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New York City Ballet - The Trip to Fancy Free

by Richard Penberthy
June 17, 2006
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

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New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet (office)
New York State Theater
20 Lincoln Center
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www.nycballet.com

Saturday Evening, June 17, 2006, the 8:00 PM program
Maurice Kaplow, conductor
David Briskin, guest conductor

New York City Ballet
www.nycb.org
Divertimento No. 15, In Memory Of‰¥Ï, Fancy Free

Mozart's Divertimento 15 (Kochel number 278), guest-conducted by David Briskin, invites, pleads for, a simple, pretty treatment. And, Balanchine clearly found that irresistible. For, pretty it is, with Karinska's blue and white tutus for the women, waist-length blousy jackets for the men, and pale federal gold bodices setting apart the principal ballerinas. The romantic music, organized as Theme and (six) Variations, Minuet, Andante, and Finale, is seductive. But, by choosing to play a numbers game, Balanchine takes his ballet past pretty, past pleasing, all the way to a brisk but subtle humor. The cast comprises two odds and an even ‰¥ã three men, five principal ballerinas, and eight ballerinas in the corps. As a result, and because some of the corps are partnered almost as frequently as the principals, a man is occasionally posed in full arabesque, prettily, lacking only a tutu, in the semi-circle of ballerinas, a place holder, as it were. And instead of the usual two ballerinas front and center, as often as not two men form the romantic arch‰¥Ïin other words, a conservative choreographic treatment of Mozart it is patently not. Despite very impressive solo work, there was a long, tense moment when a ballerina, dependent on her partner for a complex figure, found that he seemed to have forgotten‰¥Ï. The corps was generally in the moment and focused, but at times they seemed under-rehearsed. Clearly, dance is not synchronized swimming ‰¥ã with atomic-clock synchronicity expected of the eight dancers ‰¥ã but neither should it be undisciplined.

Robbins's In Memory Of‰¥Ï is performed to Alban Berg's 1935 composition, To the Memory of an Angel. (Maurice Kaplow elicited a terrific performance from the orchestra, with Kurt Nikkanen solo violin.) Deborah Jowitt has written an article for the program that is at once scholarly and accessible; it is invaluable to the understanding of this ballet. She recounts the history: Alban Berg's grief at the death of a young woman in the 1930s (Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius's daughter) and its resonance with Jerome Robbins's own sadness fifty years later as he lost friends and colleagues. The ballet is presented in three parts ‰¥ã a portrait of the girl, followed by an account of her illness and death, and, last, her transfiguration. Manon Gropius, Berg's young friend, died of infantile paralysis, at the time another name for crippling effects of polio. Wendy Whelan and Seth Orza portray her early life ‰¥ã the free grace and capacity for generous friendships of young healthfulness ‰¥ã dancing and whirling through the large corps of plainly dressed couples on stage. To begin the second segment, Ms. Whelan pauses, and the corps, regimented, marches, quietly stepping on demi-pointe almost militarily (Jowitt notes a Robbins reference to Nazism insinuating itself in Europe) offstage except for Charles Askegard. He is Illness and, eventually, Death. What a false partner, what a gentle evil he is, giving her freedom to fight, then drawing her back; her struggle is determined and poignant. Hers becomes the body militant and rebellious, taking her by surprise. Finally he gathers her, curled and limp, and rocks her gently, dead, slowly as a parent might a sleeping infant, as he walks offstage. The third segment is transfiguration, and the earthly corps, the friends, are dressed in white. She joins them, looking‰¥Ïwell, angelic. (One rather wishes it weren't so ‰¥ã that the long flowing hair hadn't been chosen for this segment.) Her capacity for grace has been restored, and as the ballet ends, she is lifted on either side by Mr. Orza and Mr. Askegard and with slow exaggerated arcs, she strides the ether, or as Robbins wrote, "she is now accepting Life and Death, transported to a place to be able to WALK ON AIR, which is what she is doing."

The scenery for this ballet, by David Mitchell, is a wall of mottled, oxidized bronze that takes the light so variously that it can seem bright and warm or dark and hopeless. And the lighting by Jennifer Tipton both moves and settles with the theme. For instance, in the first segment, an oval of light from stage left forecasts the circle of young dancers that will form, and its echo again foretells a somewhat altered circle for the transfiguration. Spots and floods and shaped lighting throughout are emphatic yet somehow unobtrusive actors in the emotional play of the ballet.

Jerome Robbins choreographed Fancy Free to Leonard Bernstein's 1944 music, and the ballet premiered in April, 1944, near the end of World War II. It must have been a relief from the fatigue of war news to chuckle over the competitive maleness, the braggadocio, of sailors on leave in New York City. Amanda Hankes and Pascale van Kipnis caricature the young, available gals of the big city. Three sailors, Tyler Angle, Jonathan Stafford, and Daniel Ulbricht, compete for their attentions by showing off their dance skills (a somewhat improbable contest perhaps). This entire cast tapped into the comedic vein with gusto. Daniel Ulbricht, with the same brio he brings to his roles as Puck and Jester in other ballets, won hands-down (or, rather hands together) with his splits and acrobatic performance. Christopher Boehmer, as the ever-calm bartender, and Rebecca Krohn, as the seductive late-night stroller, complete the cast.
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