American Songs and Dances is a fitting title for the New York City Ballet program I saw on Wednesday night, which included Thou Swell, Ives, Songs, and West Side Story Suite. These are all period pieces, occurring at a specific time and place in America – and all (refreshingly) without tutus. Peter Martins’ Thou Swell is set in a 1930s nightclub and features four couples dancing to songs by Richard Rogers. This turned out to be one of the more enjoyable Martins works I’ve seen in a long time, mainly because the Art Deco dance floor and large mirror suspended from the ceiling, chic black and white gowns that the women wore, and classic Rogers tunes – sung by Betsy Wolfe and Mike McGowan on stage with a trio of musicians – added a touch of elegance and pizzazz to the ballet. The choreography was very “steppy” at times, and after a few songs, the movement became repetitive. While some of the choreography was cheesy and superficial, one of the more memorable dances was to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, with Faye Arthurs and Charles Askegard. Arthurs showed off her gorgeous extensions, and she and Askegard together engaged the audience and successfully made them a part of the nightclub scene. I loved when Jared Angle dashed over to the piano and played a few verses, which was probably added into the ballet just for him. It’s nice to see dancers’ other artistic abilities (later in the program, West Side Story Suite proved that many of the dancers can sing). Thou Swell was an upbeat opening to the program. Perhaps it could have also worked well as an optimistic closing to the love-themed Matters of the Heart program instead of the depressing Davidsbundlertanze.
The 1988 piece Ives, Songs, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is a retrospective ballet filled with joy, gloom, memory, and nostalgia. The eighteen songs by Charles Ives were sung beautifully by Philip Cutlip, with Cameron Grant at the piano. A lone elderly man, played by former NYCB principal and guest artist Robert LaFosse, walked in and out of scenes depicting various phases in his life, including childhood games, young love, fighting in a war, and parenthood. Kathryn Morgan stood out as one of the children, wearing a ribbon in her hair and a short, frilly dress. She has that rare ability to embody innocence, which lends itself perfectly to this role, while also dancing with a maturity beyond her years. Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard danced in a haunting and somber – but all-too-brief – pas de deux that portrayed an older couple transitioning from one stage of life to another. Whelan was memorizing, as always, as she floated across the stage. The corps of men looked well-rehearsed and solid in the section danced to Tom Sails Away. Justin Peck and David Prottas were standouts, and Adrian Danchig-Waring was noticeable throughout the ballet for his poise and grounded movement quality. Although this piece was a little too long, it was touching and depicted universal themes to which any audience can relate.
The main reason why I attended this program was to see Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, one of my favorite Robbins pieces, and also one of my favorite pieces in the NYCB repertoire. I’ve seen it countless times and always get a thrill from the energetic dancing, the story, and the incredible score by Leonard Bernstein. Seeing it again on Wednesday didn’t fail to please. This 1995 piece is a more dance-centered version of Robbins’ 1957 musical West Side Story, which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Robert Fairchild played Tony (the modern-day Romeo) while Andrew Veyette was Riff, the leader of the Jets. Just like in Peter Martins’ Romeo and Juliet, Fairchild showed here that he excels at portraying a hopelessly-in-love young man. Damian Woetzel has been dancing in the role of Tony for years, so it’s nice to see a rising dancer take over the role. I think Fairchild will continue to develop into Tony and make it his own. Veyette proved that he can sing in “Cool”, while Georgina Pazcoguin stole the show when she sang in “America”, along with Gretchen Smith as Rosalia. Part of what I love about West Side Story Suite is that the dancers – the men in sneakers and jeans, the women in characters shoes and 1950s skirts – appear to be having a blast, especially as they dance the mambo in “Dance at the Gym”. It must be a refreshing and much-appreciated change from pointe shoes, tutus, and leotards, which they wear for the majority of the NYCB repertoire. Every time I see this piece, I sense the dancers’ sheer energy radiating to the audience. I’m certain I’ll make a point of seeing West Side Story Suite each season that it’s performed.
It was great chatting and people-watching with Philip and Taylor during the intermissions. You can read their reviews of the program here and here. After the three-hour long program, we exited the theater to see tons of people standing around the boarded-up fountain and staring at the sky. A few moments later, Taylor and I joined the crowd of ballet-goers to marvel at the lunar eclipse. It was a stunning ending to a wonderful evening of dance. This marked my last NYCB performance for the winter season.