Ballo della Regina and pas de deux from After the Rain. New York City Ballet

4 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

For me the two works on this New York City Ballet digital program are worlds apart. I have loved Ballo della Regina, choreographed by George Balanchine especially for Merrill Ashley in 1978, since I first saw it years ago now. On the other hand, After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in 2005, has never been a favourite for me, especially when only the pas de deux is shown rather than the whole work.

The production of Ballo della Regina that was streamed on this occasion was filmed in 2016 and featured NYCB principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the leading roles. I was interested to hear, in the introduction to the program, that Merrill Ashley handed down the ballet to Fairchild for her graduation performance from School of American Ballet in 2002. A graduation performance! And from the astonishing performer Merrill Ashley! Well the film was made around 14 years or so after that graduation and Fairchild has more than lived up to Ashley’s belief in her.

Ballo della Regina is probably not the most intellectually demanding ballet in any repertoire but it must surely be on of the most technically demanding. The female lead needs such fast and precise footwork, incredible musicality to keep the footwork in time with the music, and extraordinary energy. And the steps themselves are beyond the ordinary with unexpected changes of pace and direction and extraordinary use of the pointes. The male lead is also pushed technically, again with unexpected additions to standard movements. Both Fairchild and Huxley rose to the occasion and gave a performance that equalled any I have seen before and surpassed most.

Like most streaming programs Ballo is only available for a short time, but here is a short excerpt from the ballet with commentary by Fairchild, which should be available for longer.

The ballet is such a wonderful example of Balanchine’s choreography. We expect to a certain extent the fast footwork (although perhaps not always as demanding as we see in Ballo della Regina) but in Ballo we also see his particular use of arms and upper body (unusual inclines of the body and again those unexpected combinations). Then, when the whole cast is on stage, we notice so clearly his particular use of space along with the way he places the dancers in that space. Ballo was a great addition to the many available lockdown programs.

As for After the Rain, I have never liked what to me are awkward poses—upturned feet, parallel positions, crouching and collapsing bodies, back views of the dancers and manipulation of bodies using the feet, for example. They sit uncomfortably alongside those parts of the pas de deux that are anything but awkward. Still it was interesting to see Wendy Whelan in the role that was made on her. She was partnered by Craig Hall and the performance was filmed in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2020

Featured image: Promotional image for Ballo della Regina and After the Rain pas de deux. New York City Ballet, 2020

Christopher Wheeldon triple bill. The Royal Ballet

10 March 2016, Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In this triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon from the Royal Ballet, it was especially pleasing to see the full version of After the rain. Its visually arresting choreography for three couples in the first part, performed to Tabula rasa by Arvo Pärt, shows Wheeldon as his sculptural best as arms and legs swing from pose to pose and dancers move in unison and counterpoint. Dressed in grey practice clothes the six dancers perform in front of a geometric lighting design (59 Productions) consisting of of two squares of light. A central one, blue-ish white in colour, sits inside a larger one of grey-ish blue. Simple but effective, these two squares echo the colours of the costumes and also the formally structured choreography.

The pas de deux that follows, often danced without the opening movement, was a disappointment for me. Perhaps I needed to be sitting closer as I missed the quiet emotion that I have seen in performances by other companies? But then a seat in the theatre shouldn’t affect such things if the work is well performed. Perhaps too the physiques of Zenaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke, who danced the pas de deux, were not far enough apart from each other to highlight what I think are the qualities of this section, danced again to Pärt, this time to the gently reflective Spiegel im Spiegel? The work was made originally for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet and together, with their very different body shapes, they suggested an entrancing strength and frailty that was not apparent, and that I missed, with Yanowsky and Clarke. In fact I’m not sure what their performance suggested beyond a dance for two.

Wheeldon’s newest work, Strapless, a one act narrative ballet centring on the scandal surrounding the showing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mme Gautreau in Paris at the Salon of 1884, was a mixed blessing. When the curtain went up on an empty picture frame attached to a grey-coloured screen I was consumed by curiosity. How would this work unfold? And the opening moments, as Mme Gautreau took her time choosing her wardrobe for the unveiling of Sargent’s portrait while her husband fussed at her slowness, was very nicely choreographed with movement that defined the two characters. Strapless returned in its closing scene to that opening picture frame, which this time was not empty but contained the finished portrait, although now Mme Gautreau was broken in spirit by the scandal that emerged when the portrait showed that one strap of her black gown had slipped off her shoulder. Without the trappings of her former life, and dressed only in a skin-coloured, body-hugging costume, we watched as she sought to make sense of her situation.

In between the opening and closing scenes, the work felt like a cross between a Broadway musical, with a ‘chorus’ of dancers representing Parisian society performing choreography that seemed like it had come from a Busby Berkeley show; and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend when that same chorus started to look like tight-lipped parishioners. The score from Mark-Anthony Turnage didn’t help either as it hardly sounded like the era of La belle époque.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Mme Gautreau was not having one of her best nights, unfortunately, and was a little unsteady on occasions. And with so many changes of scene in a one act ballet—the work began in 1884, slipped back to 1881, came forward to 1883 and ended where it began in 1884—there was a need for moveable scenery (screens, door frames and the like), Unfortunately again, the scenery was trundled on and off very noisily and so many people (characters and scene changers) constantly slipping on and off stage was decidedly disruptive to the smooth unfolding of the storyline. I also found it hard to follow who was who among the male principals. The printed program, like all Royal Ballet programs I have encountered, was excellent, full of explanatory notes and articles, but any work for the stage needs to be easily understood, I believe, without having to resort to reading a convoluted story in a program.

Circumstances were such that I was unable to stay for the final Wheeldon work, Within the golden hour. But perhaps it was just as well. I am able to retain, as a result, an image of a work I enjoyed immensely on a previous occasion in San Francisco.

Michelle Potter, 12 March 2016

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 detail

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 (detail)

The image above is a detail of an unfinished version of the Sargent portrait, which I saw in the Tate Britain and which has no strap at all on Mme Gautreau’s right shoulder. In the version that was shown in the Salon of 1884, and which caused the scandal, the right shoulder strap was painted as having fallen off the shoulder. The final version, in which Sargent repainted the fallen strap into its regular position, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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