Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

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May 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: May 9, 2011
Category: review

Vintage Wine, Nubile Bodies

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Not a tutu or jewel-encrusted bodice was in sight at New York City Ballet’s opening night, May 3 in the former New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The dancers wore the minimum — leotard and tights — but delivered the maximum, forming configurations of crystalline complexity as created by their company’s founder George Balanchine. With the theme of “Black and White,” the evening was also a draw for its casting. Following recent retirements by several veteran male dancers, the house of Balanchine is undermanned. It is interesting to watch how Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins casts certain corps dancers in roles usually reserved for principals.

In “Square Dance” (1957), he tapped Anthony Huxley, a corps member for four years, for the male lead. Huxley’s straightforward approach to Balanchine’s fleet-footed footwork revealed the choreographer’s musicality and the dancer’s ease with moving in, out and on top of the beat. But with a facial expression more earnest than contemplative, Huxley failed to mirror the music’s plaintive throb in his solo, danced to Corelli’s “Sarabande.” The young dancer’s aspect will inevitably deepen with time and experience.

What may also deepen, although not in a positive way, is the square-peg interpretive approach the dancers take to Balanchine’s nuanced ballets. While the Russian-born choreographer embraced his adopted country’s culture, he also treated it with wry detachment. In “Square Dance,” he blended folk dancing (the hoedown) and classical ballet (petite allegro) in ways that played fast and loose with both traditions. Megan Fairchild’s interpretation of the lead female role was feminine and sprightly, but her loving approach also missed the ballet’s bizarre edge of humor. Still, the unison precision of the 14 dancers was nonetheless glorious to witness. Conductor Fayçal Karoui favored a lightning pace in the finale and an observer could hear the dancers gasping for breath. No signs of exhaustion — just hard work.

“Agon” (1957), which is Greek for “contest,” revealed the seamlessly matched athleticism of corps members Ashley Laracey and Amanda Hankes. In the ballet’s middle section, the two women galloped through Stravinsky’s “Galliard” with mirror-like synchronicity. “Agon” is as much a ballet about the tension between two wills as it is about the blending of them. Balanchine demonstrated dancing with another is the ultimate kind of competition, precisely because it’s supposed to appear as mutual cooperation.

Premiered one month after “Square Dance,” “Agon” stunned audiences at its first outing. Principals Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams performed the central duet in which she is like a bow, he an arrow. But what struck many was that he was black and she was white and that she, from a whipping turn, hurled her legs around his head. This was not just a design element, but a reference to a specific sexual configuration.

At the heart of “Agon” is the exploration of sexual dominance. But the approach is refined and unmistakably royal, with roots in court ballet. On this occasion, Wendy Whelan and Sebastian Marcovici performed the central pas de deux with undeniable elegance; what was missing was the frisson of two bodies entangled in atypical ways. In the Second Pas de Trois, principal Teresa Reichlen embodied what Marcovici and Whelan lacked. Seductive and confident, her long-legged entanglements with Amar Ramasar and then Craig Hall left no question as to her fiery ambition to master each of them.

The ballet, structured in three sections, begins with the sexes divided, dancing side by side without touching. By the finale, much of the cast is paired and physically connected. The “Agon,” or sexual combat, has been fulfilled. The Stravinsky-Balanchine reinterpretation of French court dance is nothing less than revolutionary. Who would think that the Bransle and the Sarabande could become aural landscapes for modern ideas about sexuality.

In “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” (1972) the gentle Maria Kowroski and the rakish Amar Ramasar, both principals, danced the first aria. Their physical temperaments contrast as well as their proportions fit together. But their well-matched dancing only emphasized the awkwardness of Sterling Hyltin with Ask La Cour. It’s hard to imagine what Peter Martins was thinking when he cast these last two together. Cour is a giant. Hyltin is a petite petite. In the ballet, which requires complex partnering and lifts, the two resembled a horse giving chase to a hare. Fortunately, the finale provided welcome relief; with 20 dancers mirroring Stravinsky’s mouthwatering orchestration, surging, receding and spiraling like swells of an ocean. In the future, watch for unexpected ripples in classic choreography as new dancers are cast in familiar roles.


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