Posts Tagged ‘New York City Ballet’

Wanted: Artistic Director of a Ballet Company

Monday, September 21st, 2015

By Rachel Straus

Two mid-size ballet companies in North America are in search of artistic directors. Gradimir Pankov is leaving his post at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens of Montreal after 15 years. John McFall is departing Atlanta Ballet after 20 years. In comparison to the majority of the 140-odd ballet troupes across the North American continent, which have minimal seasons and only a handful of dancers, Les Grands and Atlanta employ between 20 and 30 dancers and commission in-demand choreographers for their seasons and tours. So, what is required to helm a mid-size ballet company? Les Grands recently posted the following criteria for their artistic director search:

  1. “It is important that the AD leads the company by working in the studio, as a teacher, coach, repetiteur, or choreographer.”
  2. “The AD reports directly to the Board and is responsible for the company’s look, repertoire, choreography, programming, and is an artistic leader.”
  3. “[The AD has] a mind to fiscal responsibility, and a vision that includes the community’s desire for entertainment [and] artistic achievement.”
  4. “[The AD should have] a reputation for artistic quality and the contacts and ability to bring the world’s greatest contemporary choreographer’s work to the repertoire of the Company.”

It seems, if one takes the Les Grands advert as more than wishful thinking, the search committee wants the AD to do everything in the studio, know everyone in the ballet world, and have a head for business. Does such a wunderkind currently exist?

Loudes Lopez, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, is perhaps the only person who fits the bill. She became the AD of Miami City Ballet in 2012, after serving for five years as the executive director of Morphoses. She kept this company afloat, even after its founder, the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, jumped ship in 2010. Lopez achieved this feat by inviting guest choreographers to direct separate seasons and by keeping her wary board close. Prior to her work with Wheeldon, Lopez served as the executive director of the George Balanchine Foundation, which is concerned with educational outreach. As a New York City Ballet dancer for approximately 24 years, Lopez developed an intimate understanding of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’ repertory, having performed their works while both choreographers were alive. Lopez is a particularly marvelous fit for Miami City Ballet because she was born in Cuba. She is able to fundraise in her native tongue and in a city, known as the gateway to Latin America.

While Lopez appears to be the dream AD, other recent AD hires reveal the more typical profile of a former principal dancer turned ballet master in chief. Take Madrid-born Angel Corella, who danced for American Ballet Theatre. He was hired by Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. Because of various circumstances, he did not come with impressive executive credentials. After retiring from the stage, Corella returned to his native Spain and attempted to create a ballet company, first in the Castile and León region and then in Barcelona. Corella didn’t have experience fundraising and the Spaniards, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, vacillated about, and then declined to back his ballet company.

Then there is the Cuban-born José Manuel Carreño, another star of American Ballet Theater, who became the AD of Sarasota Ballet in 2011, upon his official retirement from the stage. He is now the head of Silicon Valley Ballet (formerly Ballet San Jose). Like Corella, he came to his first job with scant training in fiscal management, fundraising, or marketing experience.

It will be interesting to see who Les Grands and Atlanta Ballet will hire. In the recent past artistic directors of renowned ballet companies used to be choreographers, such as George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, Frederick Ashton at Royal Ballet and John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet.  Thus their companies had unique artistic profiles. These days ballet companies are in the odd business of performing the same repertory as their fellow troupes. It makes for a homogenized ballet world. My hope is that Atlanta and Les Grands will hire a choreographer, one who puts a real stamp on the artistic “product” of their company. Perhaps this new AD will also be a woman. That would be doubly groundbreaking.

Justin Peck’s New Graffiti Ballet

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

By Rachel Straus

Justin Peck’s ballets are athletic, spirited, musical.  The 27-year-old choreographer is pushing the technical envelope of today’s dancers. Far from looking stilted in ballet’s three-century-year old language, Peck’s dancers appear unleashed by, and often euphoric in, his ballet-rooted aesthetic. Yet despite Peck’s adherence to tradition, he is nothing but a contemporary choreographer. His combination of steps are so complex that 20 years ago the dancers might not have been able to realize them.

