New York City Ballet Season Finale and Wrap Up With Response to Sir A

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(above image of Joaquin de Luz and Megan Fairchild in Tarantella by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of NYCB)

So, Sunday marked the end of New York  City Ballet’s winter season. I was honestly in a blue funk all day yesterday, which shows, I guess, that I am really beginning to love this company since I’ve normally only gotten so sad over ABT and Alvin Ailey.

Sunday was a one-day only program, the All-American Season Finale, which included Robbins’s Glass Pieces, Martins’s Hallelujah Junction, and Balanchine’s Tarantella and Stars and Stripes. Tarantella (this is the only time it showed this season) is always fun, with its cute Neapolitan peasant boy-tries-to-get-girl caricatures, lightening-charged footwork, and series of bravura solos for both man and woman, all performed with a tambourine. I was completely out of breath after watching Joaquin de Luz fly across the stage and ultimately steal a kiss from Megan Fairchild. Joaquin is not just a dancing virtuoso but a dramatist as well and his characters are always these virile, sexed-up, but charming, innocuous men. I really love him.

Glass Pieces and Hallelujah Junction also really grew on me. I don’t know if it was Maria Kowroski or what, but the  slower, more adagio section of Glass Pieces was very compelling this time, and it really spiced up the last man-centric, drum-beating, section as well. At first I wasn’t a huge fan of Maria Kowroski, but either she has improved or she has really grown on me. I always thought she had an excellent dancer body, but now she is using it in a much more expressive way, really to say something. The only thing I’m not in love with choreography-wise in Glass Pieces is in the last section, how the men come jogging out, hands powerfully punching the air, doing their ‘man things’ to the booming drums, and then the women daintily slink in to the sound of the flutes. Corny.

I was able to watch more than just the mesmerizing lighting in Hallelujah Junction this time. I love the movement theme –toward the beginning — of the landing a jump or phrase on releve and then swiftly lowering the ankle to the floor. On Andrew Veyette it looked kind of teasing but in a sinister way, like the slicing of a knife. There is something very sinister in general about Andrew Veyette, very virile in a threatening way, which makes him perfect for the devious man dressed in black here.

And I love how Sebastien Marcovici, the man in white, kind of Janie Taylor’s saviour, would powerfully jete across stage after him, threatening him, banishing him. Sebastien and Janie are such the romantic couple, in part because they work so well together and in part because of their respective sizes. Someone very knowledgeable in the dance world told me they thought he’d been working out a lot, trying to build muscle. I do think he seems to have become more muscular lately, especially his legs. Building muscle often decreases the muscle’s flexibility and he doesn’t seem to make a perfect split on a jete like some of the others, but I still think it’s so romantic that he’s so much larger than little Janie; he can just sweep her off the floor and scoop her up into his arms — aw :)

The program notes state that Stars and Stripes, the somewhat cheesily patriotic but excellently danced Balanchine ballet, was shown at presidential tributes, like that of Kennedy and Johnson, and at Nelson Rockefeller’s NY gubernatorial inauguration. It’s so weird to me to think of that, though I could see it performed back then. But now? At President Obama’s inauguration? It just doesn’t seem like it would fit. It would seem kind of anachronistic, sadly…

Anyway, the talk of the ballet world lately has been Sir Alastair’s New York Times season wrap-up.

Taylor Gordon, my friend and fellow blogger / dance writer, says, “whether you agree with him or not, it boggles me that one person has the power to say these things in basically the one print medium dance criticism has left. Ouch.”

Macaulay basically takes the women of NYCB to task, saying none of them really command authority like true ballerinas,

says Darci Kistler, the last of the ballerinas who worked with Balanchine and who has announced her retirement next year, in effect retired long ago, and he calls Nilas Martins fat — I think the word he used is “portly” — well, you can read that article for yourself.

