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Jeu de Cartes (Game of Cards) - It's All a Gamble

by Richard Penberthy
June 16, 2007
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
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New York City Ballet
Saturday, June 16, 2007, 8:00 PM

Tradition and Innovation: Jeu de Cartes, The Nightingale and the Rose (premiered June 8, 2007), Davidsbundlertanze
The backdrop features poker chips, and the costumes are all about the suits of cards – clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades – but there is nothing poker-faced in Peter Martins's "Jeu de Cartes," danced to Stavinsky's music of the same title. It's fast and fun. Wearing very ornate, colorful costumes as the Jack of Diamonds, the Ace of Spades, and the Jack of Clubs, respectively, Jared Angle, Daniel Ulbricht (substituting for the indisposed Benjamin Millepied), and Andrew Veyette soloed and took turns partnering Sterling Hyltin, the Queen of Hearts.

Daniel Ulbricht, Ace of Spades, took the athlete's laurel for leaps, for his elevation and especially for his multiple turns in tours en l'aire, which always landed happily and soundly facing the audience. His grand jetes, great split leaps, featured an unfortunate trailing leg that wasn't quite up. But his partnering of Sterling Hyltin was solicitous and gallant. She was generally on point, and when she headed off-vertical, he saved the piroutte. Andrew Veyette had the challenge of a considerable amount of time onstage mirroring Daniel Ulbricht's performance, and he nearly matched that artful explosiveness. Jared Angle had the misfortune of starting the dance, before the audience warmed to the fact that applause was okay. He deserved more.

The dance is fast and colorful. It is also entertaining – but only entertaining, a gimcrack, and should be enjoyed for that. There is no metaphor for a game of cards at all, and there is no meaning in the ballet.

The next ballet also featured a backdrop – and a scrim – with animated projections (a moon, a moon with eyelashes, a moon with an eye that watches but doesn't quite keep up with the action, a moon with an eye that weeps tears, a whirling gang of cumulus clouds, etc.) to help emotionalize a tale. "The Nightingale and the Rose," an Oscar Wilde tale, is retold by resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, to a commissioned score by resident composer Bright Sheng. The tale is of the same genre as Wilde's more well-known "The Selfish Giant" – moralizing for adults. But the Nightingale is more cautionary than moralizing. The basics: the student (Tyler Angle) is infatuated by the professor's daughter (Sara Mearns), but the Nightingale (Wendy Whelan) is in love with the student. The vain, vapid professor's daughter will not entertain the suitor student without a gift of something truly outstanding – a sweetly scented red rose. (Ecuadorian flower farms that supply the Korean markets on street corners all over the city, even in 1888, must have produced red roses with the scent bred clean out of them!). Wheeldon's interpretation has the student capture the Nightingale to make his request; but, in Wilde's tale, she overhears his whining and makes her sacrifice. Wheeldon claims he made that change for the sake of their pas de deux; that pas de deux, frankly, doesn't amount to much. That's the fault solely of the velocity of the tale, of the already evident vortex of the tragedy. They are dancing, practically in a vacuum, for the inevitable already has taken our attention – their pas de deux is just a delay, an impediment to getting there. It may as well be pantomime…but hurry up please.

And so I will. Bottom line…she gives her blood, her life, to a vampire red rose bush to get the flower for the student. Note that the white rose bush and yellow rose bush are far less bloodthirsty (they're comprised of all women by the way, who flex rather than arch their green-slippered feet, creating a surprisingly true impression of thorns). But the red rose bush is comprised of all men – 16 of them, rapacious and glowering – in black, with sleeves and tights that can be peeled back to their blood red true colors and which hold lengths of airy, nearly insubstantial scarlet scarves that can be pulled out in all directions to form a blood red radiant (more zinniate than roseate) onstage. It's pure drama.

The tale ends as a (recognizable) red rose sprouts from the center of the black rose bush, the student plucking and offering it to the professor's daughter, for whom the scent is not sweet enough and who tosses it on the ground. The student steps on it, then picks it up and sniffs it, then tosses it before the nearly lifeless body of the Nightingale as he steps over her, and she makes a last reach toward the sky and falls lifeless, her left arm a (double-jointed) wing, broken over her body.

But how the tale gets to this point is through exciting, astonishing choreography – exquisite, peculiar steps and stage direction to and for Wendy Whelan. And, as importantly, by Wheeldon's carefully made, acutely disturbing, lascivious, rape-like entangling of the innocent Nightingale into the center of the red rose bush, the concertina wire, the caging bush, the victim at the boa's final coil. The men have an immensely difficult task – to appear threatening and goon-gang-like without for a moment losing the discipline it takes to roll or propel or tumble the Nightingale's form along their canes, their vine, their thorned branches. Even the legendary Ms. Whelan would not be able to hide a mistake or a misstep on the part of the men; she is balanced, suspended, tumbled, somersaulted. In this they are her depended-upon servants – she is the star – and they are outstanding,

But…. There are many narrative ballets that rely upon the audience having foreknowledge of the plot (or having access to good program notes) to understand what's going on. For this production on Saturday, there were no program notes per se, and it isn't likely that this or most audiences elsewhere will be familiar with the tale. There is a short article near the front (not at the front) of the program; but, if the audience had been unaware of this and hadn't read the article, they would have wondered what on earth was going on. Ms. Whelan's Nightingale is more stick figure than bird, her frailness and angularity almost antithetical to a capacity for love, especially self-sacrificing love – she is more arthropod than avian.

Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are something of a puzzlement for an American audience – the Nightingale wears a feather in her hair and what appears to be a short, sexy buckskin dress. Should we think a movie Pocahontas? Should we sing, "Oh the sun shines bright on Little Red Wing, on Little Red Wing…?" And, when the student appears, he is in loose brown trousers and what appears to be a cowboy vest, and the professor's daughter is in a plain blue, calf-length dress with a shawl – is this a "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" sort of ballet? The horticultural characters come across just fine, but with them the audience has something of an emotional whiplash – what? We're to like white and yellow roses but red roses are rapists?

The fact of the matter is that the ballet is probably no more puzzling than Swan Lake (how could it be?) to the uninitiated. It will probably change over time as Mr. Wheeldon watches it. In the two weeks since we viewed it in rehearsal, there are gestural changes. Perhaps more, and more substantial, will come. Someone, we can hope, will write concise and helpful program notes.

Davidsbundlertanze is overwhelmed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian's set and costumes, which though only 27 years old, make the dancers look like 1950s ballerina and danseur lamps, performing against a backdrop of the television camera-set for a religious commentary pseudo-news show. It is also a very long, not to say tedibous, ballet – 18 separate Robert Schumann piano pieces doled out as pas de deux and pas de quatres. Everyone – Maria Kowroski, Kyra Nichols, Jenifer Ringer, Jennie Somogyi, Charles Askegaard, Nikolaj Hubbe, Nilas Martins, and Philip Neal – danced with more emotive eloquence than Schumann's bipolar recapitulation of his emotional/romantic life deserves. One wonders if Balanchine's choreography might not be better served by costuming the dancers plainly, sans poet's (read cut-sleeve jackets over billowing bags of gathered sleeves) shirts, and romantic dresses. It was a very, very long coda.
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