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Robert Abrams
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New York City Ballet - Donizetti Variations - Envisioning Romantic Revelry in Montreal

by Robert Abrams
June 10, 2006
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
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New York City Ballet
Three groups of three dancers traipsed across the stage in a curved line wearing light blue peasant skirts (the women) and similarly colored pants (the men). I could easily imagine them as a bunch of post-Baroque/Romantic party goers out on the town in Montreal. I have been to Montreal several times. The well-behaved revelry on the streets at 2 AM was worth coming back for. At first the dancers were somewhat more subdued than people on the late night streets of Montreal, but soon the energy of the dance picked up. This energy could be seen in the women's spirited toe work and the men's leaps in the air with fluttery feet. The dance of the group alternated with the principal dancers, Yvonne Borree and Andrew Veyette, who were dressed in outfits similar to the group, but pink in color.

The group returned to continue dancing, twirling and kicking, suggesting nothing so much as a never ending party with the ballerinas creating precisely the same upward 45 degree leg angles in cannon (one dancer after another performing the same move). I admit that in reality you wouldn't get such precise leg angles at 2 AM, but I am fantasizing about Romantic revelry, so I am entitled to imagine that people in Montreal could go out partying and still be able to spontaneously stretch their legs into the air with a straight and delicate line.

There is no reason this fantasy could not become reality. My recollection of Montreal is that it is a city with some great architecture (I was there a few years ago for an American Educational Research Association conference, and as a kid, for some sort of competitive woodcutting, log rolling expo - both memorable events). I could easily see Donizetti Variations adapted for performance on the streets of Montreal to create a dance film.

Ms. Borree and Mr. Veyette showed dynamic partnering. My base dance these days is West Coast Swing and I used to compete in Ballroom, so I take partnering seriously. Sometimes performance choreography features dancers who are together, but where the connection between them is not necessary. Ms. Borree and Mr. Veyette didn't just dance side by side. They depended on each other with compression and release ending in a beautiful extended line. It wasn't necessarily a complicated move, but just by looking at it I could tell that it felt right. If you are as obsessed with dance as I am, it is the sort of moment that makes you want to put on your dance shoes and get out there yourself.

Both principals drew me in with their precision, energy, presence and smile. As an example, Mr. Veyette spun on one foot slowly and then rapidly. He made both motions look both easy and impressive. Ms. Borree looked gloriously happy as she strutted across the stage.

The nine corps dancers returned. I was struck by the idea that Donizetti Variations is a Romantic cousin of Jennifer Muller's Momentum (which is a hip-hop influenced Modern dance). Momentum is what I call a dancer's dance. It feels like a bunch of dancers have gotten together to have a really good time. The dance looks improvised, the way real social dance is improvised, but with just enough emergent order to make the work fully coherent. With Donizetti Variations, you can see through the formality of the period to see the dancers' wit, enthusiasm and invitation (as in they are inviting each other, and the audience, to dance with them). Donizetti Variations, too, is a dancer's dance.

From this one viewing, the work seemed to be mostly just a series of sequences. The corps comes on, they leave, the principals come on, the corps returns, and so on. This is a standard format that many choreographers have used. Such a format can be beautiful, but tedious after the seventh variation. Normally, I like to see some kind of macro-structure that helps the variations build to a climax. To use an example outside of dance, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet varies the number of people on stage from scene to scene in a deliberate pattern. That is one example of a macro-structure that helps move the show along whether you notice it or not. Donizetti Variations didn't appear to have any macro-structure. Nevertheless, the dancers in tonight's performance carried it off and carried me through from beginning to end. The performance never flagged. I liked this work enough that I want to view it again to see what more I can get out of it.

In addition to the two principals, the performance featured Faye Arthurs, Melissa Barak, Saskia Beskow, Glenn Keenan, Carrie Lee Riggins, Elizabeth Walker, Craig Hall, Vincent Paradiso and Aaron Severini. They performed well as an ensemble, which is one of NYCB's trademarks. Music was by Gaetano Donizetti from Don Sebastian. Choreography was by George Balanchine. Costumes were by Karinska. Lighting was by Mark Stanley. The conductor was Andrea Quinn.

Also performed tonight were three other works that were also good, but very different in style: The Cage, Duo Concertant, and Episodes. Episodes was a classic Balanchine leotard ballet. It had its good points, but it is one of those dances where the dancers have been told not to smile, and that usually turns me off. Duo Concertant featured two dancers performing to an on-stage piano and violin. It wasn't my favorite work of the night, but it is always fun to see dancers interacting directly with musicians. The Cage is one of those works that people either love or hate. For me, watching The Cage was like eating grasshoppers: it sounds like a cool, and adventurous thing to do, but trust me, I speak from experience when I say that eating grasshoppers is something you should stay away from unless you are stranded in the desert and have no other options. Even dipping grasshoppers in chocolate doesn't improve them and almost anything can be improved by dipping it in chocolate. I am willing to be convinced otherwise. I know that the Montreal Insectarium holds an insect tasting every other year, and maybe their chef from the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec knows the secret to preparing grasshoppers.

You may be wondering why this review includes several references to Montreal. I was attending the Dance Critics Association conference. I had some good conversations with a colleague from Montreal. Donizetti wrote music in the bel canto style (literally, beautiful singing) and Montreal is a beautiful city, so maybe that is why the Montreal connection sprang to my mind when I was looking for a way to see the performances. I am sure that neither Donizetti nor Balanchine intended a Montreal connection, but I think they should have. On the other hand, The Cage, which is a ballet about insects that eat their mates, and the Montreal Insectarium have an obvious connection. NYCB should take The Cage on the road and stage it at the Montreal Insectarium. The Montreal Insectarium is probably the one place in the world where The Cage will look normal.
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