Wednesday, January 30, 2013

NYCB—Balanchine + Tchaikovsky FTW

Sara Mearns in Swan Lake. Photo: Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet's Tchaikovsky festival has been a crash refresher on Balanchine's choreography to the composer's music, and their interconnectedness. Seven works over two recent programs show Balanchine's varied approaches. One dance in itself—Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3—includes excellent and mediocre Balanchine, a sort of Frankenstein of a ballet that pushes together 1970s sections (marked by a distracting scrim, bare feet, long hair, and longer skirts) with Themes and Variations, a hallmark of Mr. B's classic period from 1947. When the scrim is removed for the finale, it's like a veil is snatched from our eyes, eliciting the desired effect of clarity.

Mearns with Ask La Cour in Diamonds. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The house is always more electric whenever Sara Mearns takes the stage, and in these two programs she led the casts of Swan Lake (1951) and Diamonds (1967). Both of these roles are big enough for Mearns, who faces the odd problem of having too much magnetism for some ensemble works. But as the sole white swan in Balanchine's strange one-acter, she is pretty much the sole focus, alongside her swain in the form of Jared Angle. This version excerpts selections, a "best hits" medley of the full ballet, except that it excludes the black swan variations. Without the Odette/Odile duality, the full drama can only be hinted at. It does display Mearns' pliant back attitude, which slashes high at an angle, rather than creating the 90º geometrical structure that usually gives this position an aura of reliable rationality, rather than danger. It's a small example of why Mearns is so riveting—always choosing the dramatic over the safe.

Diamonds offers fewer moments for big drama, with its staid pace and conservative vocabulary. When paired with Emeralds and Rubies, it is the boring section of repose and dignity. Mearns was partnered by Ask la Cour, who framed her capably and never quite drew attention to himself, as is his wont. She plunged into arabesques and tossed her gaze high into the rafters when given the chance, rising to glitter like the pseudonymous gem.

Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in Divertimento. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild performed Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la Fée." Peck comes closest to the perfect combination of precision and artistry in the current company's women, and she has an omnipresent natural radiance and sheer joyousness. In previous years it could have been mistaken for youth, but as she matures this sense of pleasure is expanding. Fairchild dances with a fetching, jazzy musicality; he's a dashing cavalier, but his line is less than exemplary. Still, he is fun to watch.

Speaking of exemplary line, Chase Finlay, rocketing through major roles, debuted in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Ashley Bouder. A daring bit of casting by Mr. Martins, for sure, as Finlay has proved himself in roles with less traditional partnering required. But other than some jitters and a few small bobbles, he fared well. Granted, Bouder could literally partner herself, one of several NYCB women of great independent strength. I hope she relaxes a bit more and plays with the extra time she creates by being on top of steps, ahead of time, rather than freezing in poses on relévé. Or watch Tiler Peck a little more closely as she, equally facile with her steps, elongates or expands on the lushness within ballet's shapes.

Ashley Bouder and Chase Finlay in Tchai Pas. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Martin's Bal du Couture was the sole contribution by the choreographer, a gala confection created to acknowledge fashion designer Valentino and showcase his costume designs. Studded with 20 principals and soloists, it is less about the dance and a lot about style and runway attitude. Most of the women wear leg-hiding, calf-length black and white gowns with a frisson of red tulle underskirting flashing now and then, and pink or red toe shoes. The  three "sprites" (Bouder, Megan Fairchild, and Peck, in the sole red costume) wear bagel-shaped tutus. All are strangely unflattering. However, the men, in fitted tuxedos with tapered legs, look dashing. Even among these beautiful people, Finlay stood out with his Abercrombie appeal, elegant line, and pristine posture in the ballroom waltz as he swirled with Peck.

Megan Fairchild and Amar Ramasar danced Allegro Brillante (1956). I haven't seen Ramasar featured prominently as a partner (he replaced Andrew Veyette), and while, in my mind, he is less a technician than a memorable dramatic presence, they were surprisingly well matched. Fairchild is another woman who's strong on her own, and not strictly reliant on her partner. She fits comfortably into Balanchine's repertory, giving reliably textbook performances that have yet to ignite great passion. Next up: Justin Peck's second major commission.

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