradictory) and Mazzo’s cameo beauty. Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild were more frisky than playful, and the whole thing didn’t add up. So ended the first half of the night’s proceedings.
After the intermission came another small-scale work, Valse-Fantaisie (principal couple and four girls)–charming, short, pleasingly danced by Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette and decidedly lightweight. Then at last a masterpiece, The Four Temperaments. It doesn’t usually work best as a closer, but here it was rain on parched earth.
The three “themes” were underwhelmingly danced; these are profound roles, but they hadn’t been thought through, as if no one involved thought they really mattered. Of the principals, only Jennie Somogyi danced with the essential Balanchine intensity and expressivity–her phrasing, the way she so easily reveals meaning with every step and gesture, are almost unique at City Ballet now-a throwback to the great days. Teresa Reichlen, that large, impressive creature with her faultless technique, reveals nothing, at least to me. Her “Choleric” is scary-looking, but it isn’t truly fierce. About Sébastian Marcovici’s “Melancholic,” we can gratefully say that he has recently slimmed down. As for Ask la Cour’s “Phlegmatic,” it’s only fair to acknowledge that he’s no more clueless than most of the other guys who’ve wrestled with it in recent years.
Four ballets up, four ballets down. Starvation diet, but an early night for the orchestra–and the commuters.
A later program was far more satisfactory–and then far more discouraging. The large satisfactions came from flawless performances of two of the very rare worthwhile new ballets of the past 10 years, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH.
The first, set to bracing piano music by Ligeti, is for four couples, and it drops in on Agon, Episodes and The Four T’s, in affectionate homage, not as pastiche or plagiarism. Here, ironically, Wheeldon is at his most original and unlabored–unstintingly inventive. And perfectly served by his dancers: Somogyi and Maria Kowroski, unsurprisingly, but also two of the most exciting of the new girls, Brittany Pollack and Lauren Lovette, who was hypnotizing in a long, slow solo. Polyphonia and Morphoses were Wheeldon’s breakthrough ballets. We’re still hoping that he’ll rise to that level of achievement again.
The Ratmansky, only a couple of years old, is beginning to look like a classic. It’s so cleverly constructed: the romantic lead couple (Whelan at her best with her excellent partner, Tyler Angle) in contrast to the bouncy trio of Bouder, Veyette and Joaquin de Luz. The central duet, to Shostakovich’s ravishingly melodious adagio movement, is ingenious as well as luminous. And best of all, perhaps, the endlessly various and beautiful material for the six demi-soloists who provide background (and sometimes foreground) for the leads. Ratmansky’s marked talent for group movement keeps drawing your eye from the duet–until Whelan and Angle pull you back.
So far, so good.
And then a dizzying descent. A work by Susan Stroman, billed as a world premiere and called For the Love of Duke (that’s Duke Ellington, plus Billy Strayhorn), turned out to be only half a world premiere. We first saw its second section a dozen years ago, under the title Blossom Got Kissed, a cute and harmless throwaway, memorable only because it was the ballet that showed us that Kowroski could be funny as well as gorgeous. But compared to the new section, called Frankie and Johnny… and Rose, it looks like The Sleeping Beauty. (The City Ballet program chooses not to indicate the original date of Blossom Got Kissed. Do they think we’ve all forgotten?)
In the long run it doesn’t matter that For the Love of Duke isn’t really a world premiere; what matters is that Frankie and Johnny is so drearily vapid and clichéd. The Dave Berger Jazz Orchestra is up on the stage. In front of it is a bench. There’s a guy with a wandering eye–Johnny. There’s a pair of silly rival girls jockeying for his favor–Frankie and Rose. As his attention drifts, he pushes first one, then the other off the bench, and they disappear behind it. (Hilarity.) Everything else is generic hoofing, except for those steps Stroman has snatched from Who Cares? Balanchine made a brilliant ballet out of show-business music. Stroman, without a clue about ballet choreography, has concepts instead of steps–I’m still reeling from her pretentious and empty hit Contact.
The hero, if that’s what he is, was danced by Amar Ramasar, an appealing dancer but by no means a strong enough presence to carry off this bit of nothing. The girls are Tiler Peck and Sarah Mearns, both terrific dancers who here define the word “wasted.” And speaking of waste, why waste more words on this fiasco? The best thing I can say about it is that it would have fit right in with the worst of the seven premieres of last year’s spring season. Susan Stroman has a billion Broadway hits behind her, and hats off! But please–let’s keep her away from the City Ballet stage.