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The Walking Dance

The past week has been one of celebration at New York City Ballet. The company is marking seventy-five years of existence with a season devoted to the ballets of its founding choreographer, George Balanchine. On opening night, September 19, after the performance, the stage was filled with hundreds of company-members, past and present, among them Suzanne Farrell, Lourdes Lopez, Robert Barnett, Edward Villella, Jock Soto, Nikolaj Hubbe, Allegra Kent, and Suki Schorer. It was even more thrilling to see them greet each other warmly during the intermissions.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Jewels,” 75th Anniversary program

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, September 19, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

New York City Ballet celebrates 75 years: NYCB alumni gather onstage at the Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, after the September 19 performance of George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

It was impossible not to think of those who weren’t there, like Violette Verdy, who died in 2016 but whose spirit infuses many Balanchine ballets, including “Emeralds,” the opening work in “Jewels.” “Jewels” was the first ballet of the season, performed all week long. It is a good opener, filled with reams of gorgeous music, by Gabriel Fauré, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. And, too, it gives a glimpse of Balanchine’s range. The costumes, by Karinska, are beautiful, even if the sets, by Peter Harvey, are decidedly not. (Could we have new ones, please?) And with its large cast, “Jewels” gives opportunities to many dancers, up-and-coming, established, or previously undiscovered. 

“Emeralds,” the most perfumed of the three ballets that make up the tryptic is also the most difficult to pull off. Its diaphanous music by Gabriel Fauré, its vaporous atmosphere, and its delicate, un-showy choreography often come across as pallid or merely pretty. Well danced, it is the most mysterious and sophisticated of all three works. And it is the one New York City Ballet struggles with the most. The dancers bite into the jazzy energy of “Rubies” with gusto, and the company has several dancers who can pull off the regal pas de deux in “Diamonds”, but “Emeralds” eludes almost every cast. Its sylvan world, populated by characters of legend and folk tale—think Rapunzel and Mélisande and the knights of the Round Table all wrapped into one—can only be rendered by dancers with imagination, glamor, and that most elusive quality of all: personality.

Peter Walker and Ashley Laracey in “Emeralds” from “Jewels” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Emeralds” also introduces the walking theme that, to me, is the hidden link that holds “Jewels” together. In “Emeralds,” the walking is enchanted, dream-like, delicate, and often on the tips of the toes. In the famous “walking pas de deux” performed originally by Mimi Paul and Francisco Moncion, the woman walks next to her partner, on pointe, almost without seeing him, as if sleepwalking. (There is a clear connection with “La Sonnambula.”) The ballet ends with a slow, enigmatic passage in which the dancers walk, slowly and gravely, toward their destiny. It always leaves a lump in my throat. In “Rubies,” the walking is sped up and becomes jogging, trotting, running. And in the “Diamonds” pas de deux, it becomes a regal perambulation, the surveying of a kingdom, a measuring of the space between two humans in the universe. The polonaise and fugue that follow are also a kind of walking, a presentation and a celebration of order and complexity. 

Alas, none of the casts of “Emeralds” I saw was completely satisfactory. The problem is that the choreography requires great imagination and fluency from the dancers. The steps are not enough. In the first cast, Indiana Woodward (in Verdy’s role), brought an appealing breathlessness, but Emilie Gerrity (in Mimi Paul’s role) looked unsure of herself, or of what the role meant to her. In the second cast, Ashley Bouder, coming back from a long injury, was over- emphatic and a little tense. But Ashley Laracey brought just the right poetry and poignancy—a sense of solitude and fantasy—to the Mimi Paul role. She conjured invisible companions with her soft port de bras, and was just as eloquent when her back was to the audience as when she was facing us. The “walking” pas de deux, which she danced with Peter Walker, was like a voyage into the unknown. 

Mira Nadon and Davide Riccardo in “Emeralds” from “Jewels” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Perhaps the most striking début in “Emeralds” was that of Mira Nadon in the Verdy role, in the third cast. Nadon immediately imprinted the part with her own qualities: lushness in the upper body, boldness, stretch, and an innate sense of drama. In their pas de deux, she and Davide Riccardo (another début) emphasized the shifting dynamic between the two characters; at times she led him, at others he led her. 

