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Ballet Doc Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Explores a Dancer’s Life After Polio

When a dancer loses the use of her legs, is she still a dancer? That’s the question implicitly asked and answered by Nancy Buirski’s lithe documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq.

Long-legged wonder ballerina Le Clercq was the star of the New York City Ballet until she was stricken with polio during the company’s 1956 European tour, never to dance or walk again. Known to her fans and close friends alike as Tanny, Le Clercq was the kind of performer whose humor and mischievous spirit shone through in her dancing.

According to lore, balletmaster George Balanchine first met her when she was a student at the School of American Ballet, a scowling mite standing in a hall with her arms folded across her chest. “Why aren’t you in class?” he asked. “Kicked out,” she replied crossly.

Years later, Balanchine would marry Le Clercq — his fourth and final wife — though she also won the heart of Jerome Robbins, who, in 1953, created an eerie, breathtaking dance just for her, choreographed to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun.

Buirski blends clips of Le Clercq’s magnificent, tensile performances with interviews with those who knew her, chief among them her Faun partner Jacques d’Amboise, still elfin after all these years. d’Amboise reveals one of the most chilling details of Le Clercq’s story: Most of the dancers in the company got the Salk vaccine; Le Clercq opted out, thinking its effects might make her feel unwell during a transatlantic flight.

But if polio ended Le Clercq’s run as a dancer, Buirski clearly shows that the spark that made her great couldn’t be snuffed out so easily. Even in a wheelchair, Le Clercq, who died in 2000 at age 71, commands authority with little more than her captivating, wicked smile. But then, being a dancer is dependent on knowing which muscles to use, and which are most important.

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Nikolai and the Others: Russian Hour

What if composer Nikolai “Nicky” Nabokov, choreographer George Balanchine, composer Igor Stravinsky, designer Sergey Sudeikin, and a host of ex-wives, dancers, pianists, and the odd State Department official all gathered for a weekend on a Connecticut farm? You might expect romance, intrigue, or at the very least a stirring exploration of the seductions and demands of a life in art. You won’t find them in Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson’s elegant, intelligent, impeccably researched, and ultimately inert drama at Lincoln Center.

Nelson has trained his playwright’s eye on Orpheus, a collaboration between Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and Stravinsky (John Glover) that debuted in 1948 at New York City Center. He sets his play some months earlier, during an imagined weekend rehearsal that unites the crème fraîche of Russian émigré society. As Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso) and Nicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen) dance their pas de deux, alliances are tested and past histories dredged, but despite eloquent acting, fully realized characters never emerge. Nor does an engaging story.

Of course, not every play needs a story. Nelson has always drunk deep from the Anton Chekhov samovar, and Chekhov tells us that while people eat their dinner “all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.” Yet all we can see is the surface work of knife and napkin.

In his cycle of Apple family plays, which concludes at the Public Theater next season, Nelson expertly suggests that events of great moment occur even as people attempt picture puzzles or sip tea or bemoan the midterm elections. But little sense—so moving and melancholic—of life underneath or elsewhere enriches Nikolai and the Others. Instead it seems an assemblage of too many boldfaced names and too much background reading.

Occasionally a human moment threatens to intrude, like the distaste Nicky (Stephen Kunken) feels for his anti-Communist work or the complaints and infirmities of Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein). But they soon succumb to the play’s other distractions—the gossip, the dropped names, the endless procession of meals. (Thanks to set designer Marsha Ginsberg, these do look very tasty.)

Director David Cromer may be too patient and cerebral a man for such material. Maybe a slickster with a taste for sensation could have lent a veneer of urgency to the proceedings. But instead Cromer takes the script at its own pace, and that pace is very slow; not even in the extended dance sequences does Nikolai ignite. In the middle of the play, a character arranges a fireworks display. But just as in Nelson’s drama, every flash, every blast, every flare happens far from the stage.

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Summer Dance Guide: ‘Borrowed Light’ and More

New York City Ballet

June 5 through 10

American Ballet Theatre

June 21 through 23

What better ballet to see in June—preferably with a lover—than one based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and set to Mendelssohn’s exquisite overture and incidental music? This year, New Yorkers get their choice of two such versions. In George Balanchine’s work for New York City Ballet (which incorporates additional Mendelssohn works), the four lovers’ wranglings and Titania’s tiff with Oberon areresolved in one act. Then, the second-act celebration introduces two newcomers—neither fairies nor mortal, just gorgeous dancers, who, in their classical pas de deux, tell us everything we should know about ideal love. Bevies of child dancers. Hippolyta, the betrothed Amazon queen, leaping about with a bow. Who said Balanchine didn’t know how to tell stories?

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, nycballet.org

Two weeks later, ABT offers Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, which wraps everything up in one act. Its final pas de deux, set to Mendelssohn’s heart-stirring nocturne, is a rapturous union of the sparring fairy rulers, in which Titania, pointe shoes not withstanding, seems to melt gradually into Oberon’s embrace. Bottom, changed into an ass, dances en pointe, too, his black shoes doubling as hooves. See The Dream June 21 through 23, and you also get Alexei Ratmansky’s brand-new Firebird, which debuts June 11 through 13; on the first night, the magic avian will be performed by guest artist Natalia Osipova (formerly of the Bolshoi, now with St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre) on a program that includes Balanchine’s Apollo, danced by David Hallberg (now with the Bolshoi part-time), and Christopher Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions.

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, abt.org

Tero Saarinen: ‘Borrowed Light’

‘The Men Dancers: From the Horse’s Mouth’

July 11 through 15

Even if you saw Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen’s extraordinary take on the American Shakers at BAM in 2007, you should drive up the Taconic to experience it at Jacob’s Pillow, where it made its U.S. debut in 2006. The celibate sect’s outpourings of suppressed lust and religious ecstasy look and sound glorious in the Ted Shawn Theatre, a former barn, where the dancers mingle with the singers of the Boston Camerata. In the Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theatre, male dancers and choreographers of all stripes will dance and tell their stories in The Men Dancers: From the Horse’s Mouth, in honor of Shawn’s Men Dancers and the Pillow’s 80th anniversary. Jacob’s Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Massachusetts, jacobspillow.org

Pilobolus

July 16 through August 11

Every summer, you can predict that goldenrod will sprout in the meadows, and Pilobolus will bloom on the Joyce stage. As always, the company’s comic fantasies and darker ones emerge through athletic, erotic mergings and biomorphic shapes built of bodies. This time, each of the two alternating programs features a premiere by an interesting outside choreographer: Program One offers a work by Michael Moschen, probably the only juggler to have received a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; on Program Two, the guest dancemaker is the adventurous thirtysomething Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui—half-Moroccan, half-Flemish. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

