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New York City Ballet

'Sophisticated Lady', 'The Infernal Machine', 'Purple' [from 'Ecstatic Orange'], 'Hallelujah Junction', 'West Side Story Suite'

'Serenade', 'Ivesiana', 'Tarantella', 'Firebird'

'Fancy Free', 'Carousel (A Dance)', 'West Side Story Suite'

by Jerry Hochman

May 19, 24 and 25(m), 2013 -- Koch Theater, New York, NY

It used to be accepted wisdom that New York City Ballet was a choreographers’ company, known more for its famous choreographers than its dancers (a company without stars, as Lincoln Kirstein famously said), as opposed to American Ballet Theatre, which was considered a dancers’ company, known more for its star dancers. This distinction was wrong when I first started seeing ballet, in the Stone Age, and it is wrong now.

With respect to NYCB, few programs demonstrate this more convincingly than the three I saw last week. While the ballets may or may not be classics, the programs were notable for their execution by the NYCB dancers, and in particular the quality of NYCB’s current crop of soloists and young principals. While I’ll discuss the ballets and performances in relative performance order, the highlights for this viewer were Lauren Lovette’s New York debut in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), for which the word ‘stunning’ would be an understatement; Ashley Laracey’s striking performance in Peter Martins’s The Infernal Machine; Erica Pereira’s outstanding effort in George Balanchine’s Tarantella (opposite Daniel Ulbricht at his best), and all of Sterling Hyltin’s performances, including her debut in Balanchine’s Serenade and her 'routine' performance in Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free.

The final program in NYCB’s three week American Music Festival consisted of four pieces (one of which was an excerpt) created by NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins, and one by Robbins. Aside from West Side Story Suite, which I had seen and previously reviewed, two pieces by Mr. Martins that I had not previously seen were particularly impressive.

Mr. Martins has endured years of dismissive critical comments about his choreography. Whether and to what extent this criticism may be valid, it cannot be disputed that he has not yet created masterpieces to match those of his predecessors. That having been said, either I’m getting used to Mr. Martins’s choreography, or the fact that it wasn’t Balanchine or Robbins got in the way of giving it a fair evaluation in prior viewings. Or perhaps it was the performances: those I saw at the May 19 performance were eye-opening.

The Infernal Machine was created by Mr. Martins in 2002 to music by Christopher Rouse (from the trilogy “Phantasmata”, composed in 1985). It is one of those angular, plotless, and seemingly purposeless pas de deux for automatons in motion that show the many ways in which a dancer’s body can be manipulated, and that used to make me wonder why I bothered watching. But this piece was different. It was still stark, angular, and ice cold, but in a different way – to this viewer it was demonstrating something: A mating ritual for overheated [perhaps ‘infernal’ – as in ‘inferno’] sleekly beautiful androids; a Bugaku for the digital age. And as performed by Ashley Laracey and Amar Ramasar, each of whom was extraordinary, it was like watching lightning bolts mate.

Mr. Ramasar is a known quantity, and I have often referred to him as one of the most underrated of NYCB principals. He seems able to partner anyone, and to dance anything, and moves with the controlled explosive force of a panther. But Ms. Laracey is another matter. Perhaps I just missed prior performances in which she was individually featured, but since her promotion to soloist at the end of last season, and as she demonstrated earlier this season in Ivesiana, Ms. Laracey has sparkled with previously unseen brilliance. She can look vacant at times (like Janie Taylor, in a way – who originated the role in this piece), but The Infernal Machine doesn’t call for extraneous facial emotional displays. Whatever emotion is inherent in the piece – and it’s there -- must be transmitted through the execution of the steps alone. Ms. Laracey’s execution was not only flawless: it was delivered with power beneath the serene, sleek surface. Every line and angle and curve was crisp and clear; every move had force behind it, even when the movement became a pose. If Ms. Laracey were a machine, in this piece she was a humanoid Ferrari.

