New York City Ballet – Baroque to Jazz: A Musical Odyssey

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall in N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, photo by Paul Kolnik

The Jerome Robbins Celebration is well underway at NYCB, now in its fourth week of the spring season.  Although I’ve already seen several Robbins ballets since the start of the season, Wednesday evening’s “Baroque to Jazz” program was the first one that truly exemplified Robbins’ choreographic and musical breadth.  He moved smoothly and easily from Baroque to Broadway.  The journey from Brandenburg to N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz successfully illustrated his ability to portray distinctive environments while also conveying different emotions and moods. 

Brandenburg, the final ballet that Robbins created, in 1997, is set to several of Bach’s intricate Brandenburg Concertos.  The opening section looked lively as the dancers masterfully executed the demanding choreography and continuously changing formations, both of which reflected the clarity of the music.  Megan Fairchild (replacing Ashley Bouder) and Gonzalo Garcia were energetic and in tune with one another, but lacked crispness and expansion in their upper bodies.  After their pas de deux, the ballet seemed to suddenly shift gears.  The elegant Baroque feeling that I sensed in the opening was replaced by youthfulness and childishness that clashed with Bach’s concertos.  The dancers repeatedly trotted backwards, skipped in circles, and skittered across the stage in a juvenile manner.  It was not particularly endearing, especially after seeing the dancers looking so elegant and mature in the first section.  As a result of the contrasting themes, the pas de deux for Janie Taylor and Philip Neal was a combination of graceful romance and young flirtation.  Taylor was reserved in expression but fully committed to the movement, while Neal was an attentive partner.  Several dancers were nicely featured in the “Menuetto-Polacca” section, including Adrian Danchig-Waring and Rebecca Krohn, who both stood out for the fluidity and ease in their upper bodies.  There were passages of eye-catching choreography and a refined quality to many of the dancers’ movement, but Brandenburg seemed to have an identity crisis as it floated between Baroque sophistication and child’s play, without fully committing to either.

In the Night, set to Chopin’s mysteriously beautiful piano nocturnes, swept me into an entirely different environment from the first piece on the program.  Three couples performed deeply private duets under a starry sky, each one reflecting a distinctive mood or impulse.  I felt like an outsider getting only a glimpse of each relationship while the dancers carried on, completely unaware of anyone else.  In the first duet, Tyler Angle and Rachel Rutherford were enchanted by one another as they moved slowly and delicately through the various lifts and turns.  They maintained eye contact and rarely acknowledged the audience as they were wrapped up in their own world. Near the end of their duet, the back of Rutherford’s long lavender tulle skirt got caught in her hair.  In character, Angle carefully pulled the skirt away from her hair, and then lifted her overhead as he glided serenely off stage.


 Tyler Angle and Rachel Rutherford in In the Night, photo by Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard, in the second duet, were sharper and seemed more mature than the young love in the first duet.  They conveyed hints of attitude as they occasionally turned away from each other, but always quickly returned to their waltzing.  The fierce orangey-red of Mearns’ dress also contributed to the older (and perhaps wiser) feeling in their duet. 

The most tempestuous and moody of the duets was for Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, who filled every ounce of music with their emotions.  Whelan conveyed indecisiveness as she continually turned toward and then away from Angle, first throwing herself into his arms and then desperately trying to get away, with her limbs kicking in every direction.  At one point, she scrambled off stage, only to return and gaze longingly at him.  Moments later, he behaved the same way.  Although their relationship was unsteady, Whelan and Angle were fully committed to the lightning-quick choreography.  I’ve never seen Whelan dash about the stage so frantically and yet with so much control and precision.  Her black and silver tulle gown was very flattering, and reflected the moodiness of her character.  Each couple seemed completely separate from the other two, but they all eventually came together to acknowledge one another’s presence – and their differing relationships.  Then, the men gracefully lifted the women overhead as the couples exited in different directions. 

The romantic evening was replaced by New York City’s lively streets for N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.  Sixteen young dancers united to celebrate the jazzy rhythms of Robert Prince’s music.  Program notes from the 1958 production, performed by Robbins’ Ballets: USA, explained that “the young have so identified with the dynamics, kinetic impulse, the drives and ‘coolness’ of today’s jazz steps that these dances have become an expression of our youth’s outlook and their attitudes toward the contemporary world around them.”  The piece certainly had a 1950’s feel to it, and the influence of Robbins’ West Side Story for Broadway (which he completed about eight months before N.Y. Export premiered) was apparent in much of the choreography.  However, the emotions and relationships among the dancers were timeless ones to which anybody could relate.

The opening was filled with finger snapping, hip swivels, and Robbins’ signature leg extension to the side with one arm overhead and fingers splayed, as the dancers showed off for one another in a friendly yet sexually charged competition.  The ensemble had tremendous verve and pizzazz, and the brightly colored tops they wore – with matching sneakers – and colorful cityscape backdrop designed by Ben Shahn further enhanced the piece’s energy.  Sean Suozzi, Amar Ramasar, and Georgina Pazcoguin truly felt the rhythms and captured the youthful energy of N.Y. Export, and they looked like they were having a ball. The slow, intense duet for Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall explored the tension in their relationship.  For the original cast, Robbins chose a racially mixed couple (present in this performance, as well), which probably created tension for the 1958 audience.  The duet was the darkest and most sensual part of the piece, suggesting the deep emotions beneath the youths’ tough, rowdy exteriors.  The dancers came together in the end – now wearing white tops and sneakers that indicated their youthful innocence and solidarity – to emphasize one last time how much they truly bond over and relate to the jazzy rhythms. 

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