Just adding my two cents: the renowned dance critic Arlene Croce said that in a democracy the critic has the duty to be critical and to speak his or her mind, and I think that’s perfectly said. If we were all walking on eggshells around each other, scared of how artists might react to criticism, serious arts discussion would cease to exist and the First Amendment would be meaningless. So, it’s Macaulay’s job to say what he thinks and to be harsh if he has to be. But the problem, I think, as Taylor points out, is that the New York Times is the only newspaper that regularly carries dance criticism these days. So, unlike in the past, in Croce’s day when every newspaper and magazine seemed to have a full-time dance critic, there’s now basically only one authoritative viewpoint. Which isn’t Macaulay’s fault. It’s a really just an unfortunate situation. There are other papers and magazines but with a smaller following, and, yes, there are bloggers, but we hardly carry the same weight. I really don’t know what the future will bring.

Anyway, regarding Sir Alastair’s criticisms: at first I found the most aggravating thing about the whole article to be his almost exclusive focus on the women (with only that one comment about Nilas). But then I thought, it’s interesting that he’s so concerned about them. He seems really upset that there are no authoritative, attention-commanding  ballerinas these days, unlike, if you read between the lines, the ballerinas of the past — like Merrill Ashley, Suzanne Farrell, Kay Mazzo, and Allegra Kent. Macaulay has been in the dance world a lot longer than I have, and maybe I just seem to have come to dance at a time when it was already becoming so man-centric, but I don’t even think of the ballerinas; I go to the ballet to see the men. I haven’t ever seen any of those aforementioned ballerinas dance live, and I’ve only seen Farrell on poorly-made videos, so I really don’t know what he’s comparing the current crop of ballerinas to. I don’t know just how captivating and enrapturing those prior ballerinas were. And maybe that’s a valid problem. That men are so out-performing the women these days that he wants to get the women off their butts and working harder.

With the exception of Ashley Bouder, whom we didn’t see much of this season (I am told she’s recovering from an injury), there really are no ballerinas who grab you by the throat and force you to look at them. (I’m being hyperbolical of course and I definitely don’t mean this in a bad way). But then, in New York City Ballet (as opposed to American Ballet Theater), there really aren’t many men who do that either — the exception being Robert Fairchild, who I think is the best male dancer overall in NYCB right now. People see him as cute, boyishly charming Romeo, but he is so much more than that. He really brought new light to Elo’s Slice to Sharp and to Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements this season. You can’t take your eyes off him because he brings his own unique interpretation to everything, he does everything so full out, and he dances with such passion and clarity of intent, and such incredible sharpness and precision. I saw him in something of Luca Veggetti’s at the Miller Theater and I don’t even remember him moving that much and every time he did, he was just so brilliant.

Anyway, back to the ballerina “problem.” I mean, I think there are some very good female dancers in the company: Sara Mearns is so passionate and so gorgeously expressive, Maria Kowroski, as I mentioned above, I’m finding more and more compelling, Georgina Pazcoguin is an excellent dramatist, Kathryn Morgan makes beautiful lines and has a Suzanne Farrell-like innocense as well as that undefinable something that draws your eye to her as well (though unfortunately Martins hasn’t given her many lead roles since Juliet), Janie Taylor just has this bewitching presense, almost like she casts a spell on you, and she brings a certain darkness to her roles that you can relate to (which I think Macaulay mentioned as well). I think Abi Stafford has excellent form and makes beautiful lines as well, though I agree with Macaulay that she needs more of a commanding presence. I oftentimes find myself wondering, “who is that great dancer, she’s really good,” and I look in the program notes and find that it’s Abi; whereas with other ballerinas you know the second they step onstage. And I like how Macaulay acknowledges that his lack of appreciation for Wendy Whelan is his own idiosyncracy. And the metaphor he uses to describe her — that she’s like a soprano hitting every note sharp, is obviously hyperbolical, but it is kind of apt. But that’s what makes Wendy Wendy; that’s why she has so many fans, and that’s why she stands out. Her seemingly vertebra-less body and the incredible, almost mind-boggling shapes she can make with it, the way she goes from one angular, highly expressive contemporary pose to another, equally sharp and angular and expressive, is what makes her Wendy Whelan.

