Christopher Wheeldon and Nikolaj Hübbe Say Goodbye
Christopher Wheeldon isnt saying farewell to the New York City Ballet, even though hes leaving his post as Resident Choreographer in order to focus on the company he formed last year (Morphoses/The Wheeldon Project). NYCB will simply take its place in the lineup of organizations anxious to acquire ballets by this gifted man. Spreading himself too thin will, I suspect, be an ongoing problem to surmount.
He hasnt conceived his choreographic au revoir to the company he joined as a dancer in 1993 as a fanfare. No sounding of trumpets or bringing on of tutued hordes in homage to the magnificent dance kingdom that George Balanchine built. Instead he has created an elegant little envoy of a ballet, with flourishes of eccentricity in keeping with its title, Rococo Variations, and its music, Tchaikovskys Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, opus 33. It is performed by just two couples, who might be out for a decorous night on the town together. At one point, just for a second, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Giovanni Villalobos lean out to each other from behind their partners, as if for a conspiratorial exchange (you happy with your date?).
This is a well-dressed foursome, and neither of the women (Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin) appears worried that she may have bought the same outfit as her friend. They both look gorgeous in Holly Hyness delectable strapless gowns, with fancy gold trim edging the very full chocolate-brown skirts. The men sport beige tights, gold vests, and full-sleeved white shirts.
Wheeldons small cast is somewhat in keeping with Tchaikovskys scaled-down orchestra (strings, pairs of wind instruments, and two horns), but the choreography doesnt equate a solo performer with the cello that Fred Zlotkin plays in the pit. Nor does it follow the theme-and-variations form as strictly as the music does, although in both, classical formality is perfumed by whiffs of Romanticism. Some of Wheeldons inventions capture the spirit of rococo designits graceful lightness, its embellishing scrolls and curlicues and shell moifs, its playful eccentricities. The entrance of the first couple is so involved that, even though its repeated several times over the course of the ballet, I couldnt parse it. Mearns stands close to the edge of the stage, slightly caved-in, pushing down on her skirt, or her flank. Danching-Waring, dipping low, ducks under her arms and slips his own through them and around her in some way. Its almost like creating a knot in order to untangle one. Now theyre ready to join the party.
As in most of Wheeldons ballets, the performers often drop to the floornot from any excess of emotion, but to deepen the trajectory of a movement phrase. And every now and them a thoroughly standard gesture is set off like a new discovery by both choreographic timing and the sensitivity of the adept young dancers. In one of the duets for Mearns and Danchig-Waring, she, poised on one toe and steadied by her partner, slowly folds her other leg down from a high extension as if the move gave her immense pleasure. Although there are fine pas de deuxslow for Mearns and Danchig Waring, fast and sprightly for Hyltin and Villalobosand a scampy display of jumps by the two men, the picture that stays with me is that of the two couples, close together, slipping from vigorous unison into mirror-image symmetry, like an opening scallop shell, and then suddenly darting their movements in the same direction again. When the curtain comes down, theyre still doing this, and they look as if they might keep it up all night.
Choreographers like Wheeldon bring new perspectives to the companys repertory, but the program dubbed Balanchines World reveals that that world in itself certainly doesnt lack variety. Balanchines ravishing Tombeau de Couperin, created for the NYCBs 1975 Ravel Festival, has no stars. Eight couples formed into two quadrilles charm the eye with the twinning of their meet-and-greet patterns and orderly partner changes. The stage becomes an optical delight of shifting squares, semi-circles, and diagonals. And the youthful verve of the dancers in their black and white practice clothes freshen the formality of the designs, just as Ravel respectfully unbuttons Couperins 18th-century manners.
The 1964 Tarantella is all verve. And flirty bravado. The rollicking music is by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, orchestrated by Hershy Kay but with a piano soloist (Susan Walters). Balanchine designed it as a showpiece for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride and whatever virtuosi could follow in their footsteps. So what if Daniel Ulbricht drops his tambourine one night and goes a little over the top in terms of exuberance? Hes still the hottest jumper in town, and Fairchild is a charmer. Balanchine knew how to get a crowd cheering.
Bugaku (1963) provokes a different sort of reaction. This bit of delicate exotica evokes not only erotic Japanese prints but the patronizing visions of 19th-century orientalism. Balanchine was inspired by performances by visiting Gagaku musicians and Bugaku performers. Although David Hays handsome scenery and Toshiro Mayazumis score refer to the ancient Japanese court form, the ballet is a ritual matingmiles away from a court dance with religious significance performed by men. Better he had called it The Deflowering.
However, amid the pinup-girl stances, cocked heads, and helpless little hands displayed by the ballerina and her ladies-in-waiting in this painted-teacup world, theres a slyly explicit pas de deux to which Maria Kowroski brings a whole new dimension, partly because of her size. When this long lean woman spreads her legs for a far too stolid Albert Evans (a samurai cast in stone), you know something more cosmic than a pro forma coupling is going on.
