That Rosy Glow in the East-Is It a New Day at City Ballet?

There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Every cloud has a silver lining. It’s always darkest before the dawn. Take your pick-all the old adages apply to the New York City Ballet in its current state of confusion. Let’s get the “darkest” over with, so we can move on toward the end of the tunnel.

On opening night of the winter season-Tuesday, Nov. 26, a day that will live in infamy-there was a gala program of three new ballets to music by Richard Rodgers. The first was Land of Nod , by Robert La Fosse. A stagehand (Marco) falls asleep and dreams about dancing with a ballerina (Natalie). There’s also Uh-Oh the Clown. The costumes were hideous, the story trite, the choreography shallow.

The second was a quick fix by Christopher Wheeldon to the “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel . It was called Carousel (A Dance) . Because Wheeldon is always professional, the piece made dance sense, but how long can you watch couples swirling around to the “Carousel Waltz”? He brought out a lyric quality in Alexandra Ansanelli, and he saw that Damian Woetzel’s somewhat rascally charm is right for Billy. But the happy ending is inexplicable-though it fits this stretch of music, it’s in conflict with the darkness of the original story. Imagine a Romeo and Juliet ballet that stopped after the Capulet ball. The “Carousel Waltz” belongs in Carousel .

Finally came Peter Martins’ Thou Swell . Let’s hope that this ballet may prove to be the nadir in City Ballet’s downward spiral. There have been worse pieces-let’s not forget Eliot Feld’s Organon , for one-but not more scary ones, since it represents the sensibility of the head of the company. Thou Swell had not one redeeming feature, except the view of Maria Kowroski’s legs peeking through her long skirt. The music was 16 songs by Rodgers and Hart, blatantly over-orchestrated by Paul Gemignani. All their wit and tenderness was gone-the music was poured over us like a thick soup. Of the two singers, Debbie Gravitte was the less offensive; I’m still trying to forget the sound of Jonathan Dokuchitz’s over-miked bleatings.

The whole musical approach was pure 90’s, so why go to the trouble of constructing a faux-30’s nightclub? It featured cocktail tables, white steps, and a huge tilted mirror over the center of the stage that gave you a miniaturized back view of whatever was happening down below. There were also side mirrors, even more distracting. As for the costumes, Julius Lumsden-“New York City Ballet Artist in Residence”-created the ugliest, most inappropriate gowns for dancing I’ve ever seen on a stage: Worst off was poor Yvonne Borree, trapped in an unmanageable black and red schmatte.

The choreography presents one fatuous duet after another, plus a few pro forma group efforts and a mind-stopping moment when Nilas Martins took over at the onstage piano, for no reason and to no effect-well, I suppose you can’t blame Papa for being proud of Sonny’s musical talent. (For the record: The younger Martins has been trying harder this season.) Through two viewings of the endless Thou Swell , I couldn’t discern a single interesting, let alone original, dance moment; it was pure vamp from start to finish. Meanwhile, the company goes on dancing the non-fail Rodgers/Balanchine Slaughter on 10th Avenue , once even on the same program with Thou Swell , to humiliating effect. And it’s even more devastating to compare the Martins piece with the Gershwin/ Balanchine Who Cares? Thou Swell , by the way, cost City Ballet more than a quarter of a million dollars.

After this disastrous opening night, Nutcracker came and went. I saw a stale performance late in the six-week run, featuring the debut of the imported Sofiane Sylve as Sugarplum. (She’s from France by way of the Het Nationale Ballet.) Sylve is an experienced and highly capable dancer-strong, vivid, self-assured-but she’s no Sugarplum: She’s all emphatic assertion. Later in the season in she came into her own, particularly as a knowing, brash Strip Tease Girl in Slaughter -a real Broadway Babe, she could step right into Chicago . Sylve also showed her stuff in Kammermusik No. 2 , paired in that juggernaut with Kowroski. At first, she seemed a touch behind the beat, not yet used to Balanchine’s demands for go, go, go in allegro work. But once she got started, there was energy and flair-a standout performance. Not quite at home but certainly respectable as the Dark Angel in Serenade , lively and confident in Western Symphony , she’s a gamble that’s paid off.