David Gordon

June 1 through 30

Gordon has been creating works for 50 years now, and the obstreperousness he displayed during his years with Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union remains undiminished. No one can bat around words and movement with his wit and verve. His Beginning of the End of the . . . riffs off two plays and a story by Pirandello to investigate the “absurd inconsistencies” of our perceptions and more. He’ll be aided in his mission by a cast of 10, one of whom is his marvelous wife, Valda Setterfield. Two others are puppets, and all play more than one role. Joyce Soho, 155 Mercer Street, joyce.org/joycesoho

Mark Morris Dance Group

August 22 through 25

Morris is no longer playing both the heroine and her nemesis in his superb and slightly transgressive production of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. This time, as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, he’s conducting an offstage musical ensemble that includes the fabulous mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Onstage, the dancers in their unisex black tunics will depict the tragedy of the abandoned Dido and the vexed sorceress who engineers her lover’s departure. In Morris’s hands, the choreography has a raunchy side, but also melts ravishingly into Purcell’s limpid arias. Frederick P. Rose Hall, 33 West 60th Street, mostlymozart.org

Yanira Castro/A Canary Torsi

July 8 through 10

Back in 2009, you could have arranged to have Yanira Castro’s duet Dark Horse/Black Forest performed in your bathroom, or joined spectators in a larger hotel-lobby restroom. Castro is into transforming spaces and bringing spectators and performers into proximity. What better way to spend a summer evening than to venture into the glorious Brooklyn Botanic Garden at dusk to view a remounting of her 2011 magical installation and performance, Paradis? Never been to the BBG? Prepare to fall in love. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, newyorklivearts.org/event/Paradis-BBG

Gallim Dance

June 8 through 10

Andrea Miller had only been out of Juilliard for two years and had already performed in Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company when she founded Gallim Dance in 2006. She’s one of those young choreographers you want to keep in your sights. Her ideas are intriguing, and her movement style lusty, daring; like Batsheva’s director Ohad Naharin, she’s not afraid to have dancers look awkward in their push to engage fully in the moment at hand. Her Sit, Kneel, Stand concludes the Gotham Dance Festival, which opens May 30. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

Shantala Shivalingappa

June 27 through July 1

Last October, Shivalingappa performed a program of solos in India’s Kuchipudi style at the Skirball Center. This June, she appears in London with Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, and two days later, offers Namasya at the Joyce. Versatile isn’t sufficient to describe this beautiful dancer. Namasya‘s four solos honor her teachers and mentors. The choreographers are Ushio Amagatsu of Japan’s Sankai Juku, Bausch, Savitry Nair (the performer’s mother), and Shivalingappa herself. I expect that her own delicate, surprisingly powerful dancing informs them all. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

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HIGH SPIRITS

If you’ve ever spent a slumber party scared out of your mind after a game of Bloody Mary—in which you and your friends stared into the bathroom mirror with just a candle until you swore you saw some horrific apparition waving at you through the glass—you’ll likely appreciate what rising art star Jen DeNike and choreographer Melissa Barak have created for tonight’s always-awesome MOMA party, PopRally. Called Scrying, which is—for those of you not up on your sorcery—the act of obtaining spiritual visions by peering into reflective surfaces like said bathroom mirror, this George Balanchine–inspired dance features a cast of lovely ballerinas who will somehow mysteriously bring strange, heavenly visions to life inside the museum. For all of you nonbelievers out there, complimentary vodka cocktails should help you see things more clearly.

Tue., Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m., 2010

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Down by Alexei Ratmansky’s Ballet River

Sergei Prokofiev’s music is rife with weather changes. Storms simmer beneath airy melodies, occasionally braying into prominence. Tubas grumble while oboes remember folk songs. Flashes of indecision and sudden thoughts murmur within even the calmest musical assertions. A waltz is never just a ballroom swoon. Two of the ballets on ABT’s splendid All-Prokofiev Celebration last week—George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son (1929) and Alexei Ratmansky’s premiere On the Dnieper—are set to music Prokofiev wrote for them, more or less (Ratmansky uses the score and scenario developed for Serge Lifar’s 1932 Sur le Borysthène for the Paris Opera Ballet). James Kudelka’s 1991 Désir (new to ABT) employs waltzes from the composer’s ballet Cinderella and his opera War and Peace. In these narrative scores, passions waver, explode, and subside with particular suddenness.

In On the Dnieper, a soldier unexpectedly returns home on the day that a betrothal ceremony is taking place in his village and falls instantly in love with the bride-to-be, even though another girl has been waiting for him. In the end, this former sweetheart generously, sadly, relinquishes her claim on the soldier, urging the lovers to flee together while the brouhaha that they’ve caused is still erupting offstage. Ratmansky turns this simple story into poetry—a luminously tender, enigmatic folktale in which quiet nobility averts potential tragedy, and we never find out for sure how many hearts are broken.

His collaborators do him proud. Simon Pastukh’s set consists of sections of dark gray picket fencing and flowering fruit trees—all of which can be moved by the dancers. Late in the 40-minute work, Brad Fields’s lighting cools down, and a sky of stars and a huge moon appears. The dancers wear simple clothing hinting at peasant attire by Galina Solovyeva. Most daringly, the stage is covered with fallen blossoms, and, at the end, more fall from overhead, as if to remind us that one person’s spring may be another’s winter.

Several aspects of Ratmansky’s choreography enthrall me. He alters the pressure and tempos of ballet’s classical vocabulary to affect mood and drama. Even tricky or unusual twists look organic, and, although the stage is almost always awash in dancing, the story keeps unfolding through it. The angry bridegroom (David Hallberg) dashes into a solo whose fast-footed veering vividly expresses his frustration. When Sergei, the soldier (Marcelo Gomes), is having an awkward reunion with Natalia (Veronika Part), the woman he’s discovered he no longer loves, he politely dismisses her and leads eight men in a boisterous show of solidarity. “I gotta dance now” becomes “I have to say hello to my old friends.”

Another of Ratmansky’s great strengths is his welding of an ensemble into a community. The way onstage villagers watch the events of the day—the welcome-home warmth of the parents involved (Victor Barbee, Martine van Hamel, Georgina Parkinson, Roman Zhurbin), the ceremony, the secretly budding love affair—tells you much about this society’s mores and feelings. When Olga (Paloma Herrera) dances her uplifting passion for Sergei and her confusion, we see only a slight change in her steps, but when the onlookers who’ve been sitting or kneeling rise to their feet, we suddenly understand the gravity of the situation.

Gomes, in his opening solo on a deserted stage, eloquently conveys in every leap, turn, and questing glance all the joys and doubts of a homecoming after difficult years away. Herrera has never looked so expansive. Every single dancer onstage illumines this beautiful ballet.