Nikolaj Hübbe in Balanchines Apollo
photo: Paul Kolnik
Balanchine knew how to tell a story, although he rarely wanted to. La Sonnambula is one of his most mysterious forays into narrative. I wish hed continued to call it Night Shadow , the title it bore when he made it in 1946 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, because its only link to the 1827 ballet La Sonnambula and the opera it inspired (Vincenzo Bellinis opera La Sonnambula ) is the fact that Vittorio Rieti based his score on themes from opera. Balanchines ballet is far darker than Eugène Scribes original tale of jealousy, near-tragic misunderstandings, and suspect virginity. Its memorable not for the party-entertainment divertissements that dont seem to divert the guests very much, but for the gothic creepiness of the final duet. It helps that Nikolaj Hübbe makes the Poet far sexier than other dancers have done. Everyone onstage stops and stares when he arrives, apparently uninvited, and in this case its justified. Too, if he didnt know the hosts sly and sensual mistress previously, he certainly gets to first base fast. While Adam Hendrickson is spotlit as a frisky, slightly nasty Harlequin, your gaze slips past him to Hübbe and Mearns on a bench at the back, whispering and touching with covert greediness.
The woman who appears bearing a candle and pattering numbly around on pointe, with the breeze blowing her filmy white nightgown is a docile version of the madwoman in the attic (see Jane Eyre). She (in this case Darci Kistler) isnt quite as bizarre as the Poets reaction to her. He wafts her in one direction and then rushes to catch her. He pushes her into positions like a child experimenting with a new toy. He tries to catch her feet as they purl along. But whos the stronger here? She can step over his outspread limbs without looking, and when the host (a dignified Amar Ramsar) stabs him out of jealousy, this fragile female bears him off to her lair as if he were a featherweight.
In this program, as in others spread over the season, theres a wealth of splendid performing. Fairchild may be new to the mysteries of Balanchines Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée, but she develops her poses with the velvety roundness of an opening blossom, and Benjamin Millepied brings a poetic unrest to his pursuit of her. Rachel Rutherford, performing Calliope in Balanchines Apollo and substituting for Rebecca Krohn in Alexei Ratmanskys Russian Seasons, dances both roles with a lovely clarity and fullness. Stephen Hanna depicts the smart-jumping, self-satisfied El Capitan in Stars and Stripes excellently and holds his own against the brazenly virtuosic Liberty Bell of Ashley Bouder. Albert Evans has the lowdown on the lonesome cowpoke in Western Symphony (I could wish his partner, the lovely Hyltin, wouldnt turn a coyly imperious beckoning gesturefollow me, handsome into just another port de bras). Damian Woetzelsoon, alas, to leave the companywears all his roles as if they were suits hed been slipping into for years. Hes able to bring out all the nuances lurking in the steps and downplay the physical effort so that every formidable feat seems to come from nowhere, as if it were simply part of his everyday language.
And speaking of departures, on February 10, Nikolaj Hübbe danced for the last time as a principal with NYCB. He leaves to take over the directorship of the Royal Danish Ballet. The cheering fans and the throwers of bouquets and his colleagues assembling on stage didnt want to see him leavethat afternoon or ever. And with reason. Few male dancers combine his handsome presence, his charisma, his superb dancing, and his sense of drama. He makes every woman he partners look desired and desirable.
He opened his farewell program with Apollo, bringing out the gods youthful curiosity and letting us see that develop through moments of doubt into full confidence. All this, he provided subtly, without distorting the choreography in any way. For him, the lute was more than a prop; it was something to be examined and investigated. And he showed that he understood the nymphs as both vital to him and dependant upon him. When Wendy Whelan gently folded her arms around him before she, Rutherford, and Bouder formed the sunburst of arabesques that affirm Apollos godhood, she looked as if she wanted never to let him go.
The program, showing Hübbe in some of his prominent guises, highlighted his versatility. Peter Martinss quartet, Zakouksi, allowed him to delve into flashing, twisting steps and sultry gypsy bravado. In Cool, from Jerome Robbinss West Side Story Suite, he not only danced with street-smart, tough-guy manners, he sang the Bernstein-Sondheim song with which Riff dominates the angry, restless Jets. And finally, when the Rondo of Western Symphony came along, he romped outrageously, delighted with Kowroski, and matching her strutting and needle-point footwork with jumps and spins that had a spur-of-the-moment ease. As if he was riding the wave of our love and, tired as he must have been, relishing this last endeavor.
The afternoon also paid homage to Hübbes heritage and looked forward to his new position. Coached by him, Kathryn Morgan and David Prottas, two very bright and talented dancers in NYCBs corps de ballet, performed the pas de deux from August Bournonvilles Flower Festival in Genzano. Hübbe, trained in the Bournonville style and performing as a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet before joining NYCB, knows this repertory well. One of his jobs in Copenhagen will be preserving it; another will be fostering new choreography in the three theaters available to him. Bon voyage, Nikolaj! Itll be a great adventure.
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