Thursday, December 29, 2005

REV: New York City Ballet

Miranda Weese, Philip Neal, Kyra Nichols

L-R: Amar Ramasar, Adam Hendrickson, Ashley Bouder, Nikolaj Hübbe,
Wendy Whelan, Philip Neal and Tom Gold

At City Ballet, Some Especially Catch the Eye
By JOHN ROCKWELL, The New York Times, December 30, 2005

IN his later years George Balanchine liked to stress choreography over those choreographed. It was the dance that was important, not the dancers. Of course, he still had his principals and his promising soloists and up-and-coming members of the corps de ballet; stardom, or at least the individuality of the dancers, could never be eradicated. Nor, deep down, did he wish it to be.

The New York City Ballet, 23 years into the post-Balanchine era, begins its winter repertory programs on Tuesday night, after the last paper snowflake from "The Nutcracker" has wafted from the flies. (Actually, strays will keep wafting for weeks, if past experience is any guide.) To herald the beginning of the real winter season, five dance critics of The New York Times have selected dancers (and in one case, a musician) whom they particularly look forward to seeing (or hearing) - not just principals, but everyone from promising young corps dancers on up.

A caveat: Balanchine's choreographic philosophy, plus the ever-present prospect of injuries, has led the City Ballet to be wary about advertising casts far in advance. Unlike American Ballet Theater (whose star-driven casting can also change at the last minute), when you decide to buy tickets for a City Ballet program, it's the program you're buying, not any particular dancer. You may know the kind of roles in which a given favorite specializes, and by now even some (always tentative) casting for early in the season. But that's it.

Ashley Bouder
Ashley Bouder is one of the most exciting dance artists to come along in recent years. Her repertory for the winter season is likely to include five classics by George Balanchine - "Symphony in C" (third movement), "Ballo della Regina," "Firebird," "Divertimento No. 15" and "Union Jack" - and the company director Peter Martins's "Octet." But "Firebird" is hers in a special way. She claimed the title role when she stepped into it on the ballet equivalent of a moment's notice in 2001 as a 17-year-old corps dancer. She was astonishing, and continues to be. She can probably dance just about any technical trick in the book, but her daring, her dazzling clarity and her musical phrasing shine through. And the Firebird is likely to be a role when the fleeting old-time glamour Ms. Bouder has been acquiring of late, reminiscent of ballerinas of the 1940's, can best be enjoyed. JENNIFER DUNNING

Tom Gold
Tom Gold is a charmer, and nowhere did he charm more than in the role of the manic, Buster Keaton-like hero running from hordes of voracious prospective brides in the second half of Susan Stroman's "Double Feature," seen last spring but not on the bill this winter. Here his acrobatic control, his humor and his ability to win sympathy in the most ridiculous of situations endeared him to all.

Mr. Gold is a demi-caractère dancer, which usually means the dancer is short (he is) and hence unsuited to danseur noble partnering of towering ballerinas on toe. His kind of dancer specializes in lively, often humorous roles that require as much acting as dancing, although the dancing can be athletically exciting as well. An example is the Jester in Balanchine's version of "Swan Lake," which opens a 12-performance run next Friday. He won't be in every cast, and other Jesters may be charming, too. But he is scheduled for the first performance, and feel lucky if he's in the one you see. Other ballets in which he's likely to appear this season include "Fancy Free" and "Fanfare."

Adam Hendrickson
As an actor-dancer, Adam Hendrickson is just about invincible: understated, enigmatic and full of eccentricity. From his jet-black eyebrows, which lend his handsome face a range of devilish expressions, to his dignified, graceful line, Mr. Hendrickson is unparalleled in City Ballet's canon of character parts, including Herr Drosselmeier in "The Nutcracker," Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Dr. Coppelius in "Coppélia" and the Jester in "Swan Lake," which he will reprise this season. He enriches each role with exacting nuance, and the effects never appear premeditated; the details are so ingrained that you see the character instead of the dancer.

