Winter Season Diaries: All-Balanchine Programs Test the Company's Mettle

Finlay and his muses, photo @ Andrea Mohin

There was almost something perverse about the curtain rising on NYCB's Winter Season and the sight of the blond Peter Martins-lookalike Chase Finlay dancing Martins' trademark role of Apollo. One could almost imagine Martins' observing his performance in his usual seat in the rear orchestra except of course Martins wasn't there, the NYCB programs had been scrubbed of any mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named. The show must go on.

I caught four performances in their first week. NYCB's two all-Balanchine programs (Apollo/Mozartiana/Cortegé Hongrois and Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne) are the type of programs that would test the company's classical chops under any circumstances. But NYCB is now a ship without a captain, and in many ways the performances reflected both the company's depth of talent and how even the world's best dancers need a strong leader.

Tess as Choleric, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The good news: some staples are in fine shape. Four Temperaments for example: Anthony Huxley's and Sean Suozzi's Melancholic, Tiler Peck's steely Sanguinic, Ask La Cour's strange Phlegmatic, and Tess Reichlen's implacable Choleric (great gargouillades!) as well as some tight and coordinated work from the corps and demi-soloists made sure Four Temperaments lost none of its impact. Huxley was the Melancholic in the first performance and Suozzi in the second. Huxley was lighter, more nimble, Suozzi more "melancholic" with heavier falls to the floor. I also enjoyed the second theme with Devin Alberda and Sara Adams. 4T's might be the most perfect ballet Balanchine ever made, but there can be nothing tame or formulaic about a performance -- it has to drive forward with a frightening intensity towards its brilliant conclusion. Those huge grande battements that the ballet army makes towards the end of the ballet are as menacing as ever. Looks like it's in good hands.

Bouder, Janzen, Phelan, Suozzi
Then there's the bizarre case of Raymonda Orchestral Suite I mean Cortège Hongrois. There's practically no original choreography there and the green-tassled costumes and the George Washington hats look ridiculous. Yet it's become that rare thing in the NYCB oeuvre -- a guilty pleasure. I saw two vastly different couples in the "classical" section of the ballet -- Mearns/Janzen and Bouder/Janzen (replacing an injured Veyette). The thing about Cortège Hongrois is that it allows the Raymonda-ish title character to totally be herself. So it's not surprising that Sara Mearns began and ended her variation with a loud clap, and whirled and lunged extravagantly throughout the ballet. Category 5 Hurricane Sara coming through! Also not surprising that Bouder in her debut was her usual straightforward, strong self. Bouder is more of a classicist than Mearns and I loved her unpretentious way of presenting the work. Her variation was assertive (with two firm claps) without the wildness of Mearns. Janzen's partnering was as always superb and he's become more confident in his solo work. He'll never be a virtuoso but he's shaping up to be one of City Ballet's best danseur nobles.

In the czardas Savannah Lowery and Ask La Cour (who danced with Mearns/Janzen) made the most out of Balanchine's rather clichéd choreography. They looked like they were having a grand time and that's what's important. Unity Phelan and Sean Suozzi (in their debuts) were much livelier, more exciting. I loved both the variation girls -- Lauren King and Emilie Gerrity in the first performance, Claire Kretzschmar and Meagan Mann in the second. Krestzschmar danced with such authority that she's my pick to be the next corps promoted to soloist. I now love this ballet. It's not top drawer Balanchine but it is fun.

By the way, I am comparing pictures of Melissa Hayden and Ashley Bouder and am struck by how similar they look. I mean compare:

Hayden and Bouder

Hyltin, King, Fairchild, Laracey, Stafford, Scordato, Finlay, Appebaum
Also in good shape: the sublime Divertimento #15. Perhaps no cast will ever match the original lineup of five ballerinas: pretty hard to beat Patricia Wilde, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden. But Sterling Hyltin, Lauren King, and Ashley Laracey brought their usual lyrical beauty to the ballet, while Abi Stafford and Megan Fairchild provided the fast par terre footwork. Andrew Veyette, Daniel Applebaum and Andrew Scordato were fine but nearly disappeared behind the five ballerinas which is I suppose how it's supposed to be. Andrew Veyette looked stiff and had an awkward landing on a double tour and laughed it off which prompted a nice chuckle from the audience.