I didn’t see Darci Kistler dance in her prime, or before her injury, which Macaulay says marked a changing point for her. But I think she is a fine dancer; I think she partners well with Jared Angle, and I think she’s perfect for the more mature, wise and knowing roles like the one she’s cast in in Davidsbundlertanze. And I think Nilas Martins is always animated and in character, and can still move well, even if he does have a different body type than many of the others. Isn’t that what makes dance interesting anyway — a variety of body types? Why should everyone look the same? That’s one thing I really loved about the dance company, Evidence. There were these amazing, gorgeously large women — large, compared to other dance companies — and they could really move!

And the men each seem to have their thing as well: Tyler Angle is the quintessential Romantic hero, Sebastien the ideal romantic lead, romantic with a small “r” — to Janie or whoever he’s partnering, Andrew is the somewhat sinister kind of Iago-type who excels in the bravura sequences, Joaquin and Daniel Ulbricht the dazzling high jumpers and swift-footed spinners, Charles Askegard the pashmina man :), Amar Ramasar the flashy, charismatic dramatist, Robert Fairchild can do anything, Gonzalo Garcia, and Benjamin Millepied are cast in a variety of roles.

Macaulay says that Balanchine would often cast against type, and wonders how the company would look if Martins did the same. I think it’s an interesting idea: I’d love to see Tyler cast as an Iago-type. In fact, I’d love to see him as Iago in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, though I don’t know if the company would ever do that ballet. I think he would bring a certain sympathy to the character. I know he danced Tybalt in Martins’s Romeo and Juliet, and I wasn’t in love with him in that role, but that was two years ago and he’s young and has artistically matured a great deal since then. What would casting against type be for the women?: I guess casting Ashley in Balanchine’s Swan Lake? Martins kind of did that by putting Wendy Whelan in that role.

(By the way, I haven’t written about their Swan Lake program yet, but will shortly — I have a lot to say about it.)

Macaulay also says the ballerinas are generally little girlish emanating a syrupy innocense, rather than a mature womanliness (my paraphrasing). I have to say, I kind of agree with him, but that may be because most of the female dancers are so young. It’s definitely a different company in this regard from ABT.

I don’t know. This post is ridiculously long, and I still left out a lot of dancers. I apologize for anyone who didn’t see the NYCB season and has no idea what all and who all I’m talking about. Anyone have any other thoughts?

11 Comments

  1. Hi Tonya,

    First of all, I totally agree with your point about his review being all about the women. What about all those great men?

    In terms of Alastair's role as critic…I think it's definitely important to be critical and honest and make public constructive observations that may help the artists and company, but it seems as though he is the sole all-powerful opinion. As you said, yes there are other writers and us bloggers, but who knows right now how the future will pan out in terms of influential sources? I certainly don't think he has such an impact on the powers that be at City Ballet, but his “voice” is louder than most of ours put together.

    I think it's more the tone of his personal stabs that get to me. As James Wolcott commented on my blog, “he isn't content to dress them down in print just once but keeps coming back at them, over and over, as if to demoralize them and drive them from the stage.” Those of us who do read him know his dislikes (Wendy, Abi) and favorites (David Hallberg…though wrong company). Might it be more helpful (though understandably page-consuming) to explain more positive attributes artists can learn from rather than putting down Darci “because her current style is one no younger dancer should imitate”?

    The other thing is this comparison to the older great ballerinas. As you mentioned, many of today's dance audiences (and obviously more and more as time goes on) have never seen the company in what many feel were its golden years. And we never will. So instead of doting on how great things used to be, can't we focus on how things can improve for the future? I've had teachers who've felt that way too. Suzanne Farrell was beautiful and fabulous, but she was Suzanne Farrell and there won't be another one. Why should today's dancers try to fill her shoes instead of their own?

  2. Hi Tonya,

    First of all, I totally agree with your point about his review being all about the women. What about all those great men?

