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New York City Ballet

'Mozartiana,' 'Dances at a Gathering,' 'Stravinsky Violin Concerto'

by Carmel Morgan

December 9, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC

Plenty of people in New York City in December were, as tradition directs, taking in the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” while simultaneously audiences in Washington, DC were treated to a non-holiday themed program performed by a small segment of the same company.  This performance provided gorgeous dancing, unadorned by glittery costumes and sets – a real delight, especially for the Nutcracker weary.  Another special delight was live music, which many local companies have foregone recently, presumably for economic reasons.  To perform “Mozartiana,” “Dances at a Gathering,” and “Stravinksy Violin Concerto” without live music would be sinful.  The immediacy of the live music gave necessary inspiration to the dancers.

“Mozartiana” felt sweet, pure, and old-fashioned, although it is one of Balanchine’s later ballets (it premiered in 1981).  The costumes, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, were formal and richly black, the skirts round and full and party-ready.  The young ballerinas appearing in the cast – Phoebe Bui, Ayaka Mizuno, Paige Russell, and Minori Sakita, students from the Maryland Youth Ballet – sparkled quietly as young ballerinas should.  Were they past reflections of the ballet’s Menuet quartet or the lead female, in this case the elegant veteran Wendy Whelan?  Something suggested that the adult women were simply grown-up versions of the decorative little ladies.

Attention to the dancing actually helped one hear the music better.  The clarity of the movement was superb.  Arms in “Mozartiana” unfolded infinitely slowly and beautifully, yet there were joyous small side to side jumps and flexed feet that added unpredictability and fun to the otherwise dignified and reserved dancing and picked up the playful musicality of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, Op. 61.  Whelan, her majestic long legs in top form, reigned supreme in this ballet.

“Dances at a Gathering,” a lengthy Jerome Robbins piece for ten dancers, showcased not only quality dancing but also the wonderful work of pianist Cameron Grant, playing music by Frédéric Chopin.  Jennifer Tipton, dance’s greatest lighting designer, furnished a picnic blue sky, with a few wispy clouds that seemed to subtly move throughout the ballet.  Against the sky, the dancers’ differently colored mostly pastel costumes resembled a pale rainbow.  Unfortunately, a group of toddlers sitting behind me chatted, cried, sneezed, and otherwise ruined the ballet’s bucolic atmosphere before the adult with them finally escorted the tots out of the theater.

The ballet began with a solo by Benjamin Millepied (in brown).  In solitude, his movement was first composed, then sweeping, then halting, reminding one of a journey of reminiscences.  From this solitude emerged a busier, folksy scene.  Varying numbers of dancers traded flirtations, women trotted arm in arm.  Notable were the fabulous exits couples made – a woman lifted upside down off the stage or delivered into the wings as if she was sitting in a chair.

The work was not without humor.  In fact, “Dances at a Gathering” was more light than emotionally deep.  Knowing comic, mischievous glances abounded, which helped to draw the audience further into the piece.

In my view, in addition to Millepied, who was the most dynamic of the male dancers, the standouts in “Dances at a Gathering” were Jennifer Ringer (in mauve) and Maria Kowroski (in green).  Ringer exhibited a sexy, almost Spanish flair, and the tall Kowroski danced boldly, begging to be seen.

The opening night’s mixed program ended with another Balanchine work, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”  In simple black and white, the dancing here, with its high kicks and jazzy moves, was more daring than the pretty “Mozartiana,” but also more uneven.  The younger dancers starring in this work – Sterling Hyltin, Rebecca Krohn, Robert Fairchild, and Amar Ramasar – were capable, yet did not project the expert air of Whelan, for example.  The choreography emphasized the entirety of the dancers’ bodies.  Inchworm backbends revealed not only incredible flexibility but also the ballet’s edginess.  Thrown into the mix were Russian elements – arms crossed at the chest Cossack-style – maybe in tribute to the birthplace of Balanchine and Stravinsky.

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