New York City Ballet – Russian Roots

Wendy Whelan in costume for Opus 19/The Dreamer

photo by Josef Astor, Dance Magazine, March 2003

Wednesday evening’s program at the New York State Theater was a quadruple bill of works by Jerome Robbins with music by three Russian composers. With the exception of the not-so-memorable Andantino, the opening duet that was performed delicately by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz, the rest of the program had a theme of community – people coming together either to celebrate or mourn. Although the ballets occur in very different settings, there are Russian undertones in each of them. Thus, the program’s title, “Russian Roots”, refers to more than just the composers.

I find that many of Robbins’ works have not stood the test of time. They tend to look dated, in terms of themes, costumes, and choreography. However, this is not the case with Opus 19/The Dreamer, a mysterious, hauntingly beautiful piece set to the equally beautiful Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major by Sergei Prokofiev. The opening alone gave me the chills. Gonzalo Garcia, as the dreamer, used his arms to repeatedly push through space and express his longing for someone or something, while the corps of twelve dancers quietly tiptoed behind him. Wendy Whelan emerged mysteriously from the swirl of blue-gray costumes, and then danced with attack and wild abandon – her arms sharply changing directions – as the dream’s momentum built. In the pas de deux, it seemed that Garcia was one of the followers as he became mesmerized by Whelan and followed her path. A breezily romantic quality and sense of longing defined their dancing. Synovial movement – leading with the joints – and flexed limbs dominated the choreography for the corps, which jetted from the wings to surround Garcia and Whelan, and then just as quickly disappeared. The ballet has a timeless, ethereal quality and seems fresher and more appealing with every viewing.

NYCB in Piano Pieces, photo by Paul Kolnik

Piano Pieces, to fifteen compositions by Tchaikovsky, is more firmly rooted on earth than Opus 19/The Dreamer since it takes places in a tangible setting, perhaps a 19th-century village in Russia. The corps danced joyously in polkas and circular patterns, and the women’s white dresses with a red stripe down the middle had a distinctively Russian feel. I was puzzled by the three pas de deux that followed, which seemed like an entirely different ballet. The couples broke off from the community, wore different costumes (the women wore pale-colored dresses), and seemed generally unrelated to the first section of the ballet. In fact, they reminded me more of the many duets in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, and could very well have been a part of that ballet.

Regardless, the couples here danced with dedication and clarity. Sara Mearns showed tremendous technical and artistic growth this past winter season and this has continued into the spring. The lushness for which she is increasingly known is accompanied by refined and sharp technique. Abi Stafford’s bright pas de deux with Amar Ramasar had demanding passages with intricate footwork, which they carefully maneuvered. I would like to see Stafford in some darker, moodier roles, since these will be more of a challenge than the spirited roles that she naturally embodies. Kaitlyn Gilliland, a promising corps dancer, was particularly impressive in her pas de deux with Stephen Hanna. Her leg extensions and rond de jambe en l’air – a circling of the leg in the air – were controlled and suspended, reflecting the slow, dreamy music. There was also beautiful fluidity in her long torso and an established connection with her partner. Gilliland, here and in other featured roles, has shown maturity far beyond her years. The disparate sections of Piano Pieces were united at the ballet’s closing, when the entire ensemble came together in a celebration and danced in circles. It was only then that I sensed a connection between the corps and the three principal couples.

NYCB in Les Noces, photo by Paul Kolnik

The first time I saw Les Noces, when I was twelve, I was rather terrified by the dramatic, ritualistic portrayal of a Russian peasant wedding and the loud, chaotic-sounding music by Stravinsky. In this performance, I was able to look past the piece’s severity and observe the choreography, formations, and ceremonial abstractions. The sense of community was emphasized by the ensemble dancing, with the men rallying around the groom and the women comforting the bride. Kathryn Morgan’s innocent features lent themselves well to the role of the bride. She also conveyed an aloofness that seemed fitting for a young girl who is unready to leave home and marry. The men’s choreography was most interesting, with a lot of stomping, athletic floor work, and powerful jumps in unison. Andrew Veyette, as the matchmaker, brought a commanding machismo to his role, and Rebecca Krohn and Rachel Rutherford, portraying the groom and bride’s respective mothers, were deeply dramatic in the “lamentation of the mothers”.

Although the program notes indicated that the second half of the ballet illustrates the celebratory wedding feast, I did not sense a shift in mood from the lamentations in the first half to the celebrations. Les Noces, overall, felt intensely mournful and even stressful, and admittedly, was still rather frightening. I have a great deal of respect for Robbins for taking on such a production – with four pianos, percussion, four solo singers, and a large chorus all on stage. Yet, his smaller ballets, like Opus 19/The Dreamer, are just as effective and stirring as his larger works, and linger in the memory for even longer.

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