Peck, who has been dancing with New York City Ballet since 2007, was named resident choreographer of the company in 2014. His third first piece for City Ballet was Paz de la Jolla, inspired by and is set to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta la Jolla. Peck is returning to the music of Martinů for his first commission from Miami City Ballet, a company founded by the former Balanchine principal Edward Villella and now heralded by former Balanchine ballerina Lourdes Lopez. Yet the inspiration for the work, which will premiere at Palm Beach’s Kravis Center on March 27, appears to be less about Martinů’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D Major (1925) and more about the graffiti art found in Wynwood, Miami. That is, if the promo-video for the new ballet, called Heatscape, is an accurate rendering of the spirit of the work.

Justin Peck and Miami City Ballet dancers in Wynwood

Justin Peck and Miami City Ballet dancers in Wynwood

In the first moments of Ezra Hurwit and Peck’s Heatscape video, Peck puts on his ear phones, we hear Martinů’s concerto, and we see the tall, boyish choreographer enter Wynwood Walls graffiti park, created by the late real estate mogul Tony Goldman. What follows is the appearance of Miami City Ballet dancers, sailing through the air like dolphins in front of various graffiti murals.

One wonders whether Peck, who is not a Miamian, knows the story behind Wynwood’s recent and massive gentrification, and if he did know it, whether he would choose this place as the backdrop for his promo video.

The story of Wynwood begins in the 2000s. Looking for a place to invest his money, the real estate mogul Goldman took note of the creativity of area’s graffiti muralists. They were illegally using the sides of Wynwood warehouses to showcase their art. Goldman decided to give them legal wall space for their work. And, so, Wynwood Walls were born. More recently, another real estate mogul named David Edelstein began buying up Wynwood’s warehouse neighborhood. Thanks to Edelstein, the working class area has become a hipster mecca. Edelstein’s approach is as follows: buy large swaths of a poor neighborhood, promote urban artists as the symbol of the neighborhood, rapidly gentrify the area into a playground for nightlife and the bourgeois consumption of art, and then kick out old residents. All of this is described in Camila Álvarez and Natalie Edgar’s Right to Wynwood, which won the Best Documentary Short at the 2014 Miami Film Festival.

With this in mind, Peck’s decision to put ballet and Miami graffiti together is problematic. His joining of the two arts occurs not just in his promo video, but also in the soon-to-be-completed stage version of Heatscape. Shepard Fairey, a former graffiti artist, known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster, is creating the work’s graffiti-esque set design.

Putting ballet and graffiti together is hardly new. The first graffiti ballet was Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe (1973) for The Joffrey Ballet. Back in the 1970s, when Tharp was making Deuce Coupe, graffiti was still considered anti-social. It illegally altered public spaces. By hiring graffiti artists to spray paint the stage backdrop, while Tharp’s ballet-meets-social dance unfolded, she threw into question the notion of high and low art.

Peck, who is a classically trained ballet dancer, rightfully wants to mix the “high” and the “low”; to blend sanctioned and rebellious art forms together. Unfortunately, graffiti is no longer a rebellious art. The establishment has embraced it. In the case of Wynwood, real estate moguls are using graffiti to gentrify the neighborhood. Consequently, Peck’s Heatscape video promo doesn’t express bohemian culture as much as it reveals the corporatization of culture, marketed to young people in spaces owned by real estate titans. Let’s hope Peck’s actual ballet doesn’t fumble so drastically into contested urban spaces, where art and big business are meeting. Let’s hope Heatscape is just a hot dance.

The Beauty of Nature (Trained and Untrained): A Schumacher Ballet Film

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

By Rachel Straus

Helene Davis, of Helene Davis PR, was good enough to send this beautiful film promo, featuring Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll in the upcoming work Dear and Blackbirds by Troy Schumacher. Filmed by Schumacher, the duet was shot in Telluride, CO. Ah, mountains, prairie and dark cumulous clouds. The two statuesque dancers’ serious yet delicate interchanges mysteriously harmonize with the monumental landscape.

Click here to see:

Dear and Blackbirds

Schumacher’s pick-up company, composed of New York City Ballet dancers, will present two world premieres, Dear and Blackbirds and All That We See, at New York University’s Skirball Center on October 29 and 30. Both ballets have been composed to commissioned scores by 24-year-old Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who works as musical assistant to Nico Muhly and whose aesthetic is decidedly romantic.

Schumacher founded Ballet Collective in 2010 and has danced in New York City Ballet’s corps since 2006. On September 24, his first City Ballet commission Clearing Dawn, to Judd Greenstein’s “Clearing, Dawn, Dance,” premiered. It will be performed again at the former New York State Theater on October 9, 11 and 13.

