At the two New York City Ballet performances that I caught this last week, the ballets I saw ranged from The Magic Flute (a one-act story ballet by artistic director Peter Martins) to a plotless ballet by George Balanchine (Valse-Fantaisie). There were also those, like Balanchine’s Duo Concertant and Wheeldon’s After the Rain, that resided somewhere in between.
Martins’ The Magic Flute is inspired not by Mozart’s opera, but by a ballet composed by Riccardo Drigo and choreographed for the Maryinsky Ballet in 1893 by Lev Ivanov. Martins’ narrative, even without program notes, is easy to follow. The ballet tells the story of two peasants (Lise and Luke), in love yet forbidden to marry: Lise’s parents hope that she will wed the wealthy Marquis, instead. Luke comes by a magic flute (rewarded to him by a goddess, disguised as a beggar), which has the power to force all who hear its music to dance. Chaos ensues, but it is soon neatly resolved, and the ballet concludes in a marriage.
Though lacking the wit of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, which also follows the romantic life of a peasant named Lise, The Magic Flute is at times charming. True, it contains an unfortunate number of pratfalls and broadly-drawn characters; but there are also some finely crafted variations (for Lise, in particular) with lilting rhythms. Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz, in the leading roles last Wednesday night, made the most of every step they were given. Peck’s dancing in relation to the music is often daring and unexpected; as Lise, she elucidated the difference between her involuntary and free dancing via minute changes in her response to the music.
On the same program as The Magic Flute were three Balanchine ballets: Duo Concertant, Valse-Fantaisie, and The Four Temperaments. Duo Concertant was danced by Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, whom I first saw in this ballet during NYCB’s fall season. They were good then, remarkable now.
The ballet begins with a pianist and violinist playing Stravinsky’s music onstage; the two dancers stand behind them and listen until they are moved to dance. This conversation between the musicians and dancers is central to the piece: the dancers return several times during the ballet to the piano. When performed by other dancers, I have often felt that these musical interludes feel like breaks for the dancers–a chance for them to rest and breathe a bit. Hyltin and Fairchild, though, seemed almost to burst into movement when the time came for them to dance, eager to make the patterns and tones they were hearing visual. They played with the music, and they played off of each other; the result was a piece that seemed utterly unscripted, though I had seen it many times before.
I wished for the imaginative impulse of these dancers when watching Valse-Fantaisie. The demi-soloists had a lovely, wispy quality to their movements, but I found the leading couple, Ashley Bouder and (especially) Andrew Veyette, less interesting. Bouder has the ability to bend gravity to her will, and her dancing was not without breathtaking moments: in one phrase, she sustained a slowly revolving attitude position almost longer than could be believed. Yet I felt that, overall, the ballet fell somewhat flat.
The fourth piece on the program, The Four Temperaments, I saw again the following week, with slight changes in casting. With a few exceptions, this early work by Balanchine, set to a score by Paul Hindemith, is in good repair. Sébastien Marcovici, who danced the Melancholic variation both nights, does not have a particularly flexible back: in some pieces, this would not present much of a problem, but the Melancholic variation is filled with anguished backbends; perhaps because of this lack of mobility, he inches into positions instead of throwing himself into them. At one point in the variation, when he collapsed to the floor repeatedly, the falls seemed anything but spontaneous.
The rest of the ballet, however, was a joy to watch. All of the dancers in the first section danced well, and I particularly enjoyed Ashley Laracey’s performance the second night. Perhaps most interesting was the Phlegmatic variation, danced the first evening by Amar Ramasar and the second by Ask la Cour. Physically, these dancers differ dramatically: Ramasar is boyish and long-limbed, while la Cour, with his long, thin torso, possesses an uncommon sort of grace. Ramasar gave a good performance, with some astute musical phrasing, but la Cour’s interpretation was fascinating. At the beginning of the variation, he was all awkward, rounded shoulders and loosely hanging limbs; when, for the first time, he took on a classical pose, the transformation was unexpectedly stunning. These touches of nobility (he raised a hand to his hip and his posture lifted imperceptibly but entirely) cropped up throughout the piece, creating surprising contrasts.
After the Rain, by Christopher Wheeldon, and Jerome Robbins’ The Four Seasons completed the program this Wednesday. The Four Seasons felt to me more dated than any of Balanchine’s pieces. The corps de ballet was, for the most part, used quite conventionally: symmetrical and decorative. And though some dancers–most notably Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbright in “Fall”–found some life and texture in the choreography, I think that the piece is well-buried in the past.
I never tire of seeing After the Rain, however, and doubt that I will. This ballet, choreographed to music by Arvo Pärt, begins with six dancers on the far side of the stage. In front of a backdrop that looks like a rain-spattered window, the women, facing the audience, lift their legs to high penchées–a memorable beginning. The first section of the piece is restless, the dancers constantly moving. Then, four dancers leave as two who have already left (Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall), reenter.
And everything suddenly becomes warmer–the lights, the colors, the relationship between the two dancers. At some points everything seems nearly still, when the movements are at their most slight and languid. What intrigues me most about this piece is that, while it seems calm and unhurried, there is yet some underlying sadness to it. There are times when it seems filled with innocence: when Whelan bats gently at Hall’s arm and looks at it move with wonder (as a child might blow gently on the dead seeds of a dandelion), or when Hall lightly nudges her with his foot. But there are also times when Whelan focuses on something in the distance, looking past her partner’s form, and though now surrounded by afternoon light, perhaps she sees more rain. It is bittersweet, and astonishing in its simplicity.