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New York City Ballet: Circus Polka, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Jeu de Cartes, Firebird

by Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 14, 2007
Lincoln Center
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(Read More NYC Ballet Reviews).
Guest Conductor: Paul Mann

About the Author:
Circus Polka (1972): Music by Igor Stravinsky, Choreography by Jerome Robbins, Lighting by Ronald Bates, Ring Master: Robert La Fosse, Performed by Students of School of American Ballet. "Circus Polka" was originally choreographed by Balanchine for elephants in Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Stravinsky wrote the music to be danced by young elephants. In 1972, Jerome Robbins created a contrasting ballet for young students and a Ringmaster to Stravinsky's same score. The children spell I. S. at the end, Stravinsky's initials. (NYCB Notes).

It was delightful to see Robert La Fosse, a former Principal dancer of City Ballet, in such great form. He cracked a "soft" whip, like a circus trainer, and, instead of circus animals, tiny and not so tiny tots from School of American Ballet (SAB) danced in precisely timed running steps in circles and groupings, wearing tutus and leotards of three colors (blue, green, pink) for three age groups of dancers. This archived Robbins work is a vehicle in which the SAB students can shine, in an all-ensemble piece, quite brief, but ravishingly buoyant, and a bit of theatrics, as well. The circus curtain and minimal sets infuse the Stravinsky score with playfulness and pizzazz.

Walpurgisnacht Ballet (1980): Music by Charles François Gounod, Choreography by George Balanchine, Costumes by Karinska, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Performed by Kyra Nichols, Philip Neal, Abi Stafford, Alina Dronova, Ana Sophia Scheller, Saskia Beskow, Amanda Hankes, Glenn Keenan, Gwyneth Muller, and the Company. This is a Balanchine choreographed scene from the last act of the opera "Faust" on the eve of May Day, a dance of wandering souls, joyful revelry. (NYCB Notes).

Kyra Nichols was ravishing and possessed in one of her final roles of a long, successful career at City Ballet. The opera ballet, of wandering souls, brilliantly book-ended the circus piece, with a lone male principal, Philip Neal, and twenty-four females, including Ms. Nichols, Abi Stafford, Alina Dronova, Ana Sophia Scheller, and a silky smooth ensemble of fluttering nymphs. Ms. Stafford exuded hard-earned fluidity, while Ms. Nichols maintained balance, confidence, and poise, at this imminent edge of retirement. The multi-shades of lavender (Karinska's classical costumes) set off the sumptuous Gounod score.

Balanchine created a highly structured flow of choreographed shapes and creative shadows, as the figures and spotlights played with the lavender finery. Philip Neal was at his best, as he partnered the seasoned Ms. Nichols with minute attention. Ms. Scheller and Ms. Stafford exuded contrasting attitudes, with Ms. Stafford exuberant and flight-born and Ms. Scheller coy and seamless. Ms. Dronova will grow into this role with less overt effort and fewer sharp steps. The corps ensemble carried Mr. Balanchine's intentions with impressive fluidity.

Jeu de Cartes (1992): (See January 25, 2003 Review). Music by Igor Stravinsky, Choreography by Peter Martins, Scenery and Costumes by Ian Falconer, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Performed by Sterling Hyltin, Jared Angle, Benjamin Millepied, Andrew Veyette, and the Company. Stravinsky composed this score for the first Stravinsky Festival at the Met Opera, organized by Balanchine. Dancers represented the four card suits, and the joker led the dance. (NYCB Notes).

Ms. Hyltin made a remarkable debut in this dizzying work, with multiple, off-gravity spins with three lead partners. Her personality-plus presence assisted the off-kilter shifts in balance, and the mark of a great dancer is to smile through the challenges, never shaking the mood. Peter Martins resurrected this 1937 Balanchine-Stravinsky concept in 1992, and he shifted attention from the Joker to the Queen of Hearts. The corps is all in white, with emblematic motifs for each suit of cards, and the "shuffling of the deck" is remarkable. Ian Falconer's costumes, in fact, are all remarkable, and the three male leads, in costumes of clubs, diamonds, and the ace of spades are brightly colored and eye-catching. Ms. Hyltin's Queen of Hearts outfit was equally engaging and as colorfully energetic as the dance.

Of the male dancers, Benjamin Millepied was at his best, spinning, leaping, and astutely partnering Ms. Hyltin with aplomb. Mr. Veyette is dancing this season with ebullience, confidence, and elevation. His style is newly refined. Mr. Angle's dance was deft and daring, but with little affect. This is one of Mr. Martins' finest works, exuding electricity, originality, and serendipity. Kudos to Peter Martins, and kudos to Sterling Hyltin.

Firebird (1949): (See January 29, 2006 Review). Music by Igor Stravinsky, Choreography by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Scenery and costumes designed by Marc Chagall (1945), Scenery executed by Volodia Odinokov, Costumes executed by Karinska, Firebird costume supervised by Dain Marcus, Original Lighting by Ronald Bates, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Performed by Maria Kowroski as Firebird, Charles Askegard as Prince Ivan, Henry Seth as Kastchei the Wizard, Dena Abergel as Prince's Bride, and the Company as Maidens, Youths, and Subjects. Balanchine's Firebird was one of his earliest creations for NYC Ballet that used such elaborate costumes and sets. Russian folklore is integrated in this ballet. Balanchine used Stravinsky's orchestral suite instead of the three-act score. In 1970, Chagall came to NYC to supervise the new costumes and sets for a new production, and Robbins contributed some new choreography. This new production was staged in 1985. (NYCB Notes).

The plot centers on Prince Ivan, who captures a Firebird in the woods. When she begs for freedom, and her wish is granted, he receives a magic plume. Kastchei, the wizard, has enchanted a Princess and the maidens, but Prince Ivan rescues them all and marries the Princess. (NYCB Notes).


Firebird is a ballet, like Swan Lake, that offers something fresh and inspiring in each and every viewing. Tonight's Firebird was Maria Kowroski, creating a vulnerable, poignant, and romantic role. The star of this ballet is a tossup – the Firebird or Chagall's sets and costumes. The backdrops are signature Chagall, with wispy brides, thick trees, a Firebird, a moon, a Wedding backdrop, and more. Costumes include flowery peasants, a horned monster, tall, surreal animals and creatures, masked children with pieces of wedding cake, and even a chicken. This theatrical ballet would be a production on its own, and tonight, as one of four, it was incredible that the orchestra was so nuanced, led by the enthusiastic Guest Conductor, Paul Mann.

This mythical ballet was highlighted by Ms. Kowroski's internalized interpretation, as well as Dena Abergel's studied attitude as the Prince's Bride and Charles Askegard's seamless approach to the role of Prince Ivan. The Maidens, Youths, and varied subjects/creatures, as well as the students of School of American Ballet (wedding scene), presented and embellished the lyrical fantasy with charm and theatricality. Firebird, the Robbins ballet, was premiered in 1949, and it retains an au courant ambiance and approach. Kudos to Maestro Paul Mann, and kudos to Marc Chagall and Jerome Robbins.
Sterling Hyltin and Benjamin Millepied in NYCB's Jeu de Cartes

Sterling Hyltin and Benjamin Millepied in NYCB's Jeu de Cartes

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik


Kyra Nichols and Philip Neal in NYCB's Walpurgisnacht Ballet

Kyra Nichols and Philip Neal in NYCB's Walpurgisnacht Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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