New York City Ballet – Bach to Glass: A Musical Odyssey II

NYCB dancers in the final pose from Robbins’ Glass Pieces, photo by Paul Kolnik

Tuesday evening’s program at New York City Ballet took the audience on a musical journey from Bach’s solo piano and solo cello pieces, to an early twentieth century violin concerto by Alban Berg, to Philip Glass’s minimalist music of the 1980s.  The performance was as choreographically diverse as it was musically, which speaks to the talent of choreographer Jerome Robbins.

2 & 3 Part Inventions, set to Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias for piano, was performed by eight advanced students from the School of American Ballet, as it was during its 1994 premiere.  The formal yet light-hearted mood of the piece was nicely conveyed by the dancers, and the clear formations and disciplined movement reflected the uncomplicated music.  I don’t think this piece would look nearly as good if it were performed by older, more experienced dancers, because the choreography and simple piano music offer a youthful innocence that can best be captured by students. 

Nicolas Le Riche in A Suite of Dances, photo by Jacques Moatti

The formality of 2 & 3 Part Inventions gave way to a more casual atmosphere in A Suite of Dances, a solo that Mikhail Baryshnikov premiered with his White Oak Dance Project in 1994 (and which I was fortunate enough to see).  The piece has a fun, playful feel as the dancer interacts with the on-stage cellist, reflects on the music, and then seems to improvise a string of movement to complement it.  Nicolas Le Riche, appearing as a guest artist from Paris Opera Ballet, started sitting on the floor at the feet of cellist Ann Kim.  He rose to standing as she began to play selections from Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello.  Le Riche was rather heavy on his feet and needed to be lighter and sprightlier in his jumps.  The piece is an opportunity for the male dancer to infuse the work with his own sense of playfulness, and I can recall how successful Baryshnikov was in this respect.  Le Riche, however, looked tired and lethargic, and lacked the finesse that is essential for this role.

The evening took a darker turn in In Memory of…, which is one of several Robbins pieces that addresses death and loss.  Alban Berg composed a violin concerto in 1935 that was dedicated to his friend’s eighteen-year-old daughter, who had died of infantile paralysis.  In three distinct sections, Robbins’ choreography illustrates the young girl when she was strong and healthy; then shows her illness and death; and finally, portrays her journey to heaven.  Wendy Whelan, in a pale pink dress, was delicate and vulnerable in the principal role.  She danced with youthfulness and joy in the opening duet with Jared Angle, who was an elegant and attentive partner.  Whelan wove through a corps of dancers who appeared on stage, suggesting that she was fully immersed in a community.  In the second section, Charles Askegard was a menacing, powerful death figure that seemed to envelop and nearly suffocate Whelan.  He manipulated her body and pushed and pulled her into different lifts and turns.  She grew more and more lifeless as their duet continued, and at one point, curled her body around his thigh and covered her face with her hands, nearly giving up and allowing death to take over.  The pace and violence with which death consumed her was alarming, but the final section, in which Whelan and the corps were dressed in white, illustrated her arrival in heaven and Robbins’ acceptance of mortality as a part of life. 

NYCB dancers in the third section of Glass Pieces, photo by Paul Kolnik

Glass Pieces is one of my favorite Robbins ballets, which has a lot to do with my appreciation of Glass’s music for this piece: Rubric and Facades from Glassworks, and excerpts from the opera Akhnaten.  The pedestrian movement in the first section reflected the repetitive structures and momentum of Rubric.  The large corps – with the women dressed in colorful leotards and skirts and the men in satiny tights and shirts – rushed about the stage in a repetitive pattern.  There is a distinct urban feel to the piece as the dancers walked quickly, avoiding one another and focusing on their destination.  Three couples in neon unitards appeared amidst the chaos, soaring with leaps and jumps and carefully maneuvering their way through the crowds.  Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle stood out for their precision and clarity.  Every so often, Angle made eye contact with his partner and the other dancers (while the others seemed to avoid any eye contact with their peers), adding a refreshingly human dimension to his performance. 

In the piece’s second section, a line of women in silhouette traverse along the back of the stage, their simple pattern of movement reflecting the hypnotic, repetitive rhythm of Facades.  Maria Kowroski was mesmerizing and other-worldly in her pas de deux with Philip Neal.  She floated onto the stage in a lift and seemed to dance a few inches above everyone else.  The two dancers disappeared as seamlessly as they had emerged.  Percussive rhythms of Akhnaten were the focal point of the third section.  My eyes were continually drawn to Adrian Danchig-Waring, the clear leader of the cluster of men who moved as a pack, stomping and making distinct changes in direction.  The stage became more crowded and chaotic as the women entered, and the piece ended memorably with the dancers in silhouette, their arms thrown upward and backs arched.  As thrilling as this section of Glass Pieces is, it would be even more powerful if it included the female opera singing that one hears on recordings of this music.  The high-pitched voice adds an ecstatic energy that I think would only intensify the ballet’s finale. 

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4 Responses to New York City Ballet – Bach to Glass: A Musical Odyssey II

  1. Philip says:

    I thought, as you did, that Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle brought a really distinctive feeling to their duet passages in GLASS PIECES. I feel sure that we will soon be seeing them in the central pas de deux of this ballet which – I agree with you – is one of the best of the Robbins rep.

  2. Jeff says:

    While I agree with a lot of what was said of the evening — which I also saw — I must disagree most strongly with your reaction to Monsieur LeRiche. His technique is impeccable and his playfulness is only made more apparent by his ability to call upon a lushness and quick-fire attack at will. While I find comparisons odious in the extreme — are we looking at the dancer/dance in its own light at the moment or not? — I have seen many soloists dance this work and found LeRiche to be among the greatest.

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment. I admit that comparisons are not always useful, but I have such a vivid memory of Baryshnikov in this role that I found it challenging to avoid comparing Le Riche’s dancing to his. Setting that aside, this was the first time I’d seen Le Riche perform, so perhaps I need to observe him a few more times – and in a variety of roles – to get used to his style and technique. If/when I see him perform in the future, hopefully I’ll be able to detect the lushness and attack that you appreciate in his dancing.

  4. Pingback: Glass Pieces at New York City Ballet « Dancing Perfectly Free

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