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Casual Sunday
By Mae G. Banner

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Jacob’s Pillow, July 28

Always evolving, yet always recycling his noodling, contact improv-based moves, Bill T. Jones and his 10-member company presented a concert of mostly new works on Sunday, July 28, at Jacob’s Pillow. World II, a world premiere; There Were . . . , a revival; and two dances from earlier this year all shared a deliberately casual quality and, in their subtext, a refusal to be defeated.

Jones, with his late partner, Arnie Zane, made his mark with quirky theatrical dances laced with monologues. His choreographic repertory includes political dances inspired by interviews with terminally ill people, and comical abstract works danced to nonsense syllables.

This time out, Jones introduced live music performed by members of the chamber ensemble Concertante, who are recent Juilliard grads. The players were the best part of World II, which otherwise became tedious and aimless, badly in need of editing. The string quartet, dressed in formal white, but barefoot, performed Gyorgy Kurtag’s dissonant music onstage, walking among the dancers, who were variously costumed as gymnasts or youngsters in their Sunday best attending a recital.

Besides playing vigorously, the musicians earn credit for being game and interesting dancers. In one section, they walk in silence with their fiddles, pointing the bows downward like divining rods.

Meanwhile, the dancers repeat gestures of sssh-ing, nervous bowing, and scratching their crotches, like jittery kids. These human gestures give way to elegant moves that show the dancers’ ballet training, but that are subverted by gymnastic belly slides or push-ups. Another motif is a “model” pose, one knee raised, one hand to the back of the head, the better to show off the dancer’s outfit.

Verbum, set to a Beethoven string quartet, brought its contradictions into thought-provoking harmony. Germaul Barnes performed a brilliant solo to the ethereal music of the third movement. He was the minstrel man in a hall of mirrors, the homeboy trying to break out of his ballet body. Every joint was flexible, from somersault to arabesque, from high extension to shimmying butt.

All eight dancers embodied similarly double intentions, making twittering moves with shucking and jiving bodies that were always off-balance. Verbum, performed within and around three misshapen white-painted mirror frames, was coherent in its deliberate sloppiness, as if the dancers were saying, “I can do high-minded ballet, but I don’t have to.”

The revival, There Were . . . , to taped music of John Cage, evoked an image of wanderers in an unknown space that might be heaven. Dancers meet and cross, walking in silence, as the music repeatedly breaks off. One touches another, but she walks away. They do a little line dance, à la Mark Morris, but looser and less formal, then freeze in sculpural groupings. Finally, pairs of dancers unite in long-held kisses.

It seemed this music and these people could not hold together, but they kept trying. The effect was holy.

If World II, at 29 minutes, was too long, the closing dance, Black Suzanne, was too short. The 11-minute piece was performed by eight dancers and played by Concertante to an excerpt from a string octet by Shostakovich. Wearing red gym clothes that were slightly padded, like life jackets, the dancers did dives, somersaults and spread-eagle lifts. They played tag team and smacked the floor whooping, as Jones’s dancers do in his elegaic D-Man in the Waters. But, just as Black Suzanne began to gather force, it ended.

Grand Finale

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 23-27

New York City Ballet saved the best for last, capping the final week of their 37th season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with three of Balanchine’s finest dances.

The Prodigal Son (1929; revived 1950) returned Thursday, July 25, with Damian Woetzel as the angry, willful boy, who beat his fists on his thighs and leapt over his father’s fence in his zeal to see the wide world.

Woetzel acts as adeptly as he dances, but, in Prodigal, the physical action suffices. Woetzel danced all the emotions of the rebellious boy’s adventure: defiance, curiosity, desire, wretchedness and penitence. One had to feel pity for this foolish boy who is robbed by strangers, seduced by a temptress, and betrayed by his servants.

The expressionistic dance, one of Balanchine’s few narrative ballets, unfolds to music of Prokofiev. Costumes and décor by Georges Rouault underscore its biblical desert setting. Originally made for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Prodigal is timeless.

Maria Kowroski was the Siren who mesmerized Woetzel with her strange snakelike movements. She might have been called an evil queen in her tall Egyptian headdress. She became a boa constrictor, coiling her legs around the boy and splaying her fingers like fangs.

Her gang of bald-headed goons are a sinister delight. They roll and hop, two by two, and swarm over the prodigal in their grotesque games. When they’ve stripped him of all his goods, they link arms, back to back, and bobble about the stage like fat junebugs.

James Fayette, in a rare character role, is the somber father, who, when the boy crawls home, has to take him in.

Vienna Waltzes (1977), danced perfunctorily at the July 20 Gala, came into its own in the final week. It’s a full-cast crowd pleaser with magically changing scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and glamorous costumes by Balanchine’s Russian émigré colleague, Karinska. In 50 swiftly moving acts, it lays out the entire waltz lexicon, gorgeously.

Rachel Rutherford and Robert Lyon brought out the youthful innocence of the romantic opening section set within a moonlit Vienna woods. Yvonne Borree and Nikolaj Hubbe outdid themselves as magical creatures cavorting in an enchanted forest.

A flirtatious and knowing Jenifer Ringer, with Charles Askegard, danced into oblivion in the Merry Widow scene, which is set in the art nouveau ballroom suffused with light the color of blood oranges.

The grand finale Rosenkavalier Waltz teemed with white satin-gowned women and tuxedoed men, sailing, hopping, and almost flying across the stage.

From the gorgeous to the sublime, NYCB set the audience cheering with four performances of Symphony in C (1948), made to Bizet’s music. Balanchine presented this glorious dance in his first concert at the “people’s theater,” City Center, in midtown New York. A classical ballet in four movements, it has remained in the company’s active repertory ever since.

Symphony in C is polished to perfection. Every move is inevitable; nothing is extra. Every woman, from principal to corps dancer, is the ideal ballerina of a Platonic conception.

Jennie Somogyi and Phillip Neal led the first allegro vivo movement with exact, vivid technique. Jock Soto presented Darci Kistler as a rare jewel in the adagio on Thursday, but Wendy Whelan with Askegard made the audience swoon with her on Friday as she flew low in her partner’s arms in long travelling lifts that ended on point. First oboist Randall Wolfgang played the haunting theme that supports Whelan’s ecstatic falls.

Two pairs of speedy high-flyers, Antonio Carmena with Ashley Bouder, and, in another cast, Benjamin Millepied with Janie Taylor, made the air vibrate in the third movement, allegro vivace.

This segues into the knockout fourth movement, also allegro vivace, led alternately by Jennifer Tinsley and Jason Fowler, and by Pascale van Kipnis and Alexander Ritter. They stirred the full cast of 50 crystalline dancers in white satin and jet black into the stage-filling finale that never fails to astound the audience with its final flourish.

A footnote: Tuesday’s performance introduced a regional premiere in Robert La Fosse’s Concerto in Five Movements, made for the 1997 Diamond Project, but never shown at SPAC. La Fosse, who joined NYCB as principal dancer in 1986, knows his Balanchine.

Set to Prokofiev’s music, Concerto works in the neoclassical mode that looks good on Balanchine dancers. Two lead couples dance duets of opposing qualities: Kowroski and Albert Evans pull apart; Whelan and Soto are drawn together. Extra spice comes from gymnastic sequences led by Tom Gold with a corps of eight men, while a corps of 16 women in lipstick-red sleeveless leotards frames the action with witty moves that resemble Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.

—M.G.B.


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