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New York City Ballet

‘Apollo’, ‘Serenade’, ‘Prodigal Son’

January 2004
New York, State Theater

by Eric Taub


NYCB 'Apollo' reviews

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Coming in the midst of a season marred by more than the usual number of injuries, New York City Ballet's celebration of George Balanchine's 100th birthday on January 22 was, if not always a brilliant invocation of three of the great choreographer's seminal works, it was, at least, a tribute to the show-biz virtue of simply persevering through adversity something of which I'm sure Georgi Melitonivitch would have surely approved. And, while injuries have deprived us of the great veteran Wendy Whelan and rising stars like Janie Taylor, at least the company's reigning senior ballerinas, Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, both of whom actually danced for Balanchine, were on hand to deliver powerful, if sometimes idiosyncratic, performances.

As the curtain rose on Balanchine's 1928 masterpiece, Apollo, I again found myself wishing someone in the company would have the courage to restore the birth scene and apotheosis, which Balanchine cut when he staged the ballet for Baryshnikov in 1978. The ballet simply makes more sense when we see Apollo first presented with his kithara by his attendants, and ascending a stair towards Olympus, rather than simply pacing from side to side before striking the famous (and now misplaced) fan pose with his muses. At least other companies' Apollos haven't been so abridged.

Thursday night's Apollo was the almost painfully handsome Nikolaj Hübbe; Terpsichore, Yvonne Borree; Polyhymnia, Jennie Somogyi; and Calliope, Rachel Rutherford. Hübbe's first Apollo of the season was winningly ebullient, part child and part playboy, clearly enjoying his newfound, leggy playmates on many levels. This night, Hübbe presented a graver, and grander godling-in-the-making a gorgeous facsimile of Peter Martins' unforgettable Apollo as if he'd decided (or been told) that impishness was Not Appropriate on this night, and he had to Rise to the Occasion. Hübbe wasn't the only dancer who seemed to be trying just a bit too hard. Borree, who has developed an unfortunate reputation for on-stage attacks of nerves, also seemed trying quite hard to do, well, I'm not sure what. In her duet with Hübbe, Borre made the kind of flirtatious, goo-goo eyes at Hübbe which so infuriated me when I saw the Kirov's Apollo a few years ago. The Muses aren't soubrettes. They're not trying to get into Apollo's chiton, and those aren't tambourines he hands out to them! As the ballet neared its finale, Borree danced with a spikiness which might've been more appropriate in Jerome Robbins' The Cage, although she managed her first solo quite well. Jennie Somogyi's Polyhymnia was also a bit reverential, and not quite the breathtaking wild ride she presented in her recent debut. It fell to Rutherford, a soloist more often known in recent years for her safe and uninflected readings, to give the best performance, with a controlled edginess appropriate to her solo, which is, after all, an audition before a God. Perhaps in the spirit of the evening, Andrea Quinn conducted the Stravinsky score with admirable restraint and clarity.

If Apollo had its ups and downs, Serenade, Balanchine's first American ballet of consequence, from 1934, was bliss. It's hard for me to listen to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings without envisioning this strange, mutating landscape of wild and dreaming women. The corps, which has often been bland and dutiful in this ballet of late, rose to the occasion magnificently, riding the crest of each beat with the kind of vital urgency so fitting in Balanchine's work, which flows so organically from his chosen music. (Hugo Fiorato's notably sensitive conducting certainly helped.) Also riding this flow was Kyra Nichols, who, while never a favorite of Balanchine's in his lifetime, has now become the embodiment of some of his finest works. If Nichols' jumps, turns and line are not what they were, her breathtaking musicality and grace make any such shortcomings irrelevant. She wears music like a mantle, and her experience dancing Balanchine's great roles (she joined NYCB in 1974) gives her an insight few can match. I'm always noticing subtleties in her interpretations which show me old roles in a new light. Thursday I admired, again, the artless lightness of her arms. An oft-heard complaint about New York City Ballet's dancers (more so in Balanchine's day than in today's tidier version) is about the wildness of their arms, particularly when in motion. While such complaints are sometimes well-founded, there's also in City Ballet's seemingly unschooled arms a great freedom and energy Balanchine clearly treasured. At its finest, this carriage can be breathtaking. Nichols' enacted the Waltz Girl's story of love, death and redemption with poignancy always informed by perfect targeting the heart of the music. Although she's been having a magnificent season. Somogyi was again a bit subdued dancing the Russian Girl, although her encirclement of the stage with grand jétes was gorgeous. As the Dark Angel figure, Kowroski again showed off her arabesque to die for, as well as some brighter footwork than usual.

The evening's final program was the 1929 Prodigal Son. Peter Boal, who studied under Balanchine at the School of American Ballet, delivered a nuanced yet impassioned performance, changing from an angry youth filled with ambitions and wild ideas (and beautiful jumps and turns), to the battered, robbed, crippled victim of prostitutes and thieves, crawling back to the father from whom he'd once leapt away. Like Nichols, Boal is a dancer of great refinement, and his Son is one of the finest I've seen. As the Siren, the mysterious prostitute who seduces the Son via a gymnastic duet so contorted that, at its end, they must be pulled apart by the revelers, Darci Kistler, NYCB's other reigning ballerina, gave the kind of performance that's become typical for her: a little fuzzy around the edges, perhaps, but invigorated by her uniquely radiant onstage persona. Her Siren was not a shimmering ice queen or an insatiable pants-chaser, but vibrant and a bit off-kilter. I got the feeling if she could just get over the seducing-and-robbing thing, and lose the hat, she might be quite a fun date. Despite a few signs of insufficient rehearsals (Kistler had problems with the Siren's long, scarlet cape, and she and Boal didn't quite manage her upright slide down his shins near the end of their duet), this was a fittingly moving performance for Balanchine's birthday.

After the last curtain, Peter Martins and Barbara Horgan (Balanchine's former assistant, and now head of the Balanchine Trust), came before the curtain. Martins gave a short speech about Balanchine ("It's all about love...."), and invited the audience to join in a toast to Mr. B's birthday, using small bottles of vodka which had been distributed during the previous intermission. As the orchestra played "Happy Birthday," the curtain rose on the assembled company (and a huge cake), we did just that. On the way out, we were invited to nibble on some odd kind of pineapple tart, so we could all join in on the celebration.

I took an extra bottle of vodka, which is waiting in my freezer for a suitably special occasion.


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