Clearly, Schumacher is inspired by nature. His titles are a give away. He invokes his dancers to move like reeds in the wind.

Ballet Goes to Broadway, Again

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

By Rachel Straus

The blogosphere is alive with news about the current forays of New York City ballet principal dancers Robert Fairchild, Megan Fairchild, and Tyler Peck into Broadway.

Robert Fairchild will appear in An American in Paris in the role originated by Gene Kelly. The production will premiere in Paris and will come to Broadway in the spring. Former New York City Ballet resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon will provide the choreography.

Megan Fairchild, Robert’s older sister, recently made her Broadway debut (September 21) in the Broadway revival of On The Town. Originally conceived by Jerome Robbins and based on his 1944 hit ballet Fancy Free, On The Town requires that Fairchild dance, sing and act in her role as Ivy Smith, the small town girl who comes to the big city.

Then there is Tyler Peck, who Robert Fairchild recently married. She will premiere in the new Susan Stroman musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center on October 25. The musical is inspired by the relationship between painter Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the poor ballet student who modeled for his sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” (1881).

The movement of dancers between The Great White Way and the mirrored precincts of the ballet studio is nothing new. What is of note is the development of the Fairchild-Peck dance family dynasty, which also includes Megan Fairchild’s husband Andrew Veyette, another New York City Ballet principal dancer. Veyette excels in Broadway-style City Ballet works such as NY Export: Opus Jazz, where sharpness and grit rather than classical aplomb are emphasized.

Clearly this dancing foursome, who are mature dancers, are looking beyond their careers at City Ballet and ballet, in general. It wouldn’t be surprising if they started a televised dance program, one that presented their shared interests in ballet, Jazz dance, big business (in the performing arts), and self-marketing.

What is not certain for these intrepid ballet dancers is whether their current or upcoming work on Broadway will launch them into a new performing sphere. Much of that success depends on the ability of the choreographers who are, or will be, directing them.

The other ingredient for success is the development of a different kind of stage personality. Highly successful musical theater performers, whether it be Nathan Lane or Sutton Foster, take the material and make it quirky (or comically) their own.

So, in honor of iconic performers and legendary director-choreographers, here is a little slide-show movie about Jack Cole, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins, who worked extensively with ballet-trained dancers, from Gwen Verdon to Vera Zorina to Chita Rivera. Together they made numerous enduring Broadway and Hollywood musical theater dance numbers. All three men developed their choreographic voices by breaking the so-called boundaries between the dance forms. All three woman showed that great dancing technique looks like play instead of performance.

To see the slide show movie, press on this link:

Ballet Goes Broadway, Back Then




Dance as a Luxury Product: the Post 9/11 Environment

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

By Rachel Straus

The Slovak National Dance Congress 2014 recently asked me to speak about the state of New York City dance. Since I’ve been living in New York City on and off since 1979, I decided to take up the challenge. In the following slides (which have been converted into a movie), I tease out the changes that have occurred for New York City concert dancers following 9/11 and then more recently in the wake of the financial crisis. What I found most striking (and dismaying) in my research was that the U.S. capital of Terpsichore is increasingly recognizing dancers and dance organizations not as artists and arts groups—the obvious—but as brands for luxury consumption. Because this project was made for a European audience, the monetary valuation is in Euros. Note: The embedded movie requires you to use the pause and play icons in order to read the full text. To see the work, click below.


NYC Dance as Luxury Product






Women as Forces of Nature in Balanchine’s Kammermusik No. 2

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Note: This review marks the continuation of a series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History course I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Alexandra Hutt

George Balanchine is famously credited with saying that “ballet is woman.” This idea is boldly apparent in his Kammermusik No. 2, which premiered on New York City Ballet in January 1978, and more recently was performed by the company as part of their 2014 winter season.

Throughout the work, seen January 22, Balanchine demonstrates his knowledge of classical ballet, stemming from his training in Russia as a child. Yet he also takes codified ballet steps and pushes them to their limits, demanding hyper-musicality, and infusing ornate, mannerist detail into both the dancers’ gestures and footwork. Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times described Kammermusik as “classicism dotted with deliberate stylistic perversions.” It is those “stylistic perversions” that exemplify Balanchine’s advancement of ballet, and reveal a more nuanced expression of his statement, “ballet is woman”; in that woman embodies Nature—and she is a force to be reckoned with.

