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Grand Finale
By Mae G. Banner

New York City Ballet

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 19

New York City Ballet saved their best dances for the final week of the season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. In doing so, they showed that the future of ballet is already here, and in the hands of NYCB’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon.

The heart of the July 19 program was Wheeldon’s new After the Rain, a refreshing, two-part ballet for three couples that ends with a melting duet performed by Wendy Whelan and corps de ballet member Craig Hall in a debut role.

Wheeldon creates arresting stage pictures that, although unexpected, are exactly right.

The couples began in unison at the far end of stage left. The men, Ask la Cour, Aram Ramasar, and Hall, lay on their backs like three blue throw rugs, one behind the other.

Their partners, Maria Kowroski, Sofiane Sylve and Whelan, stood at their feet, took the men’s arms and pulled them toward the wings. Then, turning, they lifted the men to their feet and drew them to the center.

Now, the dance could begin. Set to two melodious works by Arvo Part, After the Rain is a ballet of equals. The women danced with quiet strength, even daring, while the men replied with calm respect.

La Cour and Kowroski began a swift duet with fast changes of level and direction. Ramasar and Sylve joined in. Then, Whelan and Hall, first among equals, expanded on the pattern. They danced to the same theme, but their movements were more extenuated, more essential.

The women’s bodies corkscrewed, eddied and whorled as if they might be the pooling rain. Two violinists, Kurt Nikkanen and Arturo Delmoni, with Alan Moverman at the prepared piano, surrounded them with music.

After the Rain debuted in January at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. Wheeldon made the central duet for Whelan and Jock Soto, who retired only last month. Frequent partners, especially in Balanchine’s twisting, swiveling choreography to Stravinsky’s music, Whelan and Soto seemed fused, each thinking with the other’s brain. So, of course, NYCB followers have speculated on who would inherit Soto’s roles.

After the Rain took this coupling to its outermost limit. Whelan and Hall were alone in the deep space of an empty stage. Whelan, her hair loose to signal vulnerability, leaned into Hall, allowing her body to become clay in his hands. In a kinetic paradox, Whelan appeared weightless, mere air, yet remained gravity-bound. Over and over, she sank, leaned, or subsided into Hall’s body, ready to be transported.

But, in a climactic contrast, she placed one foot on Hall’s thigh, leaned far out like a ship’s figurehead toward the pianist and violinist at the edge of the stage, and surveyed the world from that promontory. Hall performed this duet of deep love with dignity, if not passion. In a final image, Whelan embraced him and he took her again by the waist, making a bridge of her body. He slid under that bridge, and they subsided together.

Works by Balanchine, the undisputed master, opened and closed the program. His 1981 resetting of the lakeside scene from Swan Lake recast that classic in a new crystal blue light.

Where 19th-century versions of the dance emphasize drama, Balanchine stressed architectural clarity and speed, which create their own drama.

Miranda Weese was Odette, the white swan queen, and Philip Neal the noble prince who did not want to harm her, but didn’t want to lose her to the owl-winged sorcerer, Von Rotbart. Neal’s dancing made his character clear. Weese was technically adept, especially in a precise set of pique turns that circled the stage, but she seemed distant, uninvolved. Still, their nuanced duet to Tchaikovsky’s lustrous, so Russian, music advanced from tender to joyful to passionate.

The corps of black swans—I counted 28, but the dancers made it look like twice that many—was impressive. Rank upon rank, they raised their powerful winged arms to protect their queen. The performed big, open pas de chats that ended in fourth position, the better to travel at speed. Whether waltzing in symmetrical clusters or flurrying in agitation, the corps was picture perfect.

If Balanchine made Swan Lake new, he took the next neoclassical step in Agon, his witty and precise black-and-white dance to Stravinsky. The dancers seemed to have springs on their feet. Their bodies twanged like guitar strings to the snarls and bleats of the music. Their still poses looked knowing and slightly amused, like class photos from an elegant French dancing school.

Lovely
Abstractions

Garth Fagan Dance

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 23

Garth Fagan has taken his one-of-a-kind choreographic language into a new, abstract realm in . . . ing (2004), an ensemble dance that approaches ballet.

Fagan doesn’t explain the puzzling title, but the dance’s three sections—Loving Aims, Caring Flames, and Healing Pains & Lasting Gains—suggest his philosophy of dance and his relationship to his dancers. They are his children, whom he will guide, through discipline, to higher achievement.

It helps that many of the dancers are exceedingly tall, long-limbed and lithe. In performance last Saturday at Jacob’s Pillow, Keisha Clarke, Norwood Pennewell, Bill Ferguson and Nicolette Depass moved with delicate strength, like long-legged shorebirds on the ocean strand.

Still as a heron on a rock, Clarke would propel a sudden turn with an outward flick of her leg. Her arms moved slowly and serenely, as if preparing to fly to the music of the clarinet in Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. When she bent to the ground, the backs of her hands brushed the stage.

In a sustained love duet, two women lay on their backs, while two men rose to make horizontal shapes with their arms and legs. Discovering the women, one man pulled his partner up by one leg and held her as she balanced calmly. The dancers eased from same-sex to mixed-sex partnering, and back again, preserving a chaste quality in their movements.

At times, the choreography was deliberately disorienting, confounding my sense of space by moving some dancers at warp speed, while others moved in slow motion or maintained Fagan’s amazing long one-legged balances. My eyes leapt from the action downstage to the equally compelling action in a far corner, upstage, so that the very plane of the stage seemed to be upended. It was like looking at an early cubist painting.

Somehow, too, Fagan’s dancers, jumping in place or spinning endlessly, seemed to be rowing toward God. The abstract, highly balletic moves combined with the lulling effect of the music took me out of myself.

DancecollageforRomie (2003) and Translation Transitions (2002) were more down-home. The first, honoring the collagist Romare Bearden, brought to life the characters sitting on the stoop or looking out the window on a gritty city block. Everyone was moving at their own quirky pace, often carrying bits of Bearden’s cutouts, such as a chunk of brick wall, a midnight train, or the conjure-man’s green snake.

The music was a collage, too, juxtaposing Jelly Roll Morton with Shostakovich and Villa-Lobos. The central duet between Pennewell and Clarke, set to the Brazilian composer’s Bachianas Brasileiras, was the essence of married love and respect, of worries overcome, and of earned rest.

Translation Transition, to the raucous brass of the Jazz Jamaica All Stars, cut loose with big jetes and frantic runs. All Fagan’s dancers are glorious movers, but I especially noticed Annique Roberts, who joined the company last spring, and Steve Humphrey, who at age 52 has been with Fagan since the start in 1970, and is still laying them down with style.

—Mae G. Banner

 


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