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New York City Ballet

Fall 2012 Gala - Honoring Valentino

by Jerry Hochman

September 20, 2012 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

Fashion Week at Lincoln Center was supposed to have ended last week. It didn’t.

If you’re into haute couture, last night’s New York City Ballet Fall Gala performance at the David H. Koch Theater was your cup of asti spumante. The gala was billed as ‘celebrating legendary fashion designer' Valentino Garavani, and the house was filled to virtual capacity with patrons who either wear, or aspire to wear, Valentino, many of whom (e.g., Anne Hathaway; Sarah Jessica Parker) looked fabulous wearing what I assume were his creations.

The evening also had a dominant color theme. The Grand Promenade (walled off to the great unwashed) was bathed in red tinted lighting – red apparently being a Valentino signature color – and the tables were laden with red ‘pom-pom’-like balls – apparently also a Valentino signature. And all but one of the five dances on the program featured red, or red-infused, costumes.

So what does Valentino have to do with ballet in general, or NYCB in particular? Not much – except he reportedly designed costumes for the Vienna Ballet in 2009, and, as is often the case with dancers, everyone calls him by his first name whether they know him or not. Regardless, many NYCB patrons are Valentino patrons, and it’s not a bad idea for NCYB to recruit other Valentino patrons into the fold. Understandable. But it was a little unsettling to overhear the woman seated behind me, who spent pauses aiming her binoculars at Valentino and his celebrity entourage in the first ring, turn to her companion following the New York premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new pas de deux to tell her friend the title of the ballet they had just seen: “That was Rubies,” she said conclusively.

In any event, this viewer is a balletomaniac, not a fashionista, so I’m not competent to opine on Valentino’s costume contributions to the evening’s performance in terms of their haute couture qualifications (Valentino created costumes for four of the five pieces on the program: “Sophisticated Lady,” “Not My Girl”, Mr. Wheeldon’s pas de deux “This Bitter Earth,” and Peter Martins’s world premiere, “Bal de Couture”) - but I will anyway in the course of this discussion. They probably looked great close up, or perhaps on a runway, but to this viewer, with a few glorious exceptions, they were a distraction. [And the ‘red’ emphasis was somewhat of a red herring – the best Valentino costumes of the evening, to my eyes, were not red.] But with the understanding that this evening was a celebration of Valentino, it was great fun. Coincidentally, perhaps, it was also an opportunity to see a stunning debut, a New York premiere, a world premiere, and several terrific performances. I will discuss them in order of significance to me, rather than in program order.

First the stunning debut.

I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about regularly singling out one promising NYCB ballerina nearly every time I see her dance. But after a highly limited post-performance survey of other attendees, I know I’m not alone in my evaluation – which has been consistent from the first time she appeared on stage in a featured role, in Mr. Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” in January, 2011 and instantly became a dancer to watch. Lauren Lovette, who danced the central pas de deux in “Rubies”, is not only an eye magnet; she’s blossoming into both a quality technician and a radiant performer who can add nuance and character to a role with the slightest gesture. She joined the company only six months before her appearance in “Polyphonia” and is still a member of the corps – but I wouldn’t expect that rank to last much longer. As one very knowledgeable friend said about Ms. Lovette: “She’s got it.”

“Rubies,” which, together with “Emeralds” and “Diamonds,” comprise Balanchine’s classic “Jewels”, is usually danced by one lead couple. Last night was not the ‘usual’: for the occasion, Mr. Martins trifurcated the lead couples’ role among three pairs of dancers: one pair for the opening section; another the central pas de deux; and a third the closing section, and all three pairs were debuts. Ms. Lovette, partnered by Anthony Huxley, danced the central pas de deux.

I’ve seen ‘Rubies’ (which features classic Karinska costumes, in red) many times, and the pas de deux to me always seemed to be a somewhat distant, academic exercise designed to convey the sultry jazz quality of Stravinsky’s score rather than the relationship between the dancers – it was not a pas de deux that I would have described as being particularly smoldering or passionate. [Although, based on a photograph hanging on a wall outside the orchestra seating, had I seen Sterling Hyltin in the role I might have thought differently.]