Photo by Paul Kolnick

Photo by Paul Kolnick

Balanchine creates the woman as nature comparison from the beginning of his work. When the curtain rises, the principal women (Rebecca Krohn and Abi Stafford) stand apart form a corps of eight men. When the men begin moving with flexed hands and feet, they look like little spiders. Their movement deepens the intriguing musical counterpoint, ominousness and whimsy that lies at the heart of Hindemith’s score, conducted by Andrew Sills. In the more whimsical moments of Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, the same men become prancing ponies, dancing in canon with a certain earnest and feminine quality. Then, they return to their insect-likeness and weave in and out of one another, as a group of ants might, when following a particularly scrumptious set of crumbs. Is Balanchine making fun of them? At the very least, he does it to elevate the roles of the women.

Photo by Paul Kolnick

Though both the men and women in Kammermusik seem to represent four legged creatures, it becomes clear that the female creatures are of a higher taxonomic order, such as tarantulas, with their the forbiddingly long legs and extensions of them. Like their male counterparts, they skitter across the stage, but because they do so in pointe shows they devour space, while retaining an elegance that the opposite sex does not possess in this movement. Not even the choreography for the principal men (Amar Ramasar and Jared Angle) evoke the languid quality that the tarantula-women embody. The women’s sensual style gives their dancing dimension and depth. It’s a feminine kind of power. In one particular sequence, the women seem to transform into another force of nature—massive waves. With oceanic power they chase their partners off of the stage.

Photo by Paul Kolnick

In Kammermusik, the women rule unapologetically. They encompass aspects of the animal kingdom that can be overlooked, such as the illusive cunning of the tigress, who will kill (or be killed) before giving up her territory. Balanchine shows the audience that when he says that ballet is woman, he isn’t referring to the tragic victims in ballet narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries. In this work, his female dancers represents a strong 20th century vision of women who aren’t afraid of their own strength and power.


Alexandra Hutt is originally from Denver, Colorado. She studied dance at International Ballet School, and received additional training and mentorship from Robert Sher-Machherndl of Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet. She is thrilled to be studying at Juilliard, and looks forward to continuing her education in New York City!

Paz de la Jolla: A trip to the ballet, not to California

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Note: This review marks the continuation of a series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History course I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Cleo Person

As a Southern California native, I eagerly awaited New York City Ballet’s February performance of Justin Peck’s new work Paz de la Jolla. Seated in the former New York State Theater, I was hoping for a mini trip home, minus the hassle and airfare. Even though Reid Bartelme’s costuming (bathing suits and shorts) and Peck’s ocean imagery did create some sense of a warmer California climate, not much else about the piece captured the laid-back, costal village atmosphere of La Jolla.

The finale of Paz de la Jolla © Paul Kolnik.

Peck, a twenty-five year old City Ballet corps member, is not a complete novice in the art of choreography. La Jolla is his fourth work for City Ballet, following his most recent critical success, Year of the Rabbit. But La Jolla, set to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta la Jolla, didn’t win me over. Peck’s choreography rarely conjures any sense of La Jolla as an actual place. The ballet seems to be in the service of displaying the dancers’ high level of technical ability, and Peck’s choreographic proficiency. He skillfully arranges his 18 dancers in geometric formations and patterns through an array of steps that feature the classical ballet lexicon. It’s a charming, impressive display. However the confounding part about La Jolla is what it actually evokes: the urgent, frenetic pace of New York.

Though the ballet is mainly abstract, there are a few loose plot points, which enable the leads to stand out as characters. Tyler Peck, clad in a striking blue bathing suit, not only shows off her technical prowess, but also plays a girl with a delightful sense of spark and fun. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, who portray lovebirds on the beach, contribute hints of maturity. It is not, however, the kind of maturity seen in La Jolla, where most of the population is retirees.

Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar in Paz de la Jolla. © Paul Kolnik.

Peck’s need to display movement virtuosity overshadows any feeling or story he could have conveyed. For example, the dancers of the corps act more as design vehicles than real people, and the relationship between the in-love couple is more generic than illuminating or enchanting. Because of Peck’s focus on wowing with steps and speed, even the small allusions to narrative get muddled. At one point, Hyltin runs into the waves, created by the massing of the corps, and Ramasar follows her. It becomes unclear as to whether they are playing in the water, drowning, or dreaming the whole thing up. When the waves subside, the couple lays motionless as other dancers, who previously represented waves, fail to revive them. Seconds later, Hyltin and Ramasar get up and dance joyfully (and absurdly) away.

