BWW Reviews: New York City Ballet's Bournonville Divertissements and La Sylphide
So how far does an afternoon of Bournonville go? I would love to say a long way, yet in the performance on Sunday, May 24, at the Koch Theater, the dancers of the New York City Ballet proved that, while soaring high octane is definitely in their blood, the softer sounds and characterizations of Bournonville may be beyond their considerable and powerful techniques.
Bournonville requires grace, but also compelling characterization since, without these very important factors, the dance gets lost in a haze of missed opportunities. I was looking for that combination of technique and acting chops, as theatergoers love to say. And while it delivered occasionally, it tended to falter, often without the dancers realizing it.
Bournonville is especially noted for the épaulement, where the dancer carries the upper body, the grace and harmony of body, quick footwork, light landings on foot and the move of the eyes as they direct themselves down to the foot. Arms also play a great part: they are not stiff, but soft and rounded; the fingers never tight, but calm and relaxed. I would say a sort of "all is well with the world" demeanor. City Ballet dancers aren't like that; they're more "I did it without any problems. Yes, it's hard. Can you see it?"
The first offering of the afternoon, the "Bournonville Divertissements," originally presented in 1977 and staged by the renowned Stanley Williams-and here restaged by Nilas Martins--has gone through a number of changes since that first production However, it has not had many showings at City Ballet. It comes along every few years so that dancegoers can get a look at another style of dancing-at least that's my fantasy. But again, the matter of style comes up. What do City Ballet dancers offer in the way of compensating for the lack of Bournonville technique? Good coaching and immersion in Bournonville would be the ideal solution, but I don't think that's in the near future.
The opening divertissement, Ballabile, is a case in point. The two leads, Erica Pereira and Allen Peffer, are perfectly competent, but their reach for the airy grace that so transposes in Bournonville is not to be found. Pereira is not a technically strong dancer, even in the Balanchine roles she dances, so to put her in this repertoire without, it seems to me, proper direction, loses nuance and shading.
Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle performed the Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux. I always have a problem with Reichlen. Either she is not partnered correctly, or the part she is dancing seems a bit difficult to comprehend in her technique, as well as her mind. It could also be that she is too reticent, too withdrawn. Or, as a friend has said, she overreaches in her technique, which gives her a stiff, ungainly look. The pas de deux needs a playful and wistful air, some soul as it were. As with Pereira, she needs direction.
Tyler Angle tended to compensate for Reichlen's seeming lack of interest. He jumped, cavorted, and flew. But without that input from Reichlen, he danced as if by himself. As agile, nimble, and personable as he always is, there was no connection, no heart. And without heart in a Bournonville pas de deux, what's the sense of performing it? I would have loved to see the outstanding Tiler Peck in this part.
Both the Pas de Six and Napoli excerpts were well presented, but I came away with the feeling that tarantellas and Bournonville ensembles are not things that New York City Ballet favor. The ensemble in the Pas de Six was pleasant, yet it seemed forced, joyless. The Napoli finale featured lots of tambourine banging, but no real exuberance. Reichlen was dancing in this last section and seemed as if she disdained her tambourine, or just wasn't interested. Will someone at New York City Ballet wake up and help this very talented, but seemingly lost dancer.
The second part of the afternoon was Peter Martins' setting of "La Sylphide," originally set on the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1985. One of the great romantic ballets, it has steadily entered the repertoires of many ballet companies around the world. While never achieving the renown of Giselle, its story of a sylph loving a mere mortal who, due to his rash and weak behavior, manages to ensure the sylph's death, leaving him forlorn and despondent is equally compelling .
The ballet had a number of things going in its favor; unfortunately it was not in the case of the star role. Lauren Lovette is a lovely, up and coming soloist who has proved herself a major asset in the Balanchine repertoire. She definitely is a star in the making. But the sylph requires a grace, a charm that can't be forced. When Lovette appears it's as if she's saying, "Here I am, aren't I lovely. Now I will bend down on one knee, turn my face stage left and represent the image of a romantic ballerina."
This doesn't work, especially in a ballet that requires real acting ability. I kept asking myself just what Lovette was trying to do, or prove. Did Martins assign her the part because it would stretch her as a dancer? If so, he made the wrong choice. Actors like and can be stretched in their technique, as so much depends on voice and speech. A dancer in "La Sylphide" does not have that luxury. It's not the kind of thing that can build throughout a performance. Especially in Bournonville. Here the sylph must make her presence felt as the curtain rises. She's right there center stage, and if an impression is not created, she's not going anywhere. This is exactly what I felt with Lovette. What direction are you taking? I don't see the sylph in her permanent repertoire as I do "Symphony in C" and "Jewels." A valiant effort, but one that didn't pan out.
As James, Anthony Huxley possessed the upper body ease and supple legs needed for the role. Already a soloist, he also seems destined for greater things. If characterization is not one of them-another non-acting dancer-then a prince in the making. Lauren King as Effie and Troy Schumacher gave, surprisingly, well rounded characterizations, and Gretchen Smith seemed to have a grand time as the evil Madge, who sets the final tragedy of the sylph in motion.
A worthy experiment. But while Peter Martins may have thought that a new staging of "La Sylphide" would add to the company's luster, it just pointed up the very exceptional qualities that make City Ballet unique, and what sets it apart from the other great ballet companies the world over.