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New York Theatre Ballet, a 29-year-old Company, Honors Two Centennials: Tudor and Limón - Mazurkas, Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden), Little Improvisations, Judgement of Paris

by Lori Ortiz
February 8, 2008
Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022

Featured Dance Company:

New York Theatre Ballet
New York Theatre Ballet/Ballet School NY (office)
30 East 31st Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10016

New York Theatre Ballet: www.nytb.org

A Gould Hall evening was a double celebration. Choreographers Antony Tudor (Ballet) and José Limón (Modern) were both born in 1908. The concert began with a selection of eight of Limón's "Mazurkas" in Sarah Stackhouse's staging for New York Theatre Ballet. Stackhouse told us afterward that "Mazurkas" was made to celebrate the Polish spirit of rebuilding. Limón was grateful for the enthusiastic reception he got when his company toured there and performed at Frédéric Chopin's house. Limón's 1958"Mazurkas" nods to that Polish national dance.

The company does an entrance and a finale, which is best. In between are solos, duets, a trio of men, and a quartet. They make undulating patterns, interpolating across the stage, and form in balletic, folksy, mazurka pairs. Terence Duncan, who is also a baroque-style performer, solos to the brooding Opus 17, No. 4 (that one is featured in the Roman Polanski film "The Pianist"). Duncan is a bit reserved. NYTB dancers are light, and airy. This "Mazurkas" lacks the Limónesque emotional power and rigor, but interestingly, it reveals the choreographer's Mexican and Spanish influences in the floor patterns, black flouncey dresses for the women, hand clapping and stamping. In the end they dance a révérence toward Chopin, with Ferdy Tumakaka playing on a Steinway grand onstage. The program gets stronger as the evening progresses.

NYTB had the good fortune to work with Sallie Wilson, who studied with Tudor and danced in his ballets with American Ballet Theatre. She has been the foremost exponent of his work. Sadly she was too ill to attend the performance. Judging from the lively after-talk, the audience—including plenty of dance historians, scholars and balletomanes—was engaged and uplifted by the evening of rare revivals.

The central kernal of this birthday celebration is Tudor's famed "Jardin aux Lilas." The dancers Elena Zahlmann as Caroline, Kyle Coffman as her lover, Duncan (The Man She Must Marry), and Julie-Anne Taylor (An Episode In His Past) lead a moving performance. With clenched fists Taylor approaches Duncan but he spurns her with persuasive, understated disregard in his movement. His reserve is perfect in "Jardin." He wheels Caroline around, claiming his entitlement. Zahlmann and Coffman are stiff with anguish. In this pair we see the difficulty of distinguishing the role from the performance. They don't sweep us into their complex second thoughts of "what might have been," never bringing the remembrance to the forefront.

Gillian Bradshaw-Smith's backdrop, with its abundant blossoms, reeks of lilac perfume, figuratively speaking. The backdrop gives the essence of the garden, but the blossoms look more like sumac than lilacs. It is stylized. I have never seen so many blossoms so close together as in her scenery. From my seat, the blossoms looked cone shaped and without individual flowerettes. In a frozen "dream," the wonderful theatricality of the dancers doesn't bode well, resulting in an assembled group pose. The knack of stillness, of disappearing while physically present, and as a group, is just one of the extraordinary magic acts this company reckons with in the Tudor works. The lighting could have been more helpful here.

"Little Improvisations" is a comedic Tudor duet performed by Rie Ogura and Mitchell Kilby. They are young lovers in this playful dance in which they begin by rising off a bench covered with a white cloth. It becomes a toga for Kilby, a chupa, then a baby, then a horse, and finally covers the bench again. Ogura pauses with her foot against her standing leg in sprightly, meditative retiré. Kilby cartwheels over the bench. It's a treat to be 'alone' with this incredible couple. Ogura projects star quality and touches audience members intimately with her beautiful line and dramatic artistry. Her robust theatricality worked against her in "Jardin." It served "Little Improvisations" excellently. Noriko Suzuki's spirited Schumann piano solo is another highlight.

The group finished with "Judgment of Paris," a laugh-out-loud Tudor surprise to music by Kurt Weill. Suzuki and Tumakaka play the piece in the pit on one upright piano. Venus, Minerva, and Juno, three tired dancehall ladies—working women, halfheartedly and hilariously entertain a gentleman, Duncan, drinking at a café table. Agnes DeMille originated the role of Venus in 1938. The ladies are Zahlmann, with the company for eight years, the seasoned Artistic Director Diana Byer and Associate Director Christina Paolucci, respectively. They are totally convincing in Hugh Laing's outrageous costume designs adapted for the company by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan. White ruffled drawers bulge from under their colorful 'teddies.' From the moment they first walk on stage as non-dancers—we are watching the art of dance. Zahlman is especially strong and appealing, delighting the fellow and us with two circus hoops. Byer wears a feather boa and Paolucci does a fan dance. The combined bawdiness and refinement in the dance and the music leaves us in satisfying, suspended disbelief.
Little Improvisations

Little Improvisations

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine

Judgment of Paris

Judgment of Paris

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine

Lilac Garden

Lilac Garden

Photo © & courtesy of Richard Termine

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