Christopher Wheeldon isn’t saying farewell to the New York City Ballet, even though he’s 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 hasn’t 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, Tchaikovsky’s 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 Hynes’s 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.
Wheeldon’s small cast is somewhat in keeping with Tchaikovsky’s scaled-down orchestra (strings, pairs of wind instruments, and two horns), but the choreography doesn’t 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 Wheeldon’s inventions capture the spirit of rococo design—its 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 it’s repeated several times over the course of the ballet, I couldn’t 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. It’s almost like creating a knot in order to untangle one. Now they’re ready to join the party.
As in most of Wheeldon’s ballets, the performers often drop to the floor—not 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 deux—slow for Mearns and Danchig Waring, fast and sprightly for Hyltin and Villalobos—and 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, they’re still doing this, and they look as if they might keep it up all night.
Choreographers like Wheeldon bring new perspectives to the company’s repertory, but the program dubbed “Balanchine’s World” reveals that that world in itself certainly doesn’t lack variety. Balanchine’s ravishing Tombeau de Couperin, created for the NYCB’s 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 Couperin’s 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? He’s 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 Hay’s handsome scenery and Toshiro Mayazumi’s score refer to the ancient Japanese court form, the ballet is a ritual mating—miles 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, there’s 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 Balanchine’s 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 he’d 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 Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula) is the fact that Vittorio Rieti based his score on themes from opera. Balanchine’s ballet is far darker than Eugène Scribe’s original tale of jealousy, near-tragic misunderstandings, and suspect virginity. It’s memorable not for the party-entertainment divertissements that don’t 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 it’s justified. Too, if he didn’t know the host’s 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) isn’t quite as bizarre as the Poet’s 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 who’s 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, there’s a wealth of splendid performing. Fairchild may be new to the mysteries of Balanchine’s 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 Balanchine’s Apollo and substituting for Rebecca Krohn in Alexei Ratmansky’s 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, wouldn’t turn a coyly imperious beckoning gesture—“follow me, handsome”— into just another port de bras). Damian Woetzel—soon, alas, to leave the company—wears all his roles as if they were suits he’d been slipping into for years. He’s 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 didn’t want to see him leave—that 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 god’s 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 Apollo’s 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 Martins’s quartet, Zakouksi, allowed him to delve into flashing, twisting steps and sultry gypsy bravado. In “Cool,” from Jerome Robbins’s 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 Hübbe’s heritage and looked forward to his new position. Coached by him, Kathryn Morgan and David Prottas, two very bright and talented dancers in NYCB’s corps de ballet, performed the pas de deux from August Bournonville’s 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! It’ll be a great adventure.