Hunting New Classics

What to Serve With Vintage Balanchine

Lobbing intermission venom or cybertomatoes at New York City Ballet's Diamond Project is a good game. How many useful works, we grouse, have emerged from this intermittent spring blitz of premieres? Yet ballet companies need new pieces for financial health and dancers' morale. NYCB can't, we're told, live off Balanchine and Robbins and count on Peter Martins to supply fresh fodder each season.

But where are the inspired young choreographers committed to classicism? More and more ballet companies turn to choreographers who came up through modern dance, where choreography is an assumed mission and formal daring is honored. Those who, like Twyla Tharp, respect ballet's history and conventions while nudging it out of its niche are rare. Martins is firm about maintaining NYCB's classical profile (although one of the most memorable Diamond Project works was Angelin Preljocaj's 1997 La Stravaganza). This spring's nine offerings were all by company members or alums; four will appear on NYCB programs at Saratoga through July 22.

Miriam Mahdaviani's Appalachia Waltz was the last to premiere. Like her three previous Diamond Project ballets, this one is sweet-mannered. It's set to a series of short pieces by Edgar Meyer and virtuosic bluegrass fiddler Mark O'Connor. Violinist Paul Peabody, cellist Fred Zlotkin, and double bassist Ron Wasserman play onstage. The music is a sophisticated consideration of the folk idiom, with the shifting balance between the instruments creating intriguing textures. Appalachia's best features are its score and Mahdaviani's sensitivity to her 12 dancers and skill at showing them off in engaging ways.

Riding the music: Jenifer Ringer in Miriam Mahdaviani’s Appalachia Waltz at NYCB
photo: Paul Kolnik
Riding the music: Jenifer Ringer in Miriam Mahdaviani’s Appalachia Waltz at NYCB

The beginning is slightly strained; against Mark Stanley's lighting design of tree branches, three men heft invisible mallets in slow motion. Suddenly it's a Saturday night dance; couples sashay in for some rambunctious partnering with flying lifts. Mahdaviani keeps her principal couples—Jenifer Ringer and Nilas Martins, Jennie Somogyi and Albert Evans—and four other pairs weaving in and out. The nuzzling of Eva Natanya and Arch Higgins sets off a series of lively cross-fading duets; Samantha Allen and Jared Angle break in. Natanya and Higgins drop out to watch this pair continue; then Aesha Ash and Jeroen Hofmans join to form another brief quartet. All six watch Rachel Rutherford and James Fayette. The performing is delectable. The ballet's fine, just a trifle thin.

Mahdaviani's tempos are generally moderate and easygoing, like everything else about the ballet. Sometimes she finishes a phrase with a pose that falls too patly on the end of the musical phrase. Appalachia suffered from following Balanchine's 1960 Donizetti Variations. Them's the breaks. At one point in his exhilarating "Italian" dance festival—the master's frisky homage to August Bournonville and sly nod to opera—three men in tight formation pop crisscrossing leaps in canon. It's as if Balanchine were lacing the music's shoes.

One "new" ballet deserves to be performed more. A superb cast (Allen, Ringer, Michele Gifford, Benjamin Millepied, Alexander Ritter, and Kathleen Tracey) dances Merce Cunningham's beautiful 1958 Summerspace barefoot, but for all its seemingly random entrances and exits—dragonflies cross a field, butterflies hover, individuals intent on their own serene business intersect—it has the air of a classical piece. The movement, completely unexpected, is also purposeful, Apollonian. Some audience members may rustle and cough over Morton Feldman's delicate buzzing score or the lack of climaxes, but Summerspace is one major—and radical—"modern" work at home in Balanchine's repertory.

Programming it just after Jerome Robbins's violent 1951 masterwork The Cage brought out the insectlike aspects of Cunningham's work, but also sabotaged it a bit. The Cage is so brilliantly plotted that by the time the Novice has dispatched her lover—twisting his neck between her slender legs—we're too het up for quiet liveliness. Wendy Whelan is astonishing in Cage, especially in the uncanny solo Robbins devised for this insect Giselle. She stretches her awkward young limbs, and we almost feel her clawing out of a sticky chrysalis. On the same program: a splendid Concerto Barocco with a wide-awake ensemble. Somogyi danced wonderfully as the second woman, and Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard brought out the subtle struggle Balanchine drew from Bach's intertwining violins. At times, Kowroski doesn't know where to focus, but she's still a marvel. Those who complain that the Balanchine repertory is not being well maintained should have been there.

 
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