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Richard Penberthy
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New York City Ballet

New York City Ballet - What Matters Most

by Richard Penberthy
February 11, 2006
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

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New York City Ballet - What Matters Most

Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Richard Penberthy
February 11, 2006

Ballet brings together not only choreography and dancers but other elements as well - a performance packages both science and art. And, in general, an audience expects - at a minimum (exclusive of props, moving stages, rotating walls and the like) - designed lighting, costumes, sets, sound (music), script (choreography), and performers (dancers). These all matter. Is the choreography and the dancing the primary thing? Yes, but it is not the only thing the audience sees, hears, and reacts to.

For instance, companies of deaf dancers silently perform fast-moving and affecting works that leave an audience amazed and thrilled. One such such group, comprised of all women including singer Holly Near's deaf sister, performed over 25 years ago on the Lower East Side (before it became the chic Downtown Scene) to rousing applause and cheers (unheard by them of course). They performed in perfunctory lighting, before bleachers, in black tights, leotards and white t-shirts. It was not a bleak experience, but rich one.

On Saturday, all the riches of the New York City Ballet were brought to the stage. But, for good or ill, costumes played an inordinately large part in the presentation. Balance is an elusive goal in long evenings and large presentations. The final ballet of the night, An American in Paris, achieved a fine balance of its elements - lighting, costuming, dancing, choreography, scenery - and demonstrated how important and fulfilling a thing it is to experience.

The varied program included Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la Fee" and Duo Concertant (both choreographed by George Balanchine to Stravinski music and premiered exactly one day apart - June 21 and June 22 respectively in 1972), Fanfare, choreographed by Jerry Robbins to 1945 music by Benjamin Britten (based upon a theme by 17th Century English composer Henry Purcell), and An American in Paris, which had its premier on May 4, 2005, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to George Gershwin music (the music is a collage of George's from the 1920's and 30's which the Gershwin brothers assembled for the 1951 film, An American in Paris, on which the ballet is based: an ex-GI who stays in Paris after the war to pursue his career as an artist).

The Divertimento was created anew by Balanchine in 1972 from an earlier narrative ballet he had interpreted from Bronislava Nijinska's 1928 "Le Baiser de la Fee" ballet . The choreography incorporates classic and romantic elements but with the occasional wry note. In the duet, which was danced admirably by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz, the ballerina twice waves away her partner, and in payback, the choreography calls for him to echo her port de bras rather than offer his hand. In solo turns, Mr. de Luz's athleticism is particularly tested by Balanchine choreography - for instance, instead of grande jetes leading, as would be natural in striding, with one leg then the other, the dancer leaps again and again with the left leg leading, and then the right. A corps of 12 women alternately frustrate and frame the duet. It is a beautiful ballet to watch and the dancers excelled in their interpretations. But the costumes, for which no one is credited in the program appear…well, dingy. Tea washed tulle and grayish, insipid pastels are a flaw in this invitation to the evening.

Duo Concertant begins with dancers Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins standing behind the grand piano as two onstage musicians, pianist Susan Walters and violinist Arturo Delmoni, perform the first movement of Stravinski's Duo Concertant. Unfortunately for the audience, the dancers are static during this most strident of the four movements. It is a relief that for most of the remaining three movements, the dancers perform, returning only occasionally - as a gesture - to the role of passive listener. In the final movement with the stage in blackness, a spotlight focuses first on a dancer's arm, then a leg, then a face and neck, and so on. Only the fact that this dynamic music fosters the idea of isolation keeps the balance from shifting too heavily toward lighting. Simple costumes accentuate the strong dancing, playing against the plainest of stages, and they contrast with the formality of the musicians' tux and gown.

Fanfare is a very different matter, for here the costumes have much to say! This is almost a cartoon of a ballet. It is a class, a Sesame Street-type presentation, performed to the music of "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra", by Benjamin Britten. It is certainly fun, with each of the various types of instruments - woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion - in a different costume and color. But the costumes could completely take over the performance - could be its whole vocabulary - if the choreography weren't also so clear in its presentation: for instance, the three men who represent percussion stride about with assertive self-satisfaction.

An American in Paris is a big production, with scenery and scrims (by Adrianne Lobel) rendered in cubist and quasi-cubist painting styles, and very, very well done. Lighting (Natasha Katz) the set and especially working with these scrims (front-lit, back-lit, unlit) is wisely and carefully planned, producing the illusion of space and depth and even of attitude. Brilliantly done. The costumes for this ballet, by Holly Hynes, are remarkable as well. Damian Woetzel as the painter is in white, plain slacks and French-cut polo, the center of attention for being understated. The young American tourist, Jennifer Ringer, wears a pale pink skirt, but deep box pleats are lined in red - so that every major dance step is exciting. The thirty-one dancers onstage all wear costumes that mean something - that identify them as tourists, beatniks, fashionable Parisians, gendarmes, etc. All the costumes place their wearers in the tapestry that this ballet - more than most - weaves, and the costumes dance with the dancer easily and gracefully. Mr. Woetzel and Ms. Ringer, as well as Ellen Bar as the Parisian temptress, carry the narrative beautifully with their strong dancing.

The thirty-five (I failed to count the four little girls behind the blue nun and the Tour de France bicyclist - wearing the famed yellow jersey, of course) dancers on stage all work together with those other elements noted at the start of this article: lighting, costumes, sets, music, and choreography. An American in Paris is a fine closing to this long evening of ballet.

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