A Damp Spring for The City Ballet

It was a disappointing spring at City Ballet. Part of the problem was no one’s fault: Two of the company’s crucial dancers were out for almost the entire time. The absence of Ashley Bouder, the strongest and most brilliant of the younger women, and of the always interesting Sara Mearns meant that the rest of the ballerina contingent was stretched beyond its capacities. Nor could the entire blame be laid to uneven programming—the revival of Peter Martins’ deadly Romeo + Juliet, this season’s two disappointing new works, the return of last season’s two disappointing new works. The troubles lie deeper, in the inescapable reality that so many of the Balanchine ballets—the core of the repertory—were miscast, under-rehearsed and/or poorly coached. Limp accounts of Concerto Barocco, Scotch Symphony, Divertimento No. 15, The Four Temperaments, La Valse and Chaconne constitute an artistic disaster.

And then there was Liebeslieder Waltzer, not just a disaster but a blasphemy. Yes, Janie Taylor and Jennie Somogyi brought some conviction to it, but to no avail: Wendy Whelan was not at her freshest; Darci Kistler was pathetic; and the four men were not much more than adequate (Nilas Martins was less than adequate). The lighting was too dark, in the new “if they can’t see it, they can’t criticize it” mode of stage illumination. But by far the worst was the singing. I’ve never heard Brahms’ great song cycles more gratingly performed. For the first time in the almost 50 years I’ve been watching Liebeslieder, I was unmoved—except by despair.

Finally, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To take advantage of fresh casting (no Kistler as Titania, no Yvonne Borree or Jenifer Ringer in the great second-act pas de deux), I waited for the Saturday matinee, only to see the most desultory reading of the first act—the story act—I’ve ever encountered. Teresa Reichlen, new to Titania, could give only a pallid sketch of this magnificent role—she looks enchanting, but she lacks the deep musicality, the wit, the combination of playfulness and command that it requires. And as Oberon, Gonzalo Garcia lacks everything. I admired him when he was with the San Francisco company, but he’s finding it hard to adjust to City Ballet, and to Balanchine. Garcia is a weighty dancer, earthbound, utterly inappropriate to the coruscating challenges Balanchine created in 1960 for Edward Villella. The famously brilliant solo had no impact at all—he just can’t handle it. Nor were there any sparks of attraction or of rivalry between this dull Titania and this stolid Oberon—two cases of deadly miscasting.

The young lovers were no improvement, except for Robert Fairchild as Lysander. Even his goofy blond wig couldn’t detract from his dash and speed, his ardent commitment to the role. Fairchild just gets better and better. Alas, Sterling Hyltin as his sometime soul mate, Hermia, was (like the Helena and Demetrius of Dena Abergel and Ask LaCour) shallow to the point of caricature. Hyltin’s solo (refer to the 1967 film of Dream for Patricia McBride’s heart-wrenching performance) was reduced to a lot of flailing around and hammy shtick. Savannah Lowery’s Hippol      yta was ponderous rather than powerful; Henry Seth’s Bottom lacked charm and pathos; only Troy Schumacher—a last-minute substitute as Puck—had some validity: not a revelation of technique or style, but a modest and engaging performance. I hope to learn what went wrong in the final moments of the ballet when he failed to soar upward into the night sky. …

But hallelujah! At almost the last possible moment, this benighted Dream was redeemed by Janie Taylor’s debut in the divertissement pas de deux. Suddenly, thrillingly, we were blessed with true Balanchine dancing—exquisite musicality, delicate phrasing, a natural unaffected grasp of the difficult vocabulary. Almost from the start of her career, Taylor has been the most absorbing of the younger ballerinas, her career sidetracked by an extended absence for reasons of health. Now at last she’s taking her proper place in the repertory. (Leave it to City Ballet’s perverse casting policies to give her only one of Dream’s seven performances, and that one at a matinee.) The confident and stylish partnering of Tyler Angle helped her give one of finest performances of the season.

Of the other Balanchine works, only Coppélia, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Monumentum/Movements and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue were really satisfactory—plus Tarantella as danced by Tiler Peck. Why, one has to wonder, does the company as a whole look so much better prepared—and motivated—in the non-Balanchine repertory? Everyone plunged gleefully into Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, into Les Noces and other Robbins works, into Martins’ Hallelujah Junction. Clearly, the keepers of the Balanchine flame, beginning with Martins and Rosemary Dunleavy, the chief ballet mistress, aren’t keeping it.

What a difference from the way Balanchine was honored in the School of American Ballet workshop in May! Serenade, staged by Suki Schorer, and Stars and Stripes, staged by Susan Pilarre, were ravishing. Yes, the kids have far more time to prepare than the workhorses of the company do, but that’s not why they look so devoted, so dedicated, so uncynical. We see the same thing year after year—talented youngsters graduating into the company and, for the most part, left to flounder. Peter Martins has an unerring instinct for talent, but he doesn’t seem able to nurture it: Once you hit the big time, you’re more or less on your own.

 

THERE WAS ONE very agreeable break from the general gloom: this year’s “Dancer’s Choice” program, planned and presented by Jenifer Ringer. The object is to feature the younger dancers in a wide variety of roles in which they’re otherwise not likely to be seen, often in works not in the rep. It was a terrific idea to end with the sailor finale of Union Jack, the stage crammed with all the boys and girls semaphoring “God Save the Queen” as cannons boom. (What a daring and unlikely ballet!) Again, Robert Fairchild and Troy Schumacher stood out in the Royal Navy section, and although Jennie Somogyi was a poor choice to lead the Wrens—muted and un-energized—her pals were sexy and full of beans.

A long excerpt from Serenade with Maria Kowroski and Reichlen was lovingly presented; excerpts from Martins’ 1988 The Waltz Project reminded us that it’s one of his most effective ballets; and excerpts from Richard Tanner’s 1994 Episodes & Sarcasms gave a welcome tip of the hat to Balanchine’s black-and-white modernism.

There’s not much to say about a new, well-meaning trifle choreographed by Ashley Bouder called Give Me Fever, with music from all over the place; it provided four talented dancers with a cheerful showcase. It was also good to have Valse-Fantaisie back, led by Tiler Peck, and fascinating to watch a noble stab at the great Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, danced by another of the company’s most talented girls, Kathryn Morgan. She has the charm and the technique; only the amplitude is yet to come.

All in all, the good humor and happy energy of this “Dancer’s Choice” program reminded us that despite the serious weaknesses of the season as a whole, the New York City Ballet is still a true company with a unique point of view.

rgottlieb@observer.com

 

A Damp Spring for The City Ballet