Actually, in this revival, I wondered if they weren't eroding almost too much. Reconstructions of Oscar de la Renta's costumes (tights and blousy shirts for the men, sleeveless dresses for the women) blur the color differences between the greens (led by Angle and Sara Mearns) and the blues (captained by Garcia and Stafford). Instead of the pale blue costumes worn at the premiere (at least by the principals and the demi-soloists), this blue is deeper and closer to the green. It would be fun to be able to know for sure that it's Tharp's rambunctious green men who swing Stafford dangerously around and that it's the blue men retaliating when they carry Mearns offstage, she laboriously turning herself and clambering around atop their shoulders. Maybe the downplaying of differences was a deliberate decision. Otherwise why cast Angle, an elegant and princely dancer, in a role built on Bart Cook, a naturally ruggeder and spunkier performer, while Garcia, warmer and wittier, plays the guy in blue? (Angle, however, deserves praise for the gusto with which he attacks Tharp's impudent eccentricities, and the devilish duet with Mearns comes off well). On one viewing, it's my impression that the dancers—magnificent all— need some coaching by a Tharp expert.

Brahms/Handel keeps your eyes racing around, tracking counterpoint and family resemblances through a delirious maelstrom of dancing, with occasional sober unison patterns and mix-and-match duets. The moods change as swiftly as they do in musical variations that encompass friskiness, sweetness, turbulence and a certain triumphant pomposity. People hurtle on and off the stage, fall into one another's arms, bolt into the air, and engage in daring, fleeting interactions. Everything comes together in the final fugue by the end of which you're almost too dizzy to stand up and cheer. This program will be presented again upstate at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in July.

It's fitting that Damian Woetzel, still in his artistic prime at 41, chose to give his last performance during the Robbins Celebration. He has said that seeing and loving Robbins's ballets was what prompted him to enroll in NYCB's affiliate School of American Ballet in 1984 as a teenager (he was invited to join the company only six weeks later). Two of the roles he chose to appear in on June 18th were ones danced by Robbins himself: the third sailor in the choreographer's 1944 Fancy Free and the biblical rebel in Balachine's 1929 Prodigal Son.

Woetzel in Balanchine's Prodigal Son
Woetzel in Balanchine's Prodigal Son


New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
April 29 through June 29

For Balanchine's Rubies (from Jewels), he engineered changes in casting so that Megan Fairchild and Garcia were the principal couple in the first movement, Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz (the only ones named in the program) took over for the second movement, and, to the delight of the crowd, Woetzel himself bounded on with Yvonne Borree to lead the third.

Woetzel is one of those rare dancers who downplays effort. Maybe that, too, attracted him to Robbins's oeuvre. He can make even the most difficult step look as natural and easy as walking (although much, much less boring), and, although he's elegantly proportioned enough to carry off princely roles, I get the impression they're not his favorites. He excels at the sprightly, the witty, the all-American. Both Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon capitalized on his easy-going charm and virtuosity and his sensitivity to the subtleies of drama, and the Balanchine roles he was often cast in exploited those qualities (a cowboy in Western Symphony, “El Capitan” in Stars and Stripes, and the sly, bravura roles in ballets like Rubies).

At his farewell performance, with Taylor Angle and De Luz as his buddies, he inhabited his role in Fancy Free with all the requisite braggadocio and naivete. Seldom has the New York skyline looked as intoxicatingly big as it did to his sailor on leave, and never have I seen the barroom duet (with Tiler Peck as Woetzel's sweetly accommodating partner) look so increasingly tender and—in a questioning and exploratory way—so sexy. In Rubies, dancing the role created on Edward Villella, he was wonderfully buoyant, and rhythmically acute in terms of the Stravinsky score. The choreography calls for a dancer who can make virtuosity into a sharp-witted romp, a stroll with pals, and a happy dialogue with his girl. That's Woertzel.

But he shrugs himself out of all that ease when he takes on Prodigal Son. His is one of the deepest, most nuanced performances I've seen. How wonderfully he portrays the angry restlessness of the hero at the ballet's outset! His huge leaps toward imagined freedom show both how confined he feels by family tradition and how elated he is at the prospect of a life beyond home. He puts his technique at the service of the story; you can marvel at how he pauses, suspended, at the end of a pirouette before falling into rebellious stomping, but his timing also expresses the cleft between a hoped-for future and present reality. When the goons who accompany the Siren (an imposing Maria Kowroski) begin to make nice to him for their own nasty purposes, he's so touchingly proud of himself for imitating their coarse movements that you want to yell “Watch out!” And as the chastened hero crawls home, he sets each knee down with a clunk that makes you understand why they are bloody and how doggedly he has to drive himself forward.

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