New York City Ballet.
Wendy Whelan's dancing was for me the high point of New York City Ballet's spring season because, after watching her for several years with interest, but not always with comprehension, I began to understand why I hadn't understood Whelan before yet had still been fascinated by her.
The reason for her vivid presence had a lot to do with Anna Laerkesen's ballet In The Blue, one of the most memorable of the works unveiled in this season's Diamond Project, a showcase for new ballets. The principals in Blue were Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe, and the dance showed both of them to strong advantage. Whelan especially so, because Laerkesen gave her not just a new role but a new context in which to dance. That context was passion.
Before, the context of Whelan's dancing had usually been dancing itself. Her astringent virtuosity was striking and individual. Before, I had supposed that Whelan could do almost anything called for in ballet--although when she did it, the look of the movement wasn't stereotypically classical. She didn't seem to observe, reflexively, the same aesthetic or moral code as other ballet dancers. There was little or no curtsy in her dancing, for example. Almost all ballerinas have it in them to curtsy; this is because most of them win their claim to sovereignty by effacement before an invisible, inherited court, from casting their lot with an artistic tradition that is formal, cued, and social. Whelan didn't seem to want a coronation. When she danced, movement and music seemed queenless, kingless, fast, democratic--and a bit shocking.
In The Blue shocked me also, though in another way, because with the indispensable collaboration of Hubbe and Whelan the ballet made a suggestion: that intensity of feeling, coupled with choreographic invention, can create a powerful, living imagery without the intervention of a full plot or bits of implied story. Though Laerkesen is far from the first choreographer to pose the suggestion, the vitality of the piece and the cast brought an ideal vehemently up to date.
Set to the Brahms violin concerto, In The Blue is about a love struggle. The principals wage it, backed by a corps. The contest is made all the more graphic by the attractive physical dissimilarities of Whelan and Hubbe: she elongated, vertical, angled, sternly flexible, minutely detailed; he rounded, ardent, lateral, voluminous--heroic, but in natural scale, somewhat diminutive. The draftsmanlike fastidiousness of Whelan's style brought to mind the inflamed precision of Goya. Her extreme clarity and dramatic impact were also due partly to her long, slender, more than usually legible body, which seems more fully exposed, muscle by muscle, than almost anyone's. By contrast, Hubbe's effect was sculptural, an elegantly engulfing rapture.
Much later, I remember the beauty of this partnership because at first it seemed incongruous, then brilliantly, unconventionally, balanced: because of Laerkesen's abandon in her choreography for arms and upper body, yet with scruples in designing quick, acute footwork; and because of the choreographer's unfashionably bold affirmation of emotion in our era of postminimalistic whimpering, cynicism, and smallness.
If any other big city in America had played host to this display of twelve new ballets, the Diamond Project would most likely be hailed. But since the setting was New York City, the critical obligation was subtly different and the general reception more freakish. I enjoyed many of the Diamond Project dances that I saw, especially Miriam Mahdaviani's Correlazione, John Alleyne's The New Blondes, and Peter Martins's Mozart Piano Concerto, as well as In The Blue. Yet the company's hundredth New York season underscored the magnificence of the Balanchine and Robbins repertoire as a constant point of reference, and as an almost inimitable authority.
Correlazione, set to music by Corelli, was a high-speed hurtle for two couples and a corps. Mahdaviani's playfully intricate partnering and her exuberant reading of the music turned courtliness on its ear--and then still continued romping. The barrage of imaginative steps was ably orchestrated by Yvonne Borree, Albert Evans, Jenifer Ringer, and Arch Higgins.
Evans was one of the most rewarding emergent dancers to watch over the course of the season, showing his versatility in many seemingly noholds-barred performances. His Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream was a rapacious, funny, and fierce troublemaker who gave sylvan fantasy a grittily knockabout feel. His classical partnering, too, seemed slightly undercut elsewhere by the feral, introducing a welcome and unexpected drama to a range of roles. But Evans was probably at his best in Alleyne's The New Blondes, a severely elegiac piece set to two Pachelbel chaconnes (in F and in D minor).
This prayerful, somber, spartan dance, in which small groups of soloists shared the stage but seemed entranced by solitary acts, was laden with an unspecified sadness. The stately rise and fall of Pachelbel's organ music evoked an occasion for mourning, yet no clear cause. Alleyne choreographed with a taste for extremity (for example, high, sharp extensions for the opulent Kathleen Tracey and lyrical Zippora Karz) and with a wish for conciliation, as suggested in gently rocking motions, blooming arms, and postures of propitiation for the men. Not only Evans but Peter Boal and Lindsay Fischer gave this piece the rapt dignity that it seemed to deserve.
Good dancers can also disguise ordinary or lackluster ballets, making them look better than they are. This happened with other Diamond Project pieces, as when Jock Soto led Lynne Taylor-Corbett's inconsequential Chiaroscuro and when Tom Gold and Alexander Ritter reveled in the academicisms of Richard Tanner's Episodes & Sarcasms. Ringer, whose ingenuous charm seemed always heartfelt and appealingly thin-skinned, brought an uncalculated lyricism--and sometimes pathos--to nearly every part I saw her dance. Though not as fast or precise in footwork as some, she compensates with a full-bodied beauty of position (especially in arabesque) and port de bras. She might well make an outstanding Juliet, given the chance; in fact, even now Ringer seems to dance as Juliet, no matter the role. That's her character as a dancer: spontaneous, affecting, dewy, and wild.
Ringer would probably also excel as one of the girlish passers-by in Robbins's Fancy Free (now a surprising fifty years old), though that opportunity didn't come her way. The male cast of happy-go-lucky sailors--Damian Woetzel, Robert LaFosse, and Gold--was exemplary, making a sort of music out of their comic timing that seemed to matter every bit as much as the actual dancing.
With regard to timing, Mikhail Baryshnikov is another master who gave a scant few performances of A Suite of Dances, the Robbins solo premiered in March under the auspices of the White Oak Dance Project. Set to portions of Bach's Suites for Solo Cello, played onstage by Wendy Sutter, the dance had the sneakily improvised quality--and the suspense--of life drawing done with whimsical panache. Except, in this case, Baryshnikov used his whole body as his custom-made pencil to draw a nonchalant self-portrait that took off from and returned to a musical source. Margaret Illmann, late of Broadway's Red Shoes, also made a handful of guest appearances.
The season saw several exits and retirements. The Danish-trained Adam Luders, who joined the company at Balanchine's invitation in 1975, retired at age forty-four after years of memorable appearances as a self-effecing and expert partner, and as a noblebrowed Romantic of impeccable technical facility. The brilliant Gen Horiuchi also left the company, as did Simone Schumacher.
Perhaps idiosyncratically, I felt Schumacher's departure to be a particular loss. The sense of indolent lushness and delicacy in her dancing isn't duplicated in City Ballet's other dancers; it suggested a pleasure taken from ballet and then given generously back to us. Schumacher's full and long line, with its changing depths, led by her architectural head, was poetic. She made me conscious of wrists in the dance: their power to punctuate a position or transition with a mere but telling adjustment. She was an individual, though not a principal, and that may be what counts.
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|Title Annotation:||New York State Theater|
|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1994|
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