The two senior ladies of the company were in pointed contrast. Darci Kistler was working hard-at times, alas, pushing. She held up in Serenade , but in the Suzanne Farrell role in RobertSchumann’s”Davidsbündlertänze” she looked desperate, flailing around and flubbing the great solo. Even her hair is more golden these days than it ever was before. Kistler could still be effective if she’d only scale down her performances and accept her limitations.

Kyra Nichols, her senior, has grasped this fact of life, as she’s grasped everything throughout her glorious career. Now in her 29th year on stage, she’s back in some of her old roles. Not the gut-crunchers, but those that she can still carry with her aplomb, her command and, most important, her unerring musicality. Her performance in the adagio movement of Robbins’ In G Major is a telling example of how supreme dance intelligence can overcome a diminution of physical powers: From the first moment to the last, her concentration was deep, her understanding of the arc of this very long duet was total. In the less interesting first and last movements-the usual Robbins cutenesses, as the corps prance and jog on the beach-she seemed a visitor from another world, as indeed she was: It’s unlikely that anyone on stage except her partner, Philip Neal, had been born when she made her debut in 1974. Let’s hope they’ve learned something from her. (Her Mozartiana was another astounding example of her focused powers.)

The one dancer who has learned from her-and in so many ways resembles her-is Jennie Somogyi, who proved to be the light at the end of the tunnel, the dawn after the darkness and the silver lining to a lot of clouds. This season, the casting has acknowledged her unique qualities: We saw her in Symphony in Three Movements , Western Symphony (I wish they’d freshen up her costume), Serenade , Who Cares? . She’s the first dancer in years-since Nichols, in fact-to understand the first movement of Symphony in C ; she’s even cleaned up her beats. But she’s also moved triumphantly into the more romantic ballets, for which her intense musicality and her expansive movement are so suitable. In the Heather Watts role in Davidsbündlertänze , she gave a revelatory performance, deeply felt and thrillingly danced; the whole balance of the ballet changed. She was equally fine in the revival of Robbins’ Piano Pieces , a ballet that looked not much more than O.K. when it premiered in 1981, but that shines forth like a good deed in a bad world after the recent epidemic of disastrous new works. Ansanelli was particularly pleasing in her complicated solo, and Kowroski’s beauty and delicacy registered, but Somogyi-again in a Nichols role-was a miracle of strength and passion.

So City Ballet has at last found and recognized a true classical ballerina, one whose glamour is of the right kind-it lies in her dancing, not her mannerisms or her hair or her smile. It’s been years since there’s been such a phenomenon on the company’s stage. Wendy Whelan is an exemplary worker and a formidable dancer, but when she takes on the big classical roles, like the Second Movement of Symphony in C , she’s like a brilliant impersonator. (It would be instructive to see her and Somogyi switch roles in this ballet.) Whelan tries very hard in the current revival of Balanchine’s rather dull Ballade , a work to Fauré, all French style and perfume, which he made for Merrill Ashley during his long campaign to turn her into a romantic ballerina. Whelan approached it intelligently and did everything right, as she always does, but she was ultimately less effective than Jenifer Ringer, who is nowhere near as compelling a dancer, but whose softness and femininity suit Ballade better. Ringer, on the other hand, presided over a sadly lackluster Raymonda Variations .

Then there’s Kowroski, who has every kind of glamour, but doesn’t have the power to handle the biggest roles. And there’s Miranda Weese, back after a long absence; nothing has changed-she remains a strong, useful and unimaginative technician. Still, with Somogyi at last in place, Ansanelli finding her way, Janie Taylor rampaging impressively around the stage in her oddly joyless way-she even managed to introduce a touch of neurosis to Who Cares? -and Carla Körbes waiting in the wings, we can begin to breathe more easily. But not too easily. The dull, unmusical Abi Stafford gave the most dispirited performance of Square Dance within memory.

It was good to see that the two best works from last year’s ghastly Diamond Project-Wheeldon’s Morphoses and Albert Evans’ Haiku -looked stronger standing on their own than they did in that depressing atmosphere. This season, if you carefully picked your way through the minefield of all the Martins ballets-more than 10 of them!-and the Bigonzettis and the Taylor-Corbetts, and if you tracked the casting with an experienced eye, you could find happiness at the New York City Ballet. Let’s pray it’s not a false dawn. That Rosy Glow in the East-Is It a New Day at City Ballet?