In the second performance an apparently injured Veyette was replaced by Chase Finlay and the performance was smoother and even more heavenly. Finlay handled the clean, classical demands of the choreographer better than Veyette. The andante allowed each ballerina to show off their strong suit. Hyltin did her trademark bourrées with her head and neck thrown up upwards and her arms outstretched, as if she's being pulled by some invisible force. Laracey in her duet with Finlay showed off her beautiful extension in her developpé a la seconde -- no vulgar ear grazing, but an effortless geometrical line that reached towards the stars. The whole thing is so beautiful you never want it to end. Yes, I think Divertimento will be all right.

Mearns and Danchig-Waring in Chaconne
But there was also an awful lot of unexpected sloppiness -- for instance, in the first performance of Chaconne the wonderful apprentices, the pas de deux between Erica Pereira and Troy Schumacher as well as the pas de cync all sparkled, but Aaron Sanz danced the mandolin pas de trois with totally unnecessary jester-like hand movements, and the main show between Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring had several glaring partnering mishaps including one moment when Mearns was doing a series of supported pirouettes/promenades with her legs bent deeply in a near-squat. It's at 3:01 in this video. Something happened and Mearns grew visibly angry with Danchig-Waring and slithered away from him to finish the Dance of the Spirits opener on her own. The bad energy continued throughout the ballet -- Danchig-Waring's solo work was fine (nice cabrioles), but Mearns danced the ballet as a display of brute force and strength without any lightness and etherealness. This is a work where the Hurricane Sara approach is not appropriate.

In the second performance there were some changes, all to the better.  Sanz was replaced by Andrew Scordato in the Mandolin pas de trois and Scordato actually looked like he was strumming a mandolin. The lovely sequence with the apprentices was tighter and the way they formed lines that were straighter than the company corps members was beautiful. Mearns and Danchig-Waring made the same blooper in the same moment (the squatting promenades) but this time Mearns simply put her hand on the floor to avoid falling and the choreography was uninterrupted. Mearns lightened her approach quite a bit and Danchig-Waring's solo work was more fleet. The audience lapped it up, but this ballet definitely needs a lot of work.

Mearns in Mozartiana, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Even worse was first-night Mozartiana -- this  late-Balanchine masterpiece needs precision, speed, and on-the-note musicality. Maria Kowroski, Tyler Angle and Daniel Ulbricht gave the kind of sluggish, sloppy performance I would have expected at ABT. Kowroski who was never technically that secure could not meet the demands of this role. She looked gorgeous as always and her bourrées in the Preghiera were lovely but her footwork was smudged and imprecise in the Theme and Variations. Tyler Angle has never really been a white tights dancer and frankly looked out of shape. He also seems to have completely given up on things like turnout or pointing his feet. Even Ulbricht looked formulaic in the Gigue. NYCB currently has two excellent interpreters of this Suzanne Farrell role -- the quicksilver Sterling Hyltin and the dramatic Sara Mearns. Why is Kowroski still dancing this?

The second cast Mozartiana (Mearns/Finlay/Schumacher) was leagues better. For one thing, Mearns can actually handle the steps. Mearns was relatively restrained although sometimes she still is in danger of overpowering the choreography completely. For instance in that one moment near the end of the Theme and Variations when the ballerina does a supported flat-footed pirouette in arabesque penchée (23:19 in this video) Mearns turned so fast she nearly knocked Finlay over. Still, I'd rather have an abundance of strength over NO strength. Finlay's lines and solo work were much more classical than Angle's, and Schumacher was also an improvement over Ulbricht.

Danchig-Waring and Peck, photo @ Andrea Mohin
As for Apollo. I think of all the ballets this is the one that suffers the most from Peter's absence. I saw two casts. Chase Finlay was heavily pushed by Peter but his Apollo remains an airbrushed, empty portrayal. There hasn't been any growth over the years. He looks beautiful, but that's about it. His muses (Hyltin, Bouder, and Lovette) were appropriately playful and sweet, but there wasn't much for them to work with. Adrian Danchig-Waring is coming back from a devastating injury and he still has heavy landings and a certain stiffness in the legs. But he gets the ballet in a way that Chase doesn't. He gets the wildness, the sense of adventure. With him you see how revolutionary the ballet is: the unorthodox, hunched over, torso-twisting poses and the jazzy inflections were totally new to classical ballet in 1928. His soccer variation actually included an extra force through his legs, as if he were physically kicking a ball. With Finlay it was just one smooth continuous movement. Danchig-Waring's muses (Tiler Peck, Ashly Isaacs and Indiana Woodward) were mixed: I love Woodward's sweet and appealing Calliope but Peck remains too serious and correct for Terpischore.

