BWW Reviews: THE SCHOOL OF AMERICAN BALLET Celebrates 50 Years of Workshop Performances
On June 3rd 2014, The School of American Ballet's 50th annual Workshop Performance at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln Center once again proved that Balanchine was right when he famously said "But first a school". That remark was Mr. B's response after Lincoln Kirstein invited him to come to the United States to co-found a ballet company in 1933. Eight decades later, as evidenced by the overall high level of talent and artistry on stage, SAB continues to deserve its reputation as this country's foremost pre-professional training ground for ballet dancers versed in the Balanchine style.
Fittingly, the opener was the first ballet Mr. B choreographed on fledgling SAB students shortly after the school was founded. "Serenade", set to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade in C major for String Orchestra [Opus 48]", premiered on June 10th 1934 at the estate of Felix Warburg near White Plains, New York. I once saw a grainy video from that era. The dancers were not as polished or sleek as today's crop of SAB students are, but Mr. B's genius was evident nonetheless. Tony Bentley titled her 2010 article about "Serenade" in the Wall Street Journal "The Ballet That Changed Everything". She wrote that Balanchine "planted the seeds for the next 50 fertile years during which he reshaped classical ballet, with its French, Italian, Danish and Russian roots, as an American art form".
Of special note during the 2014 Workshop was Addie Tapp, one of this year's Mae L. Wien Award winners, in the role of the Waltz Girl. The venerable and revered Suki Schorer staged the production. Andrews Sills conducted the superb live string ensemble - and later the full orchestra for the remainder of the works on the bill.
After the intermission, when the curtain rose to reveal the children's corps de ballet in their opening pose for "The Waltz of the Golden Hours" from "Coppelia", the audience let out a collective "Aww!". Yet the little ones proved to be as accomplished as they are adorable. Kudos to Dena Abergal, the 2014 Mae L. Wein award winner for Distinguished Service, and to Arch Higgins for their work in preparing the youngsters to perform with such precision and musicality. In fact, I felt a little sorry for the teenage soloists in the roles of Waltz, Dawn, Prayer, and Spinner as they gamely vied for the audience's attention while being upstaged by their younger colleagues. Even so, I can't resist a mention of SarahAnne Perel's spirited and proficient dancing as Spinner. I noted in my January BWW Review of "Saturday at the Ballet With George" that 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. I said then and I'll say again that I hope she's headed for a stellar career!
"Discord and War", with some especially fine dancing by the men, concluded the "Coppelia" excerpts. Next up was a scene from "Swan Lake", ably staged by Darci Kistler. The swan maidens were better rehearsed than their professional NYCB counterparts across the plaza that I have seen several times. However, Alston MacGill as Odette displayed more stamina than soul. Adeptly partnered by Joshua Sutkind, she dutifully did the swanlike gestures with her arms as "wings", but the effect was not convincing and her face was largely blank throughout. She may yet emerge as a true artist but she's not there yet. I wish her well, though, and I encourage her to take this critique as helpful rather than hurtful. She's very talented and could go far.
The fourth movement of "Western Symphony" was the rousing closer. Christopher Grant, another of the Mae L. Wein awardees, proved to be outstanding as the principal cowboy both for his acting and for his powerful technique. A New York City native, he was accepted at the age of seven into SAB's tuition-free Boys Program. How wonderful to see the gratifying result!
At the curtain call, the bouquets of flowers were given to the teachers rather than to the lead dancers. I find this tradition to be a touching testimony to the well-deserved respect SAB has always had for those who shape each new generation of dancers. Onward now to next half century of Workshops!
Photo by Paul Kolnik