City Ballet’s Salute: 100 Years of Balanchine

I celebrated the centenary of George Balanchine’s birth on January 22 by staying at home and reading and thinking about him. The disparity between all the hoopla and the disastrous casting of Balanchine’s own muse-Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance-in the key ballet of his career, Apollo , was too much for my gorge. Even at home, it was rising.

Indeed, the chief astonishment of the first weeks of the centenary year has been the casting of Yvonne Borree as Terpsichore, as the lead girl in Concerto Barocco and as Columbine in Harlequinade . The first two roles are sacred in the Balanchine repertory, and when they’re reduced to zero, these great ballets are dangerously undermined. Borree was a talented girl when she came into the company in 1988, and she was given early opportunities. But instead of developing, she’s regressed-and is now being rewarded with bigger opportunities than ever. What is the policy here: to wait until it’s too late for a dancer to meet such crucial responsibilities and then expose her to them-and us to her?

It’s true that some of Peter Martins’ ballerinas are aging, and others are injured. But he’s been very successful recently in identifying and bringing along young talent, and there were choices he could have made that wouldn’t have subjected masterpieces to this level of inadequacy. It would be too cruel to anatomize Borree’s flaws, but to make the central duet of Apollo boring is a unique achievement-this is the first time in 50 years of watching this sublime passage that my eyes wandered away from it. To be fair to Borree, her second performance was somewhat more relaxed and convincing than her first, but even so, could we possibly believe that she was the Muse whom Apollo chose above Calliope and Polyhymnia-particularly when the Polyhymnia was Jennie Somogyi, who so clearly out-danced her? And the same discrepancy in ability was obvious to an even greater extent in Barocco , in which Somogyi, as the second girl who mirrors the first girl’s steps, was so superior that it was an embarrassment to watch them together. Balanchine himself would sometimes compromise the casting of his ballets for reasons of tact or loyalty, but Peter Martins is their custodian, not their creator-these are not his ballets to squander. He’s under the obligation to be more protective of Balanchine than Balanchine was.

Apollo and Concerto Barocco will survive inadequate casting, but Harlequinade has now joined Bugaku on the endangered-species list. This commedia dell’arte ballet began its life in 1965 as a happy recension of a late Petipa work (in which Balanchine had danced as a child). Despite the glorious performances of Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, the audience never really warmed to it, and eight years later, Balanchine added dozens of children and a good deal of vamping to the second-act divertissement. Even so, Harlequinade didn’t become a hit, not even when it was brought back for Baryshnikov. But Baryshnikov animated it-like Villella, he understood that Harlequin is both danseur noble and rascal, and he knew how to combine those qualities into one seamless impersonation. Exactly 25 years ago, Arlene Croce wrote, “Harlequin, who doesn’t really dance much, needs mercury in his blood. Baryshnikov and Villella have it.” Unfortunately, neither of the two current Harlequins has it. Benjamin Millepied is an appealing classical dancer, but his Harlequin is only classical-he’s uninflected, unshaped: clean, elegant, but not a teasing, boastful, devious, adorable devil. Nikolaj Hübbe has more character-he’s always interesting (as he was this season in Apollo )-but he lacks the style. Neither Millepied nor Hübbe, of course, is an artist on the level of Villella or Baryshnikov-who, today, is?-and the absence of a consummate performer in Harlequinade throws the ballet off-center, despite its countless felicities.

The biggest success of this revival was Alexandra Ansanelli, now the company’s designated valentine. She was particularly effective in Columbine’s final, ravishing solo, in which she slowly wafts around the stage on her pointes, then kneels and blows three kisses to the audience-to you over here, to you over there, to you . Ansanelli, with her combination of aplomb, musicality and charm, has-like Somogyi-become central to the repertory. If she has a problem, it’s that the charm seems calculated, the result of a series of planned effects. When McBride danced, you just felt her joy in moving and basked in her happy nature; her Columbine may have been paper-thin-commedia dell’arte figures are stylized, they’re not “real people,” which may be why American audiences don’t take to them-but within the sketchy limitations of her role, she was true blue (in the second act; in the first she was true pink).

As La Bonne Fée, Sofiane Sylve has the requisite dance authority and strength, although she’s not the quintessential Bonne Fée type: big and glamorous, a lot of woman even if she is a fairy. A new young comer, the willowy, beautiful Teresa Reichlen, has an unusual combination of delicacy and amplitude; you could believe in her Bonne Fée as a magical, benign, sexy presence. And she was equally promising as the second girl in that most demanding of ballets, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 , originally known as Ballet Imperial -a role she shared with Ashley Bouder, who in everything she does these days demonstrates the power of her attack and her dedication to dancing full-out. Erupting onto the stage as the leader of the Alouettes in Harlequinade , Bouder gripped your attention with her velocity and dynamism. Harlequinade , in fact, was far from a debacle: The Pierrot-Pierrette couples were exemplary, the comic relief wasn’t over the top, the children were immaculately prepared. It could rise again if something could be done about Borree’s scrunched-up Columbine and the less-than-glittering Harlequins. I don’t believe Borree can be helped at this point, but the Harlequin situation could be instantly improved through a couple of hours’ coaching by Villella. In 1979, Balanchine brought him in to help Baryshnikov, but Peter Martins, in his unrelenting resistance to coaching by those who created the great Balanchine roles, knows better.

