P.T. Barnum Move Over

“To the greatest dancers on earth,” said New York City Ballet’s Master in Chief Peter Martins. On September 14 the Danish-born master of ceremonies pronounced this while making his annual, launch-the-season vodka toast. I don’t think Martins knew that his grand words echoed those of America’s most influential circus impresario. P.T. Barnum’s “greatest show on earth” began with elephants and trapeze girls walking the ring of the circus floor. On opening night, Martins trotted out “the greatest dancers on earth” one at a time in front of the stage curtain in Barnum-like fashion. As they stood in a line and in an array of costumes (jeans to suits, cocktail dresses to tutus), they looked like kids on their first day of school. Only Gonzalo Garcia bowed with a flourish of the arms as though saying, “The show must go on!”

Unprecedented in City Ballet history, Martins is putting his principal dancers front and center. He is shaking up the House of Balanchine’s historic mission, which has placed greater value on its choreography. Martins’s approach comes in concert with a new marketing campaign that aims to humanize the dancers through images where they are shot casually, candidly, or sexily (as opposed to formally in performance and in costume). These images can be seen in New York’s subway, magazines, and on billboards. They are also hanging along the public walls of the David H. Koch Theater. Marketing dancers’ personalities in consumer venues is one thing. It’s another matter to do it in the theater, where (until now) there appeared documentary style pictures of the company’s evolution or examples of a designer’s work, which helped to contextualize the complex, collaborative process of making ballets. Clearly, City Ballet is evolving.

What thankfully remains the same is the high quality of much of the choreography. Jerome Robbins’s 1979 Four Seasons, which closed the program and is a satire, remains a lesson in choreographic nuance. Funny is hard to do, and Robbins Seasons echoes the earlier Monty Python television series, but without disrespecting ballet’s demands on the body and the mind. Nonetheless, Robbins’s gestural gimmickry in Seasons pokes fun at ballet’s allegorical propensities: The corps dancers of Winter shiver and hug themselves; the women of Summer are pelvic-tilting harem girls; the dancers of Fall caper and rush, resembling leaves whistling down boulevards. During Tuesday’s performance, the dancers equaled Robbins’s choreography. Erica Pereira rose on pointe with a snowflake’s ease. Jennifer Ringer’s ability to use her whole body expressively demonstrates her hard-earned artistic maturity. Rebecca Krohn’s elegantly Mannerist lines and sexy confidence perfectly fits her role as the queen of Summer.

The other two dances on the program were Balanchine’s Serenade (1935) and Martins’s Grazioso (2007). Though it’s been said Serenade is an abstract dance, I see it as autobiography. It was the first ballet Balanchine made in America. Created to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the second section tells the choreographer’s story: A woman (Janie Taylor) emerges from the wings behind a man (Ask Le Cour); she covers his eyes with her hand; he walks forward like a blind missionary and encounters three dancers; he shapes them with his hands like a sculptor. At the ballet’s end, one of these muses (the inestimable Sara Mearns) transforms into a Madonna figure: Mearns is lifted above three porters heads like a Russian icon during a processional. As she exits the stage, she arches her back as though offering herself to her creator. What’s this? It is a highly emotional statement about redemption through artwork. In Serenade Balanchine demonstrates his faith in ballet’s expressive (spiritual) capacity. As the blind man who learns to see through his dancers, he implies he has the vision to develop ballet in the New World.

As for Martins’s Grazioso, it bears resemblance to late 19th century descriptions of the Russian Imperial Ballet, whose lengthy productions featured an endless array of divertissements that had no thematic connection to each other. They did, however, serve to show off each soloist’s technical strengths. Tricks abounded, and some dancers performed with the humanity of carnival barkers. Like these divertissements, Grazioso aims at lightness and virtuosity. What surprises is Martins choice of taking the least laudable aspects of Russian ballet and imitating it. The costumes by Holly Hines don’t help matters. Think Commedia dell’Arte meets a Las Vegas nightclub. Despite the choreographic and design deficiencies, Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, Daniel Ulbricht and Andrew Veyette performed their hearts out. Mine goes out to them for their valiant efforts.  




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