So in general NYCB maintained its high standards although I can't help but wonder if Peter would have immediately corrected Danchig-Waring in his partnering so the same blooper would not have been repeated, and whether some of the raggedy corps formations and mistimed entrances and exits I saw throughout the week needed a sterner presence behind the scenes. But it's useless to wonder. Peter's not coming back, and the company has to move forward. After Week 1 I'm cautiously optimistic.

Sidenote: I love the art exhibition at NYCB right now. It's Geronimo, an artist who works with balloons, and she's transformed the austere marble promenade of the D*v*d K*ch Theatre into a festive, surreal place. Go see it.


  1. Geronimo is a lady! Jihan Zencirli (her real name) is a foxy platinum blond Turkish-American. Her balloon installations are unique and totally fab. Ken T

  2. Thanks for the correction. I think this is my favorite ART series.

  3. Thanks for your review! I saw the two casts of the Apollo/Mozartiana/Cortege Hongrois program and my impressions very much coincide with yours, so now I feel I have been given a valuable glimpse into the Divertimento No. 15/4Ts/Chaconne program as was. One question: in the Wednesday program, did Sara Mearns really walk off the stage by herself, refusing to perform the choreography (the lifts and the "swimming")? What a debacle!

    1. She didn't walk offstage. She just pulled herself away from Adrian and improvised a few steps and then the Dance of the Spirits section ended quickly thereafter anyway.

    2. Thanks! I watched the video of Suzanne and Peter again and I think I can place where things went awry and where the dance was resumed as choreographed.

  4. This is a wonderful review. Thank you. I was there for both Saturday performances, and feel lucky to have seen the company continuing to demonstrate their mastery. 4Ts themes took my breath away. And despite the Chaconne minor flub, Mearns was a wonder in the first part. My first Divertimento ever. What a treat!

    1. Divertimento? It's actually a ballet the company IMO doesn't do nearly enough. But it was always this way: I'm reading the Balanchine Bible (Repertory in Review) and apparently Balanchine himself did not program this ballet all that often. It was the dancers who wanted to dance it and demanded its place in the repertoire. I think the 5 ballerina arrangement must make it popular: you get to do your thing, big applause and appreciation, and unlike Ballet Imperial/Piano Concerto #2 and Theme and Variations the physical demands are not as taxing.

    2. Terrific review. Divertimento was the first ballet I ever saw at NYCB -- with Farrell. I have loved it ever since. I wish they would program it more often!

  5. Hey, Ivy, thanks for the thorough-going, detailed, and objective review, as always. Since I can never actually SEE anything (my two business trips east this spring are of course after winter season ends and the weekend before spring season begins), it's great to have you in my place as my surrogate eyes (and ears, when it comes to opera).

    I have two questions and two comments.

    First question: any idea who determines the casting at this point? Martins programmed the season, and presumably determined the casts, but who lays out the weekly rotations now? The Krohn-Hall-Peck-Stafford quadrumvirate? The veteran coaches from Balanchine's day? The administrative staff?

    Second question: Any word on the street who they're interviewing to replace Martins?

    First comment: regarding the Danchig-Waring/Mearns partnering glitch in Chaconne -- I dunno, everyone knows it takes two to tango when it comes to partnering. I mean, I wasn't there and I didn't see it (see above), but this is hardly Danchig-Waring's first Chaconne. In fact, he posted video footage of himself doing the opening pas de deux from Chaconne with Kowrowski on his Instagram feed, and Wendy Whelan posted a reply reminding him that he first danced the role with her, so it's not like he doesn't know how to do the role. In any case, it seems not a little unprofessional to throw a fit on stage (shades of Kathleen Battle) and interrupt the choreography.

    Second comment: Check out John Clifford's Instagram feed, he's clearly lobbying heavily to get back in. In his defense, he has some clips of dancers he's coached recently in Balanchine roles (not too obvious....) and they do look damn good.

    1. Hi, thanks for your kind words. I think Jonathan Stafford is doing the casting now.
      Word on the street is that they'll either keep Jonathan Stafford permanently, but I've also heard Lourdes Lopez and Wendy Whelan. John Clifford probably is out of the running because while he does stage Balanchine ballets successfully his social media also shows his penchant for ... well, stuff that as an AD of a major ballet company might be problematic.

    2. Ha, you're telling me....

    3. Well Stafford may be plausible. I'd be very surprised if Lopez or Whelan were chosen. Maybe there's a dark horse galloping up to surprise us.

    4. I just hope it's not Millepied

    5. I fervently agree. Not sure why, but I thought, and hoped, he was not even under consideration after the fiasco in Paris.


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