So, what did you do on January 22nd? Well, in case you didn’t know, that day is the inimitable and enigmatic “Mr. B”s Birthday. That’s George Balanchine (1904 – 1983), founder of New York City Ballet, School of American Ballet and generally recognised as one of the most important choreographers to have ever lived.
So did you get a Balanchine fix on his birthday? I certainly did! It started with me picking up a student rush ticket to NYC Ballet’s 8pm performance, before heading to four and a half hours of Ballet class.
If you’re a student, under 29 years of age, reading this, then I hope you know about NYC Ballet’s student rush policy. What? You don’t? Well let me enlighten you! If you head to www.NYCBallet.com at the start of the week and click on “Student Rush” they list all performances that week which have student rush tickets on offer. Then, on the day of the performance (for me it’s generally when I’m still working at 1am the night before) you go to “Buy Tickets” and at the bottom order 1-2 student rush tickets. Each ticket is $15 (with no nasty hidden transaction fees) and you pay for them via the web. Then later that day (at least an hour before the performance) you head to the David Koch Theater box office and pick up your tickets with your student ID. How easy was that? Not only that, but unlike most Broadway shows, you don’t automatically get put in limited view seats at the back/sides of the theatre – it all depends on what tickets are left for that performance.
In fact, I was delighted to find on picking up my tickets that I would be in an Orchestra seat for the performance! I was in P103, in the Center Orchestra. That’s a ticket worth $125! And I paid $15? I almost felt guilty walking away with the ticket – surely this was too good to be true?
Well, turns out it wasn’t and off I went to my classes at the Joffrey Ballet School. After three great classes (including some [slightly dodgy but nevertheless finished] assemblés en tournant and double pirouettes!) I was tired but ready for some more Ballet. Off I headed to the Lincoln Center and the evening celebrating Mr. B’s legacy.
Just after being seated the lights dimmed and Jared Angle, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht appeared in front of the curtain to give a short introduction. As they talked about Balanchine you realised how important this man was to their lives, and he lives on through them. It was also an important evening for NYC Ballet principal Ashley Bouder (who was performing in Stars & Stripes) who was celebrating her 6th anniversary as a principal – congrats Ashley!
Mozartiana (Music by Tchaikovsky, Choreography by Balanchine)
Whelan, J. Angle, Huxley
So on to the dancing! I arrived to the David Koch Theater not really knowing anything about Mozartiana except for the composer and choreographer. As the curtain rose I immediately got a sense of a time frame for this Ballet – Mozart’s era. Wendy Whelan appeared, surrounded by four girls from the SAB (which, incidentally, Balanchine founded).
Now I had been told that this Ballet had no plot, like many of Mr. B’s works, yet I can’t resist fitting a story to what I see on stage. At first glance I had the sense that through the Preghiera the girls were learning grace from Whelan – almost like a finishing school. However, as the piece progressed I shifted to the idea that Whelan represented what these girls would grow into – and if that is the case the girls have a great future ahead of them! While the young girls were rather cute (yet still technically great), Whelan was the epitome of grace. I guess being a principal at NYC Ballet for 20 years will do that to you!
Next up was the Gigue being danced by Anthony Huxley. This was a really fun variation that seemed to sum up the feelings of a young man with the whole world ahead of him. Huxley danced it well, adding a nice jaunty feel to it and I noticed that the choreography involved a lot of back. By that, I mean that there seemed to be certain sections with him facing away from the audience which I really liked – not because I didn’t want to see his face, but rather it gave a new perspective to movements that you are used to seeing face on. Later on I envisioned Huxley’s character as the boy who grows up to be Angle, but again this is just my interpretation.
The Menuet was danced by four corps girls and I was a little disappointed. In my ignorance I don’t know if it was the choreography or dancers but it felt like four separate dancers rather than a unit. This distracted me from the feel of the movement and just slightly jarred my enjoyment. In my fake-storyline these were the teenage copies of the SAB girls.
