BWW Reviews: Classic Stravinsky and Recent American Dances at the NYCB
The New York City Ballet recently concluded its American Music Festival-a showcase of "Broadway show tunes, Sousa marches, contemporary classical music and soul." Yet the showcasing has just begun. Now, the NYCB is in the midst of its 33 Ballets in 3 Weeks program, which returns to a few famed artists from the American Music Festival (Richard Rodgers, Jerome Robbins), mixes in short pieces by European masters (particularly Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky), and rounds everything out with more recent compositions (including a few by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins).
If last Wednesday's pairing of recent American ballets and classic Stravinsky dances was a trustworthy indication, 33 Ballets in 3 Weeks could turn out to be a more tasteful, more satisfying display than the American Music Festival. I know, I know, "33 Ballets in 3 Weeks" sounds like a reality show hosted by The History Channel. Well, what of it? The American/Stravinsky showcase was a sensible and fine-tuned exhibition of sound and motion. Though there was one piece from the balletic past (Robbins and Balanchine's magisterial version of Stravinsky's Firebird), the evening's program was never weighted down by the kind of cloying, creaky homages that the American Music Festival too frequently staged. Instead, it was an evening that, in both its simpler sequences and its greatest excesses, could lull you into a state of childlike wonder.
It was also an evening that made me wonder whether the entire NYCB had napped through the sexual revolution. There were too many stately, well-behaved sequences in the American/Stravinsky program-and too many times when more sizzle and more roughness were badly needed. In Soirée Musicale (1998), romance is presented as a large-scale, rather juvenile contest; in A Place for Us (2013), a male-and-female couple performs with about as much erotic heat as you'll find in a game of badminton. I don't mean to slight the technical finesse of these works. It's just that there is a difference between a well-executed duet and a modern, searching, intelligently suggestive one, and the duets here are no more suggestive or modern than the duets in the NYCB's take on Firebird (which, for the record, premiered in 1949).
Yet the first selection of the night-Hallelujah Junction (2001)-is a bit off-target for different reasons. This piece was "named after a small truck stop near the California-Nevada border" and has been described by its composer, John Adams, as "a case of a good title needing a piece." What Adams has come up with is a modernistic work for two pianos. There isn't too much that suggests the California-Nevada border-certainly not in Kirsten Lund Nielsen's simple black and white costumes. And certainly not in Peter Martins's choreography, which intelligently mixes grand leaps and staccato movements, but still seems too showy and too suave for a piece called Hallelujah Junction.
For a ballet with experimental credentials, Hallelujah Junction is confoundingly well-behaved-even better behaved, in fact, than the self-consciously traditional Soirée Musicale. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, this piece runs through classic dance forms-waltz, tango, two-step-in a jokey fashion. Wheeldon has a liking for pieces where multiple female dancers vie for a single male partner, or vice versa. Yet jokiness is not a bad approach, since the enormousness of the David H. Koch Theater makes a more concentrated, more subtle approach to intimacy a difficult proposition. If you can't focus on dancers as psychologically-intense individuals, try treating them like contentious eighth graders-even if they are wearing ball dresses and evening jackets.
That's one way of depicting intimacy and attraction in a space like this; another is to adapt the Koch Theater to intimate material. It isn't impossible, and if the two-person ballet A Place for Us proves anything, it's that ingenious turns of lighting (courtesy of Penny Jacobus) and a little onstage music (from clarinetist Steven Hartman and pianist Nancy McDill) can make an imposing theater seem close and serene. Two dancers (Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild) twirl across the stage with finesse. This dance was also choreographed Wheeldon, though a smooth dance like A Place for Us needs a touch of Soirée Musicale-style jauntiness-or a few, subtle pricks of narrative tension-in order to be more than a flat exhibition of expertise.
Firebird, in contrast, is a folk narrative set to ballet. The story is simple enough: Prince Ivan (Ask la Cour) tracks down a mythical firebird (Maria Kowroski) and thus gains the power to vanquish the sinister Katschei the Wizard (Zachary Catazaro). Two NYCB icons-George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins-provided the choreography, while Russian avant-garde painter Marc Chagall designed the lush scenery and costumes.
But once you stop being dazzled by Chagall's imagination and by the show's small army of an ensemble, you might realize that there are flaws in this Firebird-flaws that can't be smoothed over, that require major rearrangements to fix. While Kowroski's performance perfectly balances athleticism, playfulness, and personal radiance, la Cour's turn as Prince Ivan has a lot of dry technique and nothing in the way of charm. I kept imagining what an NYCB principal like Tyler Angle (who swaggered his way through Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Fancy Free earlier this season) would have done with the role. He could have been enormously distracting, but he could also have been enormously fun to watch.
I also wonder what a less reverent company would have done with Firebird as a whole. Chagall was often a masterfully weird artist, and the costumes for Katschei and his subjects channel the mixture of comedy and near-nightmare that you can find in many a Chagall painting. But too many of the other costumes are specimens of matryoshka doll prettiness. And the closing tableau vivant mixes pomp and silliness in the worst way. (Of all things, it reminded me of those over-done ceremonies that bog down the Star Wars films.) I suppose that there was a time when Firebird could be a fine introduction to the riches of Russian folk culture; yet today, there is little need for introductions and more need for brilliantly expressive art-even if that means doing a little violence to Stravinsky. Of course, you can't really chide Stravinsky for being old fashioned. It's the NYCB that seems unwilling to move into our own era.