BWW Reviews: New York City Ballet Black and White Program
Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar in Symphony in Three Movements, photo by Paul Kolnik
The question of whether or not stage presence can be taught was the subject of an article in Pointe Magazine last May. The question as it relates to dancers is particularly important because it goes to the heart of our experience of a performance. Can you take any competent dancer and turn him/her into a star? Experience suggests not.
In the article by Amy Brandt, Alessandra Ferri didn't think so, believing charisma to be innate. Darla Hoover insightfully spoke of the process of teaching students to tap into a reservoir of sensitivity that can boost their ability to connect emotionally with an audience. We were compelled to watch Nureyev even after he became unwatchable - he was that charismatic. However, that animal magnetism is not the only thing that can command our attention. We may also be compelled to watch someone who is technically brilliant but not emotionally demonstrative. Someone like Fernando Bujones, who was impressive and a leading technician in his day but not given to much emotional display. We watched him because he was spectacular. In between those two poles, there is everyone else. That was the case with New York City Ballet's Black and White program this past Wednesday.
How much charisma dancers can bring to bear is an important element that comes into play when watching a repertory program without a single story to follow. This program, all abstract ballets of a certain modernist type, is for the informed and dedicated dancegoer and, as has been noted elsewhere, is not something that Balanchine ever used to do when creating programs for City Ballet. The general public is probably not well equipped enough to sit and watch four such pieces back to back. They need variety and perhaps a little story. There is no melodic music that sends you out humming a tune into the night. Much of this, the leotards, music and the dancing, seems too much the same to the public and fatigue sets in. Myself, I could sit and watch ballet class for four hours and enjoy it so I loved the program. Lucky me.
The company is brimming with incredible talent and much of it is charismatic as hell. In this All Balanchine Black and White program, Ashley Bouder, of course, sent thrills and chills out to the audience in the Four Temperaments as did Megan Fairchild in Duo Concertant. Adrian Danchig-Waring's performance in the role of the Four Temperaments' Phlegmatic allowed him to put his full range of beauty on display without being overtly emotional. He was so good that he became the high point of the ballet for me. He makes it okay, even necessary, to describe a man as beautiful and if you can find a better adjective to describe him in this part, go ahead. His kind of dancing becomes compelling, not through the force of personality but rather through the force of ideas and beautiful form. And isn't this what Balanchine was all about?
Balanchine was intent on letting the choreography be the star and always did his best to prevent a star system from developing. Of course, the company has nevertheless always had stars and they were the ones that many of these ballets were built around. It's unavoidable because not everyone has that stage presence which grabs the audience's attention. That ethos of non-star stardom continues today with casting not being announced until two weeks before show dates. NYC Ballet is in the business of selling its dance programs, not its dancers. After all, dancers come and go while the choreography remains. That brings up the second issue of the night. Can there be too much of a good thing with a full program of Balanchine's Black and White ballets? More about that later because there is still the issue of charisma.
Opening with the Four Temperaments is a safe bet in any program. It is an iconic modern ballet that has withstood the test of time and has been performed by too many dancers to name. In the opening Theme, Justin Peck, whose new ballet was premiering at the same time over at City Center, was shimmering with Ashley Laracey. The pair was... charismatic. It's inescapable. The audience reacts more favorably to the performers with star quality even if the dancing isn't as good. In this case it was very good.
Robert Fairchild, fine dancer but less charismatic, was strong in the part of Melancholic. In Sanguinic, Savannah Lowery was overshadowed by the exceptionally stronger performance of her partner, Tyler Angle. Lowery is a very good dancer who never misses her mark and never disappoints but she doesn't radiate that type of charisma that leaves you wanting/needing more. There is a certain lack of authority in her movement that makes her positions seem less than definitive coupled with a feeling of expressive inhibition that she needs to resolve in order to advance to the principal rank. Tyler Angle's dancing, by contrast, is exciting to watch. He is speedy and moves with exceptional clarity and you can feel the love he has for dancing. Danchig-Waring in the part of Phlegmatic was a star. No question about that.