    In terms of Alastair's role as critic…I think it's definitely important to be critical and honest and make public constructive observations that may help the artists and company, but it seems as though he is the sole all-powerful opinion. As you said, yes there are other writers and us bloggers, but who knows right now how the future will pan out in terms of influential sources? I certainly don't think he has such an impact on the powers that be at City Ballet, but his “voice” is louder than most of ours put together.

    I think it's more the tone of his personal stabs that get to me. As James Wolcott commented on my blog, “he isn't content to dress them down in print just once but keeps coming back at them, over and over, as if to demoralize them and drive them from the stage.” Those of us who do read him know his dislikes (Wendy, Abi) and favorites (David Hallberg…though wrong company). Might it be more helpful (though understandably page-consuming) to explain more positive attributes artists can learn from rather than putting down Darci “because her current style is one no younger dancer should imitate”?

    The other thing is this comparison to the older great ballerinas. As you mentioned, many of today's dance audiences (and obviously more and more as time goes on) have never seen the company in what many feel were its golden years. And we never will. So instead of doting on how great things used to be, can't we focus on how things can improve for the future? I've had teachers who've felt that way too. Suzanne Farrell was beautiful and fabulous, but she was Suzanne Farrell and there won't be another one. Why should today's dancers try to fill her shoes instead of their own?

    (ps- tried to post this comment twice but didn't seem to go through…trying one more time..)

  3. I think that I am thankful to have found this blog…I truly value the view you provide into the rather inaccessible dance world. I also follow the NY Times dance section (and laughed to myself at some of Macauley's comments) and wish there was more like it. I am a true balletomane, having danced semi-seriously all through high school, then having given it up semi-dramatically to pursue academics in college. Of course nothing can kill the love of dance, and in lieu of being able to go the ballet regularly and following the careers of these great dancers personally, I get to read excellent reviews from you (and other bloggers). Thank you!

  4. I think a lot of Macaulay's assessments of NYCB's women are accurate, but I agree with you that it's aggravating to see no mention of NYCB's men. That was the first thing that struck me about the article. Shouldn't an overview of the season give equal weight to the company's men and women? I'll be posting more about this tonight.

  5. I don't think I saw Macaulay's article as being as relentlessly negative as you did, Tonya. It seems to me that some of the women you single out are ones he also likes a great deal. For example had nothing but good things to say about Sara Mearns (who I have to say is my favorite of the NYCB dancers I've seen) and is also extremely positive about Janie Taylor in addition to Teresa Reichlen, Tiler Peck. And his comments on several of the other ballerinas were, I thought, a not-necessarily-inaccurate mix of positive and negative.

    But with that said, I do agree that he can be relentless when it comes to the dancers he dislikes and, even though I agree with him in some cases, returning to that well over and over again becomes tedious and can seem mean-spirited regardless of how he intends it.

    And I definitely agree that it would have been nice to see more mention of the men, particularly since he seems to like them quite a bit. If he's going to say something like, “I cannot here do justice to the gifted male dancers — from principals down to the apprentice Chase Finlay — whose zeal illumined many works,” it would be nice to see him taking some of the space he spent telling us the same things he's told us previously about, say, Whelan and Kistler, to single out the particular qualities of those dancers he enjoyed. As it is it feels like it's just a throwaway line. I'm not expecting equal weight, really, but something more than that. I mean, what, you can't do justice to them in the space allotted for the season recap so you're not even going to try?

  6. SwanLakeSambaGirl

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  7. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    sa

  8. At the end of your blog you mentioned that it was incredibly long, but as someone who lives in Arizona and cannot regularly see NYCB in person, I whole heartedly appreciate your attention to detail!

    As a reporter and former dancer myself, it concerns me that Alastair is very nearly the lone voice of dance criticism. There is always a danger when one voice monopolizes public's viewpoint. As a regular follower of the NY Times dance section, I have also noticed that City ballet receives more coverage than any other dance company. I love this because NYCB is my favorite company, but what about ABT?? I know they're on tour right now, but he wrote a review of Boston Ballet…why didn't he do the same for ABT?

    Just a few thoughts, but great job Tonya, I love reading your blog!

  9. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks you guys for the great comments! Thank you Katie and Kwiggs!

