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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
Lincoln Center
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

New York City Ballet - Guide to Strange Places, Carnival of the Animals, Spring Gala

by Robert Abrams
May 14, 2003
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

New York City Ballet - Guide to Strange Places, Carnival of the Animals, Spring Gala


presented at Lincoln Center, New York City

Review by Robert Abrams
May 14, 2003

Guide to Strange Places

The set, by Julius Lumsden, was darkly luminous and appealing, like an artful rock formation. The backdrop changed tone as the lighting changed, but always provided a grounded field against which the New York City Ballet presented an enigmatic ballet. The lighting was designed by Mark Stanley.

This ballet, choreographed by Peter Martins, continually presented the principal dancers (Alexandra Ansanelli, Darci Kistler, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, Miranda Weese, Sébastien Marcovici, Nilas Martins, Benjamin Millepied, Philip Neal and Jock Soto). It started with a wave of male dancers in grey one piece outfits, followed by female dancers in colored chiffon-like skirts. The costumes were designed by Catherine Barinas.

At times the movement seemed random and then would meld into order. There was constant motion, both on stage and in the successive lines of dancers who would fade onto and off of the stage through dark openings in the back of the set.

The music, composed and conducted by John Adams, was very insistent. The music had a five part structure in which a fast section was followed by a slow section, followed by a fast section and then a slow section and finally a fast section. In the three fast sections the principals danced as an ensemble. This group work was nicely contrasted by the slow sections where one couple danced alone.

The group sections were filled with interesting passages. At one point, two women partnered each other while the men leapt about. There was a succession of backwards leaps by the women, each in turn. Such patterned sequences built to the point where soloists were presented against a backdrop of movement, much like in Pascal Rioult's Bolero. There were only ten dancers on the stage, but it felt like there were many more.

The choreography had a flowing quality, but many of the positions were angular. The men sometimes carried the women around with her legs held at odd angles, such as in a diamond shape, sometimes while she was upside down. Towards the end of the work, the dancers were in a line at the front of the stage, throwing their heads into sideways cocked positions.

The slow sections were beautiful and inventive. In the second such section, the woman's skirt was transformed by her partner into a scarf.

This work was longer than many ballets the New York City Ballet often presents. The choreography was well constructed to support this length.

Between the high level ensemble work and the willingness to meld conventional and unconventional grace, I felt that Guide to Strange Places was a superb calling card for the New York City Ballet. This was a work where the primary colors of contemporary ballet were clearly visible. Tonight's performance was a preview. Here's hoping this work enters the New York City Ballet's regular repertory.

Ballet: Guide to Strange Places
Dancers: Soto, Somogyi, Weese
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Ballet: Guide to Strange Places
Dancers: Alexandra Ansanelli and Benjamin Millepied
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Carnival of the Animals

Carnival of the Animals had its world premiere tonight. This was a work which plays well on several levels. It was a humorous and accessible ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. It was the kind of family oriented entertainment that has the potential to become an entry point to ballet for young children and a financial mainstay along the lines of The Nutcracker. The music was by Camille Saint-Saëns, with narration written and performed by John Lithgow. Additional musical arrangements were by Andrea Quinn, who also conducted. The reduction for piano four hands was by Mack Schlefer. The pianists were Cameron Grant and Susan Walters, with the glass harmonica played by Cecelia Brauer. Scenery and costumes were by Jon Morrell, with the scenery supervised by Penny Jacobus and the costumes supervised by Holly Hynes. Lighting was by Natasha Katz.

The plot concerned a young boy named Oliver (P.J. Verhoest) who stays overnight in a magical place loosely modeled on the Museum of Natural History in New York. A succession of animals come to life, presented by John Lithgow's narration and animated by the New York City Ballet's dancers. Groups of animals were also a type of person in Oliver's life, so the story and the style of the dancing drew on several themes at once. In some cases, the dreams of the people in Oliver's dream expressed desires Oliver could not have known of. Magic indeed.

Hyenas were Oliver's classmates. Hens and Cockerels were his classmates' parents (Dena Abergel, Amanda Hankes, Dana Hanson, Jason Fowler, Craig Hall, Ask la Cour). Weasals and Rats were his classmates' younger siblings (Jessica Flynn, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Laracey, Austin Laurent, Allen Peiffer, Amar Ramasar - these dancers also danced the Hyenas). A kangaroo was the school librarian (Yvonne Borree). A lion was his school teacher and a baboon was his piano teacher (Charles Askegard and Arch Higgins). Jackasses were the wrestling team and tropical birds were the cheerleaders they secretly desired to impress (Adrian Danchig-Waring, Seth Orza, Sean Suozzi, Andrew Veyette; and Alina Dronova, Glenn Keenan, Geneviève Labean, Lindy Mandradjieff). The parade goes on.

Because each group represented both an animal and a type of person, the dancing in each group had the character of the animal, but was not held to it literally. This could have been a work in which dancers walked across stage simply being chickens and elephants and lions, but as danced was very sophisticated. I also thought that as danced the animals had much in common with kind of animal derived invention presented in The Horse's Mouth - The Dance Game. In some sense, Carnival of the Animals is what The Horse's Mouth - The Dance Game could be if it were turned into a lavish full production. The costumes also did a great job of expressing this duality. For instance, the tropical birds had underskirts which matched their pom-poms, but which could also have been the kind of fluffy, downy feathers found on such birds.

