Sunday, October 27, 2013

New York City Ballet

In New York for Columbus Day Weekend, we attended the October 12 Saturday matinee performance at New York City Ballet.


The first work on the program was a new work, Angelin Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence”, which had received its first performance in September, on opening night of the current NYCB season. “Spectral Evidence” is set to recorded vocal (and electronic) music of John Cage.

Like everything by Preljocaj, “Spectral Evidence” was extremely peculiar. Its subject matter is witchcraft; it was inspired by the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, convened to address one of the more bizarre outbreaks of mass hysteria to occur anywhere in the last thousand years.

The work is set for four female dancers and four male dancers. The women wear blood-stained white garments and the men wear semi-clerical black. The women are meant to be temptresses—and perhaps apparitions. The men are meant to be pure, unsullied and morally-upright—but in danger of being led astray.

The work is merely suggestive—the women appear to be put to death twice, once by burning and once by being buried alive (although the women also appear to commit joint suicides subsequent to the burnings and burials)—and to declare that “Spectral Evidence” has a plot would be a misstatement: it is a series of vague episodes on the themes of corruption and loss of innocence. The men remain onstage at the end, the women having vanished, while the audience is invited to speculate that the men themselves have become victims of diabolic spiritual possession.

“Spectral Evidence” has not been well-received, by critics or audiences, and it is destined quickly to disappear from NYCB schedules. The work has no choreographic interest—Preljocaj’s subject matter is always the presentation of chic, not the presentation of dance—and its pretensions are laughable, and often unpleasant.

At the ballet’s center was a remarkable performance by Robert Fairchild. Fairchild had clearly captivated the choreographer, and for Fairchild was created a role of startling range: Fairchild was required to be angelic one moment and full of fury the next (Fairchild was also called upon to lip-synch Cage’s “Aria No. 52”; to Fairchild’s credit, he carried it off without embarrassment). Watching Fairchild provided the only pleasure in “Spectral Evidence”. Fairchild is a very special dancer who has emerged as an important artist over the last half-dozen years.

In April 2012, we had attended Preljocaj’s evening-length “Snow White” in Minneapolis, performed by Preljocaj’s own company, Ballet Preljocaj, from Aix-En-Provence. “Snow White”, danced to Mahler, had been a tedious exercise in low-grade burlesque, leaving us disappointed that we had wasted our time. Preljocaj is a purveyor of pretentious kitsch; it amazes me that people in France take his work seriously.

Ballet Preljocaj returns to Minneapolis next week to offer the American premiere of another Preljocaj evening-length effort, “And then, one thousand years of peace”.

In promotional materials for “And then, one thousand years of peace”, the work is described as:

Another epic work inspired by visions of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. Visionary choreographer Angelin Preljocaj masterfully evokes what is nestled in the innermost recesses of our existence, rather than prophesizing about compulsive waves of catastrophe, irreparable destruction or the imminent end of the world. The use of intricate scenography and props such as chains, mirrors and flags, as well as the frequent costume changes, lend [sic] the piece an abstract theatricality. Preljocaj uses these tools to unveil elements of our everyday modern rituals in unexpected ways.

If the above paragraph does not frighten away prospective audience members, I cannot imagine what would. (And I must ask: Is someone paid to write such claptrap?)

We would not be able to sit through “And then, one thousand years of peace” without laughing ourselves silly.

We shall not be in attendance.


The second work on the NYCB program was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Soirée Musicale”, set to music of Samuel Barber.

“Soirée Musicale” was created for the School Of American Ballet in 1998; the ballet was added to NYCB’s repertory earlier this year (when the choreographer created a new pas de deux).

The ballet uses Barber’s orchestral version of “Souvenirs”.

When Barber wrote “Souvenirs” for piano four hands in 1952, he had not envisioned an orchestral version and he had not envisioned a ballet. It was Lincoln Kirstein who encouraged Barber to orchestrate the work and it was Kirstein who proposed that the orchestral version be used for a ballet.

Barber loved the idea, which is why he completed the task so quickly (Barber, usually a slow worker, completed the orchestration only months after the original piano composition). Barber’s publisher, Schirmer, loved the idea, too—and immediately began offering the orchestral score to orchestras throughout North America and Europe, an act that angered Barber greatly. Barber believed that “Souvenirs” should be known first as a ballet score, and not as an orchestral composition, and Barber urged Schirmer to withhold concert performances until the ballet had been unveiled.

Months of wrangling between composer and publisher followed, at the end of which it was agreed that there would be two concert performances—and only two—before “Souvenirs” was presented as a ballet: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony would perform the score in November 1953; and a London concert performance would be authorized for 1954.