In pure dancing parts, Mr. Hendrickson, with whiplash legs and a buoyant jump, provides a different kind of joy. Jerome Robbins's "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz," also part of City Ballet's winter season, provides a perfect vantage point for Mr. Hendrickson's gutsy, all-out attack, in which he takes each step to teetering limits. He's the one wearing orange, and he's as exuberant as a firecracker. GIA KOURLAS

Nikolaj Hübbe
Nikolaj Hübbe is blessed with great powers of concentration. He can command attention at any moment and attract all eyes to him. There are times when such focus almost makes him glow onstage, one reason he has been able in past seasons to offer a distinctive portrayal of the young god in Balanchine's "Apollo": he radiates nobility.

He is also a strong, caring partner who resembles a gallant protector in the pas de deux in the third movement of Balanchine's "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet." But his solo steps in that same movement are impetuous. His original training in the sprightly 19th-century Danish style has made the Danish-born Mr. Hübbe at home in quick, darting steps. And like many other Danish-trained dancers, he is capable of a great interpretative range.

Princely dignity can seem second nature to him. Yet he has also portrayed Riff, the leader of a street gang, in Robbins's "West Side Story Suite." Not only did the choreography make him look tough, but Robbins also required him to sing, which he did very well.

The versatile Mr. Hübbe is both a dancing deity and an artist whose human stage presence is a generous one.

Maria Kowroski
Tall, willowy and graceful, Maria Kowroski may be the most elegant of the current crop of City Ballet principals. She is known for her adagio passages, those statuesque showcases for grace and control. But she is lovely in her running leaps and airy turns, too. Her sweeping, sinuous arms have always seemed particularly captivating. She is as close to the ideal of the classical ballerina as anyone in the company.

She has been ill of late - nothing serious, the company says. But that means she won't be onstage for three or four weeks, so we'll miss the chance to see her Odette. But there will be other opportunities down the road, including, most likely, "Western Symphony," "Union Jack," "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" and "In the Night." ROCKWELL

Philip Neal
Look quickly when Philip Neal is dancing, and you may decide he is simply the consummate ballet partner. But though his every move is in resonant service to his ballerina, he is always quietly stylish in his own right in performing that blends today's requisite technical skills with vital individuality and freshness, whether he shares the stage or dances alone.

Mr. Neal stood out for his showmanship in the 1987 workshop performances of the City-Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet. Over the years that exuberance has settled into a refined virtuosity that is best seen in Balanchine classics like "Symphony in C," in which he is likely to dance the dreamlike adagio this season. His simplicity and lyricism may be seen to their best advantage there. And it is hard to imagine that Mr. Neal will not continue to demand the most of himself in an art that seems to replenish him.

Kyra Nichols
Kyra Nichols is 47, and she no longer dances very much. But when she does, it is worth walking through a transit strike or braving extreme temperatures to see whatever she is performing.

Ms. Nichols is one of the last of the Balanchine-era ballerinas; she joined City Ballet, straight from the School of American Ballet, in 1974 and became a principal in 1979, just four years before Balanchine's death. Her 30th anniversary with the company last year was little remarked upon; Ms. Nichols simply went on doing what she has always done, which is dance with sublime and un-self-conscious purity and grace.

Ms. Nichols is tall and beautiful, with wide, curving shoulders, long legs and a regal carriage. In the earlier part of her career, she was known for her phenomenal technique and precision, and also for the nobility and force of her dancing. As if to compensate for an inevitable loss of technique, her other gifts now seem to be magnified onstage.

Her musicality and the clarity of her phrasing - the way she shapes movement in time and space - feel so spontaneous, so true to each work, that she becomes a utopian vision of the dance as the choreographer might have dreamed it.

City Ballet hasn't announced casting yet for its winter season, and Ms. Nichols chooses her ballets carefully now. Let's watch and hope for a few more glimpses of the enchanted worlds that she offers.

Amar Ramasar
Gifted dancers tend to grow up in public. That is true of Amar Ramasar, who has taken on a surprising range of roles for a corps dancer. He is never less than fully engaged in performance, and his joy in dancing is infectious, though it sometimes takes him over the top of his assignment. Mr. Ramasar is scheduled to perform featured parts this season in ballets including Robbins's "Fancy Free," "Fanfare" and "Concertino."

Some things to look forward to are the panache with which he unfailingly leads the Spanish Dance in "Swan Lake," a role that others often shrug off, and the quiet, gutsy eloquence of his dancing as a soloist in Christopher Wheeldon's haunting "After the Rain."