The most ingenious part of la Jolla is Peck’s depiction of waves, created by a group of dancers wearing shimmery blue tops and dancing on the upstage diagonal in swelling and receding patterns. Peck doesn’t revert to cliché arm waving or other overused water images. Instead, he has female dancers lie prone with their legs in the air while the men form complicated patterns of interlacing circles behind them. He choreographs other women to then weave under the men’s arms. This ensemble-created fluidity is mesmerizing. Other sections, however, don’t flow together quite as smoothly. There are multiple occasions when the dancers arrive into formation and then stand still, waiting for the next musical cue to launch them into the next movement phrase.

Peck’s ballet occurred in the middle of the evening’s program, following Alexei Ratmansky’s spatially stunning Concerto DSCH, and preceding Jerome Robbins’ groovy N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. After seeing all three pieces, it became clear that Peck did a nice job showing off the dancers’ strengths. While Robbin’s Opus Jazz is a brilliantly created, timeless piece of fun that can, if danced well, be a masterpiece, many of the girls looked like they missed their pointe shoes and appeared uncomfortable moving their bodies outside of the ballet lexicon. While not very evocative of a true Southern Californian way of life, Paz de la Jolla was at least danced with great enthusiasm by Peck’s fellow dancers.

Cleo Person is a first year Dance Division student at The Juilliard School.

Music and Dance Partnerships

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

By Rachel Straus

At the most recent Guggenheim Museum Works & Process (September 23), I couldn’t help but think of Monte Carlo in 1928. In that city and year, the 24-year-old George Balanchine created his bedrock neo-classical ballet to Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète. For the next four decades, the partnership between the young Russian choreographer and older Russian composer flourished.

At Sunday’s moderated talk and dance exhibition, the subject was a new ballet-music partnership—that of the 25-year-old American choreographer Justin Peck and American indie rocker Sufjan Stevens. Peck is a current New York City Ballet corps member who has been making work since 2009. Stevens has several award winning albums under his belt. Moderator Ellen Bar mentioned that Stevens has a “cult following.” The hope is that his music will bring in a new, young audience to New York City Ballet. On October 3 the Peck-Stevens work, Year of the Rabbit, will premiere at the former New York State Theater.

What’s odd about this new collaboration is that Stevens’s 2001 electronica album Enjoy Your Rabbit is getting a complete classical music makeover. In fact, Rabbit has been through not one but two iterations since its inception. Classical music arranger Michael Atkinson turned it into a string quartet in 2007. For the City Ballet commission, Atkinson and Stevens expanded the quartet into a full orchestral score. Instead of electronic acoustics and club beats, Atkinson inserted clacking sounds for the violin and a fare amount of percussion. Stevens’s original work, heard in excerpted form over the PA system, captures the cosmic sensibility of The Chinese Zodiac, which served as Stevens’s original inspiration. The orchestral version, also heard in excerpted form, sounds less celestial.

When Peck began reading up on Chinese astrology, he confessed to feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the subject. When asked about the challenges of making Year of the Rabbit, Peck said that it has been easy sailing, partially because NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins gave his work priority and the pick of the company’s dancers. Only Alexei Ratmansky might have gotten this treatment at City Ballet. But that is the very point. Ratmansky is gone; he took an Artist in Residence position at American Ballet Theatre in 2007. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon left City Ballet in 2008 to start his own company. Martins is looking for a new wunderkind. Peck has fluency formulating movement based on academic ballet steps. He is the great new hope.

Four excerpts showcased Peck’s choreographic talent, energy, and ambition. His work is fast, virtuosic and not as angular as Balanchine’s style. But the softer arm work often rides on top of Peck’s hyper-kinetic foot work (and sometimes lyricism gets lost). When City Ballet principal Tiler Peck (no relation) danced an excerpt from “Year of the Ox,” it was the most exciting moment of the evening. Having learned the part 48 hours prior, Peck was filling in for an injured Ashley Bouder. Becoming the Ox, she pawed the ground. Her legs and arms yoked in one direction, and then another. She pushed back with flying limbs that syncopated against the music and responded to the violins’ high notes.


