Broadwayworld Dance Review: Balanchine, Tchaikovsky--and some Mozart, New York City Ballet, January 23, 2019
Balanchine and Tchaikovsky! What a beautiful and profound relationship it was, considering the two never met in person, only in spirit and artistic vision. What was it about Tchaikovsky's music that so moved Balanchine to create so many works to his music? The call of one genius to another? Musical notes on paper reaching out and begging for a choreographic soul? That's about the best argument I can make.
The program on January 23, 2019, was a generous offering of Balanchine/Tchaikovsky (with a little help from Mozart). These are ballets most of us have seen during so many years of ballet going to New York City Ballet. In a way, they seem like blood relatives; they are always welcomed, warts and all.
I tried to decide if there was a unifying theme for the evening: Serenade, a romantic ballet; Mozartiana a reflective ballet; and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, an homage to both the old and the new that Balanchine embraced.
Or does it really matter?
Is there anything left to say about Serenade? Every time I see it I am dazzled by the sheer outburst and outpouring of movement that Balanchine created for it. How could one human being have the talent to do this? What propels an individual to envision, to create such a dazzling display of dance designs and patterns?
It's a God-given talent. End of story.
This performance was marred, in my estimation, by the performance of Sara Mearns in the "Waltz Girl" role. I have always been a fan of Ms. Mearns, and have found her exceedingly talented with a creative vision all her own, but one that can clash with others if not under control.
And it was displayed in Serenade. She danced with a tightness that almost seemed to coil her, in addition to being overwrought and thoroughly mannered.
This is not Bette Davis, Ms. Mearns. I'm sure that you've seen The Letter and Mr. Skeffington.
So have I.
Is anyone coaching her? She overacted-or should I say over danced-to such a degree, that I began to feel a doctor should have been brought in to examine her. She might have been displaying her thespian skills, but Serenade did not call for it. Everything is in the music. You react, not distract. You can feel it, but not to the point of explosiveness or capriciousness.
Megan LeCrone, another favorite dancer of mine, did not seem to respond to the music or to any characterization. She was technically secure, but that was it. I've always felt that the last movement of the ballet was its most poignant, yet Ms. LeCrone did not appear to be a part of it. As I mentioned above, Balanchine always said it was all in the music.
Everyone, do yourselves a favor. Listen to it.
Tiler Peck was, as always, musically fluid, her limbs echoing the music, but never overpowering it with unnecessary dramatic flourishes. If there was anyone who could tell a story without inferring there was one there, it was definitely her. She raised what could have been just a schleppy performance to a passable one. But she should not be alone. Support was needed. Listen up, ballet masters. Make sure that in the future the entire cast receives your help and input.
Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky's reworking of some Mozart piano pieces, was the first work Balanchine choreographed in 1933 to Tchaikovsky, and the last ballet he ever created for Suzanne Farrell. It is always easy to say that with this ballet Balanchine was awaiting death, that he summed up his work carefully and neatly in this ballet for the dancer who was his greatest muse.
Balanchine had choreographed Mozartiana three times, once for Les Ballets 1933, of which Edwin Denby wrote: "Brilliantly complex, full of surprising realizations and poignant interchanges, and a subtle, personal fragrance; in America in 1934 by the producing company of the School of American Ballet, later revived in 1945 by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Denby writing: "Sunny, another of Balanchine's pocket masterpieces which restore to the ballet its classic clarity and joyousness," and by John Martin of the New York Times: "It is cool, clean, difficult, and devise. It has its ensemble movement in which everybody plays "London Bridge" like mad. There is authority, superb technical competence, imagination, and musicianship always to be found in Balanchine's work; it is only range and, above all, matter that they lack."
Never having seen any of these productions, I can't comment. What I can say from a fully personal view is that the latest version, unveiled in 1981, is one of quiet reflection and deep poignancy. It puts one in a mood of, shall I say, spirituality, even if you don't believe in such a thing. It makes your heart respond to something that can't be defined. And why should it? It's just between you, the music and the ballet. In a dark theater, alone. It's almost like being in a house of worship, yet not all is deep mourning--there is lightness. You smile.
The ballet was led by the company's senior ballerina, Maria Kowroski (remember when she was its junior ballerina?), and I say not to criticize, but to extol her great achievement through the years. Her understanding of Balanchine may not have always been to everyone's tastes, but within her own vision and talent, she made sure that people took notice
She is now a true adult. She sets the tone. If she has lost some of her youthful pliancy and her line is not as clear as it used to be, that is a ballerina's maturity. She makes up for that in imagination and a quiet, radiant composure. She presides over it. Balanchine always said that "ballet is woman." In this ballet, you know exactly what he meant, for without a magnificent woman, there would be no ballet.
Ably supported by Tyler Angle, always an outstanding partner, and Daniel Ulbricht with a quartet of women, Mozartiana is that rare thing: a ballet with a heart and a soul.
I know I've already said that. I'm saying it again.
With a flourish from the orchestra, the pit rose with Andrew Litton conducting the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, with Susan Walters soloing at the piano. Litton spoke and demonstrated for approximately 15 minutes Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2, for the ballet of the same name that was the program's closer. His aim was, I suppose, to stress its importance in the Tchaikovsky canon.
I know several musicians, and I have been told something different. The reason the music is not played in concert halls is because it is not up to par. It is second-rate. It's formless, meanders, and I can understand only too well why any prized pianist would not want to perform it.
The exact reason why Balanchine would choose it-it lends itself to choreography. Not to say he preferred only second rate Tchaikovsky. But in many cases, the music fulfilled his needs.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 is an homage to St. Petersburg. of Balanchine's youth, evoking memories of Petipa, Ivanov, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Yet it's also a modern ballet. He keeps his ballerina off balance, off center, off course. She is no longer at the Mariinsky, she is now a New Yorker.
The ballerina role is a killer. With a piano entrance and a cadenza, the ballerina dances non-stop and quickly. Very quickly. There is no time to pause, you follow the pianist. That's what makes this a great part -- it is the music. It defines the ballerina, who here reigns over her court.
Ashley Bouder danced the leading part with such aplomb, such assurance and a command of the music, that there was nothing to say but wow. However, with this wow come some other observations. Joseph Gordon, dancing the male cavalier, has the makings of an excellent partner, but onstage and next to Bouder, he looked like a little boy of 10. He needs more assurance and stage time to command this role.
Lauren King was a perky and delightful second ballerina. She is growing in stature and presence. I hope she has a bright future in the company.
And finally, my closing thought. The lighting. It is awful. Is this now a City Ballet film noir? Will Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Phyllis Thaxter and Audrey Totter be appearing with the company?
No, and that's just the point. Get someone who knows lighting. It's disgraceful. If I keep watching the company in shadows much longer, I'm going to suggest whoever designs the lighting take some refresher courses at NYU, Yale or Carnegie-Mellon.
Or will new management provide the panacea?
Your guess is as good as mine.