Monday, February 26, 2007

New York City Ballet

On the Sunday afternoon of the three-day weekend we spent in New York, my mother and my sister-in-law and Joshua and I attended a performance of the New York City Ballet.

We went because Josh had never seen the interior of the New York State Theater, and because he had never seen a performance by the New York City Ballet.

Philip Johnson's State Theater is the best of the Lincoln Center buildings, by far, and it is a good building, although hardly a perfect one. In Minneapolis, Johnson is known for his IDS skyscraper, still the tallest building in the city after over three decades. Quite obviously, I know that building exceedingly well.

At the State Theater, I think it was a mistake to place the main public area one floor above street level. I also think it was a mistake to have such small public areas for the upper rings, practically forcing the entire audience to descend to the main promenade during each intermission.

The auditorium, however, is excellent. It has good sight-lines, it is handsome but not over-decorated, and it has aged well.

All four of us would have preferred an all-Balanchine program, I believe, but the program on offer was the only one we could attend that weekend.

Christopher Wheeldon's "Klavier", Alexei Ratmansky's "Russian Seasons" and Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" were the ballets performed that afternoon.

The Wheeldon was set to the Adagio of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, and I hated the ballet, perhaps because I was offended that a choreographer would choose such an iconic piece of absolute music as the basis for a ballet. I have never believed that there was a ballet waiting to escape from the "Hammerklavier" Adagio and, having now seen one, I still do not. Was not this the sort of thing that Isadora Duncan tried? My mother, my sister-in-law and Josh hated the Wheeldon work, too.

I did not know what to make of the Ratmansky ballet. The score was by Leonid Desyatnikov, a Ukrainian composer totally unknown to me, and the ballet--purely classical--sometimes suggested Russian folk dancing and sometimes suggested Russian Orthodox church rituals. I thought that the ballet was too long--it lasted forty minutes or so--and I thought that the ballet lacked a sharp focus. However, it was clear that Ratmansky is a very talented choreographer, and I would like to see this ballet again, but not for another six months or so.

"The Four Temperments" is a great ballet, and I enjoyed seeing it again very much. Josh did not like it, however, and he said that he thought that the music and the choreography were "too monochrome". I told Josh that if he saw the ballet three or four more times over the course of the next several years, he would probably grow to love it. He is not convinced.

New York City Ballet has changed the way it presents repertory programs. Instead of presenting a different sequence of ballets for each performance, it now presents a series of fixed, "themed" programs. The program we attended was called "Visionary Voices", a meaningless title no doubt dreamed up by the marketing department. Consequently, dance lovers who want to see "The Four Temperaments" have no choice but to see the Wheeldon and Ratmansky works, too, as these works are always offered together, as a package. I think that this new programming initiative is a mistake.

Peter Martins has been constantly criticized since he assumed the directorship of the company after Balanchine's death. His choreography has been criticized (with justification), his casting has been criticized, his training and development of dancers has been criticized, and his repertory choices and programming have been criticized.

Personally, I could care less whether Peter Martins is criticized. However, who else is there in the ballet world that might assume the same post and do a better job? Is there anyone, anywhere, with superior qualifications and a lifetime of immersion in the Balanchine repertory? I do not think so. Many persons have suggested that Suzanne Farrell might be a better candidate to lead the company, but she has been away from the company for so long (barred by Martins, in fact) that it may no longer be possible for her to step into Martins' shoes.

Martins, at least, has kept the company intact for the twenty-four years since Balanchine's death, and the company's administration and finances are widely-deemed to be efficient.

He is in an impossible position--having to follow a legend, an unenviable task, similar to the impossibility of following John Wooden at U.C.L.A.--and yet he has lasted almost a quarter of a century. That has to say something about his skills.

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