Last night I attended New York City Ballet’s “Four by Four” program, which presents pieces from four choreographers inspired by four different composers. Reflecting on the program, I realized how diverse the ballets were, not only because of the different “voices” in each ballet, but also because of the varied settings – ranging from an 18th century court to a 1940s New York City bar – and movement styles, from sheer neoclassicism to jazzy theatricality.
The program opened with Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina (1978), to music by Giuseppe Verdi from the opera Don Carlos. The lead role was originated by Merrill Ashley, with whom I had the pleasure of studying in the summer of 2002 at The Jillana School. Merrill taught excerpts of Ballo in our variations class, but the quick tempo, intricate choreography, and hard-to-count music made this one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever had to learn. Even in sneakers, Merrill made it look effortless, as did Ashley Bouder in last night’s performance. She performed the quick footwork and multiple hops en pointe with sharpness and precision, while maintaining lyricism and grace in her upper body and a warm, inviting smile. Benjamin Millepied’s musicality was excellent, but his movement needed to be more expansive. Among the soloists, Kathryn Morgan stood out for her elegance and strength as she managed to execute pirouettes ending with an arabesque balance. Balanchine’s choreography for the corps clearly reflected the music: majestic and elegant when the score was slow, but quirky and cute – with flicks of the wrist and turned in passés – when the music was bright and quick.
I’ve listened to and been moved by the mystical depth of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for Violin, String Orchestra and Percussion. Combining it with Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography for Liturgy (2003) was enough to make me cry, right when the curtain rose on Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans standing apart, with darkness between them and dim lighting from above, as they slowly circled their arms overhead and interspersed this with bending at the elbows as they brought their arms to their chests and their gaze to the ceiling. The dancers eventually came together in seamless lifts, shapes, and unfolding turns. Whelan swerved around Evans, ran offstage, and suddenly reappeared and fell into his arms. There were pauses that mirrored the silences in the music, but Whelan and Evans successfully made these pauses into breaths rather than stops, so that there was continual life, energy, and flow in the ballet’s stillness. Even while dancing apart, the dancers maintained an intimate connection as they repeated and reflected each other’s movements. They ended as they began, by circling their arms overhead and looking upward to the yellow glow. The mystical, spiritual quality of Liturgy was unlike anything I’ve seen. Powerful enough to bring tears, this ballet thrives on the hauntingly beautiful music of Pärt, the mesmerizing, otherworldly choreography of Wheeldon, and the ethereal dancing of Wendy Whelan.
(Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans in Liturgy, photo by Paul Kolnik)
While Ballo featured a large female corps and Bouder as the queen bee, Peter Martins’ Les Gentilhommes (1987) was an opportunity for nine of the company’s rising men to demonstrate their artistry. Martins created this ballet “to show how beautifully and elegantly men can move”, instead of making “a big bravura piece showing beats and double air turns”. I don’t think it has to be one or the other; that is, men can be graceful and elegant while doing double air turns or large jumps. The dancers’ elegance was particularly apparent in the opening section, but in a few other parts the “bravura” quality that Martins wanted to avoid seemed to creep in, with hints of showiness in the jumps. On the whole, however, the dancers looked reserved and sophisticated. David Prottas, who debuted in his role, was the most graceful dancer in the piece, with sweeping arms, clarity in his jumps, and a striking presence.
The mischief and sass of the three sailors in Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free (which was the inspiration for the musical On the Town) contrasted nicely with the refined elegance of Ballo and Les Gentilhommes. Set in the summer of 1944 in New York City, this ballet follows three sailors on shore leave as they try to capture the attention of two women. Leonard Bernstein’s music is at the heart of this piece, with jazzy sounds and Latin rhythms. There was humorous mime from Damian Woetzel, Tyler Angle, and Daniel Ulbricht as the sailors, and Woetzel’s “samba solo” was particularly entertaining. He superbly portrays the handsome all-American guy, with just a touch of arrogance and a winning smile.
(Daniel Ulbricht in Fancy Free, photo by Paul Kolnik)