To prop up box office under the excuse of reflecting Balanchine’s brilliant Broadway career ( On Your Toes , Babes in Arms , I Married an Angel , Cabin in the Sky , Where’s Charley? et al.), City Ballet has brought in multi-Tony-winner Susan Stroman to provide a two-act romp called Double Feature , meant as a gentle spoof on silent film. A couple of years ago, Stroman made a harmless little comic piece for the company called Blossom Got Kissed , but she’s echt Broadway-busy, brassy, inventive, fun. And like so many Broadway figures, when she goes arty, she’s really bad (remember that ghastly hit, Contact ?). Well, she doesn’t exactly go arty in Double Feature -she goes balletic. But since she has absolutely no command of ballet vocabulary, this is a two-and-a-half-hour piece with barely a step in it beyond the most rudimentary. There’s so little dance content, you can hardly even call it pastiche; it’s a show, it’s a hit, but it’s not a ballet.

Part I is “The Blue Necklace,” a Cinderella story involving an orphan, a wicked stepmother, a nasty stepsister, a movie star and a bunch of extras. Oh, and a male lead with no part in the story at all. Gorgeous Maria Kowroski is the movie star, given lots of emoting to do and not much dancing. Terrific Ashley Bouder is back as Mabel/Cinderella, funny Megan Fairchild is the nasty Florence, Damien Woetzel is all virtuosity and no point as the male support (is this what he spent his time on when he could have been the Harlequin we needed?), Kyra Nichols is self-consciously slumming as the mean mother. There are two amusing bits to interrupt the bombardment of empty invention: a clever parody performance by Fairchild as a girl who just can’t dance, and an amazing solo by a small girl from the school, Tara Sorine, as the child Mabel. Talk about aplomb! But also talk about control, expansiveness and brio: She actually made her steps look interesting.

Part II is “Makin’ Whoopee!”, based on the old Buster Keaton story about the guy who has to get married by a given moment if he’s to inherit a fortune. Tom Gold gamely tries for Keatonesque Jimmie, the desperate pint-sized hero; Ansanelli is back in cuteness mode as Anne, the girl he loves. And speaking of cuteness, how about that adorable little doggie who trots on (to roars of laughter) not once but twice? There are lots of predictable numbers for essentially supernumerary characters as Jimmie, rejected by Anne (she’s sulking), tries to find another bride-any bride. Things pick up briefly when, tipped off by a story in The Times , dozens of aspirant girls (some of them boys!) in fancy wedding gowns turn up at the church and chase after Jimmie until, in the nick of time, Anne relents. The brides are funny, but their shtick goes on far too long, like everything else in Double Feature . It’s too bad that Stroman hasn’t learned pacing and economy from Jerome Robbins, a true master of this kind of thing-think of the famous Keystone Kops scene in High Button Shoes . But Robbins had talent; Stroman only has smarts. Whatever the program may say, Double Feature is not a “tribute to Balanchine’s pioneering work on Broadway”; it’s a tribute to the Tonys.

This entire City Ballet season is peculiar. We’ve been told it’s intended, as the ads have it, “to explore the cornerstone of Balanchine’s classical heritage.” So there have been a few performances of Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux-one by a couple from Denmark, Gundrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, who proved yet again how dancers who grow up in a style are its most eloquent exponents. Scotch Symphony has certain Bournonville elements, but they weren’t visible in the unfortunate performance I saw: This is no longer a role Kyra Nichols should be dancing. There was Fokine’s Chopiniana – Les Sylphides to you-danced by students. Petipa’s influence is represented by Harlequinade , “Diamonds” from Jewels and Ballet Imperial , Balanchine’s Swan Lake –inflected ballet, in which Somogyi made a sensational debut and over which Miranda Weese laid her usual dull, academic veneer. But the rest of the season is almost completely devoted to full-evening works: Coppélia , Jewels and the Peter Martins versions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake . The whole thing is turning out to be more like A.B.T.’s annual stand at the Met than an NYCB winter season. Happy centenary, Mr. B.

For the record: The State Theater still has guards at the entrance, poking into handbags and parcels. Who do they think is going to blow up the theater, Balanchine loyalists?

City Ballet’s Salute: 100 Years of Balanchine