Thursday, January 20, 2011

 

New York City Ballet: Mozartiana, Concerto DSCH, Cortege Honaire

I think that Kim Jong Il would like the ballet. I'm not completely sure about this, but he does, every year, put on the Airang Games, which sort of looks like it could be a kind of ballet.




(Those flashing "pictures" you see behind the gymnasts--that's thousands of school children holding up colored pieces of paper. They practice every day. Dancers dance every day-why is there no ballet in North Korea?)

I mean, at a certain point, the ballet looks like gymnastics. People see a ballet, like the one below, and wonder how on earth it could ever be considered an art form.



(That would be Alina Somova, of the Kirov, "dancing" the role of Sleeping Beauty)

Cortege Hongrois, which I saw on Thursday, could be a nice sort of Balanchinian Airang Games kind of piece. The dancers wear hats and boots and tassels--all things that are a challenge to dance and move in. The costumes are meant to evoke a "Hungarian" look. Why? Why indeed. I don't know. This is the kind of Balanchinian thing that used to confuse me--this "we are dressing up like it's the 19th century in Europe, even though it isn't, and we aren't in Europe, and there's no story to explain why we are pretending that we are." In other words, this is the kind of piece that might look more like gymnastics and pagentry--it's certainly set up for a pagent.

I've remarked before that I find some Balanchine works hard to understand--they feel untethered to me, and mannered as a result of self-consciously looking back at an earlier period. And I suspect Cortege Hongrois would have been that kind of experience--except Sara Mearns was dancing. Sara Mearns dancing changes everything. She is a conjurer, turning the stage into a world. And you, in the audience, are lucky enough to get to see her world for a little while. Isn't that why we go to the theater--to get to go somewhere other than where we are?

At one point did a series of bourrees with her arms in second, gradually upping the tempo of her turns and drawing in her arms. The effect was thrilling. Later, she repeated the step, with her arms out in second, keeping the tempo steady, so the music seemed to breathe differently. I thought: "Wait. What just happened?" I hadn't expected the change in atmosphere.

Later I thought about the difference in these two sections. Were they choreographed to be handled differently? Were they the choice of the dancer? The overall effect was one of surprise--she didn't do the same thing twice. And it also felt appropriate. I've seen people dance who seem to have calculated every moment--and you feel that conscious calculation and it's disappointing. Vishneva in ABT's production of Sylvia a couple of years ago comes to mind. With Mearns, there was this sense that she was just spontaneously responding to music, drawing out its color, and thus enriching the experience. As with all great artists, she seemed to work both from a place of command of the language of her discipline (dance), but also from a deep and undefinable place.

In his review, Alastair MacCauley remarked in Mearns' luster--and this is a good word. Because of the way that Mearns shone, the rest of the dancers shone too. This, I think, is why the performing arts fasten on the word "star." A great artist shines, of course, but how much more magnanimous is her art when she can shine on others around her and make them better.

I also began to think that at some instinctual level, Mearns must understand what makes Balanchine great--the fact that as soon as she steps on stage and commands it (boy, does she ever command the stage)--whatever she is dancing makes sense. It is never anachronistic. This made me think that she must also just understand *dance* down to her bones--nothing she does is ever a series of steps, but always is suffused with her personality. The dance, in whatever form, comes to life. With Mearns, you are seeing ballet and not Airang Games pagentry. But if she weren't there? I'm not sure the piece would work so well. And this runs counter to one cornerstone of NYCB's philosophy.

New York City Ballet surprised loyal subscribers this year when it announced it would not produce cast listings until a few weeks before performances--the dances, they declared, were the stars and not the dancers. Veteran attendees were miffed. I didn't care at first--I'm still learning about dancers and repertoire, and I'm willing to explore the idea that the dance is the star and not the dancer. Except now I've see Sara Mearns in Cortege Hongrois and now I don't think I can ever discount the dancer.

The evening also included performances by Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht and Tyler Angle in Mozariana. The dancing was preceded by a talk from Faycal Karoui, who explained the origin of the title; the music is by Tchaikovsky, who reorchestrated pieces by Mozart. Karouis demonstrated such concept as "syncopation" to the audience, and highlighted passages he thought were references to Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. I, of course, am a sucker for learning new things, especially as they pertain to dance, and greatly enjoyed the lecture.

Mozartiana itself, however, felt not quite ready. I love Kowroski's dancing--but here she felt underpowered and tentative. I would love to see her when she has the chance to dance this piece a bit more, although that may not be possible. This article by from the Guardian includes quotes from Wendy Whelan, who points out it would be nicer for dancers to be able to perform a piece 10 times, though the reality is that casts are always rotated. I also enjoy Daniel Ulbricht, except he seemed to be dancing ahead of the music and I wondered if he was really listening to the orchestra.

Tyler Angle, on the other hand, is an absolutely exquisite dancer in nearly every sense. He makes a beautiful partner--and I realized how rare it is that you see someone really excel as a partner. But he is also a wonderful dancer in his own right, with gorgeous feet, legs and turns. I hope to see more and more of him in the years ahead.

We were also treated to Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. I would say more about this piece, except that I will see it again on Saturday, with a different cast and want to save my thoughts until then--and see how they change.

And now for my shallow, gossipy observations.

Firstly, yes, Natalie Portman was there. Yes she is very pretty and very small and has gorgeous hair and skin.

Secondly, I wonder if there is a piece of music composed for socialites and all their buzzing, busy, self-entitled glory. One ran up to Alastair MaCaulay and asked: "So, they've allowed you back in spite of your Nutcracker review?" He handled it with class. Actually, I thought to myself that he handled the whole thing with this kind of grace that only an English--perhaps British person--would. He somehow made her feel like her comment was actually funny, while also managing sound self-deprecating and to not at all put down either NYCB or any of the dancers. After the second act she was in another corner of the audience. And again, somewhere else at the start of the third.

All this made me think of my father in law and our trip to LA. We were at the Getty Museum, getting in an elevator to try to access one of the many disjointed galleries that stretch out across the hillside. We held the door open for another man to get into the elevator too. "There's room," we said.

"That's all right," he said. "I'll wait for the next one."

As the doors closed, my father in law called out: "No, no. It'll be the same elevator."

This is the kind of joke that people in LA might very well not find funny. I tried to explain this to my husband. "To some people, that might sound mean. Like we were making fun of the man."

"Nah!" my husband roared. "It's witty!"

All the same, when my 97 year old grandfather died over the weekend, it was my father in law who sent me the most thoughtful and beautiful email--succinct, but so heartfelt and appropriate.

Language is so imperfect across continents and oceans. Dance, however--good dance--always communicates.

Finally--a special shout out to Taylor Stanley, a new member to the corps, who blew me away Sunday afternoon in NY Export: Opus Jazz. One to watch.

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