Tanaquil LeClercq

A documentary on one of New York City Ballet’s most luminous dancers, Tanaquil LeClercq, was shown last year at the New York Film Festival and is at the moment being shown at festivals in Germany, notably Berlin. Called Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and made by Nancy Buirski, it has just been released commercially. The trailer gives a tiny glimpse of what we might expect on this documentary, which is about 1½ hours long. There is some footage of LeClercq, partnered by Jacques D’Amboise in the Robbins Afternoon of a Faun, which indicates what an extraordinary interpretation these two gave to the role. But there is much else to admire, even from the trailer. What a fabulous performance in the very brief look we get at Western Symphony! and so on … The still photographs are just incredible too.

I can’t wait to see the full documentary despite the fact that some critics have suggested it is ‘flawed’ in parts. The footage is archival of course and so, sadly, a little blurred but even with the lack of high definition LeClercq is staggering.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq

Michelle Potter, 16 February 2014.

George Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’. New York City Ballet on film

New York does December in its own inimitable way and one annual and memorable event is a season of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet. This year, however, you didn’t have to be in New York to see the production. It was filmed live on 13 December and relayed in a high definition cinema broadcast across the United States. Just before Christmas it was screened in movie houses in Britain, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Australia.

While we all know that there’s nothing like being there, I loved the way this Nutcracker was so carefully filmed, especially Act I. I even liked the way the camera selected close-ups and never felt I was missing out on the action by having a close-up cut into the full stage view. I mostly liked the views shot from a side box too, especially in the Snowflakes scene where a high view accentuated the enclosed space of the snow-covered forest without taking anything away from the dancing. From a filmic point of view, Act II was probably less successful. But I suspect that this had something to do with Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s somewhat overwrought set of sweets and candies. Its visual complexities detract from the dancing at the best of times and, when seen on screen, the limitations of the two dimensionality of the medium are accentuated. However, I never once wished it had been shot in 3D!

One aspect of Balanchine’s version that I find especially enjoyable is the way in which children are incorporated into the production and the way the adult performers never treat them as anything but an integral part of the narrative. In Act I the children dance with the adults as well as with each other and have roles as soldiers, while in Act II they have their own roles as angels and as the children of Mother Ginger. In Act II they dance in the opening section and in the coda with all the panache of their adult counterparts. The coda in particular is quite fast but they are in there, totally unfazed and dancing beautifully.

The roles of Fritz and Marie, or Clara as we more commonly know her counterpart in Australia, are also children’s roles, rather than roles for smaller company members as often happens. The children from the School of American Ballet, who fill all the children’s roles, are professionals-in-training and it is hard to fault the way they conduct themselves on stage. In the role of Fritz, Maximilian Brooking Lendegger was captivatingly naughty and almost stole the show from the rather more placid and appropriately well-mannered Colby Clark as the princely child hero and nephew of Herr Drosselmeier. Marie was danced by a very composed Fiona Brennan. I was also mesmerised by a dark- haired child aged about eight, the youngest (or at least smallest in height) of the Polichinelles who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II. She grabbed my attention immediately with her innate understanding of how to use the space around her to achieve maximum effect from her movements.

Of the adult performers Megan Fairchild danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was partnered by Joaquin De Luz: lovely techniques both of them but on this occasion not much of the radiance that should accompany these roles. They are after all the roles of a prima ballerina and a premier danseur. The standout performers among the adults were Teresa Reichlen as a glamorously slinky Coffee, Tiler Peck as the leading Marzipan (in a tutu that I found clumsy and unattractive though) and Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop, the leading dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers. Bouder’s technical skills were electrifying. In Act I Adam Hendrickson gave a strong performance as Herr Drosselmeier. He captured every bit of the fantasy and mystery of this character.

The film was introduced by Kelly Ripa, who hosts a popular television series in the United States, and she also hosted several backstage interviews during the intermission. They included some interviews with excited child performers and a discussion of some of the technical tricks asociated with the production – the Christmas tree that grows during the transformation scene, for example. They were all interesting, even fascinating at times, but I could easily have done without some of Ripa’s comments. They were no doubt meant to appeal but often dumbed down what was happening.

Years ago now the American dance writer Edwin Denby remarked of Balanchine’s take on Nutcracker: ‘It’s Balanchine’s Oklahoma!’ This particular production, with sets by Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska, dates back to 1964 and it is indeed a very American production, right down to its flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh that carries Marie and her Prince across the stage in the closing scene. At Christmas its glitz, even when it’s a little over the top and even when Ripa behaves a little too ingenuously, is irresistible.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2011

A clip on YouTube is brief and promotional (but professionally shot) and gives an overview of what the production is like.

‘Jewels’. New York City Ballet

27 February 2010, David H. Koch Theater, New York

What a pleasure and a luxury it is to those whose home is not New York to see the full length Jewels. Made by Balanchine in 1967, each of its three distinct sections—’Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’—is set to music by three different composers, Fauré for ‘Emeralds’, Stravinsky for ‘Rubies’ and Tschaikovsky for ‘Diamonds’. Many have suggested that Jewels is also in homage to three different countries—’Emeralds’ to France, ‘Rubies’ to Balanchine’s adopted homeland, America, and ‘Diamonds’ to Russia. But in the end, Jewels is an evening of delicious and diverse dancing.

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. Diamonds is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

The structure of ‘Emeralds’ calls for two leading couples. On this occasion Abi Stafford and Jared Angle were a gracious couple, transcendent in their pas de deux, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford showed breathtaking expressiveness and expansiveness of movement. Robert Fairchild was impressive as the male member of the pas de trois of soloists, showing his courteous partnering without losing his own strong presence.