    Meg, I re-read the article and I think I was more responding to his criticism that, even though he thought some of the female dancers did good work this season, he seemed to be saying that there was still an air of adolescence and triviality that hung over them; none of them were authoritative or commanding enough to be proper ballerinas, unlike the ballerinas of yore. Btw, I'd left out Patricia McBride in my post — I knew there was one I left out. And I've heard similar criticisms about the women's girlish smiles before from other writers — (like Joan Acocella for one, and I think Apollinaire Scherr made a similar comment), so that may have been why that remark of his stuck more in my brain as I was reading. He didn't wholly dislike everything.

    It is weird that he didn't include the men, right?! I'm thinking he ran out of space and had to choose whether to home in on the ballerinas or just write a little about everyone. That's one feature of newspapers I won't miss — the word limitations! Although pro bloggers keep saying you should keep your posts to 900 words or under to attract as many readers as, so I wouldn't be surprised if the word limitations continue on the web…

    That's interesting, Kwiggs, about the lack of coverage of ABT on tour. I didn't think of it, but yes, the NYTimes critics often travel to cover another dance company, and Macaulay just wrote about Boston Ballet. People have argued in the past that he seems to favor NYCB over ABT.

    It is really bothersome that there's only one basic newspaper regularly covering dance, isn't it? I just don't know what the answer is.

    Anyway, I'll be interested to read your thoughts, Evan. And, there's an interesting comment by James Wolcott on Taylor's blog about Macaulay's possible reasons for his arguments, esp regarding Darci: http://turnedin.blogspot.com/2009/03/bite-into-

    Yeah, I agree, Taylor, that the focus should be on the future and how to improve things rather than on the ballerinas of the past. If he somehow used those past greats to show how today's dancers should improve, then that would make sense. That's why I was intrigued by his pointing out how Balanchine used to cast dancers against type, which Martins doesn't seem to do as much. It probably makes the dancer work harder, takes them out of their comfort zone, and gives them a real challenge. It's probably very edifying. He didn't completely follow through with that observation, probably again because of word count…

  10. Tonya, I hadn't really thought of it in the context of Joan Acocella and Apollinaire Scherr's criticisms but I agree; Macaulay's comments about lack of authority and girlishness do stand out more when I think about them in relation to those complaints. And the overall impression does wind up being more negative than when I read his wrap-up without those on my mind.

    I'm kind of glad that he doesn't cover ABT on tour. I like when he covers companies like Boston, etc. that don't have regular New York seasons, but since ABT spends weeks in New York every year and the Times covers pretty much all their programs then, it's nice to see coverage of other things.

    I mean, what has ABT been performing on tour? Giselle, which Macaulay wrote about last spring and will, I imagine, write about this spring as well. Swan Lake, which he writes about every year. A mixed program of ballets we either saw in the fall or will see in the spring . . . ABT doesn't really perform ballets on tour that they don't also dance in New York where they get New York Times coverage, do they? It seems to me that there's so little dance coverage as it is that it's nice when they spread it around a bit. Not least because I'm not sure I need yet another article about the problems with their Swan Lake. I feel like that's another well I don't need him to return to.

    As far as favoring one company over the other goes, I always get the impression that he likes ABT's fall season and dislikes their spring one. Now that I'm thinking more about it though, it seems like his coverage of ABT is, with a few exceptions, complimentary of the dancers and critical of the dances, while for NYCB it frequently seems to be the reverse. Funny that.

    The length question is an interesting one. The article we're talking about is a lot more than 900 words and seems constrained by space. At first I thought, “but 900 words is so SHORT.” But when I think about the blogs I read, most (though not all) of them do have shorter posts. And yet they usually seem to include everything they need to include. I guess ideally you'd wind up with a mix of short and long as needed, with the length depending on both the subject and the writer.

  11. I do agree that he can be relentless when it comes to the dancers he dislikes and, even though I agree with him in some cases, returning to that well over and over again becomes tedious and can seem mean-spirited regardless of how he intends it.

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