City Ballet Winter Season Brings New Debuts

Stanley as Apollo, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Among NYCB fans the chatter about the imminent appointment of the new artistic director is at a fevered pitch. Fans have all sorts of theories and wishes and desires, and no choice is going to satisfy everyone (or anyone?). But in the meantime life goes on, and the Winter Season and the severely depleted male roster means there are exciting debuts in Balanchine's seminal ballet Apollo.

Everyone already knows about Apollo and how it's the oldest Balanchine ballet to survive in the repertoire. And almost every balletomane has strong feelings about how Apollo and the muses should be interpreted. In my relatively brief shelf-life as a hardcore balletomane I'd say two Apollos were masterful: Adrian Danchig-Waring and Robert Fairchild. Alas, Danchig-Waring is injured and Fairchild no longer with the company. The other two Apollos (Chase Finlay and Zachary Catazaro) were fired after the infamous photo sharing scandal.

So it fell upon Taylor Stanley's shoulders to debut as the Greek god. From the moment the curtain rose, it was clear Stanley had prepared himself meticulously for the role. His feet were already pointed as he began the lute solo, and he was determined to match each musical phrase with an artful pose. In the soccer solo he eschewed the faster, athleitc kicks for completely stretched, turned out feet so the "kicks" came across as ballet barre grande battements. In his interactions with the muses he was aloof, and avoided any puppyish playfulness in the Terpischore-Apollo duet. It was certainly a well-danced, elegant debut.

What was missing was the feeling of wildness, of a young god growing and maturing as the ballet progressed. Stanley's Apollo as of now comes across as studied to the point where he lost the essence of the ballet. For instance in the opening lute solo he didn't accelerate the arm swings enough to suggest a god growing in joy at his musical instrument. But this is just the beginning. Hopefully Stanley will grow in this role, as he has in other roles.

Stanley and his three muses, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Stanley was not helped by his trio of muses. Tiler Peck is miscast as Terpischore -- she like Stanley is a meticulous technician, but she does not have that slightly playful, flirtatious air that Terpischore should exude. She also doesn't have the flexibility for those iconic stretched poses. Brittany Pollack also came across as too careful as Polyhymnia. Only Indiana Woodward exuded the most muse spirit but she was Calliope, the most sullen and unmemorable of the muses.

Here is a clip of opening night which shows how much Stanley has already mastered the STEPS of Apollo including those difficult bent-leg pirouettes:

Garcia as Apollo, photo @ Paul Kolnik
On Saturday night Gonzalo Garcia made his New York debut as Apollo. He had previously danced it with the San Francisco Ballet. But as he's been with NYCB for over 12 years, it might as well have been a role debut. Garcia has the opposite problem of Stanley. Stanley's Apollo was studied and careful to the point of seeming stern and remote. Garcia was, well, cute. He has a very sweet baby face and a soft style of dancing that makes him lovable to watch. However, I missed the musculature and sculptural poses that a taller, more imposing Apollo would have brought to the role. His trio of muses matched him temperamentally -- Sterling Hyltin, Abi Stafford, and Lauren Lovette were all cute, petite and playful in a way Stanley's trio of muses were not. The performance was certainly livelier -- Garcia unlike Stanley seemed to have fun doing those iconic soccer kicks, and the Apollo-Terpischore duet was sweet and flirtatious. This isn't an orthodox Apollo but it was very enjoyable.

Garcia and Hyltin, photo @ Erin Baiano
Whereas Apollo is an acknowledged masterpiece no matter who is dancing it, Orpheus (the ballet that convinced Morton Baum to allow Balanchine's fledgling company to have a home at City Center) today comes across as a historical curiosity rather than a great ballet. It's better known for the sets and costumes by Isamu Noguchi than the actual choreography.

However two separate casts made this ballet sing again. Gonzalo Garcia and Sterling Hyltin (both making their debuts) were both emotionally intense and frenzied as Orpheus and Eurydice. Despite a mishap at Eurydice's death when Hyltin was not pulled "back" into Hades in time and Garcia actually had to push her behind the curtain the two dancers drew the audience into the story. Garcia has a tenderness to his persona that made his resolve to not look at Eurydice seem doomed from the start. Hyltin always brings a level of emotional truth to anything she dances, and she was sexy and kittenish in the pas de deux where she implores Orpheus to look at her. Peter Walker as the Dark Angel was cold and terrifying. And Unity Phelan was wonderfully wild as the Queen of the Bacchantes.