Ms. Lovette added nothing to Balanchine’s choreography that wasn’t already there; her performance just enabled me to see the choreography differently and more completely. I still would not describe it as ‘smoldering’ or ‘passionate’, but it was hardly an academic exercise alone. By the way she carries herself, her facial expressions, something in the way she moves, Ms. Lovette brought out the pas de deux’s sensuality, and I saw flirtation and fleeting carnality that I never before noticed. She made it personal and real, not just a consequence of the steps, and with no sense that it was artificially emphasized.

Although they don’t look at all alike, in terms of intent and impact Ms. Lovette reminds me of Suzanne Farrell. She does the steps, but she doesn’t just do the steps. Like Ms. Farrell, she has the audience in the palm of her hand, and she knows it. Like Ms. Farrell, she could seduce a stone (although Mr. Huxley appeared completely non-responsive and oblivious). And as with Ms. Farrell, a post-performance cold shower may be required for certain overly engaged members of the audience. But unlike Ms. Farrell,

Ms.Lovette adds to her stage persona a disarmingly natural quality of youthful sweetness, playfulness and innocence. It’s a killer combination. I recommend seeing Ms. Lovette now, before she becomes too comfortable knowing that she’s got it.

Erica Pereira and Antonio Carmena were a delightful opening couple, with Ms. Pereira’s natural effervescence permeating the piece. Ashly Isaacs (partnered by Daniel Ulbricht), another one of Mr. Martins’s baby birds (“Mes Oiseax” from last Spring), was more hyper than sparkle, and came across as a bit sloppy compared to Mr. Ulbricht, who was both faster than a speeding bullet and clean as a whistle. But the comparison isn’t really fair – Mr. Ulbricht is a Principal; Ms. Isaacs still a member of the corps.

The piece also featured Savannah Lowery and Emily Kikta, in lead roles in the first and third segments of the piece (Mr. Martins bifurcated that role, usually danced by one soloist, between the two of them), and both performed admirably. And Mr. Martins deserves credit not only for the concept of dividing the leading roles, but of giving significant performing, and growth, opportunities to so many promising young dancers – for all but Ms. Lowery, the performances represented their debuts in the roles.

Mr. Wheeldon’s new pas de deux, “This Bitter Earth,” is an excerpt from the ballet “Five Movements, Three Repeats” that Mr. Wheeldon created for Fang-Yi Sheu & Artists. [The full piece is to have its New York premiere next week, in the opening program of the City Center 2012 Fall For Dance Festival.]

I enjoyed Mr. Wheeldon’s pas de deux immensely, but it’s difficult to gauge its impact out of context of the larger piece. Choreographed to songs by Dinah Washington, the pas de deux was a welcome respite from the red-washed balance of the evening. The textured earth-colored (bronze/grey) costumes were elegantly simple and complemented what I could glean was the intent of the piece, and to this viewer they were Valentino’s most successful creation. Beautifully performed by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle (both of whom will repeat the roles at next week’s Fall for Dance performances), the piece displays a combination of compassion and resignation, a nobility of suffering, that leads to a triumph of survival and enduring mutual love and respect. To this viewer, in all respects (including the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger), the piece was hauntingly magnificent.

The evening’s world premiere, Mr. Martins’s “Bal de Couture,” is exactly as billed – which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Populated by ten pairs of NYCB Principal Dancers, the piece is, indeed, a Couture Ballet – a tribute to Valentino. All but three of the ballerinas wore starchy, bell-shaped full length gowns with black and white designs. In half the gowns the dominant color was black; in the others it was white – with the contrasting color taking various forms across the gowns (zigzag or diamond-shapes dominated). Each gown was underlayered in red and/or pink colored material. The tops were more simple leotard-like tops, with designs that appeared to have been embroidered on. The remaining three ballerinas were dressed in Valentino tutus – red, white, or black marshmallow shaped pom poms -- through which the ballerina was squeezed. All the ballerinas wore red toe shoes.

