The Winter of Our Discontent: City Ballet Blues

Watching an unsatisfactory performance of Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations like the one I saw in the final week of City Ballet’s

Watching an unsatisfactory performance of Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations like the one I saw in the final week of City Ballet’s winter season, you have to ask yourself where the problem lies. Is this the understandable exhaustion of a company that’s slogged its way through six weeks of Nutcracker, two weeks of Sleeping Beauty and six weeks of general repertory? Or—as I suspect—are we witnessing the continuing erosion of the company’s classical style? It’s not just that dancers were fumbling, stumbling and falling (that’s the exhaustion factor), but that most of them (I except Alina Dronova) looked uncomfortable and unsure, lacking the kind of musicality, of phrasing, that this charmer requires. They made it look like a task, not a joy.

Petite Megan Fairchild, who danced the ballerina role, has the technique and the confidence that Raymonda demands, and she’s grown less mechanical than she was at the start of her fast-track career. She lacks, though, the dance charisma that’s crucial to a ballerina: She’s essentially bland. And she’s not the only one: Miranda Weese, Jenifer Ringer, Yvonne Borree are all, despite their varying levels of competence, essentially bland.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t impressive dancers in the company—to begin with, Wendy Whelan, the company’s exemplary mainstay. She’s hardworking, selfless, strong, never coarse, cute or fakey. So why, then, don’t we think of her as a great dancer? Perhaps because her looks are so individual, we assume that her dancing is individual too, whereas it really isn’t: In the central roles of both Agon and Mozartiana, for example, she looks remarkable but dances conventionally; she masters the big roles admirably, but she doesn’t seem to inhabit them. It’s the ballets made on her by Christopher Wheeldon—and now Alexei Ratmansky—that reveal her special intelligence and daring. Perhaps her modesty leads her to make the unconscious assumption that she has no right to appropriate ballets made on her great predecessors. Yet her talents and her intelligence give her that right.

Ashley Bouder provides excitement—she can’t help going for broke, even when there’s no broke to go for. She’s thrilling as the Firebird—a worthy successor to the likes of Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden and Violette Verdy. Maria Kowroski provides welcome dance glamour. Sofiane Sylve, with her technical command and European manner, is pure ballerina, but she’s hardly a fully integrated member of the company: She was very impressive in the killer Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, but that’s almost all she did this season. The superb Jennie Somogyi is still cautiously working her way back from a devastating injury.

And what of Sara Mearns, the front-runner among the new girls? For me, she remains a question mark: She’s always musical, yet she’s often stolid—beautiful to watch yet unthrilling. Making her debut in Walpurgisnacht Ballet, she moved yeastily, but Walpurgisnacht is a blast, not a spongecake. (Think Farrell.)

If Mearns is yeasty, Sterling Hyltin is zesty—all graceful attack and lively charm. She animated Peter Martins’ Jeu de Cartes—Benjamin Millepied was at his charming best, too—but of course both of them must have been stimulated by the one-night-in-a-lifetime conducting of Valery Gergiev. I suspect that what drew him to the State Theater was the chance to bring the idiosyncratic Jeu de Cartes to scintillating life. And—no surprise—his Firebird was ravishing. City Ballet’s orchestra has never before sounded like a great orchestra.

The other comers? Rebecca Krohn, Tiler Peck (apart from her maddening grin), Ashley Laracey and Dronova are moving steadily forward; only the uningratiating Ellen Bar and the sluggish Savannah Lowery seem like odd girls out. Why the latter was given the great “Sanguinic” role in The Four Temperaments is beyond my imagining. But then, what was Ask la Cour doing as “Phlegmatic”? Willowy, yes; phlegmatic, no. He did, though, lend himself to a five-star risible moment: the pint-sized Tom Gold (an honorable if underpowered “Melancholic”) and the giant la Cour framing poor Teresa Reichlen (“Choleric”) in one of the ballet’s climactic moments. She was like Gulliver caught between a Lilliputian and a Brobdingnagian.

A happy note: Abi Stafford has not only dramatically improved but is almost unrecognizably changed. She was always strong, but at first she was stiff and off-putting. Today, in Walpurgisnacht, in Klavier, in Russian Seasons, she’s developed a soft, lovely quality. She’s repaying management’s early confidence in her.

Another happy note: Janie Taylor is slowly slipping back into the repertory after a long illness. No one could call Taylor bland. Everything she does is personally invested, and so you follow her every movement eagerly to see how she’ll phrase here, how she’ll respond there. In Afternoon of a Faun, Robbins’ moving portrayal of the narcissism of dancers, she was paired with Craig Hall, her pale complexion and long blond hair startling against his dark skin. A riveting performance.

AND SPEAKING OF ROBBINS, THE PROGRAM devoted to him (“Jerome Robbins: An American Icon”) was badly misjudged. Robbins may be iconic, but 2 & 3 Part Inventions, A Suite of Dances, In Memory of… and I’m Old Fashioned are not.

The first is a useful if sterile exercise, made in 1995 for the School of American Ballet to show off the talent of eight of the graduating boys and girls (he used the same configuration of four boys and four girls to greater effect in Interplay, made exactly 50 years earlier); the second is a novelty solo, created for Baryshnikov; the third is a lugubrious lamentation that not even Suzanne Farrell, his original ballerina, could bring to life; the last is (bad) pastiche that, apart from its lack of original invention and unsatisfactory construction, shoots itself in the foot by dwarfing its all-too-mortal cast with huge screen images of the immortal Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dancing overhead.

A Suite of Dances was choreographed for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project in 1994, by which time he had left behind him his virtuoso days. It’s all phrasing and nuance, and Baryshnikov, that supreme artist, made something special of it. Damian Woetzel, another brilliant virtuoso dancer, toned himself down in his effort to be true to Robbins’ intentions and Baryshnikov’s example; after more than 20 years as the company’s high-flyer, he’s still moving well and trying hard. But he’s never been helped to grow beyond his exciting facility, and in this subtle role he displays more athletic assurance than artistic authority.

This was the first season since City Ballet began, in 1948, that it presented set programs (nine of them), instead of constantly shifting repertory—a relief, no doubt, for the ballet mistresses, but a hardship for the audience. Say you’d wanted to see Serenade and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (and who wouldn’t?), you’d have had to swallow an exhumation of Robbins’ endless and pretentious Dybbuk as well.

Almost worse than this force-feeding were the meretricious labels attached to the nine programs. “A Banquet of Dance”? “Tradition and Innovation”? “Visionary Voices”? “For the Fun of It”? For once, Balanchine got it wrong. Instead of saying, as he so often did, “Après moi, the Board,” he should have said, “Après moi, the Bullshit.”

The Winter of Our Discontent: City Ballet Blues