The elderly turtles were also a case in point regarding how this dual theme was expressed in the dance (Rachel Rutherford and Pascale van Kipnis). They slowly stuck their heads out from under their umbrella backs, looking exactly like turtles and getting a big laugh in the process. Yet they transformed from this pure turtleness into former dancers of the Moulin Rouge style, performing a slow, seated can-can. This was a can-can so awkward that only dancers with great technique could pull it off. If they were to protest that this was an easy dance for them, I am certain they were just being modest.

The elephant, played by John Lithgow himself, was a large female competitive ballroom dancer complete with a number on her back. True, the number is supposed to go on the man's back, but I will allow them some artistic license. The elephant danced with four boys, as they might say in Chicago, here danced as mice in white and pink tuxedos (Antonio Carmena, Kyle Froman, Adam Hendrickson, Daniel Ulbricht). The artful rotation of Mr. Lithgow's pink and grey hem of his dress had an over the top production number feel. Mr. Lithgow was riotiously funny as the Elephant. But don't laugh, there are a lot of old ladies on the competitive ballroom circuit who can dance you into the ground.

Mr. Wheeldon even managed to work in a homage to Busby Berkeley in a lavish number in which the librarian transforms on stage into a mermaid. Ten ballerinas in blonde wigs frame the librarian as she reveals her fantasy within Oliver's dream (Ellen Bar, Lauren Fadeley, Dara Johnson, Ashlee Knapp, Rebecca Krohn, Savannah Lowery, Gwyneth Muller, Ellen Ostrom, Laura Paulus, Teresa Reichlen). Yvonne Borree's dancing of Mr. Wheeldon's choreography, such as a series of small steps danced across and downstage en pointe, was consistent with both of her character's personas.

Carnival of the Animals was also very effective because the narrator sustained the macro-structure of the work. The movement was thus sharpened by the lack of a need to carry the narrative. This let the work be both a story ballet and a pure dance ballet. I think that each section was expressive enough that the ballet could have worked without the narration, but my suspicion is that then the audience would have been constantly guessing at the meaning intended and would have thus put less attention towards watching the dancers dance. As an aside, this kind of narration framing pure dance is the kind of structure that might be worth trying with The Moor's Pavane.

Sometimes Oliver just watches the animals, and sometimes he participates. And sometimes he tries to participate, but can not. In one of the most touching sections, Oliver's mother is a cuckoo bird (Kyra Nichols, and James Fayette as Oliver's Father). Her costume makes no attempt to dress her as a bird. A clock hangs in the sky like the Moon while the hours ring out. Oliver runs towards her, but he can't quite touch her. Each time he is almost in her arms, she slips away.

The main body of the work concludes with a humorous and self-aware commentary on ballet itself. Six dancers in ribbed costumes play the animated bones of a Brontosaurus with bent over seriousness, expertly implemented (Faye Arthurs, Aesha Ash, Saskia Beskow, Pauline Golbin, Deanna McBrearty, Jamie Wolf). These fossils are watched by Oliver's great aunt (Christine Redpath), who, inspired by the sight, transforms into the ballerina she once was, transforms into her once and future swan: a process of longing for grace, finding grace, and in the finding, longing to remember. Her movement was supremely elegant, swan-like even without feathers, even with her back to the audience.

The show ends with a big finish in which the entire show is compressed into a coda and Oliver is returned to his parents. Mr. Lithgow's perfect cadences, the dancers, the choreography - this was a flawless work in its parts and in its whole. Maybe better than flawless, because each segment could be a foundation for Mr. Wheeldon to continue exploring should he choose to create a series of mini-sequels.

Oliver set the animals free. Their dance will set you free. Dance will set you free.

Ballet: Carnival of the Animals
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Rachel Rutherford and Pascale Van Kipnis
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Ballet: Carnival of the Animals
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
PJ Verhoest and Arch Higgins
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Ballet: Carnival of the Animals
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
John Lithgow, guest artist, and company
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Spring Gala

Tonight's performance preceded the Spring Gala. The Spring Gala was a great event in an elegant setting in the main hall of the New York State Theater by the terrace. The dinner and the speeches were both well done. The dresses mingling throughout the room were a veritable carnival of high style. After dinner the dance floor was packed with swaying couples. So packed, in fact, that there was no room to sweep across the floor, even if they were playing Foxtrots. Later on the music shifted to Cha-Cha/Hustle, and ended the evening with Hip-Hop and similar music. According to several of the ballerinas I spoke to, they always play the same music every year at this event. Which just goes to show that the Spring Gala is no different than every other social dance venue known to man, woman or child. Even if the music is the same from one year to the next, the music was very danceable. Everyone there seemed to be having a great time, whether they were out on the floor dancing or just watching. And maybe the predictability of the music is a good thing since that way you can organize your Gala training more easily (a few lessons in Cha-Cha, Hustle, Swing and Merengue should have you covered). The stone floor of the hall made for a surprisingly good dance floor. If the performances of the New York City Ballet have you enthralled, you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket to next year's Spring Gala.

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