Posts Tagged ‘Frederic Chopin’

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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