Basic Instincts

by Leigh Witchel

Sometimes pianos are forced to play the concerto themselves. Lack of coaching is a legendary complaint of ballerinas, New York City Ballet is no exception. Coaching under Peter Martins was limited, now in the interregnum, coaching would be the best way to establish loyalty and authority – but who knows who will be running this show a year from now.

The strongest dancers now at NYCB are the ones who not only have learned to do without coaching, but almost prefer it. They’ve filled the vacuum with their own instincts.

Ashley Bouder’s instincts have changed over time, particularly in roles that Balanchine reinterpreted from Petipa. She approached her debut in “Cortège Hongrois” classically, as if the Petipa steps were the painting and Balanchine was an overlay of varnish.

“Cortège” was first performed by Melissa Hayden; it was her farewell ballet. Bouder looped back to that sense of occasion and danced Full Metal Ballerina. Entering grandly, glowing in the spotlight, she tipped back in her shoulders and played to the sixth balcony. She moved spaciously, as lush and big as the music.

It wasn’t subtle; Bouder doesn’t do subtle. It was more like a road map of the Glazunov score. Small turns were each completed as the music crested. A big arabesque in her pas de deux (with Russell Janzen, pinch-hitting for Andrew Veyette) happened BAM on the big note. As she cantilevered down to penchée she chopped her arm back neatly to the position. The final pose was an exclamation point: TADA!

The punctuation continued into her variation, which began as she looked into the whites of our eyes and made a sharp, loud, CLAP. Her bourrées were like the ratatat of gunfire; she took no prisoners. In the coda, she did the final passés (the ones Arlene Croce described as “plunging”) suspended with the accent up. It all felt extremely calculated, but “Raymonda” isn’t “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” It can survive a calculated approach.

In the Hungarian leads, Sean Suozzi attacked the part hard, slammed himself percussively to the floor in slides. In a debut as the Hungarian ballerina, Unity Phelan didn’t register as strongly in a character role as she does in more contemporary Balanchine. She burst into stag leaps but her presence didn’t linger. The corps had several apprentices in it, and bless their hearts, they were green enough (literally in those costumes) that they walked as if they were wearing bunny slippers.

Both Bouder and Phelan had to deal with a similar overarching question: how to make a mark in a part that wasn’t squarely in their wheelhouses. As is her wont, Bouder attacked the problem harder. She’s also had longer to think about the issue and Cortège isn’t a bad fit.

Tiler Peck and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Apollo.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

In “Apollo,” Tiler Peck looked as if she was performing Terpsichore by instinct, but that wasn’t helping her. As in Sanguinic, it seemed as if her instinct was to attack the role externally. Her muse looked like an amalgam of Balanchinisms: the body moving like a loosely jointed doll with bent elbows and wrists and the pelvis pushed forward.

Adrian Danchig-Waring may never have had a season like this. Usually a dancer who gets used for contemporary work or new commissions, the number of benched male principals pushed him and Chase Finlay right to the center of the repertory – and dangerously close to overwork in both cases. Danchig-Waring was both lithe and masculine as Apollo, and looked best in the part when he was jumping into turning assemblées or skidding from side to side.

Ashly Isaacs drifted round on balance as Polyhymnia, bursting with the energy of the role but not landing her turns this time. In a debut, Indiana Woodward interpreted Calliope in the style of our time – bipolar – as she slumped over dejected and then sprang up with a grin. She looked at us for assurance while writing her secret note, but Danchig-Waring rejected it all the same.

For someone who had a legendary distrust of stardom, Balanchine was still an expert at fetishizing the ballerina. Sara Mearns does her her best work in big ballerina roles because they don’t force her to do the one thing she isn’t strongest at – being a Balanchine dancer.

Chase Finlay in “Mozartiana.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

“Mozartiana” is another role that can contain Mearns. Even if she overdid the moods of the ballet, she delivered a star performance. She did the Mearns version of spiritual in the Preghiera. It was subdued, for her. She dialed it back to 9.5.

She danced the opening in her back, with huge bends, which told you everything. Mearns’ specialty is balance as opposed to footwork, when she tried to give a Darci Kistler ripple to her bourrées she got slightly stuck.

Still, she made the Preghiera work. If it wasn’t contemplative or humble, it was big and heroic, and she filled the house.

If Mearns wasn’t subtle, she definitely wasn’t witty. She sent the entire set of variations to us by text message, telegraph and carrier pigeon. Before she swooped down to pointe tendue, she turned her head and looked at us to hammer the point home. When Mearns punched a joke, she gave it a black eye.

Finlay had the turns for the part but he was racing to keep up with the beats. Like Danchig-Waring, he was called to carry a huge load of the repertory this season. This is one of the hardest male roles in the repertory, and Finlay is technically proficient but he’s not bullet proof.

Still, this criticism is the Inside Baseball version. By their pas de deux, Mearns and Finlay hit their stride. She was able to work spontaneously and he was there for her. In the Gigue, Troy Schumacher gave a thoughtful reading; he saw the character as airy and foppish. The angle of his chin as he glanced out suggested he was imagining a whole court for us.

There’s no way for Balanchine’s ballets to look as they did while he was alive. That’s not poor care; that’s time and change. Even with that excuse, there will be better and worse interpretations from better and worse instincts – and better, worse or no coaching. Do any of the ballerinas at NYCB have the instinct for Balanchine anymore? Mearns certainly doesn’t – neither does Peck, good as both of them are.  Bouder’s compass is aligned more and more classically rather than neo-classically.  How much can we expect from them when that’s supposed to be in the job description of the artistic staff?

The most dangerous assumption for NYCB is that just because it was Balanchine’s company, that will be enough to get by.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“Apollo,” “Mozartiana,” “Cortège Hongrois” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
January 28, 2018

Cover: Sara Mearns in “Mozartiana.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

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