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Sunday at the Ballet with George

The elegant woman seated next to me at the Sunday matinee was excited to see Sara Mearns in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” This was high praise, as she had fond memories of Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell in the piece—the ballet’s original 1968 cast. The New York City Ballet’s 75th anniversary season has included several dancer celebrations, but I’d like to take a moment to toast the audience, which, on any given Sunday, is full of avid and incredibly knowledgeable Balanchine fans. I often discover that a random seatmate or a stranger behind me on the concessions line is drawing on half a century of ardent viewership. Frequently, ballet legends like Eddie Vilella and Kay Mazzo are in attendance. At that same show, I sat behind the dance historian Alastair Macaulay. I’d also brought my mother along, who would never claim to be an expert though she has watched literally hundreds of shows over the years while supporting me. There are no pennants or Patty McBride bobbleheads for these balletomanes, they come for the love of the players or the game. Maybe because I’ve logged time on both sides of the curtain now, I feel compelled to fête their allegiance to the company too. Without them, there would be no 75th anything. Like that old tree-falling-in-the-woods conundrum, does a ballet exist without spectators? It would just be fancy exercise.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Bourée Fantasque,” “Agon,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 1, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Gilbert Bolden III and Emilie Gerrity in George Balanchine’s “Bourrée Fantasque.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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The ballet cognoscenti were likely out in force the second Sunday of the season because of a rare revival: “Bourrée Fantasque,” which premiered in 1949, the second year of the troupe’s existence. It is seldom danced and hadn’t been performed by the company in 29 years. Even the aficionado next to me had never seen it. (Afterwards she declared that it reminded her of “Rubies.” I could see that: so many flat-footed second positions.) I had seen “Bourrée” live once before, 7 years ago, when the Miami City Ballet brought it to the Koch Theater on tour. All I remembered was a hodgepodge of tulle and the impossibly sharp legs of the Miamians. (They are one of the most dynamic Balanchine troupes.) On this Sunday too, “Bourrée” was a jumble of looks and choreographic ideas. It isn’t hard to see why it takes such long naps in the vault. Yet surprisingly, once again the dancers’ legs were uniformly fleet and slicing. There was an explanation: former NYCB soloist and ex-School of American Ballet legend Susan Pilarre staged the piece in both instances. As in 2016, I had the impression of a flawed work impeccably aired.

“Bourrée Fantasque” is not essential Balanchine, but it is essential viewing for us diehards. Among this faction, it is best-known now as an early vehicle for Tanaquil LeClerq and Jerome Robbins, mostly because of a series of striking photographs by George Platt Lynes. “Bourrée” has become, like the odd revival of “Symphonie Concertante” or “Gounod Symphony,” a living record of Balanchine’s hit-or-miss process—a rough draft that contains the kernels of many more successful dances. It shares DNA with “Danses Concertantes,” “La Valse,” “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,” and “Theme and Variations,” among others. It was very much a template for “Western Symphony”: whole sequences of low arabesque and coupé chugs as well as bent over, dragging ronds de jambe were lifted from “Bourrée” for the “Western” finale just five years later. (It was neat to see these two works run in the same week.) 

Mira Nadon and KJ Takahashi in George Balanchine's “Bourée Fantasque.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Although “Bourrée” is flagrantly silly—the opening bars of Emmanuel Chabrier’s music give that away: all bombastic drums and circus brasses—it doesn’t hit its comedic marks as well as “Western.” Balanchine established his spoofing tone well, but he never settled on a theme. Flashy costumes in French and Spanish styles clash; there are short and stiff tutus as well as long and flowing ones, in shades of lilac, mustard, and magenta. There are fans and berets, fingerless lace gloves and corsetry. It’s as if Balanchine couldn’t decide if he wanted to send up the Moulin Rouge or Don Quixote. And unlike in many of his episodic works, Balanchine threw these disparate factions together in a blender at the end. It’s a finale to end all finales: crossing wedges of sauts de chat, massive concentric circles of sautés, and quicksilver unison steps. This over-the-top ending is Balanchine’s funniest joke, and conductor Andrew Litton kept the pace quick enough to sell the choreographic excess as humorous rather than overwrought.

Top-notch performances helped sell “Bourrée” too. Mira Nadon was having fun with KJ Takahashi in the opening section, blithely bopping his head with her toe. They handled all their goofy back-to-the-audience partnering well. Alexa Maxwell raced through the Fête Polonaise like a thoroughbred doing hurdles, suavely hoisted along by David Gabriel. Emilie Gerrity looked strong in the long-tutu Prélude section opposite Gilbert Bolden III, who continues to shine in taxing double and triple bills. He was a romantic in a beret in “Bourrée” and a cold-hearted gangster in a fedora later in the show in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Last week I saw his convincing turns as a cowboy, a shadow figure, and a cadet all in one night. He’s on track to win MVP of the Fall Season. 

