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New York City Ballet

Spring Gala: 'Soiree Musicale', 'A Place For Us', 'Cool' (from 'West Side Story'), excerpts from 'Glass Pieces' and 'Stars and Stripes', 'The Man I Love' from 'Who Cares?'

by Jerry Hochman

May 8, 2013 -- Koch Theater, New York, NY

A ballet company’s gala performance is usually an occasion for the celebrating company to highlight its principal dancers, most often through virtuosic pas de deux, a visiting star or two flown in for the occasion, and perhaps some soloists to share a bit of the limelight. It’s an opportunity for the company to show off its wealth of talent to the wealth in the audience, hoping to be remembered after the evening’s festivities end.

New York City Ballet’s seasonal galas are produced with the same motivation, but when it came to showing off its talent to its well-heeled glitterati (and the occasional balletomaniac) at its annual Spring Gala, NYCB showcased its greatest asset – its future: young dancers, at all levels, who already demonstrate performing excellence and who are expected to be with the company for a long time. Of the dancers performing in the six pieces presented, there were only eight principals (NYCB has twenty seven principal dancers), six of whom danced in three pairs of pas de deux, and only one in a featured role in a complete dance (as opposed to an excerpt). The bulk of the performers that NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins elected to highlight were his extraordinary crop of recently promoted soloists, and members of the corps and apprentices.

The evening’s presentations were limited to dances created to scores by American composers, consistent with the ‘American Music Festival’ theme of the first part of NYCB’s Spring 2013 season. The program opened with a piece by Christopher Wheeldon, Soiree Musicale, to music by Samuel Barber, which was given its New York City Ballet premiere (it was created in 1998 for a workshop performance by the School of American Ballet, NYCB’s affiliated school). It would have been a showcase for SAB’s graduating students then; it’s a showcase now for NYCB’s young dancers, from thirteen corps dancers (some of whom have already been given featured roles in the course of the regular season), to three recently promoted soloists, to a recently promoted principal.

Divided into five sections (‘Waltz’, ‘Scottische’, ‘Tango’, ‘Two-step’, ‘Pas de Deux’) and a finale, Soiree Musicale isn’t particularly memorable overall, but it’s a pleasurable opening to an evening’s program, and it served to emphasize what NYCB wanted the evening to be about: its young dancers. It was led with strong performances by Sara Adams, Harrison Ball, Kristen Segin, Indiana Woodward, Brittany Pollack, and Taylor Stanley (respectively, four members of the corps and two recently promoted soloists). What was distinctively memorable, however, were the performances of Lauren Lovette (recently promoted to soloist), and Chase Finlay (recently promoted to principal), in the pas de deux.

The pas de deux shows Mr. Wheeldon at his best. It is delicate but intricate, passionate but restrained, and simply lovely to watch. If it was ‘about’ anything, it was about a budding relationship. I thought of the main pas de deux in Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading as I watched it, without the context and the recognition of commitment. But however one sees the choreography, it was exquisitely performed by Ms. Lovette and Mr. Finlay. Each is capable of dancing superbly with any partner, but together they radiate a quality of stage magic that is all too rare. That they led and danced together in the opening piece in the company’s gala performance reflects what those who regularly attend NYCB performances already know, and says more than I could possibly add in writing.

The evening next featured a world premiere by Mr. Wheeldon, A Place for Us, a pas de deux danced by two of NYCB’s present young stars, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. Although Ms Peck and Mr. Fairchild performed the piece impeccably, it left me unmoved.

Part of the problem was its unfortunately chosen title. 'A Place for Us' is the primary lyrical refrain in a song from the Robbins/Bernstein/Sondheim musical “West Side Story” ('Somewhere'), the piece is choreographed to music by Leonard Bernstein and is dedicated to Jerome Robbins, and it was presented on the evening’s program immediately prior to an excerpt from Mr. Robbins’s West Side Story Suite. Together, these ingredients contributed to the anticipation that the piece would be related in some respect to “West Side Story.”

And perhaps to an extent it was – as I saw it, A Place for Us was a portrait in choreography of a somewhat alienated couple in a somewhat alienating environment. So in that sense, that's a reference to "West Side Story." But that’s stretching it. The piece was choreographed to Bernstein’s “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,” not “West Side Story” (as well as ’Interlude’ from “Clarinet and Piano Sonata” by Andre Previn), and aside from the sense of alienated young lovers, the only connection with Robbins seemed to be a strained reference here and there to Robbins’s Other Dances. But that’s stretching it too. [The loosely jazzy score was performed on stage by Nancy McDill on piano, and by Grammy Award winning Guest Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, whose impeccable performance was equaled by his engagingly clueless ‘ballet-bows’ at the conclusion of the piece.]

Any performance of anything by Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild is not to be missed, and the piece is certainly well crafted, as all of Mr. Wheeldon’s creations are. And I assume that the title, while being a nod to “West Side Story” (which must be the case), is intended more as global tribute to Mr. Robbins and a reference to Mr. Robbins’s and Mr. Wheeldon’s choreographic styles. So I’ll reserve judgment. Perhaps seeing it again, without expectations, will enable me to see it in a different light and more favorably.

The remainder of the program consisted of a series of excerpts from larger ballets, which I usually find exasperating, but in the context of a showcase of its young dancers, was both appropriate and exhilarating. Mr. Wheeldon’s new pas de deux was followed by the ‘Cool’ excerpt from Robbins’s West Side Story Suite. The dance was exuberantly performed by principal Andrew Veyette and his engagingly pre-delinquent group of Jets: Lauren King (a newly promoted soloist), and Marika Anderson, Lydia Wellington, Devin Alberta, Cameron Dieck, Russell Janzen, Austin Laurent, Troy Schumacher, Andrew Scordato, Joshua Thew, and Christian Tworzyanski (all members of the corps).

The second half of the program opened with an excerpt from Robbins’s Glass Pieces, outstandingly performed by twenty four dancers (Mr. Stanley and Justin Peck, recently promoted to soloist, and members of the corps), and concluded with an excerpt from Stars and Stripes, which featured scintillating performances by principals Ashley Bouder and Mr. Veyette in the ‘Liberty Bell and El Capitan’ pas de deux, and the concluding segment that featured thirty six members of the NYCB corps (and apprentices), as well as principal Daniel Ulbricht, and soloists Erica Pereira and Savannah Lowery. Performed in between these excerpts was ‘The Man I Love’ pas de deux from Balanchine’s Who Cares?, danced by another pair of young principals, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar. Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar performed Balanchine’s quietly passionate choreography with their usual flair, with both adding a delightful note of effervescence to the inherent romantic depth. [The dance is usually performed to orchestral accompaniment only; on the occasion of this Gala, Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ramasar danced to a stirringly heartfelt live performance by Queen Latifah.]

At the program’s conclusion, the patrons exited the orchestra and first ring to hobnob with the dancers at dinner on the Grand Promenade, which unlike recent previous NYCB Galas was decorated simply, with classic white floral centerpieces and deep forest green enrobed tables. The simple color palette placed emphasis where it belonged – on the stunning-looking NYCB dancers. Had I a spare million, I would have donated it, secure in the knowledge that NYCB’s future is as promising as Mr. Martins’s decision to showcase his young dancers demonstrates, and that to a large extent that future is now.

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