Here is a snippet of the central Orpheus/Eurydice pas de deux:

La Cour as Orpheus, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The second cast had Ask La Cour in one of his best roles, along with the debuts of Teresa Reichlen as Eurydice, Andrew Scordato as Dark Angel, and Claire Kretszchmar as the Queen of the Bacchantes.  A very fine performance overall, with a much smoother "pull" of Eurydice back to Hades. La Cour who can often be awkward in classical roles finds his groove here -- he said on Instagram that this is his favorite role and it shows.  Kretzschmar was amazing as the Bacchante Queen -- she smiled gleefully as she tore Orpheus apart. These two excellent casts made a strong case for Orpheus's place in the repertoire more than just a work of historical importance.

Kowroski and Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Opening night closed out with a performance of Agon. "Agon" means "contest" in Greek, and the famous central pas at its best looks like a dangerous mating game. The pas de deux  had Maria Kowroski doing some of the best dancing I've seen her do in recent years, but overall the ballet lacked the tension and sense of danger it should have. Tyler Angle has many admirable qualities as a dancer. He's a wonderful partner and cuts an elegant figure onstage. However a quick youtube search of Arthur Mitchell (the originator of the role) shows how much charisma and daring Mitchell brought to the ballet. Without a dancer like Mitchell's calibre the provocativeness of the central pas de deux was gone. Anthony Huxley and Megan LeCrone were both technically excellent in their pas de trois.

The second cast of Agon also had some debuts. Russell Janzen debuted in the principal male part, Emilie Gerrity debuted in the female pas de trois. Janzen's partner in the central pas de deux was Miriam Miller. They attacked the pas de deux aggressively, to the point where they lost control several times -- in that famous sequence when the woman is on pointe and the man is lying on the ground and she's supposed to drag him with her hands, Miller fell off pointe before she could pull Janzen. Miller is gorgeous with mile-long legs but I have noticed an inconsistency to her performances when she dances. I don't think I've ever seen her give a starring performance that was without a major bobble.

New costumes for Piano Concerto #2
The other all-Balanchine program of the week was Serenade/Mozartiana/Piano Concerto #2. That's the type of bill that brings out the balletomanes in droves. And as was the case with the Apollo/Orpheus/Agon triple bill, we had some debuts and also some changes in costume and decor.

Hyltin and Huxley in Mozartiana, photo @ Andrea Mohin
First of all, Mozartiana had the welcome return of Sterling Hyltin and Anthony Huxley to this ballet. Are they the "typical" Mozartiana couple? No. Both are short and this is a ballet traditionally for tall dancers. But it matters not at all. Both are charming, quicksilver, with crisp footwork and a playful relationship that was delightful to watch. Huxley's jumps and turns were so clean with such beautiful fifth position and soft, silent landings. This is one of Hyltin's best roles. Her quick beautiful bourrées, unique musicality and innate charm fit this ballet so well. She articulates the filigree footwork of the Theme and Variations better than any other dancer of this role in recent memory. She is about as different of a dancer from the originator Suzanne Farrell as possible, but she's made the role her own and it's glorious. There is something very Mozartian about both Hyltin and Huxley, pun intended. Troy Schumacher was also excellent in the Gigue.

Mearns as the doomed Waltz Girl, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Serenade had the role debuts of Lauren Lovette and Emilie Gerrity as Waltz Girl and Dark Angel, respectively as well as the tried and true cast of Mearns/Peck/LeCrone. Lovette and Gerrity both have the same problem in this ballet -- they are beautiful and dance well, but don't create any mood, any sense of doom and dread as the ballet gets darker. With more experience that sense of drama will come. Ashley Bouder flew as the Russian girl. Ask La Cour and Aaron Sanz were decent partners. In contrast Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck and Megan LeCrone in the other cast made Serenade cast its magical spell. Mearns' inherent sense of drama and expressiveness serve the ballet well -- as Waltz Girl her fall, heartbreak, and final journey to the great beyond all seemed inevitable and compelling. Tiler Peck as the Russian Girl is just as strong of a turner as Ashley Bouder but she has more of a sense of romantic style. And the Dark Angel is one of the few roles where LeCrone's grimness works. The corps de ballet in both performances was excellent.

