City Ballet is having a schizophrenic season. The opening black-and-white Balanchine week was a triumph, and the further rush of Balanchine in the following weeks has given us the most satisfying programming in many years. Equally, the overall level of performance compared to what we’ve been experiencing for 20 years has been dazzling: not only have the cobwebby old-timers been swept away, but the younger contingent has ripened, seemingly overnight. Out with the old, in with the new. Whatever and whoever is responsible, the audience is responding with more genuine enthusiasm than it has in a long time. And lifelong City Ballet lovers like myself can turn up at the theater without flinching at the prospect before us.
The downside is easy to identify: the non-Balanchine repertory. There are the Robbins contributions (though few of his best works are on view); there’s a little Wheeldon. Otherwise, it’s a desert littered with gimmicky “pop” ballets that Peter Martins has wasted the company’s money on in his desperate search for hits. (No wonder the deficit is so big.)
This season City Ballet is dishing up Martins’s own Thou Swell to Rodgers and Hart–a blasphemy. We’re heading for Susan Stroman’s disastrous For the Love of Duke–a pathetic hangover from last season. And now we have yet another Broadway connection: Patti LuPone, imported to give credibility to a new and tedious version of The Seven Deadly Sins created by the lackluster choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Balanchine collaborated on the original with Brecht and Weill in 1933, then made an entirely new version in 1958, with the “Anna” who dances choreographed for the very young Allegra Kent–it confirmed her stardom.
In both of those productions, the “Anna” who sings was Lotte Lenya, the essence and symbol of Weimar Berlin. LuPone came across as the essence and symbol of exhausted Broadway, more Mama Rose than Sister Anna. Weill’s music was uncongenial to her style (as well as poorly amped–you couldn’t make out half of what she was singing), and steered clear of the sordid aspects of the role (its only aspects); she was merely a middle-aged lady trudging across the stage with a suitcase. Sins was just another misfiring gimmick. The audience responded glumly: After the hype, the crash.
Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Envy? No. Taylor-Corbett’s sins were deadlier: Blandness, boredom, confusion, vacuity, dreariness, pointlessness, pretention. Wendy Whelan, twenty years in the company, was cast as the very young and innocent dancing Anna and given hardly anything to do but wander around passively, occasionally reaching up pathetically to the moon. The secondary dancers (including poor Sara Mearns and Craig Hall) should sue for the time they wasted participating in this futile and frustrating endeavor. The corps–City Ballet’s best and brightest–might as well have been invisible, the dance invention was so weak and derivative. The most effective performances came from two singers, Raymond Jarmillo McLeod as the mother and Andrew Stenson as the younger brother. The one real plus: If you’d seen Sins once, you could sit it out the next time and chat with your pals.
The Deadlies were paired with Vienna Waltzes, for the most part looking good again. In the opening section, Ellen Bar, in her final days with the company, gave the best performance I’ve ever seen her give–fluent and moving. Maria Kowroski was not only beautiful and elegant but commanding in the great Rosenkavalier finale. Only Ana Sophia Scheller in the “Explosion Polka” was miscast: jokey she isn’t. And no one can be blamed for the inevitable letdown of the “Gold and Silver Waltz,” one of Balanchine’s very few duds. Mr. Martins and Kay Mazzo could never pull it off, and certainly Jenifer Ringer and Ask la Cour can’t either, she muffled in costume, he awkward and gawky, the two of them barely connecting. But even Pavlova and Nijinsky couldn’t invigorate this empty exercise in schmaltz.