Hallelujah Junction was originally created by Mr. Martins in 2001 for the Royal Danish Ballet, and premiered the following year with NYCB. Choreographed to a 1996 composition of the same name by John Adams, it is a Martins black and white ballet that takes as its inspiration the interlocking music emanating from two pianos positioned above and to the rear of the action, and performed live, with the pianos and pianists partially hidden from view. [Mr. Adams’s piece reportedly was inspired by the junction of two highways at a truck stop in California called Hallelujah Junction.] Led by a principal couple in white and a third, male, dancer in black, they are joined by four women (in black) and four men (in white) who eventually pair up and surround the leads, at times reflecting their movements and at times moving independently. The beauty of the piece is the varied movement quality - slow, fast, jazzy, explosive. Led by Ms. Hyltin, Gonzalo Garcia, and Mr. Ulbricht, it is constantly moving and visually stimulating. The eight supporting dancers who breathed exceptional life into the piece were Lauren King, Ms. Lovette, Ms. Pereira, Brittany Pollack, Daniel Applebaum, Allen Peiffer, Troy Schumacher, and David Prottas. [I’ll discuss one of Ms. Lovette’s other performances later, but I have frequently written that I could not yet judge her ability to handle NYCB-style speed, having never seen her in a role that required it. With Halleljah Junction, now I have. No worries.] The two superb pianists were Cameron Grant and Susan Walters.

Purple is an excerpt (the Second Movement) from Mr. Martins’s Ecstatic Orange, created in 1987 to a commissioned score by Michael Torke. Perhaps I’ll warm to the full piece when I see it again at some future time. For now, however, it had an important function at last Sunday’s performance – it marked the return of Jennie Somogyi after a long recovery from a serious dance injury. Partnered attentively by Jared Angle, she looked, and danced, wonderfully. It’s good to have her back.

The program opened with a repeat performance of Mr. Martins’s Sophisticated Lady, with a smashing Maria Kowroski as the lady in red, and concluded with West Side Story Suite. Andrew Veyette, Mr. Ramasar, Chase Finlay, Ms. Lovette, and the entire supporting cast reprised their superb performances, but this performance was the first time I saw Georgina Pazcoguin as Anita, and she was spectacular.

It’s hard to believe that Sterling Hytin had not yet performed the central role in Serenade, but that seeming oversight has now been corrected. Hers was an auspicious debut in the opening piece on Friday’s program, marred only by a somewhat overly melodramatic entrance. Particularly for a debut, it was an intelligently conceived performance (as Ms. Hyltin's performances always are), with more nuance and character added to a role that is usually played stoically or with extreme and inexplicable pathos. Ms. Hyltin smiled at times (not inappropriately), was a wounded bird, and then a rising angel. Very nicely done. She was abetted by Megan Fairchild, Jared Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring (replacing Ask la Cour) and Megan LeCrone, each of whom was very good as well (except that Ms. LeCrone added certain smiles to her role at a very wrong time, while as the ‘angel of death’ – though this may have been an unfortunate reflex response while she was being rotated en pointe).

Following a performance of Ivesiana, which I previously reviewed with the same cast (except in this performance Mr. Ramasar partnered Teresa Reichlen in the 'In the Inn' segment - and Ms. Reichlen added far more character and charm than I’d seen in the role the week before), and before the evening concluded with a fabulous performance by Ashley Bouder in Firebird (a friend accurately observed that it looked as if Ms. Bouder had melded with, and emerged from, the Chagall set), the audience was treated to Ms. Pereira and Mr. Ulbricht in Balanchine’s Tarantella pas de deux.

Although by this point Mr. Ulbricht probably can do the male lead role in Tarantella in his sleep, he never phones it in. With Mr. Ulbricht it’s not just athleticism and acrobatics, it's refined artistry. The surprise, however, was Ms. Pereira. I’ve seen her in this role before, and she is always good. Friday night was a watershed for her. She has grown both in confidence and maturity, and she was superb. She not only held her own with Mr. Ulbricht, she played off his ebullience with a performance of exquisitely executed understatement, a surprisingly sensual coquette to balance Mr. Ulbricht’s nearly over-the-top stallion. The two of them, understandably, brought the house down.