We then moved on to the Theme et Variations, danced by Whelan and Jared Angle. This was fantastic, and a really nice pas de deux. It spoke to me of a journey of love from first glance to lifelong devotion. To that end, this movement started really playful: for example Whelan had some cute yet precise pas de bourrés and Angle had some nonchalant balançoires. As the variations continued their love for each other deepens, and so the dancing gets more serious resulting in beautiful poses from her and impressive turns from him.
As the piece finishes the rest of the dancers return, giving a glimpse at three stages of life, and I guess love too. I suppose from that view it makes sense for there to have been no young boys in the Preghiera – girls aren’t interested in boys at that age. There was a lovely moment where Whelan and Angle dance with the young girls and I couldn’t help but smile seeing him take the hand of one of them – his hand must have been about four times the size of hers!
So overall I enjoyed Mozartiana. The music was stunning (but then again when is Tchaikovsky anything but?) and the dancing great. Ulbricht had mentioned in the pre-curtain speech that he always has to really think about the Mozartiana part Angle played before performing it and I can see from an emotional side why this would be the case. What initially seems like a ‘plain’ dance actually has, at least to me, quite a few more layers underneath than you first expect.
Prodigal Son (Music by Prokofiev, Choreography by Balanchine)
De Luz, Kowroski, la Cour, Brown, Anderson, Suozzi, Hendrickson
I had seen Prodigal Son once before this performance, however that had only been on DVD. Baryshnikov had been the Son in question on the Choreography by Balanchine DVD and I was eager to see this piece live. With music by one of my favourite composers Prokofiev, and Balanchine’s unmistakable choreography it truly is one of the stand-out pieces of 20th Century choreography.
Tonight, our Son would be Joaquin de Luz, a dancer who’s name I’d heard many times but can’t recall ever seeing perform. Needless to say, de Luz did not disappoint: he was amazing.
The first thing I think he brought to the role was depth and maturity. Whereas when Baryshnikov did the “drumming on thighs” he seemed a petulant child, de Luz instead seemed a genuinely angry young man. Don’t get me wrong, the virtuosity was still there and the amazing leaps in the first “act” (those iconic flying kick-like jumps) were testament to that (no pun intended!). But at the same time, when de Luz is finally reunited with his father I truly felt he had walked hundreds of miles to get there.
So what’s the story? Well if you’re not up to date on your Bible parables the short version is thus: rebellious son gets sick of overbearing dad, runs off with two mates, drinks lots, eats lots, gets seduced by a smouldering temptress, his two mates fight, he gets drugged and mugged and finally returns home in rags with the realisation that he needed his dad after all. Pretty standard, eh?
Jared Angle mentioned in his pre-performance talk that he liked how Balanchine let the dancing tell the story rather than mime in Prodigal Son, and he was right. Although Prodigal Son is certainly a narrative Ballet the dance is tantamount to the story and any mime is built right in there. I certainly saw a big difference between this and say Martin’s Magic Flute which I saw in the Fall and involved much more direct mime.
After the Son runs away he is greeted by a load of bald drunks. They’re rather creepy and taunt the Son and his friends. Soon enough the seductress arrives, danced brilliantly by Kowroski. Her first dance is what I described to a friend as the “train” dance as it involves her long red train/gown.
In later years Balanchine would become famous for his stripped back pieces – with dancers in plain leotards and tights – where the costumes are unable to detract from the dancing. Yet here the costume is part of the dance, and skilfully used. As the red velvet wraps around the seductress’ body we are reminded of a snake, and this image is evoked further by Kowroski’s hand rising behind her head, like a viper’s hood.
But this serpent wanted to sink her proverbial teeth into only one thing and so starts to seduce de Luz with provocative and startlingly direct dancing. The following dance between the pair had a very interesting dynamic with de Luz thinking initially that he was in control, but yet his power was supplanted at every turn. This was paired with very interesting choreography which felt at times to be almost acrobatic.
Eventually the seductress entangles the Son and as they “talk” the two friends start to bicker, argue and then fight. I thought Hendrickson and Suozzi were great here (and earlier in the scene). After their spat, Kowroski pours drink down de Luz’s throat, who ends up stripped and beaten.
Finally he makes it home and, after being discovered by his sisters, is reunited by his father – who forgives him and carries him off in his arms. For such a short narrative Ballet there is a great deal of emotions shown and this is certainly a satisfying and fitting end.
