BWW Reviews: New York City Ballet Black and White Program
Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar in Symphony in Three Movements, photo by Paul Kolnik
The question of whether or not stage presence can be taught was the subject of an article in Pointe Magazine last May. The question as it relates to dancers is particularly important because it goes to the heart of our experience of a performance. Can you take any competent dancer and turn him/her into a star? Experience suggests not.
In the article by Amy Brandt, Alessandra Ferri didn't think so, believing charisma to be innate. Darla Hoover insightfully spoke of the process of teaching students to tap into a reservoir of sensitivity that can boost their ability to connect emotionally with an audience. We were compelled to watch Nureyev even after he became unwatchable - he was that charismatic. However, that animal magnetism is not the only thing that can command our attention. We may also be compelled to watch someone who is technically brilliant but not emotionally demonstrative. Someone like Fernando Bujones, who was impressive and a leading technician in his day but not given to much emotional display. We watched him because he was spectacular. In between those two poles, there is everyone else. That was the case with New York City Ballet's Black and White program this past Wednesday.
How much charisma dancers can bring to bear is an important element that comes into play when watching a repertory program without a single story to follow. This program, all abstract ballets of a certain modernist type, is for the informed and dedicated dancegoer and, as has been noted elsewhere, is not something that Balanchine ever used to do when creating programs for City Ballet. The general public is probably not well equipped enough to sit and watch four such pieces back to back. They need variety and perhaps a little story. There is no melodic music that sends you out humming a tune into the night. Much of this, the leotards, music and the dancing, seems too much the same to the public and fatigue sets in. Myself, I could sit and watch ballet class for four hours and enjoy it so I loved the program. Lucky me.
The company is brimming with incredible talent and much of it is charismatic as hell. In this All Balanchine Black and White program, Ashley Bouder, of course, sent thrills and chills out to the audience in the Four Temperaments as did Megan Fairchild in Duo Concertant. Adrian Danchig-Waring's performance in the role of the Four Temperaments' Phlegmatic allowed him to put his full range of beauty on display without being overtly emotional. He was so good that he became the high point of the ballet for me. He makes it okay, even necessary, to describe a man as beautiful and if you can find a better adjective to describe him in this part, go ahead. His kind of dancing becomes compelling, not through the force of personality but rather through the force of ideas and beautiful form. And isn't this what Balanchine was all about?
Balanchine was intent on letting the choreography be the star and always did his best to prevent a star system from developing. Of course, the company has nevertheless always had stars and they were the ones that many of these ballets were built around. It's unavoidable because not everyone has that stage presence which grabs the audience's attention. That ethos of non-star stardom continues today with casting not being announced until two weeks before show dates. NYC Ballet is in the business of selling its dance programs, not its dancers. After all, dancers come and go while the choreography remains. That brings up the second issue of the night. Can there be too much of a good thing with a full program of Balanchine's Black and White ballets? More about that later because there is still the issue of charisma.
Opening with the Four Temperaments is a safe bet in any program. It is an iconic modern ballet that has withstood the test of time and has been performed by too many dancers to name. In the opening Theme, Justin Peck, whose new ballet was premiering at the same time over at City Center, was shimmering with Ashley Laracey. The pair was... charismatic. It's inescapable. The audience reacts more favorably to the performers with star quality even if the dancing isn't as good. In this case it was very good.
Robert Fairchild, fine dancer but less charismatic, was strong in the part of Melancholic. In Sanguinic, Savannah Lowery was overshadowed by the exceptionally stronger performance of her partner, Tyler Angle. Lowery is a very good dancer who never misses her mark and never disappoints but she doesn't radiate that type of charisma that leaves you wanting/needing more. There is a certain lack of authority in her movement that makes her positions seem less than definitive coupled with a feeling of expressive inhibition that she needs to resolve in order to advance to the principal rank. Tyler Angle's dancing, by contrast, is exciting to watch. He is speedy and moves with exceptional clarity and you can feel the love he has for dancing. Danchig-Waring in the part of Phlegmatic was a star. No question about that.
Rounding out the cast in Four Temperaments was Ashley Bouder as Choleric. She was not as sharp as usual, a little slip, the balances not quite as secure or sustained, but Bouder can be less than her best and still set the room on fire. That is true star power. She reigns effortlessly on stage and assumes her right to the spotlight. You never doubt her. Not on this night either.
One answer to this conundrum of how good a dancer can be without great charisma is found in Janie Taylor. She is another fine dancer who doesn't project a great deal of feeling but her performance in Episodes was made enjoyable because of her intensity of concentration. One way of drawing and keeping the audience's attention is by being thoroughly focused and staying in the moment. That concentration creates a zone of interest that is not quite on the same level as a dancer with star quality but it forces one to take notice. Taylor is great to watch because of that intensity. This is what Savannah Lowery needs to emulate to take the next step up.
All four couples were exemplary in Episodes. Abi Stafford was beauty in motion, never missing the opportunity to show off her incredible feet. Teresa Reichlen, partnered by Ask la Cour was all sublime modernism with moments of touching tenderness in this enigmatic pas de deux. Maria Kowroski with Johnathan Stafford, so regal in style, showed the elegance that reminds everyone of Suzanne Farrell. There can be too much of a good thing in a program and for this audience, this piece signaled the arrival of that moment. A saturation point was reached.
The performance of Duo Concertant drew the most enthusiastic response from the audience. It's easy to see why with such a winning couple as Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle. They are perfectly matched in both physique and temperament. They glow together and the chemistry is what made this piece sing. You may complain about the contrivance of having the dancers stand around the piano listening when they should be dancing. The sequence under the tightly focused spotlight may rankle as too much stagecraft for such a slight piece of work. You might even quibble about the cloying cuteness of the couple's flirtatious interaction. Luckily, Fairchild's adorableness is genuine and never exceeds what her speed and agility are able to match. Like Bouder, Fairchild is a firecracker. She is fleet of foot and fearless, effervescent and joyous. In less capable hands (or feet) this might not have been the highlight but again, it's a simple matter of magnetism. These two have it in abundance, especially together.
During the pause that came before Symphony in Three Movements, the final ballet of the evening, there was a bit of an exodus. It was not much after nine o'clock so it can't have been the late hour that motivated them to leave. It was simply too much of a good thing for some people which was a comment I heard from several people as they were leaving the theater after the last piece of the night.
Symphony in Three Movements is Stravinsky at his best. As with Firebird, this is music that can thrill you. Despite a couple of ragged moments it was well done. Three more great couples delivered strong performances. Led by Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, Symphony was brimming with energy. Ramasar's muscularity and broad shoulders find perfect harmony with Hyltin's slender delicacy. As ballerinas go, here was a contrast in styles. At the most Balanchinian end is Rebecca Krohn with her flashing, angular wrists. At the far, most classically balletic end, is Ana Sophia Sheller. She finds her greatest realization as a dancer in princess parts. Squarely in the middle is Sterling Hyltin. All three together caused one a certain amount of whiplash trying to see everyone at once and then a deep sense of regret that it was only possible to watch this performance with one pair of eyes.
Here is the genius of Balanchine: that three such contrasting ballerinas in the same piece only makes it better. The ongoing dialectic of turn in and turn out, classic and modern, past and present, continues to thrill audiences fifty years later. The geometric still life of dancers at the end of Symphony in Three Movements was a perfect time to wallow in the transcendent beauty of Stravinsky and the continuing embarrassment of riches that New York City Ballet displays, night after night. (If you left early, you missed out.)