Another event that featured music as much as dance was the September 17 Alice Tully Hall performance of the Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir and the José Limón Dance Company. The highlight of the one-night only occasion in celebration of Venezuala’s El Sistema was Missa Brevis. With a score by Zoltan Kodaly, a choir of more than 65 young singers, and a cast of 18 dancers, the 1958 Limón work has never looked better.

In the age of irony, it’s not easy to dance Missa Brevis. The work was inspired by Limón’s trip to Poland, where he witnessed the people’s poverty and dignity under Soviet Union rule. Despite this big subject, Missa Brevis came across Monday night not as an ideological sermon, but as a prayer. In their Lincoln Center debut, the Limón dancers performed Limón’s landmark work without an ounce of sanctimony.

Like a religious icon above the heads of the worshippers, Missa began with Kathyrn Alter raised out and aloft of a mass of men and women. Hovering above the organist, played by Vincent Heitzer, Alter’s face shone like a Madonna. Francisco Ruvalcaba danced Missa‘s Christ figure. Ruvalcaba is the outsider who dances alone and prostates himself on the floor in the sign of the cross. Angels also appear: three men men lift three women; they float through the air; their arms reach upwards; their limbs sing to the heavens.

The groupings of dancers in response to Kodaly’s choric mass created sonic-visual achitecture. Its architectural correlative is the great cathedral, one that possesses a high golden altar and low simple benches. Limón learned from his mentor Doris Humphrey that contrast is key to choreography. Consequently, Missa doesn’t focus solely on darkness and sorrow. Of the 12 sections, almost half of them speak of hope.

Under the artistic direction of Carla Maxwell, the Limón Company is now in its 65th year. The company’s executive director is the Venezuelan-born Gabriela Poler-Buzali. Since her appointment in 2009, Poler-Buzali has been forging alliances with Latin American arts organizations, presenters and choreographers. The company is increasingly touring Latin America. Today Limón is being rediscovered as a Latino artist. The majority of the audience at Alice Tully were there to listen to the Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir. Hopefully, they will seek out the José Limón Dance Company after this first, magnificent introduction.

Lifting Ballerinas

Monday, May 7th, 2012

By Rachel Straus

Have you ever wondered what it would take to partner a female ballet dancer? The May 6 matinee at New York City Ballet was an excellent primer for anyone considering this question. In each of the four works from the All (Jerome) Robbins program, at the former New York State Theater, the male lead rarely left the side of his ballerina.

Robbins’s In G Major was a case in point. In the pas de deux section to Ravel’s eponymous composition, Tyler Angle lifted Maria Kowroski at least 25 times. In the end, Angle walked off the stage with Kowroski in a six-o-clock split, her head almost touching his. To create this pose, Angle benched pressed the tall ballerina above his head. Because of the pleasing geometry of Kowroski’s long line, and the ease of her form, my eye naturally moved to her. But it was Angle underneath who made this vision airborne—and magical. At the last moment, Angle’s arms looked like they were going to fail him. Fortunately, the stage wings were steps away.

Besides Robbins’s The Cage (1951), about a tribe of man-eating insect women who destroy one of their prey (Craig Hall), Robbins’s other ballets on the program showed the influence of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. In the Night (1970), In G Major (1975) and Andantino (1981) are plotless ballets. They feature a relationship, or relationships, between a man and woman, which is expressed through a pas de deux. Balanchine expanded classicism through the partnered duet. His lifts were far more complex than his predecessors Petipa, Fokine, and Massine. They didn’t just go up and down. They traveled. The woman changed poses in mid air. The lifts often began and ended in full-bodied motion. In Robbins’s three ballets, Balanchine-style partnering is evidence. The women sail through the sky like birds (and occasionally like fighter jets). The men below them propel their wings.

Of the male leads from In the Night, to music by Frédéric Chopin as performed by Nancy McDill, Robert Fairchild and Sebastian Marcovici stood out for their convincing portrayals of men in adoration of their women. While Fairchild played the young lover to Sterling Hyltin, Marcovici danced the steadfast companion to Wendy Whelan’s vexed, ambivalent character. Marcovici’s lifts expressed the unswerving nature of his love. While she thrashed and pulled away from, Marcovici carried Whelan aloft through her psychological storm. Their pas de deux was the highlight of the afternoon.