The entire corps looked sharp, flicking their fans open with panache and clearly executing the kaleidoscopic configurations. I loved the extreme port de bras of the Prélude corps women. Their slow, excessive bending showed Balanchine working in a Mannerist vein, which was fascinating. If they had been less emphatic about it, the steps would have appeared conventionally classical. But “Bourrée” offers a glimpse of Balanchine the experimentalist, playfully pushing classical buttons, and Pilarre’s staging had the tenacity to follow through with that intention instead of standardizing and prettifying it. She, the dancers, and the orchestra managed to give this second-rate ballet a first-rate showing. 

Miriam Miller and Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s “Agon.” Photograph by Erin
Baiano

The program’s middle ballet, “Agon,” was the opposite. It is one of Balanchine’s finest works, but that Sunday wasn’t its finest outing. There wasn’t anything terribly wrong with it, but the newish cast hadn’t yet gelled. Particularly, Miriam Miller and Peter Walker needed more cohesion in the central pas de deux. Miller has danced the role before, but Walker debuted earlier in the week. Aesthetically, they are well-matched, so I hope they can iron things out. They also fought against a glacial tempo, which surely didn’t help. But unlike “Bourrée,” “Agon” is a masterpiece even on a slightly off day. And shockingly, when Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara and Ashley Hod turned their knees in and out over forced arches in the Coda to the First Pas de Trois, it echoed the “Bourrée” corps. It was amazing to see a snippet from a froufrou lark repurposed in steely, cerebral architecture.  

“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” from Balanchine’s Broadway years (an excerpt from his 1936 musical “On Your Toes,” adapted as a standalone for the troupe in 1968), featured a cast whose intentions aligned swimmingly. At 87 years-old, this farce predates the current anniversary hoopla. Yet somehow, last Sunday’s cast made it feel very much alive and of the present. (It too communed with “Bourrée,” in all the massive, layout dips.) “Slaughter” allows for great interpretive leeway. It is a murder ballet within a murder ballet, like a tap-dancing “Hamlet” parody. Dancers can foreground the ballet within and seriously invest in the story arc of the hooker and the hoofer in love, or they can pull the focus out and center their storytelling around the Broadway babies putting on the show. 

Andrew Veyette, as the Hoofer, pulled the lens way out in a hysterical, exceedingly world-weary performance. Not since Damian Woetzel have I seen such a meta approach. But even Woetzel seemed invested in the leading-man aspect of the role; you got the sense that he didn’t care at all which girl he was kissing, but he cared deeply about crafting the perfect tap solo. Veyette went a step further: he seemed like he’d have happily handed the tapping over to Morrosine, the jealous dancer literally gunning for the role. Luckily, Harrison Coll’s fabulous take on Morrosine complemented Veyette’s jaded approach. Coll played Morrosine as a delusional hack, all Russian pomp and antiquated habits. His dancing was truly, hilariously terrible. Veyette’s Hoofer couldn’t have given him the role, he’d never have pulled it off. 

Sara Mearns in George Balanchine's “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Sara Mearns also went macro instead of micro as the Striptease Girl. She was detachedly amused, laughing at her drooling male audience instead of earnestly trying to seduce them. She was riding a feeling instead of making every step perfect, though she did make sure to slow every chaîné sequence early enough to ensure that her hair wasn’t in her face for the picture call poses. This paired seamlessly with Veyette’s choices. They were two salty old showmen closing out the exhausting ballet work week with professionalism and wry humor. It was a superb ending to an excellent Sunday matinee. An immaculate history lesson, some fresh faces finding their way in a neoclassical hit, and a winking, nuanced cover of a golden oldie. Those of us in the stalls could face the Monday grind with rejuvenation. Those backstage sure earned their beers and a day off to sleep in and do laundry.            

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

comments

Faye

Many kind words lately, thank you all. And thanks Martha for sharing your memories and this great story, and for proving my point about the wisdom of the City Ballet audience!

Martha Ullman West

An interesting review and I would like to point out that Bourree Fantasque was also made by Balanchine as a vehicle for Janet Reed, who joined City Ballet at his invitation the same year as Jerome Robbins. When Balanchine took Reed and her husband out to dinner at the 21 Club to ask her to transfer from Ballet Theatre to City Ballet, she responded that she would love to but she wasn’t a Balanchine dancer. “We make something for you,” he said, and the Polonaise, which she led, was that “something.” She was also first cast in Western Symphony, and acquitted herself well in Symphony in C (I remember her in that), Concerto Barocco, Serenade. I too wish I could have seen this performance of Bourree.

Jeanne Doornbos

Always, always enjoy Faye Arthurs’ reviews. Wish I could see as many performances as she does!

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