A Whiter Shade of Pale

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay in "La Sonnambula." Photo © Paul Kolnik

by Leigh Witchel

New York City Ballet is frontloading their Balanchine into the beginning of the winter season, so get your fix before next month’s long Schlep of Beauties. Opening night featured a triple bill of classic one-act narratives, and a big debut: Chase Finlay as The Poet in “La Sonnambula.”

Covering the rest of the program before we dig into that, “Firebird” got an iffy performance: Teresa Reichlen’s bird was loose-lined, going ropy with her chest thrown out and shoulders pinched back, not always as a character choice. Prince Ivan can be a bland, utilitarian role, but Justin Peck mustered no more than the acceptable minimum, which was to hit his marks and act surprised or frightened at the appropriate music. Others have done more with the part. For an example of how, you only had to look at Savannah Lowery next to him. The Princess is an even smaller, less defined role, but Lowery turned it into a ballerina part by the lushness of a balance or extension, the way she held the music before releasing into a pose, or merely her imagination. More than others before her, she depicted the terror of the unseen monsters by the look on her face as she warned the prince.

Maria Kowroski and Joaquin de Luz in “Prodigal Son.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

Joaquin De Luz and Maria Kowroski kept “Prodigal Son” in reliable shape. Kowroski’s Siren was a base predator: De Luz took his hands off her waist as they danced and she yanked them back, then pawed him like a cougar. He was desperate for her. He bent with his face at her chest, revolving her round, and her hand rose above him like the flaring of a cobra’s hood.

For what was a major debut, it was surprising how you barely noticed Finlay’s entrance. Part of it was blocked that way; The Poet stays far to the back with action swirling in front of him. But it was also Finlay: with his blond hair, ivory skin and costume of cream and gold, he was almost a Whistler study or if you’re more cynical – a parody of whiteness.

The role was more of a stretch for him than one might imagine. Pushed to the breaking point in a meteoric rise through the company, Finlay hasn’t fully found himself again after recovery from a severe injury. Stamina was still an issue on the first outing. Even more, it was that The Poet is a romantic icon and Finlay is a neoclassical dancer, more prince than poet. His beauty onstage resides as much in execution as heightened emotion: he flashed through pas de bourrées, adding a sharp flick at the end of each for emphasis. His expressive nature lives in the form itself.

He didn’t click with Sara Mearns as The Coquette, but they weren’t really meant to. As she arced and dove with her typical grandeur, he glowered and emoted, but without much force, acting at her, not yet with her. In partnering, he looked more as if he were trying to manage her.

The Sleepwalker who awakened him, Sterling Hyltin, arrived in a tangle of blond hair. The archetype for the role, Allegra Kent or later Darci Kistler, was a creature as vaporous and hard to hold as fog. The Sleepwalker is a stereotypical vision of the feminine as imagined by male artists: a mirror or doll on whom we project our inner thoughts. Hyltin took a different, less passive approach to the role. Her footwork, like Kistler’s legendary pointes, was active and rippling, but her gaze wasn’t blankly outwards, rather inwards in intense concentration. Her focus seemed to settle on the bridge of her nose, as if her restless motion were fretting, and her life and his were merely lived in different dreams. Finlay was enthralled as he contorted to try and pause her tiptoeing, throwing an impossibly hooked foot in her path, then an arm, before finally folding over backwards. Nikolaj Hübbe, a notable, decadent Poet from a dance generation back, kissed the Sleepwalker and everyone knew what he wanted next as he disappeared into the tower after her. In that way, Finlay was more Romantic – his kiss was innocent: he was fascinated with the idea of this spectral woman more than her body.

But The Coquette saw all of this. Mearns’ neck shrank in anger and her cheeks flushed with choler, setting in motion the violence that led to The Poet’s death. After Finlay’s stabbing, Hyltin entered and her foot knocked into his inert body. She paused in shock as if a prophecy had been fulfilled and her mouth opened, to quote Thom Gunn, in an astonished O.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“La Sonnambula,” “Prodigal Son,” “Firebird” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
January 17, 2017

Photo:  Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay in “La Sonnambula.”  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Got something to say about this? Sound off here