Back in 2007 a documentary about the recently retired New York City Ballet principal dancer Jock Soto was aired. Called Water Flowing Together, it contains a memorable scene in which the virile Soto is crumpled in a corner of a studio. With tears of exhaustion, Soto talks about how his arms ache. He says he doesn’t have the strength to lift another ballerina. Yet Soto wasn’t angry or resentful. He expressed exasperation with his ability to continue to make partnering look effortless, to make lifts symbols of the transcendent power of love.

The men of City Ballet, and male ballet dancers everywhere, may not have to dance on the tips of their toes or to suffer the same degree of competition as female dancers, but their job is no less easy. They literally carry certain ballets. Balanchine said “ballet is woman,” but ballet without men would strip the art form of humanity, and of its fundamental expression of being there for another.

The joys of the ballet spoof

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

By Rachel Straus

There is nothing like a good ballet spoof. At New York City Ballet’s January 21 matinee performance at Lincoln Center, the company danced Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert” (1956). Whether you get the inside jokes about famous ballets, Robbins’s jabs at ballet traditions—the good, bad and the ugly—directly communicate. Many of the high jinks in “The Concert” involve the corps de ballet. They aren’t a sisterhood of synchronous arms and legs, but a bunch of competitive ladies with faulty memories in respect to their steps. The prima ballerina, danced to perfection by principal Maria Kowroski, isn’t satisfied until she is tearing through space, emoting like a diva, and wearing ridiculous headgear (a blue pom-pom hat). Meanwhile the on-stage pianist, Cameron Grant, plays on a dust-covered piano. Dance studios boast some of the most broken down pianos around. These ancient instruments, which have tortured generations of musicians, are too often treated as good places for dancers to put their gear.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

As for the male dancers in “The Concert,” they are reduced to porteurs, carrying ballerinas to and fro as if they are store window mannequins. The motivation of the lead danseur, Andrew Veyette, is to kill his wife, Amanda Hankes, and to win the long-legged Kowroski.

“The Concert,” to Frederic Chopin’s piano sonatas, was made more than a half century ago, but its traditions (and relevance) hold fast. Competition between dancers, the primacy of the ballerina, men hauling female dancers above their shoulders: it’s all very 2012. An all-out audience pleaser, “The Concert” is a gem for any mixed bill program that needs a little leavening.

Two years before Robbins made “The Concert,” his younger colleague Michael Kidd choreographed a ballet spoof for Paramount Pictures called “Knock on Wood.” Kidd and Robbins cut their teeth as performers on Russian ballet. Both felt like imposters, being Jewish, not apprenticing to classical dance in their wee years, and failing to cotton to the big fairy tale ballet aesthetic. When Kidd left the ballet world in 1947 and became a sought after dance arranger for musicals, he used his Russian ballet experience to side splitting effect. In “Knock on Wood,” Kidd directed Danny Kaye to duck into a theatre, don a costume of a Slavic hero and ad-lib through a Russian ballet performance to escape from bad guns with guns. Kaye dances the flat-footed fool in some very saggy tights. He’s no aristocrat. Neither was Kidd. “I was never cut out,” he said, “for being the Swan Prince.” You Tube currently carries the Knock on Wood ballet scene. It’s a little over eight minutes long, but it feels like a flash.

Danny Kaye in "Knock on Wood"

Some ballets are meant to be serious, but are best enjoyed as comedy. Such was the case with an excerpt of Jeremy McQueen’s “Concerto Nuovo” (2009). Performed on January 24 for the Dancers Responding to Aids benefit concert at the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Theater, McQueen set his all-female work to J.S. Bach’s “Concerto in D minor for Two Violins.” If ever there was a loaded piece of music in dance, it’s this concerto. Balanchine and Paul Taylor created their masterpieces, “Concerto Barocco,” and “Esplanade,” respectively, to this music.

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Young McQueen not only turns Bach’s concerto into background music for his grab bag of steps culled from ballet, modern, runaway modeling and the competition dance circuit, he states in the program notes that “Nuovo” is inspired by Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco.” McQueen’s homage and convoluted dance phrases are so tasteless they’re funny. The white ruffled mini dress costumes transform the nine hard-working dancers into identical-looking prom queens. With a good editor, “Concerto Nuovo” could amuse more than offend. Dancing funny to J.S. Bach’s concerto holds promise. Some pieces of music bear too much history to be danced straight.

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