They also light up Kudelka’s Désir, a series of rapturous duets. In the first (for Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven), the two opposing moods in one of the Cinderella waltzes elide the calms and turbulences of a partnership. In the more tempestuous interlude for Misty Copeland (wonderfully ebullient) and Carlos Lopez, all those in the cast of 12 leap through, the men flying the women through the air. One highlight is a wandering dance for the three secondary men and their partners—the men repeatedly walking away, then turning back, the women doing the same (he’s just not that into you). The other highlight is a lyrical duet for Cory Stearns and Isabella Boylston in which she unfolds her legs as if they were chiffon scarves, and he marvels at her every move and what they can accomplish together.

On the night that this program premiered, Herman Cornejo replaced the injured Ethan Stiefel in Prodigal Son, with Michele Wiles as Balanchine’s seductive Siren, instead of his appointed partner, Irina Dvorovenko. There were a couple of awkward moments, but Cornejo—as might be expected—is vibrant and impetuous in the title role, and Wiles as appropriately cold and inexorable as a boa constrictor winding around its prey. Balanchine was 25 when he choreographed this ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. How much he already knew about a lot of things!

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Balanchine Gets a Happy-Birthday Ballet

Every year on George Balanchine’s birthday, January 22, the New York City Ballet honors him by commissioning at least one new work. This year, the celebratory “New Combinations” program also inaugurates NYCB’s Rudolf Nureyev Fund for Emerging Choreographers (established in part with a matching grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation). Although Balanchine politely declined Nureyev’s request to dance with NYCB (at that point the defector from the USSR was too much the prince both onstage and off), Nureyev danced in the master’s ballets elsewhere and presented them during his tenure as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. “New Combinations” (which has additional performances Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evening, February 2) features work by choreographers from three countries associated with Nureyev’s career: Russia, where he was born and trained; Great Britain, where he danced with the Royal Ballet for a number of years; and France, where he ended his productive days.

The birthday ballet, Lifecasting, comes from Douglas Lee; he trained in London’s Royal Ballet School, has an impressive background as a dancer and choreographer with the Stuttgart Ballet, and has made pieces for other companies as well. How grateful Balanchine might have been to receive the gift is, of course, moot. Possibly the music it’s set to—Ryogi Ikeda’s opus 1 (for 9 strings) and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet—would have interested him, especially the driving rhythms of the latter. And there’s no doubt that Lee stretched 11 NYCB dancers—both literally and figuratively.

The title comes from the sculpture technique of making molds of human body parts. Lee’s note in the program mentions that he drew on “the dancers’ individual movement dynamics,” but that aspect of the work is hard to see because the choreography is so much about making shapes. The curtain rises on what might well be a museum. A bouquet of spotlights hangs above one side of the stage. The performers, scattered around the area, are frozen in position. One woman lies stiffly on her side like a toppled statue. Another, grasping her partner’s hand, slants away from him, arrested, perhaps, in mid-fall. Suddenly a man (Robert Fairchild) comes to sinuous life. He stretches and nudges his way his way into movements that are decidedly unclassical in their impetus. You’re aware of his neck craning, his back rippling, his shoulders pulling him awry. Yet as the others rouse themselves, and begin to walk around, Sterling Hyltin strikes a picture-perfect arabesque.

One procedure of Lee’s that may also have come from sculpture is that of modeling clay. Over the course of the dance, the women (Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Ashley Bouder, and Georgina Pazcoguin) are manipulated slowly and obsessively—especially Gilliland and Kowroski, whose fabulously long limbs are ideal for cats-cradle enthusiasts. At one point, as I remember, almost all the men (in total: Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Craig Hall, Antonio Carmena, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Christian Tworzyanski) latch onto Gilliland and cooperate in winding her into extravagant positions.

Mark Stanley’s lighting brightens dramatically when Reich’s music begins and the dancers leap as well as tangle. There’s some weird and fascinating stuff for Hall and Bouder (do the bangs that almost cover her eyes embolden her even more than usual?). The plot—if you can call it that—also takes a weird twist. A trench the width of the stage opens up at the back, and while Ramasar and then Danchig-Waring (a dancer who gets more and more interesting) work over Kowroski, others partially submerge themselves or sit on the edge of the trench and dangle their legs in it. A swimming hole? An entry to a nether world they may have come from? Who are these people? In the end, they’re rolling over the floor, and in a split second the plain backdrop falls in a heap and the lights go out. I think I need to see this enigmatic ballet again.

Coincidentally, Angelin Preljocaj’s La Stravaganza, a 1997 Diamond Project commission, has several things in common with Lifecasting. It too is mysterious, suggests a parallel world, and alludes to artwork. However, individual volition plays a far larger role, the women don’t wear pointe shoes, and virtuosity is de-emphasized. Although the ballet has its longueurs, and some of the various electronic compositions by Evelyn Ficarra, Serge Morand, Robert Normandeau, and Ake Parmerud make me imagine colossal plumbing disorders, it can also be mesmerizing.

The music by the above composers is interspersed with portions of a Vivaldi concerto and excerpts from two of the 18th-century composer’s beautiful religious works. The two kinds of accompaniment delineate two separate, interpenetrating worlds. A woman (Tiler Peck) threads her way through a cluster; she’s part of, and yet not part of, an agreeable little society of six who dance to Vivaldi. We first hear birdcalls and a woman’s recorded voice saying, “I remember” in French. That’s not much of a clue to Preljocaj’s time trip. Another group of six is revealed when a black curtain rises on a frozen-in-time-and-space group wearing 17th-century clothes—escapees from a Flemish painting maybe. At first they’re stiff, as if they haven’t moved in a long time, and their repeated gestures—such as sowing grain—have a mechanical quality. But later, when they dance in pairs, the men are rough with their partners—far less tender than the people in the contemporary scene off to the side in a corridor of light, the women rubbing their faces and hands gently over their quietly standing men.

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Gradually the patterns of the two groups slide out of counterpoint and subtly echo each other. The high point is a duet between Peck and Benjamin Millepied, one of the 17th-century group (Millepied wonderfully reprises his role in the original cast of 11 years ago). The two are very tender. At first, he turns her slowly with his hand on her head as if he’s trying to understand her mind. When the electronic music intrudes, however, he falls on her and rolls her into his world just as the black curtain falls on it. In the end, she reappears onstage just where she was when the ballet began and watches her friends as they twine together.

