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BWW Reviews: New York City Ballet's 4th Annual SATURDAY AT THE BALLET WITH GEORGE

Nearly 31 years have passed since George Balanchine, the prolific and pioneering 20th century choreographer, died on April 30th 1983. Yet the New York City Ballet, the company he co-founded with Lincoln Kirstein 80 years ago, continues to revere and remember him with equal parts fondness and awe. That legacy of love and respect for Mr. B was especially evident on January 25th 2014, the 4th annual celebration of "Saturday at the Ballet with George" in honor of his birthday. He was actually born on January 22nd 1904 but scheduling the event on a Saturday allows for a daylong series of workshops and performances, all of them affordable and some of them free.

One of the highlights of the festivities this year was the matinée performance, a particularly well-chosen all-Balanchine mixed bill showcasing the breadth and depth of his genius. Principal dancer Jared Angle stepped out for a curtain speech to introduce the scheduled ballets, creating a warm and welcoming tone with his easy charm while he divulged an insider's insights into what we were about to experience.

He told us that the opening ballet, the 1941 masterpiece "Concerto Barocco" to the music of Bach, felt to him like "a perfect world". For me, the work is one of the finest examples of Mr. B's famously musical phrasing and his use of choreographic patterns that have a continually surprising kaleidoscopic effect. The eight women in the ensemble sections on Saturday were immaculately rehearsed right down to their fingertips. As I mentioned in a BWW review of NYCB last October, the long-standing criticism of City Ballet's messy corps work is being put to rest -- at least based on what I've seen. Also, the orchestra was in especially fine fettle.

However, I found the pairing of the delicate but daring Sara Mearns and the taller yet less authoritative Maria Kowrowski to be jarring. Even so, Tyler Angle partnered both women with attention to their uniqueness. The only bad moment came when one of the corps dancers slipped and fell near the apron at stage right. To her credit, she was up in an instant and blended right back into the action but during the third ballet, a male dancer fell in exactly the same place. A woman sitting next to me whispered that she had seen two dancers fall there on Wednesday evening. Note to the stage crew: Find out what's making that spot slippery and rectify the problem!

The afternoon's second offering was "Kammermusik No. 2", dating from 1978 and set to the music of Hindemith. I understood what Jared meant when he told us earlier that the work seemed to be "a fractured version" of the "perfect world" in "Concerto Barroco" and that it "makes you think" but is "rewarding to dance". A phalanx of eight men in black and gray moves in sharp-angled shapes with robotic detachment that suits the complex counterpoint of the orchestral music. In contrast, two couples dance to the solo piano passages with bursts of passion and wit. I was especially taken with Abi Stafford and Amar Ramasar. They made difficult lifts look easy and connected charismatically with one another.

As a perfect closer, we were treated to "Who Cares?" Jared called Balanchine's frolicking tribute to the enduring songs of George Gershwin from the 1920s and 1930s "an extravaganza" and he's right. It is indeed "a very large and exciting show," the Merriam Webster definition of that adjective. The costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Santo Loquasto are a riot of fuchsia, purple, turquoise, and midnight blue. Against a backdrop that is a glitteringly stylized rendition of the New York City skyline, the cast of 24 dancers cavorts to such favorites as "Strike Up the Band", "Somebody Loves Me", 'S Wonderful", "I Got Rhythm," and of course, "Who Cares?" My personal favorite that day was Ashley Bouder's personality-plus delivery of the "My One and Only" solo.

Speaking of Ashley, she returned as the mistress of ceremonies for the free presentation, "From the Studio to the Stage", that followed the matinée. People who had not paid to attend the performance were invited to come into the theater and find any available seat. By the time the curtain rose, the house was all but full, thanks to the throng of balletomanes who showed up to take advantage of the gratis demonstration. Cue a chorus of "I Love New York"!

Happily, what was advertised as "a rare, inside look at the training of a NYCB dancer" did not disappoint. Faculty members from the School of American Ballet including Darci Kistler, Kay Mazzo, Arch Higgins, and Jonathan Stafford showed off their young charges at varying stages of training in a delightful series of barre work, center work, variations, and partnering. (A personal aside: I was pleased when Darci asked SarahAnne Perel, now 18 and in the advanced girls' class, to be the one to demonstrate a correct glissade. SarahAnne danced the title role in my ballet "Princess Alina and the Dragon's Lair" during the summer of 2008 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. We reconnected recently when we both took Alexander Tressor's class at Steps. I hope she's headed for a stellar career!)

Capping the display of emerging talent, NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins proved to be an engaging yet meticulous coach as he guided two young hopefuls through the intricacies of performing the grand pas de deux from "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker". They did an admirable job and then watched City Ballet members Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild dance the same choreography while Martins pointed out ways the students could improve even more.

After that, Martins called all the students and teachers back to the stage for a bow. Then we sang "Happy Birthday" to Mr. B., the man whose presence is still potent and palpable in the hearts and minds of New York City Ballet dancers and devotees alike.

Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of the New York City Ballet.

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