‘Rubies’ showcased a pert and prancey Janie Taylor and a boisterous Benjamin Millepied. They were more than ably supported by Savannah Lowrey and a strong corps de ballet whipping off the clean, fast footwork, flicking wrists and eye catching head movements of this section.

The big disappointment, however, came with ‘Diamonds’. There were some uplifting moments—a polonaise for the corps de ballet that was just joyous Balanchine, for example. But Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal lacked attack in their pas de deux and so the brilliance and strength that should characterise this act was lost. And Whelan seemed hugely uncomfortable in her 1960s style ‘powder puff’ tutu.

New York City Ballet’s Jewels could well do with a redesign in my opinion. While choreographically it remains as modern as today, as the French ballerina Aurélie Dupont has remarked, both Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s scenery for New York City Ballet are fussy and look outmoded. Christian Lacroix and Brigitte Lefèvre have made the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging of Jewels a cut above that of New York City Ballet. Lacroix’s scenery verges on the minimalist and his costumes, while they recall those of Karinska, have a more contemporary feel (especially the tutus for ‘Diamonds’), which to my mind allows the choreography to maximise its ‘as modern as today’ image.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2010

Two by Balanchine. New York City Ballet

Liebeslieder Walzer; Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, 20 February 2010

This double bill of works by Balanchine had two highlights for me: Teresa Reichlen’s performance in the leading female role in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 and that of Wendy Whelan in Liebeslieder Walzer.

Teresa Reichlen, whom I remember admiring in a variety of solo roles in 2007, was promoted to principal dancer in 2009. Her dancing is still a little coltish but her limbs are beautifully proportioned in relation to her trunk and she is technically self-assured. But more than anything else she is an artist who understands how to maximise her technical ability and physical capacity. Her dancing shows in particular the expansiveness that can characterise balletic movement. In Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto her grands jetés en tournant provided a breathtaking example. Each time we watched this step unfold on stage, as Reichlen thrust the second leg into the air her chest opened, her neck stretched and her head lifted. Here before our eyes was the broadness of scale, the open and communicative nature of classical ballet.

I continue to think, however, that this ballet, which in an earlier manifestation was called Ballet Imperial, would have more impact with the female dancers in tutus, as was earlier the case. Despite any changes that may have been made to the original 1941 version, the ballet is still structurally and in its vocabulary a Petipa-style ballet and begs to be costumed in the Petipa tradition. Those floating chiffon ‘night-dress numbers’ do nothing for it.

Wendy Whelan, in contrast to Reichlen, has been a principal since 1991 and her maturity as a dancer and an artist is clear. But again she is one of those dancers who is able to use technique as a means to an end. Liebeslieder Walzer, like the Tschaikovsky, also contained some breathtaking technical moments. Perhaps the most moving occurred in the very last pas de deux for Whelan and her partner when a series of posé turns by Whelan suddenly and unexpectedly gave way to a promenade in arabesque with her partner deftly moving into place to take Whelan’s hand and lead her into the promenade. The surprise of this movement was of course partly Balanchine at work, but it took Whelan’s fluid dancing to bring it so beautifully to life.

Both Reichlen and Whelan have that knack of showing an audience what artistry is about. They both are able to take ones breath away with what so often in the hands of lesser dancers looks like just another step.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2010

New York City Ballet’s Australian tour, 1958

A recent comment posted on this website spoke of the differences between the styles of three major ballet companies visiting Australia in the mid-decades of the twentieth century: de Basil’s Ballets Russes, Ballet Rambert and New York City Ballet. The comment went on to note that perhaps the most enthusiastic attendees at New York City Ballet performances when that company first visited Australia in 1958 were those interested in stage and film musicals. The full remark about the attendees can be read in the comments section at the end of the post at this link, and it prompted me to post the small picture gallery below.

 

Images top row: (left) Symphony in C, (right) Stars and Stripes
Bottom row: (left) Concerto Barocco, (right) Serenade

Most of the repertoire brought to Australia by New York City Ballet was by Balanchine although works by Jerome Robbins and Todd Bolender were also included. But even looking at the small number of  images in the gallery, it is clear that the range of works was diverse. The gallery includes images of some of Balanchine’s works that might be seen as redolent of musical theatre, along with others from some of his most glorious pared-back, abstract creations.

New York City Ballet did not receive the attention in Australia that it deserved and the company was disappointed with its reception, according to Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie was a close friend of several of the dancers as a result of her decade of dancing in the Americas. She believed that New York City Ballet’s repertoire and style of dancing were way ahead of Australian audiences’ expectations at the time. Tweedie also noted that there were financial issues that caused the dancers some unhappiness. She has remarked in an oral history interview that the dancers were not able to take their salary, paid to them in Australian dollars, out of the country but had to spend it in Australia. It was the reason, she maintains, that Andre Eglevsky came but stayed only a week or so. He had a family to support in America and could not afford to spend his money on frivolous items such as souvenirs.

All the images in the gallery were taken during performance by Walter Stringer, an enthusiastic amateur photographer based in Melbourne. His photographic record of almost every dance company that performed in Melbourne between about 1940 and 1980 is of inestimable documentary value, especially given that his archive is now in public hands and so available to all for research.

Further comments, including identification of dancers in the Stringer images, are welcome. All photos are reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2009

Featured image:

New York City Ballet in Western Symphony. Melbourne, Australian tour, 1958