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New York City Ballet

‘Ballo della Regina’

5th, 7th, 8th January 2005
New York City, New York State Theater

by Eric Taub

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One of my fondest memories in recent years of attending the New York City Ballet is that of Ashley Bouder bringing down the house debut four years ago in her first soloist role, the jumpy second lead in Balanchine's 'La Source.' Having only just joined the company, Bouder's reputation as a prodigious jumper was little known outside of her former classmates at the School of American Ballet and the cognoscenti who attend SAB's annual Workshop performances, and, although she'd already been the the subject of a certain "watch-this-girl" buzz, most of the audience at the New York State Theater had no idea who Bouder was, at least when she started her first solo. By the time she finished, she'd become a in-house legend. Bouder's fearlessness, poise, and sheer bravura mastery seemed instantly to win the hearts of the entire audience, and, while I have heard such cheering a few times in my life, this was the only time it's been for the benefit of such a relative unknown.

Last Wednesday (January 5), Bouder (now a soloist) had another debut, one which showed how very far she's progressed, from shining promise to awe-inspiring mastery. This time, she was dancing, not a showy secondary role, but a fabled ballerina one: the infamously difficult lead in Balanchine's 'Ballo della Regina,' which he made to put that fabled allegro technician, Merrill Ashley, through her paces back in 1977. While other dancers have taken on 'Ballo' with great success (most notably, Miranda Weese and Lorna Feijoo in recent years), Bouder is the first dancer I've seen who's equalled, if not surpassed, Ashley's accomplishments. In Bouder's three performances of 'Ballo' so far (one more remains at this writing I wouldn't miss it for the world), she didn't just succeed; she conquered. As much as this ballet was Ashley's, it now belongs to Bouder.

Before proceeding, I do need to make one thing clear about 'Ballo:' it isn't a great ballet, but a charming and slight one, with moments of greatness. Set to ballet music from Verdi's 'Don Carlos', 'Ballo' bubbles along amiably enough, but the lead couple has only a perfunctory adagio, and the corps' steps sometimes have the look of ambulatory filler. Nevertheless, there's much Balanchinean invention upon which to feast the eye: four bounding soloists, some juicy bravura for the male lead (but not too much), and, of course, the high-speed, tongue-twisters-for-the-feet he created for Ashley. And Bouder isn't, of course, the second coming of Ashley. Though she's recently attained a sleeker silhouette, Bouder's shorter and more compact than Ashley; Bouder's legs scimitars to Ashley's javelins. Although both women personify speed, Bouder moves explosively, with bursts of power set off by unexpected moments of rubato calm, while the purity of Ashley's placement let her move through even the most tortuous enchainements with precise, economical effort and relentless precision. Where Ashley seemed to inhabit a world of technical world of almost Pythagorean purity, a beautiful, if somewhat dispassionate construction of lines, angles, force and counter force, Bouder takes you with her on a roller-coaster ride: she's strong and accurate, but also passionate and lyrical.

Looking back on Bouder's performances, I'm struck, again, by the tremendous power she's able to conjure up, seemingly at whim. Like Eddie Villella, she springs into the air with seemingly no preperation. Like Kyra Nichols, she uses her technical mastery to play with the music's beat, in even the most difficult passages. I'm left with a kaleidoscope of memories: the clarity of her double échappés on point (by her third performance she was hopping them just enough to give an illusion of utter weightlessness, like an insect skimming over water); the drama of her sudden Plisetskaya-like head-kicking grande jeté; or the enormity of those signature, stage-devouring assemblés, with her feet shooting together almost straight out to her side, before arrowing down to the stage. She fired herself through the series of three rapid double pirouettes into arabesque (and its immediate repeat) with wild abandon, yet she's so strong she could hold each arabesque for the most delicate fraction of a second, without making herself late for her next turn. Given that the score is zipping along quite rapidly at this point, and even the slightest loss of the beat might be disastrous, that Bouder can take such musical chances speaks volumes for her strength and bountiful self-confidence. For the most part, she grew more accomplished with each performance, except in her finish to a series of fouettés in the ballet's finale, where she once managed a perfect triple pirouette in her second performance.

Although 'Ballo' is Bouder's ballet, it's not a solo ballet. Of her two partners, neither was pefect. A strong and elegant dancer, Benjamin Millepied partnered Bouder with authority, and handled his few bravura crumbs from Balanchine with his usual grand elevation and clarity, and, also, his usual reserve, so there was little chemistry between him and Bouder. Not so with the ever-ebullient Jouquin de Luz. It's taken me awhile to warm up to De Luz at New York City Ballet, remembering his previous career at ABT, eternally embodying jesters, bronze idols, playing to the audience with a hard-sell flamboyance which verged on the cartoonish. That, and his penchant for bone-jarringly hard landings. In 'Ballo' he kept such mannerisms in check, firing off his barrel turns and leaps with a brio more complementary to Bouder's own. Unfortunately, the extremely diminutive De Luz proved to be a bit short for Bouder (herself not at all a tall dancer), and, while there were no calamities, he's not the most refined of partners, and Bouder was clearly more cautious when relying on De Luz than Millepied.

Of the soloists, I liked Sterling Hyltin's unaffected enthusiasm and attack in the first solo, and Ana Sophia Scheller's high-flying rendition of the solo created on the unforgettable Debra Austin. Both Hyltin and Scheller are relative newcomers, yet both seemed far more comfortable than the somewhat ponderous Amanda Edge and uncharacteristically tentative Carrie Lee Riggins. The hard-working corps shone in places, but elsewhere sometimes looked as if they were saving themselves for subsequent numbers on their programs.


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