The New Combinations program also features work by another Royal Ballet alum, Christopher Wheeldon—the pas de deux from his After the Rain, which premiered on Balanchine’s birthday in 2005. Balanchine’s own 1947 Theme and Variations was chosen to represent Russia when Alexey Miroshnichenko’s premiere had to be postponed. An unannounced bonus, the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano by the 19th-century Dane Auguste Bournonville was programmed when footage was discovered of Nureyev making his American debut on the Bell Telephone Hour on January 19, 1962, dancing that duet with NYCB’s Maria Tallchief. Onscreen, the two of them are charismatic, and, as might be expected, Nureyev’s footwork is more pristine than that of young corps member Allen Peiffer, who replaces him minutes later on the stage. But Peiffer and Kathryn Morgan (substituting for Abi Stafford and Gonzalo Garcia) are adept and charming as Bournonville’s shy young lovers. With a little coaching in the dramatic timing the Danes are so good at, they could be splendid.

Sébastien Marcovici partners Wendy Whelan in Wheeldon’s beautiful duet (composed for Whelan and Jock Soto). Marcovici is an extremely poetic dancer, and he works sensitively with the marvelous Whelan in this slow blooming of a couple’s life after a long, dry spell. Wheeldon combines poise and awkwardness in very moving ways. Once when Whelan arches back from Marcovici while he has her in his arms, he sets her carefully down in a backbend and moves away; she slowly straightens her limbs and lies down. At the end, he again places her in this uncomfortable position, but this time he slides under her body, gently pulls her down on top of him, and folds his arms around her.

The dancing was not this stunning in the January 22 performance of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (composed for Ballet Theatre and usually seen at NYC as the last section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3). Garcia brings his usual warmth and vigor to the principal male role, but neither he nor Stafford (the two in place of Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild) have the confident grandeur you expect from the obvious king and queen of this world—Balanchine’s homage to his heritage and Marius Petipa’s great 19th-century ballets. More than tiaras and bejeweled tutus need to sparkle in Theme’s splendid patterns. Legs have to flash, and manners must be both elegant and nonchalant. Coming to this performance the night after Miami City Ballet’s opening, I felt a slight lack of spirit in the NYCB corps, compared to the sense of ownership and delight the MCB brings to Balanchine’s steps. When my gaze was caught by the tallest of Theme’s four demi-soloists, I realized that she was one of those few doing what I once heard called “looking out from her face.” That is, she was gazing around her with interest, spirit, and pleasure. What a happy day it would be if everyone in the company projected that onstage!

Coppelia—three-acts long and entitled to its own program during the first week of the company’s winter season—represents one of Balanchine’s few forays into re-envisioning a popular 19th-century, fairy-tale ballet. In 1974, he and Alexandra Danilova blended Petipa’s revision of Arthur St. Léon’s 1870 choreography, which they knew from their school days in St. Petersburg, with some Balanchinian inventions. The E.T.A. Hoffman story that the ballet is based on has its dark aspects, but they’re barely visible onstage. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s set for the NYCB production turns the stage into a candy-box village. Or maybe it’s a toy theater that the stage reminds me of. Balanchine spends little time creating social interactions. When the principal characters dance during the Festival of the Bells (in which many couple get married at once), everyone else retreats to the edges of the stage, sitting or standing in neat lines.

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It’s all so beguilingly foolish that we don’t debate the brain power of a boy, Frantz, who mistakes a life-sized mechanical doll (the Coppelia of the title) for a real girl, or wonder how Dr. Coppelius, the inventor of this creature, unlocks the door and enters his atelier seconds after Frantz’s jealous girlfriend, Swanhilda, and her companions have tiptoed in at the end of Act I, yet only discovers them in Act II after they’ve played around with his automatons for a long time. And it hardly matters that Frantz sets his ladder and climbs to Coppelia’s balcony, but enters Act II via another window. What matters are Léo Delibes’s lovely danceable music, the handsome solos and ensemble passages (including one for a couple of dozen children), and the beautiful final pas de deux that Balanchine created to show us that Frantz and Swanhilda have decided to behave like grownups in love.

Fairchild is an endearingly spunky Swanhilda, and De Luz imbues the role of Frantz—played in 1870 by a woman in drag—with an impish and zesty masculinity. Old Dr. Coppelius isn’t an easy role. Robert La Fosse does a magnificent job of portraying his crankiness, but he also shows us a man sadly deluded by his own power. His delight when the doll he made appears to come to life (Swanhilda puts on Coppelia’s dress and replaces her in her chair) suggests a love a bit more lecherous than that of a father for a daughter. He and Fairchild convey both the comedy and the pathos of the scene in which she dances mischievously for him while he pants and hobbles around, reaching out for this miraculous beauty.

Two of the season’s 14 programs have more performances this week, eight are still to come. What a city that has such treasures in it!

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Mooning Over the Miami City Ballet

When George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements premiered during New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, shocks of delight ran through the audience. Balanchine’s genius, which seemed to have been dozing for a few years, had awakened, as bright-eyed as ever. A different sort of delight electrified the City Center audience watching Miami City Ballet perform the work during its Manhattan debut season last week, even though Stravinsky’s music wasn’t heard live. The production—fastidiously staged by former NYCB dancers Bart Cook and Maria Calegari—was doubtless given additional polish by MCB’s founder and artistic director, Edward Villella, who danced the ballet in 1972.

It’s like a spun-steel spiderweb that a perfectionist creator keeps weaving into different designs—thrusting diagonal lines out of wheeling circles, breaking down and rebuilding. But Symphony also conjures up half-time displays, parades, and horse races in a pristine heaven. The MCB dancers attack Stravinsky’s astringent yet sunny, jazz-tinged 1945 score with fine musicality and verve. Each cast member seems to have a sense of the whole and his or her place in it. When 16 spirited women in white leotards prance into ingenious formations, their ponytails swinging, they make unison look like something they’ve willed into perfection.

Many of the steps are simple: prances, leaps, spins, and a bustling race-walk that’s a specialty of five couples in black-and-white practice clothes. The first principal pair introduces a boisterous, sideways jump with doubled-up legs that threads through the ballet (Alex Wong fairly soars as he chases his fleet partner, Tricia Albertson). It helps that these dancers understand how to shape steps into a phrase. They also know how to perform without “performing,” as Patricia Delgado and Alexandre Dufaur (the lively third couple) also show us.

Two of the company’s most interesting and versatile dancers, Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Jeremy Cox, give the great central duet new life. In Stravinsky’s adagio, tones coil around and thrust between one another in delicately sensual ways. Balanchine’s choreography echoes that with angular designs and hints of a balletic orientalism (tiny steps and curling hand gestures). Kronenberg, elegantly coquettish, and the ardent Cox seem to be telling themselves and each other enthralling stories. How rare is that?

