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Giving the Dancers the Power: New York City Ballet's DANCERS' CHOICE Program

by Tonya Plank
June 27, 2008
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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212-870-5500
www.nycballet.com

New York City Ballet's several, long at-home seasons per year, full of varied and juicy repertoire, results in a very wide fan base that deeply cherishes its beloved dancers, at times almost obsessively so. It worked, then, for artistic director Peter Martins to hand over the reins to those dancers for one night, allowing them to construct their own program, and it was fitting that all proceeds from this program – titled DANCERS' CHOICE – were for the Dancers' Emergency Fund, to help injured dancers.

The program was a huge success, excitingly varied both in terms of choreography and performers, filled with excerpts from Balanchine classics to newer work, including, most excitingly the premiere of a ballet by two of the company's soloists, and cute short films about the dancers both growing up and talking about their work. It doesn't matter what exactly was on the program for these spectators though; they would have loved it simply because the dancers put it on.

The evening began with Mr. Martins addressing the packed theater, saying with endearing self-effacement, he had tried to put on programs like this in the past, but they never seemed to resonate for some reason. This year he decided to give the dancers full power, with guidelines of course (the dances included had to be in the repertoire and have integrity worthy of the company – i.e.: no burlesque, no "Cirque du Soleil"!). He then introduced principal dancer Jonathan Stafford, who put the program together and whose little speech giving thanks to the many who made the night possible and glowing with enthusiasm over tonight's premiere ballet, revealed a quite charming personality.

First on was an excerpt from the "Rubies" part of Balanchine's "Jewels" danced by two of the most virtuosic dancers in the company, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, who expectedly, thrilled and entertained with leaps, turns and sass galore. "Rubies" melted into "Purple," a modern ballet by Martins, danced by the bewitching Janie Taylor (who has been onstage way too little this season) and Craig Hall who has a sweetly demure, subtle charisma that pulls you to him, whatever he happens to be doing. I hadn't seen this piece before and it was one of my favorites of the night. Taylor would make tantalizing shapes with her body, at one point, lying on the ground back to the floor, lifting her whole body so that only the top vertebrae of her neck and the tips of her toes touched the floor, and spreading out her arms and wiggling her fingers toward Hall in a come hither fashion. It managed to be simultaneously cutely worm-like and sinister. At another point, he performs two deep lunges toward her, making the same finger gestures. He later carries her off on one arm, her body wrapped tightly around his elbow.

Next on was a short, sweet excerpt from Balanchine's "Square Dance," danced charmingly by Andrew Veyette, and following that a short solo from "Emeralds" danced by Teresa Reichlen, a role that is normally not given to her (with her long, showgirl-like legs, she is instead usually given the "Rubies" role in "Jewels"). These were followed by excerpts from Robbins classics "Interplay," the splendid "Dances at a Gathering," and "Glass Pieces," which, with the infections pulsating beat of the Glass music is always a favorite for audiences and, I assume, dancers alike.

After intermission, during which original items such as paintings by corps dancer and artist Sophie Flack, were auctioned off, the audience was treated to a short film of soloists Adam Hendrickson and Aaron Severini speaking about their collaboration on the new ballet that was about to premiere, "Flit of Fury – the Monarch." Both dancers are a mere 27 years old and, at one point, Hendrickson, who choreographed the piece said of Severini, who composed, that he deeply admired him and was nervous about doing justice to his score. After this very serious-sounding statement, both men looked at each other and burst out laughing, the audience giggling right along with them.

"Flit of Fury – the Monarch" was a very good new piece, especially for a first effort by a young choreographer. The title was a bit confusing, though, as it seemed to be more about a difficult relationship than anything to do with a king or queen. If Hendrickson was using the term "monarch" metaphorically, to suggest either the man or woman involved in the relationship exerted too much control over the other, then he needed a stronger dramatic dancer for at least one of those roles. The main roles were danced by Sean Suozzi and Gretchen Smith and while both executed the steps well (although Smith had a very small, nearly unnoticeable slip early on from which she promptly recovered) neither transported me wholly enough into their world to make me feel strongly for their character's treatment at the other's hands. The strongest dancers were actually the three men who danced the parts of Suozzi's friends, the promising young Allen Peiffer and David Prottas, and the magnificent Robert Fairchild. Fairchild has a way of throwing himself so fully into a position, balancing somehow on the very outer or inner edges of his foot while leaning sideways so that, just as a ballerina on pointe, it seems he one with the air around him, not in any way earthbound. Of course that's an illusion – an astounding one – he never loses balance. Peter Martins has a way of plucking from the corps those dancers who have that indescribable something that will make them stars (as he did when he chose Fairchild to dance the lead in his "Romeo + Juliet" premiere last year). This is probably one of the most important functions of the director, and a talent which a new choreographer or dancer may lack a bit. In any event, in the choreography, these men seemed to have the function of echoing Suozzi's thoughts and conflicts, at times lying on the ground with him as Smith steps over their bodies, at times receding to the background and making contorted, sometimes fetal-looking poses while Suozzi tries to "deal" with Smith as she leans from him while he tries to spin her, as she lifts him, his body in the same curled, cowered position. Though it seemed she was meant to be, Smith didn't seem all-powerful, and this might have had something to do with the costumes. Hers was a simple, thigh-length, red-trimmed gray dress with a baby-doll cut, no shaping, no waistline. Cute but didn't make her look very empowered. The men, in contrast, wore stunning dark gray suits with a sole red blood-like line snaking down one side.

The music was excellent, its fullness and exuberance the product of not one but two onstage pianists. The dual pianos – one used fully to create harmony, the other melody – ended up making for a deep, dynamic, at times foreboding effect. The pianists played with their backs to the audience, the instruments set up in the back center, and at one point when the male dancers line up beside them, it looked perfectly geometrically balanced, like a long black line.

The premiere was followed by Martins' "Beethoven Romance," short but raucous excerpts from Balanchine's "Union Jack" and "Stars and Stripes," and the intriguing "Mercurial Manoeuvres" by Christopher Wheeldon performed by two of the company's most artistically sophisticated dancers, Abi Stafford and Tyler Angle. Before ending with Balanchine's beautiful "Symphony in C," another short film was shown which included hilarious excerpts of some of the dancers when they were small children. Siblings Megan and Robert Fairchild were interviewed, Mr. Fairchild joking that in her class performances his sister was always bossing the other children around, putting them in line, making sure everyone looked proper, as a picture of her smiling brightly and looking sweetly dominant in a jazz-looking routine is shown. She began to speak about him but an eruption of audience laughter at a clip of Mr. Fairchild in which he bobbed his head back and forth with extreme animation, rolling his eyes nearly out of their sockets, while bouncing sideways, blocked out what she was saying. A young Amar Ramasar was shown whirling an Indian-looking scarf dramatically around above his head while he turned, a little Janie Taylor smiled shyly at the camera in between class turns across the floor, and Abi Stafford – make that the amazingly precocious Abi Stafford – was shown age 11 doing turn, step, turn, step rotations on pointe to stunningly brilliant perfection as her brother Jonathan ribbed her about always being perfect even as a small girl. "I think I peaked back then," she said with sweetly endearing self-effacement as gasps abounded throughout the theater.

All in all it was a spectacular evening. Although some of the too-short excerpts from classics like "Emeralds" and "Square Dance" may not have revealed to new audiences the full brilliance of those ballets, the night was meant for long-time fans who were there for their favorite dancers. And they most definitely got what they came for.
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