It is quite hard to believe just how old this Ballet is. With the “classic” Ballets they often betray their age, yet there is nothing here to indicate it’s existence for 82 years. Partly I guess this from reinterpretations of the Son role by different dancers – I could see a big difference between Baryshnikov and de Luz (neither better than the other, just different) and I would like to see Ulbricht dance the role this season if possible to see his interpretation too.
Stars and Stripes (Music by Sousa, Choreography by Balanchine)
Bouder, Veyette, Pereira, Muller, Ulbricht
So I’ve already seen Stars & Stripes before, but I was still really excited as this is pretty much a dream cast for me. Now I know it should be about the choreography and not the dancers, but Bouder, Veyette and Ulbricht are three of my favourite dancers at NYC Ballet. And sure, Stars & Stripes may not be the most sophisticated of Balanchine’s Ballets, but it is certainly impressive and a whole lot of fun.
First up was the Corcoran Cadets led by Erica Pereira and the first thing I noticed was how tight the corps girls were. This was a nice change from the Mozartiana corps girls and they all attacked the choreography with precision and timing. Pereira shone as their leader and validating her position as soloist in the company. Both times I have seen this “campaign” I have been mightily impressed by the section where the leader grabs her ankle and extends her leg out fully while on pointe – impressive balance!
Next up was the Rifle Regiment led by Gwyneth Muller, who incidentally had been one of the four corps dancers in Mozartiana. She was better in this than the earlier piece, however there was still something not quite right about her performance. It seemed a little overplayed and I am confused why they didn’t give the role to a soloist. Perhaps they are preparing Muller for a promotion? Although still good, I didn’t enjoy this campaign as much as the others, just not my cup of tea.
Next along came the boys to dance Thunder and Gladiator led by the excellent Daniel Ulbricht. Obviously being a male-only campaign I thoroughly enjoyed it, and Ulbricht looked every bit the gladiator. I did find it amusing how Ulbricht was about half a foot shorter than any of the corps guys, yet his leaps were the highest and most impressive. I was astounded by him when he danced Taratelle with Bouder at the Fall Gala and I was astounded yet again. His tours en l’air were phenomenal and he is just a pleasure to watch. The corps were great and they proved just how impressive and athletic male Ballet dancing can be.
This lead on to one of my highlights of the night, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette dancing Liberty Bell and El Capitan. Now I’ve got to say that Bouder and Veyette were made to dance this Pas de Deux! They both are fantastic technical dancers and their lines blended well with each other, but they also brought a great deal of acting and comedy to the partnership. Whereas I feel this campaign could easily be seen as a pure virtuosity piece, they added a level to it I hadn’t seen in my first viewing. The virtuosity was certainly there: Bouder was as exact as always and Veyette’s turns were damn impressive but over all of that there was a delightful cheekiness to their actions. For example when Bouder finishes her variation and Veyette walks on and salutes her, instead of a crisp salute he gave a jaunty almost flirtatious one which garnered some chuckles from the audience. Like I said earlier, they made the perfect pairing for this piece and it’s no wonder NYC Ballet chose a picture of them dancing it to be featured in their Balanchine’s Birthday program.
And so we reached the finale of both the piece and the evening. As the different regiments filed on to the stage, Liberty Bell and El Capitan lounged at the front of the stage watching their soldiers show off their skills. Interestingly, this was the part where I most noticed the difference between Orchestra seats and fourth ring seats: the first time I saw this piece (from the fourth ring) I was struck by the formations of the regiments, and treated them as groups of dancers. Now, from the Orchestra seats I instead concentrated on the specific steps and individual dancers. Maybe this was also due to the fact that I had only had a couple of lessons before that first performance whereas now I can recognise certain combinations and steps I’ve learnt in class (although performed with much more skill and flair than I’ll ever manage!). Either way, it let me view the finale in a completely fresh light and made it an interesting experience, which was a lovely way to finish the evening.
So here’s a toast to Mr. B! It may be nearly 30 years since he passed away, but tonight proved he is still living strong through New York City Ballet and we should all be glad for that!
Until next time, keep dancing!