Finally, the return of Piano Concerto #2 aka Ballet Imperial, now with new costumes by Marc Happel. The old Karinska costumes (peach chiffon dresses) were maybe not the fanciest, but they flowed beautifully with the music and peach is always a flattering color on dancers. The new costumes made of sparkly stiff dark blue bodices and longer blue skirts.The costumes are the sort of thing that probably looked great in the costume shop but considerably less so onstage. For one the blue is sort of a dullish hue -- it either needed to be more of a bright royal blue or an ice blue. Second they are made of a heavier material than the old costumes, and as a result the skirts didn't fly with the same thrilling abandon as they did with the Karinska costumes.

Gordon and Bouder
I saw both casts. One was Ashley Bouder (a veteran in the role) with Joseph Gordon (making his debut), Lauren King as the "turning girl", and Sara Adams, Indiana Woodward, Devin Alberda and Alec Knight as the excellent group of demi-soloists. Bouder is still a very strong dancer who cleared many hurdles of this infamously difficult ballet without problems. Her opening cadenza was punctuated by a long-held balance which she held with a grin to the audience just so we saw it. But her style of dancing has now hardened to such a degree that it's hard to enjoy her in these tiara-princess ballets. Her port de bras is stiff with no flow. Her chemistry with Joseph Gordon was non-existent -- in the second movement where she passes through a tunnel of girls to give the cavalier an embrace she might as well have been hugging a rock. The two rarely looked at each other. Gordon is technically excellent (he nailed those double tours that land on one knee) but his partnering was not always smooth. In that sequence where the ballerina is dragged backward in a circle with her foot gliding the floor there was some awkwardness so it didn't look so much like a glide as Gordon simply carrying Bouder. This was an impressive performance but unlike the delectable Mozartiana that preceded it not one to love.

This clip gives you an idea of how the new costumes looked onstage:

Reichlen/Angle in the old Karinska costumes, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The other cast was with Teresa Reichlen/Tyler Angle/Megan LeCrone and a group of demis not as outstanding as the first cast demis. Reichlen is not as strong in the moments Bouder shines -- those fouettes and chaine turns near the end of the ballet, some of the faster footwork are areas where you could see the effort with Reichlen. However Reichlen's jump is more expansive, her style softer and more suited to classical ballet, her body line more elegant and regal. This is one of her best roles and you still have two more chances to see her in it this week. Tyler Angle did some of the best virtuoso dancing I've seen him do in a long time. Only Megan LeCrone was sadly miscast -- the "turning girl" is one of Balanchine's best second-soloist parts. There's supposed to be a radiance to this role. LeCrone just doesn't have the style for this ballet.

So the first week of Winter Season has ended, made more interesting by a rash of debuts. And if we want to speculate on the next Artistic Director, I'll just say I saw Wendy Whelan greeting many NYCB dancers opening night. She was dressed in a power suit and looked very much like the new Boss Lady. Take that for what you will.

Weisz and Colman
Speaking of boss ladies, I finally saw The Favourite. This wickedly funny costume drama about two scheming, grasping women (Sarah Churchill and her cousin Abigail, played masterfully by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, respectively) vying for the affections of the obese, gout-stricken Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) deftly mixes politics, palace intrigue, and a fierce sapphic love triangle. Of course it's VERY loosely based on history (in real life Sarah Churchill was the mother of 7 -- here she literally wears the pants in her relationship with Anne). It's more a rumination on the different ways women had to fight for power when officially they had little power. Director Yorgos Lathimos avoids any hint of starchiness despite all the corsets and frippery. And even though all the characters are basically despicable, you care about them nonetheless. I highly recommend people catch this while it's still playing in the theaters.


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