The Stravinsky Spectrum

by Leigh Witchel

Once upon a time, Stravinsky was the house composer for New York City Ballet. He’s not around to make anything new, but NYCB is still able to put together a program featuring a Stravinsky ballet from each of its main choreographers, and one that gives an illuminating picture of the company’s relationship with Igor over time.

The earliest of the works – and the most reactionary – was Jerome Robbins’ “The Cage.” Robbins was early on in his career at NYCB and calibrating his aesthetic. He produced a short, disturbing and notorious (The Netherlands attempted to ban its performance) narrative work, but one that told the story through dance. Robbins tackled Stravinsky by taking the modernist elements in Balanchine’s vocabulary, flexed feet, angled limbs, and gave them a reason: the women were insects, like praying mantises.

The part of The Novice had been Wendy Whelan’s for so long that some of Whelan’s intensity and weirdness have become associated with the role. Contrast this with Lauren Lovette, who has a clean, straight axis, and is more of an Audrey Hepburn waif. She forcefully pushed her back forward and rib cage out to get that insectile look as she sat huddled, or tested and pushed a flexed foot.

Jared Angle partnered her beautifully in their duet, but by the time she met him, she had already killed once. She was tougher on Angle. When she lay on top of him her motions were staccato and active: In Robbins’ castration nightmare she mated with him, not the other way around.

Sean Suozzi tore into the small role of the first intruder, slamming himself off the floor as if Lovette were really killing him. Savannah Lowery gave a regal air to a feral role, the queen of this pack of women-insects.

Watching Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” from the ’72 Stravinsky Festival, is like looking at a late Rembrandt painting. The painter’s brushstrokes broadened; intricate filigree was indicated with a stroke of gold paint rather than fine detail. It was as if he had been around long enough to feel no need to go into painstaking detail to indicate what he had painted hundreds of times before. Slamming out massive amounts of dance for the epochal festival, Balanchine’s corps work had the same direct quality: The simple steps of the corps – bouncing in place or jogging in groups of four as they framed the soloist – were choreographic shorthand.

Sterling Hyltin’s duet with Robert Fairchild was one of the most sensual in her repertory. Not because she was being sexy, rather holding herself upright and independent from him, she had passed from looking like a young girl to acting like a woman. Balanchine originally cast that duet so the man dominated the woman. That wasn’t the balance with Fairchild and Hyltin: Like Lovette, she was in charge, even at the end as he clasped her. He wasn’t like a coat wrapped round her, he clung to her and she held him steady. Fairchild’s easy softshoe style has become even more confident after his Broadway stint; he heard the jazz in the concerto as much as he heard it in Gershwin. Hyltin’s timing was less syncopated, but she and Fairchild have a special connection onstage.

Maria Kowroski looked winded in her duet with Amar Ramasar, but came back to full power in the finale. Ramasar seemed to love the finale, breaking out into a broad grin as he tiptoed with arms crossed. He and Fairchild shot one another conspiratorial glances but at times it edged close to Ramasar looking as if he thought the Slavic folk steps were foolish. There’s a fine line between having fun with – and making fun of – the steps.

“Eight Easy Pieces” isn’t – it’s hard as hell. A female trio from 1980, it’s early Martins. The women’s solos are eccentric with turns ending in tendu back or another position that make stopping tricky. You could see the young women thrown momentarily at a few treacherous finishes. More than that, you could see the beginnings of how Martins approached the conundrum of finding his voice in the shadow of a master, trying to see if originality could be achieved by adding to what you copied.

Taylor Stanley, Anthony Huxley and Brittany Pollack in “Scherzo Fantastique.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

You could see the influence on Martins of a work such as “Violin Concerto” (where he originated Fairchild’s part) in assimilating Balanchine’s State Theater style and learning his own craft. Alexa Maxwell’s solo, where she crossed the stage in prancing emboîtés, aped Balanchine’s “Rubies” and his view of young women as fillies. Rachel Hutsell went over to the piano to listen briefly, a moment cribbed from “Duo Concertant.”

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet” is another early ballet. Made in ’99, there’s a nod to Ashton in the ballet’s glamour, but the wristy, Balanchine style and the cheeky set by Ian Falconer, with portraits of ancestral ballerinas and windows giving out to onion domes, hinted at a link between the elite training at the Maryinsky Theater and the School of American Ballet. Save your program and look at it in five or ten years to see whose names you recognize. At the premiere, Faye Arthurs and Craig Hall danced the lead duet, and if memory serves, Ashley Bouder was one of the senior girls.

Wheeldon has since moved into a more contemporary idiom, and you saw that in how some of the kids danced. Noah Strand, with fiery hair, danced as if he were aflame, with his torso slightly pitched forward and linking all of the steps as if he were at a full-tilt run. That’s a more contemporary stance – or maybe it’s become classical.

This entire crop of kids did a pro job. The cast was led by Gabriella Domini and Davide Riccardo, who both looked ready to move from student to professional. Riccardo was polished and partnered smoothly; Domini was elegant, yet with angular wrists that – at least for this generation – indicate Balanchine. As is the custom, they came in front of the curtain for their bow. Imagine how amazing that must feel when you’re 18 years old.

Justin Peck’s “Scherzo Fantastique” made its bow last year in Saratoga. It’s very JPeck-style: and his model has never been Balanchine. The density of his work seems to be learned from the man he works under, Martins. Peck seemed to be coming out of a period where he was grinding out copies of his work, but the similarities to other recent works make it seem possible that he’s slipping back into his active and enthusiastic tropes.

There were good roles for the small corps and Peck gave Miriam Miller, Indiana Woodward and Daniel Applebaum a chance to stand out. In the leads, Taylor Stanley and Brittany Pollack raced about and looked up beatifically at nothing in particular – kind of like Nathalia Arja and Renato Penteado did in “Heatscape.” Oh wait, that was Miami’s ballet.

Other moments were less typical. Stanley gave Pollack his hand, when he received hers, he laid his cheek on it in worship. Anthony Huxley broke them apart with a repelling force that seemed like a kind of reverse magnetism. Mostly Peck used Huxley to his stereotype: the quicksilver soloist, but this time with a brightly colored fringe plastered across his chest, like an exotic dancer.

The décor was very pop, with saturated colors and a Disney-like outsized garden in the back – but the ballet itself was too Disney – and trading on conventions Peck’s built for himself. More than anything, Peck needs bite. [Author’s note 1/27/17 – I was wrong about a trend. Peck’s newest work for NYCB, “The Times are Racing” premiered last night. While dense as his other works, it was anything but a retread, and it had bite. Report to follow.]

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Scènes de Ballet,” “The Cage,” “Eight Easy Pieces,” “Scherzo Fantastique,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
January 24, 2017

Cover: Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s winter season runs through February 26.  The Stravinsky x Five program runs through February 5.

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