In the meantime, New York City Ballet made plans for a 1955 premiere for the ballet; George Balanchine intended to choreograph “Souvenirs” himself. A series of disagreements between composer and choreographer—Balanchine wanted to create a pure abstract ballet, while Barber wanted “Souvenirs” to receive story treatment—resulted in Balanchine walking away from the project, turning it over to Todd Bolender.

It was a stroke of luck for Bolender. Bolender loved the material—and Bolender, like Barber, saw “Souvenirs” as a story ballet. Bolender went on to create his one enduring work, a major hit at NYCB for several seasons—until “Souvenirs” was dropped, unceremoniously, from NYCB’s repertory, never to reappear.

(Joshua and I saw a performance of Bolender’s “Souvenirs” at Kansas City Ballet in May 2012. Bolender’s ballet is a minor masterpiece, and should be widely performed.)

Wheeldon’s choreography for Barber’s score is purely abstract, along the lines of what Balanchine himself had contemplated sixty years ago. Wheeldon treated the score as an opportunity for a series of incidental social dances, with nary a plotline or storyline in sight.

“Soirée Musicale” is one of Wheeldon’s earliest ballets—Wheeldon was still an active dancer at NYCB at the time he created “Soirée Musicale”—and “Soirée Musicale” probably should not be viewed as a mature work. It is blandly neo-Balanchine in style and effect—even the costuming is neo-Karinska—and shows little of the individuality and skill Wheeldon was to acquire in the following decade.

“Soirée Musicale” was, I thought, instantly forgettable.


The third work on the NYCB program was Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”, premiered in 2010 and enjoying its first revival this season. It was the Ratmansky ballet that made our visit to NYCB worthwhile.

Working with Édouard Lalo’s complete ballet score from 1882, Ratmansky threw away the original scenario. In its place he presented a series of sparkling divertissements in which he used elements from the original scenario—sailors, pirates, gnomes, femme fatales (and the cigarette girl)—to comment, ironically, on 19th-Century ballet conventions. The ballet is both an hommage to and a deconstruction of 19th-Century Classical ballet.

There was an overabundance of ideas on display; one never knew where to look, there being so much quick-fire dance action onstage. Intelligence, sophistication, cleverness, wit, freshness, effervescence, joy—and ultimately warmth: all were evident in Ratmansky’s choreography.

A full contingent of dancers was used—principals, soloists, demi-caractère and corps—and the full range of Balanchine vocabulary was on display, starting with the most complicated, demanding pointe work imaginable, all danced up-to-speed. The virtuosity the ballet demands is staggering.

In a mark of his genius, Ratmansky kept the divertissement going for a full hour—and there were no lulls, no lagging episodes. Ratmansky held the audience’s attention tightly in his grip from first to last—and, at the end, the audience leapt to its feet and roared (as only a New York audience can).

“Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” is a masterpiece, and Ratmansky is a master choreographer.

We had seen Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons” at NYCB in February 2007, and we had seen Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” at NYCB in January 2009 and again in February 2011.

Neither of the two earlier Ratmansky ballets had prepared us for “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”.

The ballet is worthy of Balanchine—and there is no higher praise.


On October 12, Robert Fairchild danced the male lead in “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”. In 2010, the part had been created for Fairchild, but earlier performances this season had featured Tyler Angle in the role.

We were delighted to see Fairchild, and not Angle, dance the male lead. Fairchild may now be the finest American male dancer.

In terms of technique and stage presence, Fairchild now approaches the level of Ethan Stiefel when Stiefel was in his prime—except Stiefel was more naturally ebullient, if not a bit of a show-off. Fairchild has a noble dignity and reserve about his person that Stiefel lacked, and Fairchild can display a wider range of emotion than Stiefel ever could muster. Fairchild did not possess these qualities five years ago, and I strongly suspect that Peter Martins has devoted special care and special attention to Fairchild. Fairchild positively commands the stage at this point in his career; the next five years should bring even greater things.


Lalo’s exquisite score for “Namouna” should be better-known. It is one of the most brilliant jewels from late-19th-Century France.

The only complete recording of the score is a very bad David Robertson recording from 1995, originally released on the Valois label and re-released in 2001 on the Naïve label. The Robertson disc makes for grim listening.

In 1994, ASV released a recording of the two orchestral suites Lalo fashioned from his ballet score. The ASV disc is better than the Robertson, but nonetheless barely arises to stopgap status: it is a studio run-through by one of the London orchestras, sight-reading under the baton of Yondani Butt, an inexplicable conductor ubiquitous at the time on the ASV label. The ASV disc is hardly worth the effort to track down.


  1. Anyone who cannot match subject and verb cannot also make discursive prose out of claptrap.

  2. Doesn’t this thing to be performed in Minneapolis sound like the most horrific camp?