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All American at NYCB - Thou Swell, Ives Songs, West Side Story Suite

by Taylor Gordon
February 20, 2008
Lincoln Center
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When Lincoln Kirstein brought George Balanchine to New York from Russia, they had one main goal in mind: to revolutionize American ballet. It is no surprise then, that the company that bred from this idea should present an evening devoted to works representing their new country. New York City Ballet's American Songs and Dances program on Wednesday, February 20, was a refreshing addition to the company's winter season, and a true tribute to its American talent.

Each of the three pieces, ironically none of which are by Balanchine, were accompanied by singers and were more of a theatrical take on traditional ballet. Artistic Director Peter Martins' 2003 ballet "Thou Swell" features four couples dancing to classic songs by Richard Rogers, sung romantically by Betsy Wolfe and Mike McGowan.

Taking place in a swanky 1930s nightclub, the dim lighting sets the mood, along with the large mirror hanging from above tables and chairs and a catwalk-like platform in the center. Each of the four couples presented a different dynamic in their relationship. Yvonne Bourree and Nilas Martins were particularly chic in their black, white, and red period costumes.

"Ives Songs," choreographed by Jerome Robbins, provided a great contrast with a different time of American life and a different tone altogether. What was vibrant and showy in the previous piece was quiet and lulled in this work. Both placed the singers and musicians onstage, but Charles Ives' songs are much more solemn. Former NYCB Principal dancer Robert La Fosse returns as a guest artist, walking among scenes of youth and nostalgia.

Sara Mearns and Jared Angle shone bright in their pas de deux despite the lagging quality of the lengthy ballet. At times when she bourreed quickly around the stage she made a rather mundane step appear lush and important. Yet the big treat of "Ives Songs" is the use of the corps de ballet of men. Rarely does an audience see a stage full of dancers in unison unless they are a line of swans or sylphs—and then they are women. Here, Robbins put the men to work in an energetic arrangement, and the male stars in the company's corps today really stood out.

A still different aspect of American history and culture was portrayed in Robbins' "West Side Story Suite", which closed off the program. A condensed version of the preceding film and Broadway renditions, the work includes some of the more familiar dance scenes, including the mambo dance at the gym and the rumble. The dancers' vivacity in the Dance at the Gym, with colorful skirts flying and sharp gentlemen as the Sharks and the Jets, seemed to be a welcomed escape from the pointe shoes and pristine technique demanded by most of their repertoire.

Singing Steven Sondheim's memorable lyrics are five offstage vocalists and, surprisingly, the dancers themselves. Andrew Veyette as Riff, the Leader of the Jets, proved that ballet does not have to be mute. His boyish charm flourished as he sang "Cool" with ease. But the triple threat talent that surpassed all others was Georgina Pazcoguin as Anita in the flamboyant number, "America." Easily standing up in comparison to those who inhabited the role in other versions (Chita Riveira, Rita Moreno) her pizzazz in the character was matched by the clean remnants of ballet within Robbins' choreography. She should be doing more parts like this, and it seems this part has created a niche for her in the company.

Overall, NYCB's American Songs and Dances was a big shift from the usual programs. It was an evening that could have been presented on Broadway rather than the ballet stage of New York State Theater, but luckily here there is more technique and clarity than you'll ever find on 42nd street.
Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in NYCB's 'Ives, Songs'

Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in NYCB's "Ives, Songs"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik


Henry Seth, Amar Ramasar and Sean Suozzi in NYCB's 'West Side Story Suite'

Henry Seth, Amar Ramasar and Sean Suozzi in NYCB's "West Side Story Suite"

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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