The climactic moment—the defining moment—of City Ballet’s exhausting spring season came two nights before it official- ly ended. The occasion was a gala performance staged for the benefit of the Dancers’ Emergency Fund, a worthy project dreamed up years ago by Jerome Robbins and now revived by Peter Martins. The program was the usual gala effort—a little of this, a touch of that, here a solo, there a pas de deux, now something for the whole gang.
But there were two big deviations from the norm. The first, highly publicized, was that the evening, called “Dancers’ Choice,” was programmed and cast by a young principal, Jonathan Stafford, with the help of colleagues. The monkeys were in charge of the zoo, and they did a good job—the program had enough variety and energy, and enough interesting bits of casting, to hold our attention.
The more important novelty of the evening, though, wasn’t even mentioned in the overlong speechifying by Martins and Stafford at the start. There was none of the usual all-star gala fare; not one of the company’s senior dancers was on view—no Kistler, Whelan, Borree, Kowroski; no Askegard, Neal, (Nilas) Martins. It was youth all the way.
The overwhelming impression, which indeed had been gathering all season, is of the extraordinary level of sheer ability, particularly in the male division. In the “Third Campaign” of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, for instance, the 12 boys and their leader, Troy Schumacher, showed a consistency of polish and virtuosity that could hardly have been a gleam in Balanchine’s eye 50 years ago when he created Stars. Nor for a long time did things get much better. But the School of American Ballet is now turning out waves of technically secure guys to feed the company: The system is working.
There’s also a cluster of technically excellent girls rising swiftly into the top ranks. Ashley Bouder is the most brilliant, Sterling Hyltin the most appealing, Janie Taylor the most emotionally charged, Teresa Reichlen the most startling, Sara Mearns the most various. I could point to another half-dozen who are crowding the old guard.
The problem is that they don’t all have strong dance personalities. Take Abi Stafford, a recent principal. From the beginning she was technically impeccable, but she was stiff and bland. She’s loosened up, she has an excellent dance body, she nails the steps, she’s musical. But who is she? She doesn’t yet make roles her own, she just dances very nicely. And this is even truer of most of the new young men.
For instance, the most talented of them is probably Andrew Veyette, who performed the Bart Cook solo that Balanchine added to Square Dance in 1976. But Veyette doesn’t have Cook’s amazingly supple back—or, more impotant, his emotional intensity. He’s cool and, I’m afraid, a little dull; he’s from the Peter Boal school of refined classicism, though as yet he lacks Boal’s authority.
Are there strong personalities among the new crop? Daniel Ulbricht has a singular look and plenty of pizzazz—he and Bouder tore through an excerpt from “Rubies” and gave it the zest without which it’s pointless. (Unfortunately, Ellen Bar, as the second girl, was a washout.) Janie Taylor, certainly—expressive and intense in the old Balanchine manner. The big, eager Savannah Lowery—lush and impressive in Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet earlier in the week—charged her way through the “MacDonald of Sleat” segment of Union Jack. Even tiny Megan Fairchild, that windup technician, is developing a personal style.
Most bewildering to me is Mearns, who’s probably dancing more major roles than any of her young colleagues. When she moves, she’s open and ardent and exciting—the other night she actually made something of the Darci Kistler role in Peter Martins’ execrable Thou Swell. But she’s hampered by the look of her upper body: the short neck, the unlovely épaulement. I suspect that she has real dramatic potential, but right now every time I see her, I see someone different.
The gala premiered a new ballet, Flit of Fury—The Monarch (don’t ask), choreographed by Adam Hendrickson, one of the most focused and interesting of the younger soloists, to music for two pianos by a corps member, Aaron Severini. The propulsive music kept things going, and Hendrickson used his small cast—four boys and a girl—cleverly enough, the electric Sean Suozzi outstanding as usual. But Flit was more an acceptable exercise than a work that seemed to know what it was about or where it was going.
The last of the 13 gala numbers was the finale of Symphony in C—the first real tutu ballet of the evening. (Is this a harbinger of things to come at City Ballet? Have the years of Martins ballets and inferior contempo imports eroded the classical foundations of the company?) The dancers made it through, but they looked happier in all the Robbins pieces that came before.
THAT, OF COURSE, makes sense, since so much of the company’s energy through the season was devoted to the Robbins centenary-minus-10 celebration. Thirty-three works were on view—all of Robbins’ important ballets, and then some. The standard of performance was almost uniformly high, due in great part to the unsung efforts of the dedicated Robbins ballet masters, and I wish I could say that this generous retrospective enhanced my appreciation of his art. But I ended up with the same list of first-rate works I started with: The essentials remain Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances at a Gathering, maybe The Cage, and The Four Seasons, for which I confess a weakness.