Maurice Ravel likened the ambience of his 1920 La Valse to that of “a fantastic and fatal whirling.” It’s that quality that Balanchine captured in his namesake 1951 ballet (also set to Ravel’s 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales). What looks at first like a strange debutantes’ ball, with three gloved and bejeweled beauties preening like cats and fluffing up their net skirts, turns into “Death and the Maiden” and a mad, unseeing swirl of couples waltzing around the heroine’s uplifted corpse. The three women turn out to be the Fates.

Early NYCB productions of La Valse were, as I remember, dark-tinged and more decadent, but the Miami dancers’ innocent youthfulness and ardor give the ballet an interesting poignancy, as if these young people rushing about beneath the chandeliers and eerie beams of light (from Jean Rosenthal’s original lighting plot) were unaware of danger—not just ignoring it. Deanna Seay is touchingly naïve in the role designed for Tanaquil LeClercq, and Carlos Miguel Guerra brings a hunger to the role of her suddenly smitten suitor. Cox plays Death as a more seductively demanding lover, and when Seay plunges her hands into the black gloves he offers, you shudder for her.

Cox is also terrific in the evening’s closer, Twyla Tharp’s 1986 masterwork In the Upper Room. But then, so are many others—once you can see through the smoke (over-profuse on opening night) that’s part of Jennifer Tipton’s brilliant lighting. As Philip Glass’s throbbing score gradually shifts into hyperdrive, Tharp defines two squads by their styles and shoes—juxtaposing seven ballet people (the women in red pointe shoes) with six in sneakers. But Tharpian ballet is as daredevil as her slipperier, casual-mannered athleticism. And her three sneaker-shod women and their guys swing through spatial patterns as immaculate as any that Balanchine devised. By the end, they’ve invaded each other’s territory, and you can hardly tell the difference between them.

The Miamians attack the choreography with gusto and finesse. Kronenberg and Jeanette Delgado, as the two sentries who open and close the piece, join Albertson, Cox, Wong, and Daniel Baker in digging into the floor with their weighted, springy steps. Mary Carmen Catoya flashes her pointe shoes at three ballet cavaliers (Guerra, Dufaur, and Didier Bramaz), joined by ballerinas Katie Carranza, Seay, and Patricia Delgado (yes, she and Jeanette Delgado are sisters). Intermittently, Carranza and P. Delgado bomb through with some of the most devilish footwork in the whole dazzling enterprise. As the music heats up and the dancers discard or put on items of their black-and-white-plus-red Norma Kamali clothing, they become increasingly heroic—our champions dancing to glory. Hail Miami.

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The Treats of the San Francisco Ballet

You can read about the up-and-down history of America’s oldest ballet company in Janice Ross’s excellent San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five (Chronicle Books). Many of the company’s early achievements were notable (in 1940, Willam Christensen staged the first full-length Swan Lake in the U.S. for it). But only since Helgi Tomasson took over as artistic director, in 1985, has the SFB become a major establishment, with a roster of 77 classy dancers, a rich repertory, and a busy performing life.

Because Tomasson was for years a notable principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, he knows (and evidently loves) George Balanchine’s works and sees to it that they’re staged and performed with devotion. The company’s rendition of Divertimento No. 15 (1956), on the second of the company’s three City Center programs, certainly attests to that.

In the 1950s, NYCB was a relatively small company and short on men. How Balanchine deploys five female soloists, three male ones, and a corps of eight women to the sparkling Mozart music is close to miraculous. Seldom have strictly classical steps looked as surprising or symmetry so kaleidoscopic. In this little court with gracious 18th-century manners and remarkably busy feet, two men introduce a robust theme, and six variegated solos twist and refract it with prismatic brilliance. The first part of the final Andante flows on without a break as one long pas de deux with the men doing double duty. Once the whole cast is onstage, it’s as if the women have a pact (“You go dance with him. I don’t mind”), and performing with ease and skill is this society’s most delightful challenge. The SFB cast I saw makes the point crystal-clear, with especially brilliant allegro dancing by the soubrettish Elana Altman (also entrancing in a duet with the excellent Davit Karapetyan).

Christopher Wheeldon’s lovely Within the Golden Hour—set to a series of surging pieces by Ezio Bosso, with a Vivaldi adagio folded almost seamlessly in—focuses on couples: three principal ones and four others. All wear unitards by Martin Pakledinaz in muted colors, with jeweled trim and headdresses for the women. Wheeldon uses the floor as much as any modern-dance choreographer: Dancers crouch, kneel, and lie down—often as part of a movement phrase; the spectator’s eyes get an up-down workout. For each section, three mottled overhead panels (also by Pakledinaz) are arranged in a new way, with not all of them visible all the time. Wheeldon, as usual, introduces quirky ideas and repeats them so often that they acquire respectable status. For instance, men hurry along, carrying their partners horizontally overhead; suddenly, the women snap their bent knees straight and fling out their arms. In a perky duet (charmingly performed in one cast by Lily Roger and Brett Bauer), the two introduce ballroom holds; clunky, flex-footed lifts; and a step that suggests jumping rope. Such oddities can be engaging. At other times, they create discomfiting little jolts in Wheeldon’s beautifully designed patterns. I wonder why, for instance, Tina LeBlanc, turned by her partner, suddenly grabs one leg and points it at the ceiling. You think: “Is she trying to get her leg out of his way, or does Wheeldon have her do this just because she can?”

He excels at rapturous duets. Dana Genshaft is amazingly tenuous and flexible—winding around Mateo Klemmayer like a deceptively frail vine that’s not quite sure of its destination. In a third duet, the marvelous LeBlanc is more decidedly extravagant—an ardent but gentle diva, who challenges her bold, admiring partner, Joan Boada.

Yuri Possokhov was a leading dancer with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and later with SFB, where he showed his first choreography over 10 years ago. He’s very skillful, but the basic premise of his Fusion and its possible deeper meaning are hard to grasp. Four men, garbed by designer Sandra Woodall in fancy versions of dervish attire, are kneeling onstage when the curtain opens, ritualistically jerking and arching their torsos beneath Benjamin Pierce’s array of hanging white panels (luminous in James F. Ingalls’s fine lighting). Throughout the ballet, flying in and out with their full, white coats swirling around them, these four often behave like go-betweens, or mentors to the four more plainly dressed men and four women who enter through the black curtain at the rear. Most compelling is the passage in which they form a chain close to a side curtain, and the wonderful Sarah Van Patten breaks through it, only to be repeatedly tossed or rolled back onstage by barely visible hands, so she can dance with Ruben Martin. In the end, it’s the second group of men who’re kneeling and jerking their rib cages around. An initiation rite? A cross-cultural fantasy? Go figure.

The company last performed in New York in 2006. I’d gladly welcome it back in 2010.

