Tarnished Jewels, Living Dolls, A Plague of Ballerina Injuries

The first half of City Ballet’s “Balanchine 100: The Centennial Celebration” is winding down … and not a moment too soon. A few more bad ankles and there won’t be anyone left to dance. Consider: Wendy Whelan, Jennie Somogyi, Sofiane Sylve and Janie Taylor have been out all or much of the season. The company’s two senior ballerinas, Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, are limited by their naturally diminishing capacities. That leaves Maria Kowroski, as beautiful as ever and somewhat more invested in her roles, but not strong enough for the biggest challenges; the always capable Miranda Weese, a taste for whom I’m still trying to acquire; the talented Alexandra Ansanelli; Jenifer Ringer, whom the company is still promoting as a ballerina; and the unfortunate Yvonne Borree. Among the soloists, apart from Taylor, only Rachel Rutherford is a real if subdued talent.

No wonder Peter Martins has rushed several corps girls into leading roles, and promoted two of them-AshleyBouderandMegan Fairchild-to soloist rank. (Teresa Reichlen is coming up fast.) And of course, when our attention drifts away from Ringer or flees from Borree, we have the gloriously talented Carla Körbes-still mired in the corps-to look at. And believe me, every critic I know is looking at her.

If only we could blame the erosion of the Balanchine repertory on these injuries, but for the most part, the girls who are still on their toes are having their troubles, too: They either aren’t ballerina material to begin with, or they’re not being helped to understand the ballets they’re appearing in. An acid test for the company is Jewels , with its three very different styles and opportunities. This season, the hoopla has been about the new Peter Harvey sets (he did the originals back in 1967), but the proof is in the dancing, and the dancing has been mostly sub-par. Not that the new sets help. “Emeralds” is now seen against a huge green tropical-glade backdrop, with some big green gems looped over parts of it. This look might work for Green Mansions -I kept thinking Rima the Bird Girl was about to flit in-but it overwhelms “Emeralds,” drawing the eye away from the dancers. “Rubies” (Stravinsky, “modern”) has been given a faux-Constructivist look-sharp angles, plunging black side drops, red spangles, an exploding blob at the top, though no rubies that I could see. The eye is drawn upwards, toward the blob. Worst is the “Diamonds” treatment-a sketchy white and pale blue painting that looks like a homemade Christmas card.

It’s been commonplace to dismiss the idea that Jewels is the first three-act abstract ballet by pointing out that its three parts are only artificially connected; that they’re really three separate ballets. Maybe. But the important thing is that they make up a brilliant three-act program , which means that they work better together than they would apart. “Rubies” has been seen on its own, but fabulous as it is, it’s more fabulous right where George Balanchine placed it-between “Emeralds” and “Diamonds.” All the new distracting scenery does is to undermine what unity Jewels actually has. Only the great jeweled costumes by Karinska are left to suggest what Balanchine had in mind.

As for the dancing, it was pretty sketchy, too. The first cast of “Emeralds”-the most subtle and moving of the three ballets-was a disaster. Jenifer Ringer in the famous Mimi Paul “walking duet” was dutiful and dull; Miranda Weese in the even more famous Violette Verdy role was at least accomplished, but although she has the technique, she lacks the dance intelligence of a Verdy. (Well, so does almost every other dancer in the world.)

The second cast was an improvement, because Rachel Rutherford brought a lovely lyricism to the Verdy role, even if she missed some of the wit. If only Rutherford would present herself more forcefully! Still, better her modesty than the “Look, Ma, I’m grinning” demeanor of so many of the company’s girls and boys today. Van Kipnis, in the Paul role, was aggressive where Ringer was bland. Take your pick.

The “Rubies” situation is more complicated. Apart from Borree-first cast!-we had Ansanelli and Weese. Ansanelli brought a glamour and tensile strength to the role, but she was solemn; her two typical modes are cute ( Harlequinade and The Abominable Stroman) and portentous (Wheeldon’s Ligeti ballets). She has the role within her compass, though. Weese tore into it-she was certainly a more glowing Ruby than she was an Emerald-but if Ansanelli was solemn, Weese was practically sinister: Odile-like, a kind of Red Swan. Even if these dancers aren’t offered appropriate coaching, don’t they ever look at tapes? “Rubies” is a gleeful competition between two loving virtuosi; Villella and McBride, the originals, approached every moment with infectious relish. But relish is one of the qualities most lacking in City Ballet’s dancing these days. In its place, we get accuracy (if we’re lucky) and either inexpressiveness or sell, sell, sell.

