I really had a nice time last night at New York City Ballet‘s opening night gala program, celebrating the start of their winter season. The highlights for me were the two world premieres — one of a new ballet, by NYCB artistic director, Peter Martins, the other a brief but fabulous excerpt from a new movie-in-the-making of Jerome Robbins‘s jazzy cool ballet, “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.” Rather than go in chronological order of the program, I’ll start with the highlights.
I’ve seen a lot of new ballets lately, and this one by Martins has definitely been one of my favorites. Titled “Grazioso,” it’s set to a score by Mikhail Glinka from the operas “Ruslan and Ludmilla” and “A Life For the Tsar.” I don’t know these operas, but the handy dandy Wikipedia tells me the first is based on a Pushkin poem with a complicated narrative, but at one point depicts three would-be suitors vying for Ludmilla’s hand in marriage. I assume this is the part Martins had set his ballet to, as that’s what I perceived “Grazioso” to be about.
And what a mad fun sexy competition it was! Everyone who knows me knows this is exactly the kind of thing I go for : men trying to outdance each other with bravado galore. But there weren’t only high, twisty jumps and sailing-across-the-stage-in-a-splits leaps, Martins filled his male dancers’ variations with lots of very intricate, fast, complex footwork that required great precision and agility. And of course these men had that in spades. They were: Andrew Veyette, recently promoted to soloist, Daniel Ulbricht, who is known for his virtuosity and wowed audiences last season with his Mercutio in Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet,” and Gonzalo Garcia, a recent NYCB transplant from San Francisco Ballet, who I find to be very Rasta Thomas-esque. The sassy, daring, very athletic Ashley Bouder, whom I am growing to love more and more each time I see, danced Ludmilla.
One of the reasons I love Ashley is that she just throws herself into everything she does with such wild, intense abandon; she’s very much a risk-taker, which is what Balanchine wanted of his dancers. And, she’s a cute actor to boot. If I was a guy, though, I’d be very intimidated partnering her. She doesn’t really wait for the guy to be ready to go into a lift, she just throws herself up and he’d better be there to take her the rest of the way or else! That’s the way it should be of course — do your own thing and let the man figure out how to support you 😀
As far as the choreography: there was some cute partnering — at one point each man takes turns promenading Ashley around slowly and delicately, trying his best to be the most chivalrous. Then she takes off running, fluttering around all three men in an outer circle, like a Firebird, each one taking her hand and doing a little running lift with her before she rejects him and goes on to the next guy. Gonzalo, probably the best actor of the guys, feigned a stunned, dejected look when she threw off his hand and went into a lift with Daniel. Upon her rejection of him, Daniel simply shrugged and prepared for some more crazy bravura turns. Andrew looked thoroughly befuddled by her behavior, in a cute way of course! I liked these duets better than Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet” pas de deux, but I still think where Martins really excels choreography-wise is in the solo dancing, particularly with the men. As I said, some brilliant fast, fun, intricately-patterned footwork that made for a dazzling competition for Ludmilla’s flighty little hand.
The only thing I didn’t get was the costumes. Ashley was wearing this cute A-line cut, slightly puffed shoulder-sleeved dress with an apron-like covering. She looked like a chambermaid. The guys were wearing these 70s-style black tops that looked like they were made out of stretchy lycra with low-cut V necks lined with florescent colors — a different shade for each man. She looked like she belonged in a Dickens novel, they in Studio 54.
Second highlight was the movie-in-the-making adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.” (above image is taken from the film’s website). Craig Hall is a natural film actor, let me tell you! He’s extremely photogenic and he has the subtle acting skills required for on-screen close-ups. They only showed a very brief excerpt but I think this is going to be fabulous when finished. They filmed it in what looks to be a run-down area of New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson River toward Manhattan. There’s a sole train track running through a patch of dead grass surrounded by abandoned buildings, and the filmed piece begins with Craig standing right in the middle of the tracks, a cocky, death-defying look on his face. Pretty Rachel Rutherford approaches him from behind, they perform a series of lifts, she seemingly trying to get him both off of the dangerous tracks and to love her. At the end, he walks away and she looks forelorn.
They were wearing regular, street clothes, I think just jeans and t-shirts. So, the filmmakers are taking the Robbins out of its 50s-era creation and placing it in the present to show how timeless Robbins — and ballet — really are.
And what I really love is that the filmmakers shot the pas de deux from various angles, some from high above, so you’re looking down on the would-be lovers at the different shapes their two bodies are making. It’s so much more interesting than seeing it straight on, from floor level, in the theater. This is what film can do for dance, I believe, really enhance the viewing and interpretive experience by showing different shapes and different viewpoints based on the angle of the camera and the distance of its gaze. I can’t wait for the film in whole to come out. The dancers who introduced it, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, mentioned that it had just won an award, though I didn’t get the name of the festival.
So, the rest of the evening: they began with the Rose Adagio from “Sleeping Beauty,” Beauty being danced with the sweet, charming Megan Fairchild. This is the part where she is courted by four princes, who each take her around in a promenade, then let go of her hand while she performs those very difficult one-footed balances on her own. The new Martins ballet kind of had echoes of that now that I think of it. They also performed “Liturgy,” another Christopher Wheeldon Rorschach ballet. NYCB stars Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans (pictured at the top of this post, on the program’s cover) did the physically demanding, at times very beautiful and, as the name implies, beatific, pas de deux. I think I’m learning to not try to “get” Wheeldon — at least not his pas de deux — but just to appreciate Wendy’s mind-bogglingly, seemingly skeleton-less body and the enchanting, spidery shapes she makes with it. At intermission, I saw Philip and he exclaimed, “wasn’t Liturgy fantastic!” Taunting me! They also did a small excerpt from Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” a cutely raucous ballet celebrating the American West, replete with saloon girls, led by dazzling Maria Kowroski, and cowboys, led by Damian Woetzel. I’d seen him in a Fall For Dance Robbins piece several weeks ago and was underwhelmed by his performance then, thinking he didn’t give it his all. But, happily, he was back in full force last night, dancing and acting the rowdy, spur-kicking cowboy perfectly. Damian really is such a cutie.
They ended with a little filmed tribute to Lincoln Kirstein, this year being the centennial of his birth, and then on to the party, which I’m too poor to attend.
But I did see the set-up. Here’s where I stood sipping a glass of wine at pre-performance cocktail hour, apparently across the room from Sandi. I spied Kristin, and was about to say hello when interrupted by a bartender asking for my order. After I was finished, Kristin was nowhere to be found. There was no red carpet bearing famous people, so I guess there wasn’t much for her to film this time, as there had been for Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet” premiere. As I was leaving, I did see David Michalek waiting for the party to begin, which made me wonder if Candace Bushnell was there… the connection being of course celebrated artists married to star dancers, not that Michalek is venturing into the world of social satire / literary chick-lit 😀