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Celebrating Jerome Robbins and Bidding Damian Woetzel Goodbye

It’s a pity that Floria Lasky (1923-2007), Jerome Robbins’s wise, feisty lawyer and adviser for much of his professional life, couldn’t stick around to see the New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins Celebration (dedicated to her and honoring the choreographer ten years after his death and 90 years after his birth) Ten different programs showcasing 33 Robbins ballets were scattered through the company’s Spring season, and the dancers ran with them like the thoroughbreds they are.

Audiences could experience not only Robbins’s brilliance but his adventurousness and the range of his interests. His first ballet, the 1944 Fancy Free, with its rowdy sailors and flirty girls, was performed, along with such disparate works as his ravishing 1969 Dances at a Gathering, his highly experimental 1970 Watermill, his hilarious 1956 the Concert, his poetic 1953 Afternoon of Faun, and West Side Story Suite (a 1995 abridgement of the epochal Broadway musical he directed and choreographed).

The last Robbins program of the season was a banquet fit for a glutton. It offered only two ballets, The Goldberg Variations (1971) and Brahms/Handel, his 1984 collaboration with Twyla Tharp, and lasted almost three hours. Watching Goldberg, set to Bach’s treasure chest of piano variations (very sensitively played by Cameron Grant from a corner of the stage apron), I realized that I’d forgotten how much the ballet’s first half conveys a feeling of trying things out. Dancers play around in formal and not-so-formal ways and the choreographer sets himself exercises in canon and counterpoint (how many formations can he devise with two sextets? How many ideas can a canon convey about deconstructed unison?) Blitheness predominates. It’s wonderful to see Abi Stafford—looking bolder and fresher than I’ve ever seen her—being given assists by Amar Ramasar and Andrew Veyette, her partners in the first trio. One grabs her hand and suddenly she’s leaping yards off the floor, ready to fly to the next guy. In this part of Goldberg, a walk is likely to turn into a saunter, and two frisky men (Veyette and Adam Henrickson) wear themselves out, lie down, and trace patterns in imaginary sand. Everyone’s curious about everyone else. Hendrikson distinguishes himself in several spitfire jumping passages. Veyette and Amasar try out partnering techniques on each other, and Stafford and Megan Fairchild copycat them in a little more refined same-sex assists. The four men named line up to play a game: one falls and rolls, the others bundle up their legs in a nice pas de chat and jump over him as he passes. Tyler Angle becomes a teacher and leads the ensemble in a sprightly class. Yet the sportiness never roams far from the ballet’s classical underpinnings and the 18th-century courtliness displayed by the costumed couple (Kaitlyn Gilliland and Jason Fowler) that presents Bach’s opening theme.

Just as Robbins finally seems to be spinning his wheels, a whole other ensemble (the women in blue rather than pink) appears, and the newcomers to the party immediately come across as more assured, more grownup, more prey to sudden twists of emotion. Dancers still have moments of vaulting into the air—one here, one there—like popcorn, but Robbins has created some lovely duets. In a slow one, Sara Mearns melts and glows while her partner, Stephen Hanna, follows her around being helpful. Rachel Rutherford comes into her own in another duet; although she looks like a porcelain princess, the filigreed gestures of her slim arms are belied by the implied extravagance of her arching back. When she sits on the shoulders of her partner (Jared Angle) and looks down at him, it’s anyone guess what’s in store for him. The evening I saw the program, Wendy Whelan and Gonzalo Garcia, performed two contrasting pas de deux, one an almost lusty folk dance 9hands on hips, wide stances, the illusion of hearty laughter0. The other duet, the poignant heart of the ballet, is full of swooning falls. Whelan is elemental in choreography like this; you can’t decide whether she’s air or water, but fires are stoked inside her. When she reaches out from her partner’s arms, the gesture seems to come from someplace in her soul.

When it was announced in 1984 that Robbins and Twyla Tharp were making a ballet together, fans speculated on possible carnage—Tharp’s feistiness and Robbins’s hot temper being well known. Maybe they didn’t know that the two were good friends and that Tharp—thrilled to be working with Balanchine’s dancers—was on her best behavior. They also wondered whether George Balanchine would have given his blessing, but although Balanchine had been dead for over a year when Brahms/Handel premiered in June, it was, according to Tharp, he who had asked during the planning stage that the chorographers use Edmund Rubbra’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, rather than the original version for solo piano.

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The ballet is exhilarating—rich with movement but rarely too busy, dense but not too much so. Patterns form, twist, explode, or amble away disintegrating as they go. The collaboration engendered a playfully competitive ambiance. You may note a little boil-up that’s surely Tharpian off in a corner behind some classical formality that’s probably by Robbins, or a dazzling face-off by the two principal male dancers, Garcia and Tyler Angle). From the dignified statement of the theme by Robbins’s dancers, the piece opens up, gloriously, to subterfuge and merging by the two squads. The idea of his-and-hers dancers is part of the game. We can tell after a while that Robbins’s principals, demi-soloists, and ensembles wear blue and Tharp’s sport green costumes, but by the time they begin to infiltrate each other’s ranks, the choreographers are riffing off each other’s work, and the distinctions between their personal takes on Balanchinian classicism erode.

Actually, in this revival, I wondered if they weren’t eroding almost too much. Reconstructions of Oscar de la Renta’s costumes (tights and blousy shirts for the men, sleeveless dresses for the women) blur the color differences between the greens (led by Angle and Sara Mearns) and the blues (captained by Garcia and Stafford). Instead of the pale blue costumes worn at the premiere (at least by the principals and the demi-soloists), this blue is deeper and closer to the green. It would be fun to be able to know for sure that it’s Tharp’s rambunctious green men who swing Stafford dangerously around and that it’s the blue men retaliating when they carry Mearns offstage, she laboriously turning herself and clambering around atop their shoulders. Maybe the downplaying of differences was a deliberate decision. Otherwise why cast Angle, an elegant and princely dancer, in a role built on Bart Cook, a naturally ruggeder and spunkier performer, while Garcia, warmer and wittier, plays the guy in blue? (Angle, however, deserves praise for the gusto with which he attacks Tharp’s impudent eccentricities, and the devilish duet with Mearns comes off well). On one viewing, it’s my impression that the dancers—magnificent all— need some coaching by a Tharp expert.

Brahms/Handel keeps your eyes racing around, tracking counterpoint and family resemblances through a delirious maelstrom of dancing, with occasional sober unison patterns and mix-and-match duets. The moods change as swiftly as they do in musical variations that encompass friskiness, sweetness, turbulence and a certain triumphant pomposity. People hurtle on and off the stage, fall into one another’s arms, bolt into the air, and engage in daring, fleeting interactions. Everything comes together in the final fugue by the end of which you’re almost too dizzy to stand up and cheer. This program will be presented again upstate at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in July.

