By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- New York City Ballet titled its spring gala on May 10 “À la Française, ” and indeed it was, with all of the works having French connections of one sort or another. French composer Marc-André Dalbavie’s Trio No. 1 (2009) was Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins’ choice of score for his Mes Oiseaux (My Birds), seen in its premiere. French-born choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who retired from the company last year, entered into his fourth collaboration with composer Nico Muhly (would that it be their last) to create a hodgepodge called Two Hearts.
Aside from the preponderance of impossibly high heels on the women gala goers, the highlight of the evening was the only masterwork, Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which was made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947. Set to the work of the same name by George Bizet, also French, Symphony has not been seen since 2008; it is being billed as a revival because of Marc Happel’s new costumes.
Like many Martins works, Mes Oiseaux brings to mind Balanchine and his love of young dancers. The founder of City Ballet didn’t wait until his dancers climbed the company ladder to give them solo roles. According to legend, a young Balanchine discovered 12-year-olds Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova, and 13-year old Tatiana Riabouchinska, at two Paris ballet studios. Three years later, he featured them in the opening of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’s season, and the soubriquet “baby ballerinas” was born.
Martins’ 2012 baby ballerinas included corps dancers Lauren Lovette, Ashly Isaacs, and Claire Kretzschmar. Taylor Stanley, also of the corps, partnered each of them in Oiseaux in ways that made them look like exotic birds, he being their expert handler, deftly exposing the underside of their plumage (their legs). Apart from continuing the current relentless trend of manhandling ballerinas and transforming the supported adagio into a game of cat’s cradle, where a woman’s body gets tangled up and around the man’s, Martins’ Oiseaux has its merits. It is sharp, energetic, and full of virtuoso jumps, turns, and high-flying legs, and it was danced with great brio. Jazzy and presentational, Oiseaux comes across as a refined version of a competition dance, albeit one with tasteful costumes and sophisticated music.
With each downward keyboard spiral at the outset of Dalbavie’s darkly mysterious and at times lyrical Piano Trio (Kurt Nikkanen, violin; Ann Kim, cello; Cameron Grant, piano), a dancer takes her place on stage, extending her arms outward. Gilles Mendel’s black costumes call to mind the cleavage and back-revealing bodices of today’s couture gowns. When the women run, their short black skirts flair, revealing an underskirt of red, blue, or purple. Isaacs, in red, dances like Donna McKechnie, the fiery Broadway performer beloved by Michael Bennett of Chorus Line fame. She eats up space, is fearless, and possesses the sharp accented approach to movement that is favored by commercial dancers.
Kretzschmar, whose blond hair and translucent skin gives her a moon-like glow, has a rare subtly of expression. She doesn’t dance to the crowd, but to some private universe of her own. When Stanley got a brief chance to perform apart from the three women, his masculine strength brought to mind principal dancer and audience favorite Joaquin de Luz (seen later that evening). But unlike De Luz, who is all breezy sunshine, Stanley dances with a panther-like intensity, even when doing cartwheels.
Millepied’s Two Hearts is a large-scale work that comes across as – and perhaps would be better programmed as -- two separate ballets. In the first section, the dancers crisscross and circle each other, creating a kaleidoscopic circus spectacle. The black and white geometric-patterns (by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte) of the women’s structural tutus and bodices could have been inspired by Bauhaus artist Oscar Schlemmer (who was a fan of the circus).
In the ballet’s second section, Millepied abandons his ensemble abstract designs for a pas de deux with principal dancers Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, as if to generate some of the romance implied in the title. Muhly’s music makes an aesthetic about face as well, moving from full orchestra to soloist Dawn Landes singing a northern European folksong titled Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor. The lyrics describe a tragic love triangle, but all I could hear in the former New York State Theater was something about a brown girl and blood. Meanwhile Tiler (Peck) and Tyler (Angle) of the Two Hearts danced around each other solemnly. They looked earnestly, often at some mysterious distant point. They ended on the floor, looking dramatically upwards at the ceiling.
Given the context, Balanchine’s Symphony in C appeared particularly masterful. You can see where Martins and Millepied get their inspiration to sculpt dancers in space and to make ballet steps that ally with or serve as counterpoint to musical phrases. Balanchine was brilliant at these two techniques.
Symphony is for 38 dancers. At the ballet’s end, all of them pirouette repeatedly in unison. It’s not just a virtuoso feat showing off the technical precision of the present company, it expresses a choreographic unity of purpose. Balanchine weaves and unfurls French-named codified ballet steps that illustrate the fast-slow-fast tempos of Bizet’s three movements. The turns near the end of the ballet echo Bizet’s tightening chromaticism. Balanchine showed that ballet was about dancing to the music, the rest (costumes, romantic themes, and galas) is just icing on the cake.