He has worked hard to hone his skills. Just a year ago he told a reporter that he hoped one day to dance the Cavalier in "The Nutcracker," which then seemed a wildly optimistic goal. But there Mr. Ramasar was this month, front and center in the role, and earning critical praise for his performance. The journey ahead should be interesting.

Miranda Weese
My favorite City Ballet seasons begin and end with Miranda Weese, whose inherent elegance is allayed by a mischievous, arch wit. Equipped with a startlingly sound technique - the sort that epitomizes the expression "turn on a dime" - Ms. Weese gives performances anchored by a razor-sharp musicality and a refreshing absence of self-conscious posturing. This season, she reprises Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake" (her mystical, creature-like Odette is enthralling) and will also appear in Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante," Mr. Martins's "Fearful Symmetries" and Mr. Wheeldon's new ballet, which will have its premiere on Jan. 24. (She was breathtaking in Mr. Wheeldon's "Shambards.")

Some find her dancing remote, perhaps because Ms. Weese doesn't oversell herself. She dances on her own terms, seemingly for her own pleasure and, most important, in the moment.

The joy to understanding Ms. Weese is to watch the way her undiluted, iridescent dancing begins on the inside and radiates out. She is a supremely natural dancer, and without her City Ballet would be lost: she dances as if Balanchine were alive.

Wendy Whelan
Wendy Whelan is the ballerina of geometry. Her long, lean arms and legs can trace straight lines and sharp angles in space with almost surgical precision. Moving at high speed, she proves capable of unusual stretches and balances, twisting herself into one shape after another. She can also make her dancing seem to explode like fireworks, as she does when she performs the Gypsy-inspired fourth movement of Balanchine's "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet."

One of her recent roles has been a reminder that Edna St. Vincent Millay once declared in a sonnet, "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare." Just as mathematicians occasionally contemplate geometrical patterns with what can seem a mystical awe, so Ms. Whelan can invest her physical presence with an almost spiritual intensity. She does so superbly in Mr. Wheeldon's "After the Rain," in which she floats serenely from position to position, and when she is lifted by her partner she leans forward from his grasp as if she were a bird or an angel ready to soar. She thereby makes physical movements that demand extreme muscular control appear unearthly: flesh and spirit have been miraculously united. ANDERSON

Damian Woetzel
Damian Woetzel is a daredevil, a virtuoso who knows how to make the most complex combinations of steps look like fun. His dancing is often big and bold. Yet he is also capable of small, intricate shifts of weight, easy turns and carefree bouncy movements. Appropriately enough in a ballet that evokes Gypsy revelry, he can fill the finale of Balanchine's "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" with fiery passion, for Mr. Woetzel is more than a technician. He has considerable dramatic gifts.

In past seasons, he has been an eloquent interpreter of the title role of Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" and has been equally effective in such comic parts as Frantz, the romantically straying hero of Balanchine's version of "Coppélia." Indeed, he often turns frisky or roguish onstage. Mr. Wheeldon emphasized that aspect of his dancing personality by casting him in "An American in Paris." Here, he portrays a young man pursuing a "dream girl" through the streets of Paris with an irresistible jauntiness that makes it seem only logical that this fellow in search of an ideal would allow himself to be distracted by another, much more earthy and very jazzy, young woman.

Andrea Quinn
There are those (the critic Arlene Croce is one) who feel that the conductor plays as important a role in the overall impact of a ballet as the dancers.

The City Ballet's music director since 2001, Andrea Quinn has presided over a sharp upgrading of the sometimes disturbing sounds that used to emerge from the New York State Theater pit during City Ballet seasons. Part of that, Mr. Martins says, has to do with more reasonable, flexible union contracts. But a lot has to do, as he readily agrees, with her leadership and musicianship.

She is scheduled to conduct Tuesday's opening night and a new Martins ballet on Feb. 10 to a score (commissioned with the Juilliard School) by Christopher Rouse, and a host of other repertory as well. But hear her when you can. Most unfortunately, Ms. Quinn will be relinquishing her City Ballet post at the end of the spring season to return to her native England for family reasons.

The New York City Ballet's winter repertory begins Tuesday and continues through Feb. 26 at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, (212) 870-5570.