It’s fitting that Damian Woetzel, still in his artistic prime at 41, chose to give his last performance during the Robbins Celebration. He has said that seeing and loving Robbins’s ballets was what prompted him to enroll in NYCB’s affiliate School of American Ballet in 1984 as a teenager (he was invited to join the company only six weeks later). Two of the roles he chose to appear in on June 18th were ones danced by Robbins himself: the third sailor in the choreographer’s 1944 Fancy Free and the biblical rebel in Balachine’s 1929 Prodigal Son.

For Balanchine’s Rubies (from Jewels), he engineered changes in casting so that Megan Fairchild and Garcia were the principal couple in the first movement, Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz (the only ones named in the program) took over for the second movement, and, to the delight of the crowd, Woetzel himself bounded on with Yvonne Borree to lead the third.

Woetzel is one of those rare dancers who downplays effort. Maybe that, too, attracted him to Robbins’s oeuvre. He can make even the most difficult step look as natural and easy as walking (although much, much less boring), and, although he’s elegantly proportioned enough to carry off princely roles, I get the impression they’re not his favorites. He excels at the sprightly, the witty, the all-American. Both Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon capitalized on his easy-going charm and virtuosity and his sensitivity to the subtleies of drama, and the Balanchine roles he was often cast in exploited those qualities (a cowboy in Western Symphony, “El Capitan” in Stars and Stripes, and the sly, bravura roles in ballets like Rubies).

At his farewell performance, with Taylor Angle and De Luz as his buddies, he inhabited his role in Fancy Free with all the requisite braggadocio and naivete. Seldom has the New York skyline looked as intoxicatingly big as it did to his sailor on leave, and never have I seen the barroom duet (with Tiler Peck as Woetzel’s sweetly accommodating partner) look so increasingly tender and—in a questioning and exploratory way—so sexy. In Rubies, dancing the role created on Edward Villella, he was wonderfully buoyant, and rhythmically acute in terms of the Stravinsky score. The choreography calls for a dancer who can make virtuosity into a sharp-witted romp, a stroll with pals, and a happy dialogue with his girl. That’s Woertzel.

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But he shrugs himself out of all that ease when he takes on Prodigal Son. His is one of the deepest, most nuanced performances I’ve seen. How wonderfully he portrays the angry restlessness of the hero at the ballet’s outset! His huge leaps toward imagined freedom show both how confined he feels by family tradition and how elated he is at the prospect of a life beyond home. He puts his technique at the service of the story; you can marvel at how he pauses, suspended, at the end of a pirouette before falling into rebellious stomping, but his timing also expresses the cleft between a hoped-for future and present reality. When the goons who accompany the Siren (an imposing Maria Kowroski) begin to make nice to him for their own nasty purposes, he’s so touchingly proud of himself for imitating their coarse movements that you want to yell “Watch out!” And as the chastened hero crawls home, he sets each knee down with a clunk that makes you understand why they are bloody and how doggedly he has to drive himself forward.

Of course, the audience didn’t want to let him go—even after the flowers, the parade of choreographers who’ve worked with him, the women dancers he’s partnered entering one by one to hug him, the drum roll, and the rain of confetti. When he wasn’t bowing or embracing, he simply stood there—his body easily erect, his arms spread wide. You could imagine that he wasn’t just opening himself gratefully to our applause, but accepting whatever lay ahead. This summer, for the second year, he’ll direct the Vail International Dance Festival. Having earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard, he’s not only ready for new roles; he’s prepared. Saying he’ll be missed onstage is putting it mildly.

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Christopher Wheeldon and Nikolaj Hübbe Say Goodbye

Christopher Wheeldon isn’t saying farewell to the New York City Ballet, even though he’s leaving his post as Resident Choreographer in order to focus on the company he formed last year (Morphoses/The Wheeldon Project). NYCB will simply take its place in the lineup of organizations anxious to acquire ballets by this gifted man. Spreading himself too thin will, I suspect, be an ongoing problem to surmount.

He hasn’t conceived his choreographic au revoir to the company he joined as a dancer in 1993 as a fanfare. No sounding of trumpets or bringing on of tutued hordes in homage to the magnificent dance kingdom that George Balanchine built. Instead he has created an elegant little envoy of a ballet, with flourishes of eccentricity in keeping with its title, Rococo Variations, and its music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, opus 33. It is performed by just two couples, who might be out for a decorous night on the town together. At one point, just for a second, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Giovanni Villalobos lean out to each other from behind their partners, as if for a conspiratorial exchange (“you happy with your date?”).

This is a well-dressed foursome, and neither of the women (Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin) appears worried that she may have bought the same outfit as her friend. They both look gorgeous in Holly Hynes’s delectable strapless gowns, with fancy gold trim edging the very full chocolate-brown skirts. The men sport beige tights, gold vests, and full-sleeved white shirts.

Wheeldon’s small cast is somewhat in keeping with Tchaikovsky’s scaled-down orchestra (strings, pairs of wind instruments, and two horns), but the choreography doesn’t equate a solo performer with the cello that Fred Zlotkin plays in the pit. Nor does it follow the theme-and-variations form as strictly as the music does, although in both, classical formality is perfumed by whiffs of Romanticism. Some of Wheeldon’s inventions capture the spirit of rococo design—its graceful lightness, its embellishing scrolls and curlicues and shell moifs, its playful eccentricities. The entrance of the first couple is so involved that, even though it’s repeated several times over the course of the ballet, I couldn’t parse it. Mearns stands close to the edge of the stage, slightly caved-in, pushing down on her skirt, or her flank. Danching-Waring, dipping low, ducks under her arms and slips his own through them and around her in some way. It’s almost like creating a knot in order to untangle one. Now they’re ready to join the party.

As in most of Wheeldon’s ballets, the performers often drop to the floor—not from any excess of emotion, but to deepen the trajectory of a movement phrase. And every now and them a thoroughly standard gesture is set off like a new discovery by both choreographic timing and the sensitivity of the adept young dancers. In one of the duets for Mearns and Danchig-Waring, she, poised on one toe and steadied by her partner, slowly folds her other leg down from a high extension as if the move gave her immense pleasure. Although there are fine pas de deux—slow for Mearns and Danchig Waring, fast and sprightly for Hyltin and Villalobos—and a scampy display of jumps by the two men, the picture that stays with me is that of the two couples, close together, slipping from vigorous unison into mirror-image symmetry, like an opening scallop shell, and then suddenly darting their movements in the same direction again. When the curtain comes down, they’re still doing this, and they look as if they might keep it up all night.