Yesterday afternoon’s performance was notable for a delightful rendition of Robbins’s classic Fancy Free, led by Mr. Ulbricht, Tyler Angle, and Andrew Veyette, each one wonderful and each one touchingly hilarious (Mr. Ulbricht a hyperactive puppy dog, Mr. Angle the sweet sailor boy, and Mr. Veyette a would-be Latin lover). But for this viewer the star of the piece was Ms. Hyltin as the ‘second’ girl. I’ve seen the role danced more brashly (for example, by Ms. Pazcoguin earlier this season), but Ms. Hyltin was sweeter and more real. Never haughty or dismissive, she was the classy-looking girl who turned out to be the girl next door. Ms. Hyltin’s well thought-out interpretation and execution converted what might normally be considered a secondary role to one of equal importance to the three sailors.

The performance concluded with a repeat of West Side Story Suite. Faye Arthurs as Maria did a good job, but seemed more distant and less dramatically involved than others I’ve seen.

But the story of yesterday afternoon’s program was Ms. Lovette’s debut in Carousel (A Dance). I had previously seen the piece with Tiler Peck and Mr. Veyette, and because my expectations for the piece were unfulfilled, I wasn’t thrilled (despite excellent performances). I see the dance more clearly now on second view, and although I don’t love it, I can appreciate the inventive stagecraft and the way it awakens memories of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical with a minimum of plot references. What makes the piece (aside from the creation of the ‘human carousel’ by the dancers, which I've described previously), is the central pas de deux – one of Mr. Wheeldon’s finest. And what made the pas de deux were the performances of Ms. Lovette and Robert Fairchild.

Mr. Fairchild was marvelously in character throughout the performance as he always is when characterization is called for (although the character - not specifically identified but it's Billy Bigelow - is relatively, and appropriately, wooden), and partnered Ms. Lovette to perfection, as he partners every ballerina with whom he shares the stage. He knew when to be there for her, and his gallant performance helped make hers as successful as it was. But Mr. Fairchild also knew it was Ms. Lovette's show. And it was.

The best romantic pas de deux, when performed by dancers who are able to transmit more than the emotional force that may be inherent in the steps alone, transcends the proscenium and brings the audience in. For example, a pas de deux such as the balcony scene in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet can be, and I think must be, a subjective as well as objective experience. Audience members don’t only admire the dancers’ skill, they feel the passion, and share the passion with the dancer. As I’ve described previously, when the balcony scene is danced to perfection, no one watching moves – the connection between the audience and the dancer is so strong that no one stirs in their seat until the cathartic release at the pas de deux’s conclusion. Until it ends, you can hear a pin drop.

Though it doesn’t have the pyrotechnics of the MacMillan pas de deux, the pas de deux in Carousel (A Dance) requires a broader range of emotional display for the ballerina. In addition to passion and joy, she must also communicate awakening, growth, apprehension, and resignation for the audience to believe it’s real - Julie Jordan's full panoply of emotions in a nutshell. Ms. Lovette’s performance not only clearly transmitted these emotional qualities, it went a step beyond – she conveyed the sincerity and believability to bring the audience in. It wasn’t just the nature of the choreography; it’s more – it's something about the way she delivers it (or as I’ve previously written, something in the way she moves). A credible luminosity. And she does this, intentionally or not, in every performance that requires transmittal of character. In what seems like a very long time ago, this viewer observed that Ms. Lovette transmits dramatic and emotional force with every step she takes, full to the fingertips. So she did with Carousel (A Dance). And throughout the pas de deux the audience was dead silent. You could hear a pin drop. When it ended (in this piece, the pas de deux doesn’t as much end as it segues into the next ‘scene’), the audience’s release of tension was palpable. For this viewer, it was as if I had to relearn how to breathe.

Except at some galas and some premieres, NYCB audiences don’t do standing ovations. Even when the performance is of a full length ballet, standing ovations are rare. During the exceptionally enthusiastic but stereotypical NYCB sitting ovation that greeted the cast, and particularly Ms. Lovette, at the performance's conclusion, I saw several audience members separate themselves from the seated mass and stand, with upraised hands applauding this magnificent performance.

Ms. Lovette has a long way to go yet (no full length roles, to date), and can’t yet do – or hasn’t been asked to do – what NYCB principals routinely can. But there’s no doubt that she already commands a following. For a choreographer’s company, a company without stars, NYCB now has another.

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