“Emeralds” introduces another step, in which the woman pulls far, far away from her partner, that returns later in “Rubies.” In “Emeralds” it speaks of longing; in “Rubies” it is an expression of the woman’s boldness, strength, and freedom. There are other little resonances in “Jewels,” including an “X” shape repeated again and again in “Rubies” that returns in “Diamonds,” softened, slowed down. Balanchine hid these connections in plain sight.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia in “Rubies” from “Jewels” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

All the casts of “Rubies” were impressive. These dancers understand Stravinsky and handle the music—the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra—with confidence, as does the orchestra under the baton of Andrew Litton, and the pianist Stephen Gosling. Fairchild and Anthony Huxley were playful and frisky as the young couple who flirts and tangos and stamps its feet in the pas de deux. Tiler Peck and Roman Mejía were more sophisticated and knowing; Peck, especially, played with the music and teased the audience with shoulders and hips, and Mejía showed off his impressive jump, as well as his just as impressive smile. In her début, Emma von Enck’s fast, sharp footwork was complemented by Jovani Furlan’s witty partnering. Each of the three Amazons—the role is known as “tall girl”— was convincing in her own way, Nadon blithely powerful; Kikta more consciously sexy; Christina Clark a leggy ingenue.

Everyone loves “Diamonds,” and it’s understandable. The closing ballet of “Jewels” is wonderfully grand, full of processionals (more walking) and architectural patterns in which arms and legs move in counterpoint, bringing the entire stage to life. As Balanchine would say, it is an “applause machine.” The finale has the same spirited atmosphere as the wedding in Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty.” By that point everyone has forgotten about the opening waltz, which, in contrast, seems to go on forever, while going nowhere. 

It's treated as filler, a warmup before the dramatic pas de deux that follows. That pas de deux, too, begins with a grand diagonal, in which the man and woman walk toward each other, approaching from opposite corners of the stage. Their danced conversation, led by the adagio from Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, grows in intensity, starting and stopping, building ever more tension. It’s a role for a ballerina who can ride the wave of Tchaikovsky’s great crescendo of emotion. 

Russell Janzen and Sara Mearns in “Diamonds” from “Jewels” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Sara Mearns dances the steps with amplitude, diving deep, bending, sweeping through space with a force that makes you hold your breath. Her relationship with her partner, in this case Russell Janzen, is intense. She looks at him with love and friendship, and later, rests her head tenderly against his shoulder. (Janzen, a longtime member of the company, retired on Sept. 24. Their final performance was even more moving.) Janzen’s attitude of awe and gentleness flows through his movements, to his fingers, his modestly-held head. He embraced, led, listened. Together, they created a story, with hints of the lakeside act of “Swan Lake.” 

In her début the next day (Sept. 20), Unity Phelan was more like Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” a young woman coming into her beauty and aura. Phelan used her extreme pliancy to create wonderful curving lines with her body, and to connect the steps in a continuous, liquid stream. Even more moving was the tender, inquisitive rapport she had with her partner, the very classical, boyish Joseph Gordon. There was a kind of magic vibration between them. Isabelle LaFreniere’s début in the third cast, alongside the handsome and assured partner Chun Wai Chan, had no such chemistry. They are not well matched; La Freniere is slightly too tall for Chan. But more importantly, LaFreniere has yet to find her story; she doesn’t project a sense of who she wants to be. 

Without that, “Jewels” becomes more of a glamorous, glittering object than an invitation to dream. The secret lies in those quiet moments between the steps, or, as Violette Verdy put it, the “hope, aspiration, desire, and resignation” that lie below the surface.

Marina Harss


comments

Susan Read

I agree with you about the sets. But they are not that old. Peter Harvey, who designed the original sets (and they REALLY looked chintzy; I just think Mr. B. had no money at the time), also designed these new sets in 2004.

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