Mr. Martins choreographed the piece to fit the costumes – a necessity since the costumes dominated the stage. And I concede that although I didn’t like the way the costumes looked on stage, and preferred the section of the ballet that did not contain them, they successfully delivered the couture-dominated theme of the piece – and of the evening. The dancers were haute couture models – a little over the top, but that’s what it’s all about.

The ballet began with the dancers entering the stage in couples, walking down an incline as if walking down a runway at a fashion show. Once on the stage, the ballerinas flourished and preened like the ballerina/fashion models they were intended to be. The choreography was generic ‘dancers at a ball.’

The piece improved thereafter. The middle section, a pas de deux/pas de trois of sorts, was wonderful – as was Valentino’s costume. The section tells a fleeting story – a woman (perhaps an escapee from the ball), dances with a man (Sebastien Marcovici) she has loved and continues to love, but she clearly is also passionately attracted to another man (Robert Fairchild). That’s all we know, but it’s enough. [That it may have been a distillation of “Eugene Onegin” may have been Mr. Martins’s intent, but if so, the distillation went too far.] The dance has a rich, lyrical quality, matched by Valentino’s simple, elegant, and gorgeous feather-light mauve costume. In it, Janie Taylor looked like an angelic butterfly (complete with silver ‘wings’ beneath the open-backed costume). The costume itself was airy, with billowy arms that added to the lighter than air quality. It, she, and the choreography, were lovely.

In the final section, the haute couture crowd reassembled to dance a final ensemble dance to end the ball and close the piece – not so much an haute couture fashion show as an houte couture dance of the fashion nobility. Although the piece comes across similar to practically every conclusion to every Tchaikovsky ballet choreographed by Balanchine, Mr. Martins adds distinctive flourishes – sequential lifts, for example – that are nothing new, but which add to the texture of the piece. Overall, it was a pleasant, if not superb, effort.

The evening began with two very brief, not very substantial, but fun pieces. “Sophisticated Lady”, Mr. Martin’s 1988 fluff to music by Duke Ellington, celebrates an extraordinarily elegant woman/ballerina (Maria Kowroski, in her debut in the role) who is idolized by a horde of male supplicants/escorts (the most prominent being Charles Askegard, who unretired for the occasion). There isn’t much to the piece – lots of flowing, long-winded phrasing with no purpose other than to provide a framework for the ballerina to look sophisticated and be the center of attention. A pas de deux between Ms. Kowroski and her collective admirers; sort of an upper-crust ‘Mame’. But it was gorgeous to look at: the army of adoring men in black tie, and Ms. Kowroski in her brand new for the occasion Valentino red gown. The gown was the star of the piece (more ‘sophisticated’-looking than any other costume on display last night – full length red, with added red ribbon-like highlights running vertically from the waist to the bottom) – but in this case it was appropriate. Ms. Kowroski looked breathtaking in it. Except for a red pom-pom-like gizmo attached at one shoulder – which, to me, looked like a fake flower on steroids – the gown was stunning.

“Sophisticated Lady” was followed by “Not My Girl,” another piece created by Mr. Martins in 1988, to music by Fred Astaire and Van Phillips. The piece is less elegant but more substantial than “Sophisticated Lady,” but even though the intricate Astaire-like footwork was superbly performed by Tiler Peck and Mr. Fairchild (in their role debuts), it was too short and too dominated by the Valentino tutu that he created for the occasion – a ‘standard’ tutu (perhaps a little larger than standard), comprised of a thick layer of a sheep’s wool like substance, colored in diamond-shaped shades of red/purple. It was stiff and striking and cut Ms. Peck’s body in half– it should be donated to a museum promptly.

When the curtain came down on ‘Bal de Couture,’ the closing piece on the program, and after the dancers and Mr. Martins took their bows, Valentino was left on stage alone, to the cheers of his adoring fans, bathed in limelight that, perhaps in my imagination, had a reddish glow. I suspect that the post-performance dinner, to which I was not invited (must have been a clerical oversight), included red-colored food (red-shelled lobster? steak tartare?) and drink (red wine – perhaps asti spumanti). Regardless, one hopes that this tribute to Valentino helps NYCB stay out of the red for the foreseeable future.

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