The male Rubies were Damian Woetzel, a practiced showboat; Nikolaj Hübbe, working hard and honestly; and Peter Boal-a wacky experiment, since his distinguished characteristics are no substitute for the explosion of virtuoso energy this role demands. At this point in his 20-year career, though, he’s earned the right to try anything.

The third lead in “Rubies” was given first to Teresa Reichlen, a throwback to the very tall, very thin, small-headed Balanchine girl of the 70’s-Penny Dudleston, Nina Fedorova, but far stronger and more interesting than either of them. She carried it off with aplomb, if not yet with total assurance. Second-cast was Savannah Lowery, a big, stolid girl who didn’t seem to know what it was all about. Who teaches the important solo roles these days? And did Lowery really not attempt the third of the deep penchée arabesques with which she should make her most dramatic exit, or did I nod through the last of them? And what does it mean that this major role, once proudly taken on by leading dancers, is now assigned to girls in the corps?

The male Diamonds were Charles Askegard, tactfully supporting Darci Kistler, and the underappreciated Philip Neal, who has turned into a modest but highly dependable cavalier. The original “Diamonds” ballerina, of course, was Suzanne Farrell, and although no one has ever danced it with her incomparable inflections, a number of dancers have succeeded in it, from Merrill Ashley and Kyra Nichols to Darci Kistler. Kistler, tragically sapped through the years by injuries, no longer commands the powers that once were so thrilling, but at least this time around she wasn’t pushing and punctuating-she scaled herself down, and so gave a respectable if not ultimately satisfying performance. And, as always, her superb looks and carriage gave pleasure. This season’s other “Diamonds” ballerina was Maria Kowroski, generally at her best in Farrell roles, which may be because she looks so much like her. Kowroski was a very beautiful, willowy Diamond, working gallantly inside the music. What she lacks is the profound imagination as well as the technical strength that would allow her to take the kind of chances Farrell took and make a ballet like “Diamonds” truly personal. But if we’re counting our blessings, Kowroski’s one of them.

There weren’t many blessings to count in this season’s Coppélia s. Ringer’s Swanilda was careful and a touch matronly. She has immense personal charm, but her dancing has almost no charm at all; as in “Emeralds,” there was no strong musical impulse here. Her phrasing isn’t interesting: Everything has the same weight, everything is passive, a series of steps she’s mastered. Because you like her, you keep rooting for her, but that’s not the way it works with real ballerinas. Swanilda isn’t a simple role, all adorable. She is a strong-minded, bold, feisty young woman who’s stuck loving a roving-eyed boy. She knows he’ll grow out of it-he’d better!-but she uses his infatuation with the doll Coppélia to hurry the process along. And none too soon, since they’re about to get married. Not every first-rate ballerina is suited to this part-Fonteyn wasn’t; Makarova and Kirkland were, in A.B.T.’s dopey old production-and the closest City Ballet has come to an acceptable substitute for Patricia McBride, Balanchine’s original Swanilda, is Ansanelli, who scored a big success in the role last year. She wasn’t cast this season-your guess is as good as mine.

Instead, we were given the newest fast-track girl, Megan Fairchild, a tiny, assured child-woman who can handle the text but as yet has little understanding of the subtext. In the first act, while her Frantz flirts away with Coppélia, she pouts, shrugs, stamps her foot and generally behaves like a girl in junior high. This is a young woman on the verge of marriage? Her performance gets better as the ballet proceeds, though in the last-act pas de deux-which she sailed through easily, with only a minor mishap-she lacks the rhapsody of about-to-be-consummated love. Fairchild has a comic flair and lots of know-how. Since we’re obviously going to be seeing a lot of her, we can only hope that her self-assurance doesn’t harden into mannerism and her charm into perkiness.

Her partner, Joaquin De Luz, that irresistible spinner and jumper from A.B.T., is still finding his way in the company, but you have to respond to his willingness to please and his high animal spirits. Robert La Fosse and Adam Hendrickson were odd in different ways as Dr. Coppélius. La Fosse, an old hand, was a comical fuss-budget at the start, and his transformation into the semi-diabolical yet tragic character of the second act wasn’t very convincing. As for Hendrickson, there was no transformation at all: He began as a not very old man in love with his doll-creation, and that’s what he stayed-full of tenderness for her, and almost casual in his attempt to rob Frantz of his life-force in order to animate her. The third-act soloists were ineffectual. The only real drama came from Delibes’ great score-and, in fact, the one triumph of these Coppélia s was that of guest conductor Richard Fletcher, who from the first moment vivified and roused the orchestra. Let’s hope that the company unleashes Mr. Fletcher on that even greater score, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty .

Tarnished Jewels, Living Dolls, A Plague of Ballerina Injuries