the masses flew toward the opening night of New York City Ballet for a program comprised of ballets that did not exemplify Balanchine’s prized esoteric black & white geometry – his unique left-brain creative output, if you will – but to a program that illustrated his imaginative storytelling and visualization of emotional themes – his right-brain creative output. We still marvel at what must have been an uncommon elasticity in Balanchine's brain – the ability for his creativity to cross from right to left to inform his linear-based artistry and also to cross in the reverse direction sending his linear and sequencing abilities to inform his feelings and daydreams as he constructed his ballets. Like Petipa, Balanchine was the equivalent of a 100-year ballet event — an artist of vision and execution so uniquely advanced that he only comes along once in our lifetimes.
La Sonnambula, from 1946, is arguably simple in its construction – there are no hard steps, no overly complex patterns, no tricky musicality – but there is a story that seduces the viewer to suspend disbelief and free his own imagination to consider a poet who encounters a fetching sleepwalker in a lovely nightie holding a candle who (seemingly) cannot return his love because, well, she’s sleeping. Perhaps, though, we are in her dream, not the poet's reality. It all may depend on whether the poet or the sleepwalker is the stronger artist in a particular performance.
In last night’s cast, both the poet, Chase Finlay, and the sleepwalker, Sterling Hyltin, flickered brilliantly at times in a very satisfying performance that left the viewer yearning for an Act II. Finlay, in a debut, emitted a cool intensity while placing an individual stamp on the role through the tilt of the head, the variance of his own breathing, and the articulate gesture of a hand. NYCB hasn’t seen a male dancer who fully understood and could harness the power of articulate hand gesture since Baryshnikov danced there. Finlay is still a young flame, but it’s clear that he has a natural affinity for the role of the Romantic poet and his eye is on the details.
Sterling’s Sleepwalker was compelling in part because it is such an unusual role for the dancer who we mostly identify by her more esoteric black & white roles. The blur of her bourrees beneath her still body created a surreal conflicting image as she traversed the stage with her candle.
Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar as the Coquette and Baron accomplished what was needed in these roles although Sara was not the intriguing flirt that we treasure in Faye Arthurs’ character. Within the Divertissements section of the ballet, Daniel Ulbricht pretty much cleared the stage with his Harlequin variation. Harlequins throughout ballet tend to do similar stuff, but Ulbricht always manages to make it look fresh, like we’re seeing it for the first time, and makes us want to see it again. Lauren King and Antonio Carmena performed a well-polished Pas de Deux. We remember Lauren’s debut in this role a few years ago, which was also enjoyable, but the strength and articulation in her feet and legs is so much more than it was then.
Prodigal Son, originally created in 1929, received a gutsy performance from Joaquin De Luz and Siren Maria Kowroski, who has had a challenging journey returning to the stage following the birth of her child last year. Maria’s legs may be another one of those 100-year ballet events, and are we ever glad to see them dancing again. A few excited nerves during Maria's early moments may have made the long red cape think that it could trip her up, but she seized control to deliver a powerfully seductive performance. When the Drinking Companion and Servant characters heaved her from the table to the men standing behind her, she finished seated with the front leg in an attitude position that was startling in its authority.
Joaquin’s Prodigal Son convinced us of his spoiled-rotten sense of entitlement, his sheer joy in binging on what he thought were the goods in life, his ultimate burnout and realization, and his quest for forgiveness from his father. It was an interpretation as outstanding dramatically as it was danced.
Balanchine’s and Jerome Robbins’ Firebird may be that unusual example of their choreography that runs third behind the music and scenery. It is among the better Firebirds that the ballet universe has come up with, however. Last evening in the care of Teresa Reichlen, whose exceedingly long legs wondrously propelled her into the air like they simply should not have been able to do, the ballet achieved its magic. But the performance was not helped by the hunched-shoulder pedestrian portrayal of Prince Ivan by Justin Peck, who should spend some rehabilitative time in SAB’s Level B.
Stravinsky’s Firebird makes such an emotional impact with its arc and resolution; but unfortunately, choreographers have never been able to match the impact of the music. Chagall did, though, with his masterful scene and costume designs. The audience can feel completely fulfilled simply by listening to the music and looking at the designs.
Last evening got us off to a very good start for the next two weeks during which we plan to see 12 out of the 14 performances. Unfortunately, we will miss the Sunday, January 29th debuts of Isabella LaFreniere, Silas Farley, and Emilie Gerrity in Firebird, Claire Kretzschmar, Zachary Catazaro, and Ashley Laracey in La Sonnambula, and Anthony Huxley and Miriam Miller in Prodigal Son. We’ll be in Washington DC for Devon Teuscher’s debut as Odette/Odile. It is the first time in twelve years that ABT has debuted a true ballerina in that role who actually was qualified to dance it. New Petipa ballerinas are a rarity at ABT - not that they don’t exist; they just don’t get the opportunities to dance.
Perhaps Ms. LaFreniere will have her Firebird feathers preened & ready by this weekend in the event that the Saturday evening’s scheduled Firebird finds herself unexpectedly birdcaged at the local precinct following an exciting afternoon of protest. Haglund will be marching for all the women in his life on Saturday, too, but plans to behave immaculately so that he can get to the NYCB matinee and evening performances with little trouble.
Oh, this world we live in …
The opening night H.H. Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Maria Kowroski who we are so happy to see return and who looked and danced gloriously and beautifully as the Siren in Prodigal Son.