The Good, the Bad, and a New Ballet Superstar

Premieres, revivals, debuts … With our two major ballet companies both in residence at Lincoln Center (as they are every May and June), the last few weeks have been a revolving door of sensational triumphs, disappointments and fiascoes.

Let’s get the worst over first. Melissa Barak, an ex-City Ballet dancer and sometime choreographer, has put together an unspeakably dopey and incompetent mess called Call Me Ben, combining ultra-generic dance, terrible dialogue and disastrous storytelling, about the founding of Las Vegas by the gangster Bugsy Siegel, who insists, violently, on being addressed as “Ben.” (Hence the title.) Also on hand are über-gangster Meyer Lansky, the notorious Virginia Hill, the actor George Raft and a swirl of nightclubbish girls and fedora’d mobsters who’ve been given nothing remotely interesting to do. Classy, appealing Robert Fairchild is embarrassingly miscast as Bugsy/Ben; Jenifer Ringer is game but under-Hollywoodish as Hill. Santiago Calatrava’s set has some silhouetted palm trees (whole lotta silhouetting going on) and a pretty desert backdrop remarkably similar to his pretty Pampas backdrop for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Estancia. The commissioned score by the young, fast-track composer Jay Greenberg isn’t good enough to be memorable but is far too good for the mess Barak has made of it. This “Ballet Dramedy,” as it’s billed, is the fifth of City Ballet’s premieres this season (two to go), and the company’s most bewildering offering in living memory.

Ballerinas are often divided into three categories: jumpers, turners and balancers. Osipova is all three.

Estancia, on the other hand, is completely lucid and, of course, being by Wheeldon, totally adroit. But it’s bewildering in a different way-watching it is like falling through a crack in time. Utilizing a score by Alberto Ginastera that was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein in 1941 for Balanchine but never used by him, Wheeldon inexplicably backtracks to the kind of populist Americana that Kirstein had been promoting throughout the ’30s: Pocahontas, Yankee Clipper, Filling Station, Billy the Kid.  A city boy with a yen for the primitive turns up in the Pampas and falls in with a band of gauchos (cowboys to us) and a gutsy gauchette. Guess what? He falls for her, and in two shakes of a horse’s tail he’s proved his worth by taming a wild mare. He’s Tyler Angle; the cute mare is Georgina Pazcoguin; the lead horse is Andrew Veyette; and the Girl is Tiler Peck. Angle and Peck are soon in a conventional love duet with the usual swooning lifts, and all ends in a carefully orchestrated whoop-de-do that would be more effective if we hadn’t all grown up on Rodeo and Oklahoma! Why is the brilliant Tiler Peck in this clichéd role, and hidden under unflattering Western garb? This is a lazy retro piece, but the audience had a good time. Or maybe they were just relieved by its sheer competence.

The big ABT premiere was the endless, pointless Lady of the Camellias, a John Neumeier full-evening effort created in 1978 for the Stuttgart Ballet, which specialized in mind-numbing story ballets. Yes, it’s the famous tale of Marguerite Gautier which we know best as La Traviata. (It started life as a sensational novel by Dumas fils, who then dramatized it, providing Sarah Bernhardt with her most popular vehicle — she played it more than 3,000 times and giving Garbo her greatest role in Camille.) In Neumeier’s hands, Dumas’ melodrama is more like a series of semi-animated tableaux vivants than a fully choreographed ballet-characters mill around more than dance around, except when Armand, the feckless hero, is flinging himself at La Dame’s feet or is lofting her up, up and away in one of their countless passionate and nervous-making encounters. It’s Masterpiece Theater on pointe. First-cast Julie Kent worked hard and is still a beauty, but she’s a touch too old and refined for this kind of thing. Diana Vishneva actually made something moving out of it, but then she’s a major dramatic artist-who deserves better. Also deserving better is Chopin, from whose music the score was badly patched together


ABT, HOWEVER, CAME through with the debut of the year: the glorious 24-year-old Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova in the role that I believe is her greatest success in Russia, Kitri in Don Quixote. She was an immediate standout in minor roles when the Bolshoi turned up here several years ago, and a sensation last year when ABT revealed her in Giselle and La Sylphide-her swiftness, her ease, her astounding elevation elicited gasps from hardened critics, and everyone else, too. Her Kitri was beyond anything. It’s not only that she has that huge, sailing leap across the stage; it’s that she simply rises straight up in the air with seemingly no preparation, and with total buoyancy. Ballerinas are often divided into three categories: jumpers, turners and balancers. Osipova is all three. She whirls around in supported turns with no effort, no strain, nothing but joy. Her fouettés are so strongly anchored that when she whips around, alternating singles and doubles, it’s inconceivable that anything could go wrong, they look so easy and casual. And when her toe is planted on the stage and she balances-forever-it doesn’t look like a feat, it looks as if she’s so comfortable up there, there’s no reason for her to come down. Osipova has a refined musicality made possible by all this formidable technique. Since she can do anything more or less perfectly and at top speed, she can afford to take her time-stretch a phrase here, speed it up there, as the music speaks to her. She’s also pretty and charming, though her Kitri is more a forceful hoyden than an adorable one. If she has a flaw, it’s that she’s overworking her mouth: too smiley at moments, too pouty at others. But she’ll learn.

So the ballet world has a new superstar. And yet her real importance may not lie in the sensational performances she’s giving us now (later this season we’ll have her Aurora and her Juliet). It’s that she’s raising the bar for female technique, the way Nureyev and Baryshnikov did for men. Every aspiring ballerina will be driven to catch up. And this won’t be like the disaster of ballerinas emulating the excesses and vulgarities of the willful Sylvie Guillem; this will be a legitimate expansion of classical technique.


THE OTHER GREAT treat of recent weeks has been the School of American Ballet workshop performances at Juilliard: three impeccable, exhilarating exhibitions of superb training. Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet, was originally created for an earlier workshop, is brilliantly devised to present the school’s achievements at every age level. The kids look wonderful, from the littlest to those late teenagers graduating now into City Ballet and other companies around the country. Wheeldon’s ballet is perfectly responsive to the occasion if not to Stravinsky’s sophisticated score. (For that you have to go to Ashton’s glittering, worldly version.)

The workshop proceeded through Balanchine’s entrancing Valse Fantaisie, led by Claire Kretzschmar, a tall blonde with high technical polish and radiant stage presence, who’s partnered with an elegant and self-possessed Peter Walker. The jubilant closer was Balanchine’s Bourrée Fantasque, to the ravishing music of Chabrier (a Balanchine favorite)-it was a big hit in the early ’50s, before inexplicably fading from the repertory. Three leading couples, a huge cast, a grand finale, wonderful Karinska costumes and French, French, French. It’s a hit all over again.

This year’s workshop was particularly satisfying and reassuring. New choreography may be as iffy as always, but the training of American dancers is clearly in the best of hands; and the staging of Balanchine ballets is secure as long as ex-dancers of his, like Suki Schorer (Valse Fantaisie) and Susan Pilarre (Bourrée), are here to remind us of what they once were like.



The Good, the Bad, and a New Ballet Superstar