NYCB Does Bournonville

I've now sat through three completely different casts of the NYCB's Bournonville program. It is strange how, as a rule, the Bournonville style manages to completely defeat many of NYCB's most excellent technicians, whereas some of their less experienced corps de ballet members have taken to the Danish master like ducks to a pond. I thought of why this might be so. I have a few theories, and the one I'm most fond of is the idea that many principal dancers and strong technicians are so confident in their abilities that they overlook the key to Bournonville style: modesty. It's hard for them not to snap their arms out to show off a spectacular jump, or to keep their arabesques beneath 90 degrees.

A good example would be the three casts of La Sylphide. Here are the major casts:

Cast 1 May 7: Sterling Hyltin (Sylph), Joaquin de Luz (James), Daniel Ulbricht (Gurn), Brittany Pollack (Effie), Georgina Pazcoguin (Madge)

Cast 2 May 16 mat: Ashley Bouder (Sylph), Andrew Veyette (James), Joseph Gordon (Gurn), Megan LeCrone (Effie), Marika Anderson (Madge)

Cast 3 May 16 eve: Tiler Peck (Sylph), Gonzalo Garcia (James), Harrison Ball (Gurn), Faye Arthurs (Effie), Gwyneth Muller (Madge)

Ashley Bouder was maybe the strongest technician of the three Sylphs. Her jumps are amazing -- she flies across the stage and has that ability to hang in the air indefinitely. She even showed that ability off by jumping, hanging in the air, and making a "shhh" motion with her hands while up in the air. Her jumps were so fast one tended not to even notice them, if that makes sense. It was like oh there's Ashley, flying across the stage again. Close behind her was Tiler Peck, who is not as strong of a jumper but also has the ability to dance petit allegro like it's child's play.

But both of them missed the accents of Bournonville. Neither of them were bad, but just didn't have the right perfume. Bouder was too strong and straightforward. She can't quite rid her upper body of that athletic, strong, upright position that serves her so well in, say, Stars and Stripes or Square Dance. Peck was stiff and studied in her acting. Both of them tried the soft arms and the ethereal, playful spirit of the Sylph, but it looked just like that: trying. It wasn't organic. They both just looked like Ashley Bouder and Tiler Peck with a white dress and wings.

Sterling Hyltin, on the other hand, is not a natural jumper, and she can struggle in roles that require difficult technique. However, she totally mastered the characterization of the Sylph. Her arms were soft and fluttery, her upper body supple and yielding, her facial expressions alternately coy and joyful, and she disappeared completely into the ballet. Her jumps didn't have the elevation or power of Bouder's but she gave the illusion of flight, as she wafted her arms upwards with each successive sissone. She was the only one who really articulated the Sylph's mime including the final death scene. Maybe she wasn't perfectly idiomatic with the position of her arms, legs, and technique, but she alone transformed herself totally into the Romantic ideal for which Bournonville was aiming. Sterling Hyltin has been having a standout season. She was absolutely riveting earlier in the season in La Valse, a ballet I have almost no tolerance for.

The story with the James' was similar. Joaquin de Luz was the strongest technician -- the fast beats, jetés, the deep pliés, the soft landings, hold no terrors for him. But his James was way too extroverted, without any feel for the restless Romantic hero. Andrew Veyette and Gonzalo Garcia don't have that ability to defy gravity, but their characterizations were true. Veyette was maybe the best in depicting the restless spirit during the Act One wedding festivities. Garcia in particular surprised me -- I've often seen him struggle visibly. Not tonight. It's true that he simplified some of the mind-boggling entrechats that Bournonville demands of his dancers but his portrayal was sensitive and affecting.

This extended even to the Gurns and Effies. Daniel Ulbricht is an incredible technician, but he seemed completely lost in this ballet. Corps members Harrison Ball and Joseph Gordon however looked like they were auditioning for James. They really acted out the part, especially Ball. Same for Effie. Brittany Pollack and Megan LeCrone, two excellent technicians, were completely miscast as Effie. Pollack looked sullen the whole time, LeCrone looked like she was dancing Agon. Only Faye Arthurs, a corps de ballet member, made Effie what she's supposed to be -- the nice, wholesome girl next door, and only Arthurs really articulated the mime. Marika Anderson and Georgina Pazcoguin both make Madge too clownish but again, it's corps member Anderson who more clearly articulated the important mime role.

But La Sylphide had the advantage of looking carefully coached. If Bouder and Peck didn't look like naturals they looked like they knew what the style should be. An even stronger litmus test was the company's three different casts of Bournonville Divertissements. It was staged by Nilas Martins, who spent most of his career in the U.S. Sudden cast changes have been frequent (there were three in tonight's performance), and the groups assembled for the solo have been a motley crew of principals, soloists, and corps de ballet members. The three performances I've seen have looked under-rehearsed and under-coached. Therefore, it's interesting to see who instinctively gets the style and who's totally lost.

Opening night, Sara Mearns tried for the unaffected charm and grace for a few minutes before reverting back to extravagant, lunging, swoony, indulgent Sara. She needs to go back to dances like Walpurgisnacht, where her unbridled energy were to die for. In the afternoon performance, Ashly Isaacs and Antonio Carmena were utterly charming in Flower Festival of Genzano. In the evening, Teresa Reichlen and Zachary Catazaro were a total disaster. I've seen Reichlen power through Firebird and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 without breaking a sweat. But in this lovely pas de deux she looked alternately sullen and bored, and ended with a huge blooper. Catazaro danced with buckled knees, kind of a problem when so many of the jumps demand landings in deep plié.

In fact, the landings in deep plié is something only Harrison Ball, Joseph Gordon and Anthony Huxley (in the Napoli pas de six and Tarantella) came close to mastering. (To see how it's really done, check out the Royal Danish Ballet's commercial dvd of their Napoli.) Others made a downward motion and then sort of gave up. Lauren King, who's never really overwhelmed me with either her technique nor her characterization, was truly exquisite both times I saw her in the pas de six (she was the purple girl). Charming, sweet, and she gets the style. Lauren Lovette can be mistake-prone in other ballets but as the blue girl in the pas de six she was indestructible. Another dancer who took to the style easily. Andrew Scordato, another dancer I've never paid much attention to until now, also gets the style. Russell Janzen, usually one of my favorite dancers, was on the other hand miscast and looked like he had no idea what he was doing. Most surprising was Taylor Stanley, whom one would think is Miscasting Central, was absolutely great in the Ballabile, while Allen Pfeiffer flailed.

Overall this has been an interesting experiment for the New York City Ballet. I hope going forward they dance more of this sort of thing, and also take a harder time sorting out who simply gets the style and technique, and who needs help. But meanwhile, this has been a wonderful hiatus from their usual programming of Balanchine/Robbins/Martins/Peck/whoever else. They are slowly growing from a company that has mastered neo-classical style to a company that proves it can master every style.


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