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Smart moves: NYCB dancer Peter Boal.

More Than Dance
By Mae G. Banner

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 6-10

This season, ballet is political. Anyone in the audience for the first night of New York City Ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center could feel the charged atmosphere. Many audience members wore blue-and-white Save the Ballet buttons. Others sported stickers reading, “got ballet?”

Fans are not called balletomanes for nothing. They love the art with a gut-churning passion. This year, because of SPAC’s attempt to quash NYCB’s 39-year summer residency here—now, put on hold at least until after their 2005 season—the love is tempered with anger at what’s seen as SPAC’s insult to the company and the community.

Saratogians have long memories. Some helped raise money in the 1960s to build the SPAC amphitheater specifically to house NYCB. Faced with the threatened loss of their company, citizens organized the non-profit Save the Ballet to collect donations for an endowment to protect the NYCB residency beyond 2005.

Opening night, July 6, was as much a demonstration of support for the ballet as an evening of dance. The mayor declared it George Balanchine Day. Saratoga Springs’ City Council rescheduled their regular Tuesday night meeting so council members could attend the performance. State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who has pledged to keep the ballet at SPAC, was working the lawn crowd.

Save the Ballet provided fans with 300 flashlights, which they beamed at the amphitheater ceiling after each dance. The glowing lights, the fervent cheering and extended applause gave this supposedly posh art the feel of a rock concert.

The audience knows that this is our home team. The dancers could feel it, too, because all week, their performances reflected the warmth that fans projected toward the stage.

Saratoga seasons are a small sample culled from NYCB’s spring season in Lincoln Center, which, this year, celebrated Balanchine’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Week 1 was devoted to the music of Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, with a bit of Mozart, Hindemith, and Vivaldi for variety.

I was struck by the solidity of the company, now more than 90 dancers strong. If NYCB were an athletic team, they would be noted for depth of field as much as for star players. For example, the week brought three different Apollos in Apollo: Nikolaj Hubbe, who found his way into the character after a superficial start; Nilas Martins, whose dancing projects a new and welcome seriousness this year; and Peter Boal, a seasoned principal dancer whose Apollo unfolds before our eyes from an intelligent but raw young god to the inspired leader of the Muses. One of Balanchine’s great gifts is the final image of Apollo and the three Muses, silhouetted against a molten sun.

Boal appeared also in Agon, Stravinsky’s deconstruction of French court dances in which groups of 2s, 3s, 4s, and 6s vaunt their technical prowess and excellent manners in feats of balance, strength and coordination—all displayed with wit. In his solo Sarabande, Boal made you see the cant of his ankle, the slant of his wrist, the twist of his torso. Every muscle and joint was working intelligently.

On Friday (July 9) Boal danced a deeply felt, intense Melancholic in Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments, rising and crashing to the floor, his arms searching, his body pleading.

Kyra Nichols, perhaps the company’s most complete Balanchine dancer, performed the part-prayerful, part- flirtatious Mozartiana, to Tchaikovsky’s music. She is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of this dance that she’s free to add the occasional fillip to the choreography—spontaneous adornments that enlarge its meaning.

The electric partnership of Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto made us catch our breath in Agon and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, both of which spotlight Balanchine’s most convoluted, strenuous coupling. So well-attuned are Whelan and Soto that I felt they inhabited each other’s brains, like characters in the X-Files.

Soto will retire after the spring 2005 New York City season, so this is our last summer to see him at SPAC. He’ll be dancing July 13 in the regional premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Shambards and at the Gala, July 17, in Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto.

The rising generation of dancers made a stunning impression in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3. Wonder-struck Stephen Hanna sought the elusive Carla Korbes in the Elegie, which has always seemed to me the incarnation of the old fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” who dance their slippers to tatters night after night in their blue-lit ballroom. Like this year’s audience, Hanna must capture them before they’re gone.

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