Again and again we’ve been told that the retirement of Darci Kistler from City Ballet-after a career of 30 years-was the end of an era: the era of ballerinas anointed by Balanchine. When she was 16, he brought her into the company, and within months she was dancing the Swan Queen, the Sugarplum Fairy, the great adagio movement from Symphony in C. She was the last of the very young girls he had discovered and groomed, beginning with the famous “baby ballerinas” of the early ’30s (Toumanova, Baronova, Riabouchinska) and including LeClercq, Kent, Farrell, Kirkland: the God-given ones.
What if the gimmick for the four-week season coming up in September was well-rehearsed and well-coached repertory?
Kistler, indeed, in those early days, seemed like the offspring of the gods. She was not only amazingly talented but she radiated joy, health, beauty, confidence. She was golden. When Balanchine died, in 1983, she was the future. Yet she had already suffered the injury to her ankle that was to determine the rest of her career-not only her immediate prolonged absence from the stage but the brake on the grandeur, the opulence of her movement. She remained a glorious presence, she remained a lovable and beloved figure, but she never regained her absolute command.
And so her farewell gala was an emotionally complicated event. The cheering, the kisses, the flowers, the sparkling confetti were all in place; who could deny their appropriateness? She had earned them. But who could resist feeling sad not simply at her departure-Pavlova departed, Fonteyn departed-but at the ill luck that kept her from becoming not only the darling of City Ballet but the great dancer of her time. It might not have happened-but it might have.
The gala program itself was a mixed blessing. Despite some tactfully modified choreography, it was clear that the exposed vocabulary of Monumentum/Movements was now beyond Kistler. But although she was more kittenish than she used to be as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream-she danced the Bottom pas de deux-she was charming, enticing and young, not only in look but in quality of movement. And in the final act of Peter Martins’ Swan Lake, she showed us what a ballerina she had been; what a ballerina is. She made it easy for us to give a wholehearted final embrace to Balanchine’s last girl.
THE KISTLER FAREWELL came at the end of an exhausting season. As we know from Gypsy, ya gotta have a gimmick, and this time out we had two. There was the ambitious program of seven premieres. And there was the “Architecture of Dance” theme, with five of the new works designed by the acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava. (There was also a short, self-congratulatory documentary about this collaboration, which, after you’d been stuck seeing it more than once, you wanted to wipe from the screen.)
The seven premieres were no better and no worse than was predictable and predicted. Ratmansky’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement was the only one of substance-long, quirky and irresistible. From England, Wayne McGregor; from Italy, Mauro Bigonzetti; and from France, Benjamin Millepied gave us efficient, energized exercises, all equally empty and all gone tomorrow-who can even remember their names today? Melissa Barak produced an unspeakable mishmash about Bugsy Siegel that defies belief and description. Christopher Wheeldon came up with a piece of irrelevant retro populism involving horses and cowgirls, which at least pleased the crowd.
And in the final week of the season, Peter Martins unveiled a new work, Mirage, that brought us a distinguished score-Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, conducted by the composer and played by Leila Josefowicz-that stood out in contrast to the newly commissioned works by other hands. The ballet itself, however, didn’t stand out, and for the usual reasons: Martins is always capable, but his movement vocabulary is so limited that there’s never much to watch-he’s the exact opposite of Ratmansky, whose Namouna was brimming with invention. (Happily, though, Martins gave the central role to the very talented Jennie Somogyi.)
As for Calatrava, two of his designs, the Wheeldon and the Barak, were pictorial rather than architectural, and who needed a major architect for those? The Millepied, Bigonzetti and Martins ballets were furnished with huge, handsome constructs that occasionally moved and changed color, and, particularly when hovering overhead, distracted the audience from the dancers. The Calatrava connection may have been a public-relations coup, but it was an artistic misfire.
Meanwhile, the company was churning out general repertory, with not very happy results. The corps was under-rehearsed except in the new pieces-an egregious example: Kistler’s swans. Prodigal Son was a vacuum: Joaquin De Luz doesn’t have a clue; Maria Kowroski is a gorgeous Siren, also clueless; the “goons” were boring, not threatening. Only Sean Suozzi as one of the servants restored this masterpiece to life. Western Symphony was listless and lusterless until the third movement, when Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild, the heroes of the season, kicked in. Suddenly, the whole thing sprang to life, the way Balanchine does when danced by people who know they’re meant to be expressing something. Who Cares? looked as though no one cared very much, although Fairchild and Tiler Peck invigorated it. Chaconne and The Four Temperaments were underpowered. It’s time to pry Mozartiana away from Wendy Whelan.
Last season, the gimmick was all those full-evening ballets-City Ballet as ABT; this season it was all the premieres, with their attendant architecture. What if the gimmick for the four-week season coming up in September was well-rehearsed and well-coached repertory? I can dream, can’t I?
THE BIG NEWS at ABT is rarely repertory, and if there are premieres, they’re usually ghastly. Dancers are what ABT is all about. This season the sensation was the Bolshoi’s Osipova in her signature role of Don Quixote‘s Kitri. She was made for it, and it for her. But in the Battle of the Beauties-she and the Royal’s wonderful Alina Cojocaru gave one Sleeping Beauty performance each on a frantic Saturday-she came off second best. Not because her spectacular virtues weren’t on display, but because Aurora is essentially not her role. She has no trouble with the steps, but the trajectory from joyous innocence to grandeur and mature love is as yet beyond her. Cojocaru’s delicacy and classical purity, and her understanding of Aurora, were entrancing. She knows that the notorious Rose Adagio isn’t just about holding balances, it’s also about how Aurora shyly engages with each suitor; how she lovingly presents the roses to her mother rather than flinging them aside. (This was a Fonteyn specialty. But Fonteyn, too, danced roles for which she wasn’t right-Coppélia‘s Swanilda for one.) Cojocaru is a born Beauty.
The great triumph of the season was Ashton’s The Dream, with a dream cast: Gillian Murphy, David Hallberg and Herman Cornejo. Second-cast Marcelo Gomes is a paragon, but he’s solid, masculine, direct-he isn’t the otherworldly androgynous Oberon Ashton created. All season long, Hallberg, Gomes and Cornejo performed their usual wonders, and Jose Manuel Carreño, another male star of great presence and appeal, was also in superb form. Among the leading men, only Ethan Stiefel was a disappointment-out of whack in Fancy Free and poorly cast in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. This intense, demanding work, set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is Russian classicism at its most imperial; Stiefel, meanwhile, is unyieldingly boyish. On the other hand, Murphy, the company’s finest Balanchine dancer, was thrilling opposite him-casually flinging off triple turns and in absolute charge of the music and the vocabulary. She grows in stature from year to year, technically breathtaking and increasingly effective in dramatic roles-she’s ABT’s Kyra Nichols.
The whole company has been looking terrific, with younger dancers like Simone Messmer, Hee Seo and Cory Stearns making strong impressions. It’s also to ABT’s credit that it goes on presenting triple bills of consequence-the Ashton program, the American program, the All-Classic Masters program-despite the preference of the Met’s summer audiences for multi-act story ballets. Do they notice, I ask myself, the awfulness of the company’s Sleeping Beauty production, the inferiority of its Swan Lake, the drippiness of this season’s stab at establishing a new full-evening narrative work, the dire Lady of the Camellias? Let’s hope that they’re too busy being dazzled by all the tremendous dancing.