Choreographers like Wheeldon bring new perspectives to the company’s repertory, but the program dubbed “Balanchine’s World” reveals that that world in itself certainly doesn’t lack variety. Balanchine’s ravishing Tombeau de Couperin, created for the NYCB’s 1975 Ravel Festival, has no stars. Eight couples formed into two quadrilles charm the eye with the twinning of their meet-and-greet patterns and orderly partner changes. The stage becomes an optical delight of shifting squares, semi-circles, and diagonals. And the youthful verve of the dancers in their black and white practice clothes freshen the formality of the designs, just as Ravel respectfully unbuttons Couperin’s 18th-century manners.

The 1964 Tarantella is all verve. And flirty bravado. The rollicking music is by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, orchestrated by Hershy Kay but with a piano soloist (Susan Walters). Balanchine designed it as a showpiece for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride and whatever virtuosi could follow in their footsteps. So what if Daniel Ulbricht drops his tambourine one night and goes a little over the top in terms of exuberance? He’s still the hottest jumper in town, and Fairchild is a charmer. Balanchine knew how to get a crowd cheering.

Bugaku (1963) provokes a different sort of reaction. This bit of delicate exotica evokes not only erotic Japanese prints but the patronizing visions of 19th-century orientalism. Balanchine was inspired by performances by visiting Gagaku musicians and Bugaku performers. Although David Hay’s handsome scenery and Toshiro Mayazumi’s score refer to the ancient Japanese court form, the ballet is a ritual mating—miles away from a court dance with religious significance performed by men. Better he had called it The Deflowering.

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However, amid the pinup-girl stances, cocked heads, and helpless little hands displayed by the ballerina and her ladies-in-waiting in this painted-teacup world, there’s a slyly explicit pas de deux to which Maria Kowroski brings a whole new dimension, partly because of her size. When this long lean woman spreads her legs for a far too stolid Albert Evans (a samurai cast in stone), you know something more cosmic than a pro forma coupling is going on.


Nikolaj Hübbe in Balanchine’s Apollo
photo: Paul Kolnik

Balanchine knew how to tell a story, although he rarely wanted to. La Sonnambula is one of his most mysterious forays into narrative. I wish he’d continued to call it Night Shadow, the title it bore when he made it in 1946 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, because its only link to the 1827 ballet La Sonnambula and the opera it inspired (Vincenzo Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula) is the fact that Vittorio Rieti based his score on themes from opera. Balanchine’s ballet is far darker than Eugène Scribe’s original tale of jealousy, near-tragic misunderstandings, and suspect virginity. It’s memorable not for the party-entertainment divertissements that don’t seem to divert the guests very much, but for the gothic creepiness of the final duet. It helps that Nikolaj Hübbe makes the Poet far sexier than other dancers have done. Everyone onstage stops and stares when he arrives, apparently uninvited, and in this case it’s justified. Too, if he didn’t know the host’s sly and sensual mistress previously, he certainly gets to first base fast. While Adam Hendrickson is spotlit as a frisky, slightly nasty Harlequin, your gaze slips past him to Hübbe and Mearns on a bench at the back, whispering and touching with covert greediness.

The woman who appears bearing a candle and pattering numbly around on pointe, with the breeze blowing her filmy white nightgown is a docile version of the madwoman in the attic (see Jane Eyre). She (in this case Darci Kistler) isn’t quite as bizarre as the Poet’s reaction to her. He wafts her in one direction and then rushes to catch her. He pushes her into positions like a child experimenting with a new toy. He tries to catch her feet as they purl along. But who’s the stronger here? She can step over his outspread limbs without looking, and when the host (a dignified Amar Ramsar) stabs him out of jealousy, this fragile female bears him off to her lair as if he were a featherweight.

In this program, as in others spread over the season, there’s a wealth of splendid performing. Fairchild may be new to the mysteries of Balanchine’s Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée,” but she develops her poses with the velvety roundness of an opening blossom, and Benjamin Millepied brings a poetic unrest to his pursuit of her. Rachel Rutherford, performing Calliope in Balanchine’s Apollo and substituting for Rebecca Krohn in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, dances both roles with a lovely clarity and fullness. Stephen Hanna depicts the smart-jumping, self-satisfied “El Capitan” in Stars and Stripes excellently and holds his own against the brazenly virtuosic “Liberty Bell” of Ashley Bouder. Albert Evans has the lowdown on the lonesome cowpoke in Western Symphony (I could wish his partner, the lovely Hyltin, wouldn’t turn a coyly imperious beckoning gesture—“follow me, handsome”— into just another port de bras). Damian Woetzel—soon, alas, to leave the company—wears all his roles as if they were suits he’d been slipping into for years. He’s able to bring out all the nuances lurking in the steps and downplay the physical effort so that every formidable feat seems to come from nowhere, as if it were simply part of his everyday language.

And speaking of departures, on February 10, Nikolaj Hübbe danced for the last time as a principal with NYCB. He leaves to take over the directorship of the Royal Danish Ballet. The cheering fans and the throwers of bouquets and his colleagues assembling on stage didn’t want to see him leave—that afternoon or ever. And with reason. Few male dancers combine his handsome presence, his charisma, his superb dancing, and his sense of drama. He makes every woman he partners look desired and desirable.

He opened his farewell program with Apollo, bringing out the god’s youthful curiosity and letting us see that develop through moments of doubt into full confidence. All this, he provided subtly, without distorting the choreography in any way. For him, the lute was more than a prop; it was something to be examined and investigated. And he showed that he understood the nymphs as both vital to him and dependant upon him. When Wendy Whelan gently folded her arms around him before she, Rutherford, and Bouder formed the sunburst of arabesques that affirm Apollo’s godhood, she looked as if she wanted never to let him go.

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The program, showing Hübbe in some of his prominent guises, highlighted his versatility. Peter Martins’s quartet, Zakouksi, allowed him to delve into flashing, twisting steps and sultry gypsy bravado. In “Cool,” from Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story Suite, he not only danced with street-smart, tough-guy manners, he sang the Bernstein-Sondheim song with which Riff dominates the angry, restless Jets. And finally, when the Rondo of Western Symphony came along, he romped outrageously, delighted with Kowroski, and matching her strutting and needle-point footwork with jumps and spins that had a spur-of-the-moment ease. As if he was riding the wave of our love and, tired as he must have been, relishing this last endeavor.

The afternoon also paid homage to Hübbe’s heritage and looked forward to his new position. Coached by him, Kathryn Morgan and David Prottas, two very bright and talented dancers in NYCB’s corps de ballet, performed the pas de deux from August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano. Hübbe, trained in the Bournonville style and performing as a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet before joining NYCB, knows this repertory well. One of his jobs in Copenhagen will be preserving it; another will be fostering new choreography in the three theaters available to him. Bon voyage, Nikolaj! It’ll be a great adventure.