Real, Fake or Just Unfamiliar?

By Leigh Witchel

For the dance centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, the organizers offered “Jewels” with a new facet – each of the three ballets danced by a different company: Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet. If you’re going to bring these coals to Newcastle, the hometown team doesn’t have every advantage. We are the custodians of the Balanchine tradition and repertory, but “Emeralds” was conceived of as an homage to French ballet and “Diamonds” an homage to Russian. And on the second night of the run, while POB stuck with “Emeralds,” NYCB and the Bolshoi swapped, with the Bolshoi doing “Rubies” and NYCB closing with “Diamonds.” How would that look?

Each company used their own costumes (Elena Zaitseva designed the Bolshoi’s and Christian Lacroix POB’s, all riffs on the Karinska originals) and danced in the redesigned NYCB sets by Peter Harvey. The NYCB orchestra played, conducted by Andrew Litton.

It takes time to get used to how the French dance “Emeralds.” The opening movement made you notice what the French don’t do in a ballet made with them in mind. They don’t go out of control, ever. Everything stayed on balance and the corps was – as it always is – exquisitely mannered and impeccably bred. The opening leads, Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand, seemed cool; Gilbert only hinted at abandon as she wove through the corps and quickly bent in controlled rapture.

But then in her variation Gilbert turned up the flame, and the solo fit her like a glove. Inspecting and modeling her wrists with a serene smile, she pushed harder without losing her technique. Everything sped up, the footwork, the turns and her back bends really bent – way past 90º.

Her counterpart ballerina was one of the newest étoiles, Léonore Baulac. Half-French, half-Norwegian, she is blond and patrician. Her legs are strong and articulate, but the Sicilienne was rightly all about the upper body. As she drifted and curtsied, you could see in her low-backed tutu the muscles under her shoulder blades as she engaged them.

Who notices the walk-ins to Balanchine ballets? NYCB doesn’t treat them as choreography, and when other companies do, the results can be surprising. (Or sometimes awful). If the British and Russians would naturally act, the French fixate on the port de bras, so walking out and linking arms became an elaborate game: enter, link arms, switch hands, bring everything up and over. The man, Marc Moreau, had a demi-caractère brilliance, sharply attacking his solo and in the coda of the full ballet, bringing his legs explosively out to a clear, wide position before slicing in.

Baulac and Germain Louvet didn’t have a strong grip on the walking pas de deux. Louvet walked stiffly from trying too hard to walk, and the two felt stuck in the mechanical port de bras as if they literally tried to be mechanical dolls. But Gilbert and Marchand nailed their duet; like Gilbert’s solo, it became an argument for a Parisian way to approach Balanchine, the right balance for them of his attack and their exquisite, native form.

In the Final, Marchand did his little variationette with beautiful schooling and clean turns. And as the elegy began, he knew exactly the angle to tilt his head in order to look soulful and show off his cheekbones. The final pose of the ballet – as appended in 1976 – is the three men going to the knee and bringing their arms into a pose. Usually, the palm of the front hand faces upwards so that the pose is also an action – a scooping motion, but also a salute to whatever an uncertain future may bring. The Parisians did it palm down – it was a pose. That is how POB deals with emotion: they show it rather than live it, but for them showing is living.

Yulia Grebenshchikova in “Rubies.” Photo © Damir Yusupov.

The Bolshoi danced “Rubies” how you’d guess Russians would dance a ballet inspired by the American Jazz Age, even if choreographed and composed by Russians. It was a foreign country and they might as well have worn cameras and held maps, like tourists staring at buildings.

Despite a few leg whacks and some episodes of happy feet, the lead ballerina, Ekaterina Krysanova, gave a largely unaffected performance. The soloist ballerina, Yulia Grebenshchikova, was one of those dancers without any ligaments that some people think look awesome in Balanchine. They don’t. They look weird when they throw themselves into overstretched non-positions, and it doesn’t help if you think you should applaud them when they finally land a double pirouette.

The man, Artem Ovcharenko, played to us even as he was dancing with Krysanova. He rose up on his toes with his back arched like a matador from “Don Quixote” and threw himself off-balance on every kick as if he didn’t trust the steps.

Still, the company was trying. Everyone danced full out and Ovcharenko pulled out the stops in the final movement, sailing in from the wings. But largely, the Bolshoi approach justified Balanchine’s dictum, “Don’t think, dear. Just do.” The four men at the end of the first movement stalked off as if they didn’t make the cut for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. There was an awful lot of acting, and the Bolshoi acted as if “Rubies” was the sum of its mannerisms.

Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns in “Diamonds.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

There had to be pressure on NYCB and Sara Mearns to deliver, particularly in “Diamonds” with the success the prior evening of Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin in the leads. And seeing the companies in a troika, you could see the bugs we insist are features.

In the opening waltz the women each seemed to pick their épaulement from a dartboard, with heads and necks at every angle, and demeanors ranging from broad grins to sullen. You can gabble on about how that’s what Balanchine wanted until you’re blue in the face. Look at the three companies side by side and only one corps looked like it threw the ballet together with no rehearsal. There’s a difference between prioritizing energy over cleanliness and not paying attention.

But then Mearns came out with Tyler Angle and blew the whole damn thing away.

“Diamonds” is a signature role for her; she’s killed it before and this was equal or better. If Mearns emoted as much as any Russian in “Rubies,” this is a huge ballerina role, and the emoting came from the dancing rather than dropped on top of it.

Mearns took the opening walks of the pas de deux spaciously, taking her time with the gracious gestures, until she came to the plucked note where she stood on pointe with Angle. It seemed an eternity where everyone held their breath. She took a long extension; she knows how to plant those moments as if she were the axis of the earth. The duet moved from extension to extension; Mearns strung them together as if they were a single phrase.

There was a period in the middle of the duet where her shoulders crept up, but the seams and even the hairline cracks are what made the whole thing real. Mearns must plan before she goes out onstage, but what happens, happens in real time, and it could be anything. By the long, drifting diagonal until the strings shivered to a close, what we saw was so momentous it felt like life or death.

Throughout it all, Angle kept to the background and made everything possible. His solos contrasted meticulously with her wooliness. She came out for her solo in the Scherzo and brought all her crazy with her. She wiped her tiara with her hand as she leaned back and slowly, slowly pitched forward to come off balance. So much drama – with a beginning, a middle and no end. If this had been “Agon,” you would have bled from the eyeballs, but here, it was all that.

By the return of the company for the finale, everyone had gotten their act together. Balanchine’s inflation of the ballet is so carefully timed that by the final, thrilling theme, the order and mass of the unison corps in wave after wave of dazzling white nobility seemed to have spilled off the boundaries of the stage and were everywhere.

But isn’t that why we go to the ballet?

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“Jewels” – Paris Opera Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet, New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
July 21, 2017

Cover: Paris Opera Ballet in “Emeralds.” Photo © Stephanie Berger

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