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Harlequinade—Back to Petipa

Edward Villella and Patricia McBride in Harlequinade, 1965. Photo credit: Photofest
Edward Villella and Patricia McBride in Harlequinade, 1965. Photo credit: Photofest


This week, NYCB is bringing back “Harlequinade,” Balanchine’s 1965 remake of the Petipa ballet “Les Millions d’Arlequin,” with Joaquín de Luz in the title role. Like his “Nutcracker” and “Coppélia,” “Harlequinade” is a nostalgic look at another age, the cozy world of 19th century fantasy ballets. And like those other works, it’s full of children. See my review of last night’s performance here.

Justin Peck Saddles UP

Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar in Justin Peck's "Rodeo, Four Danced Episodes." Phot by Paul Kolnik.
Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar in Justin Peck’s “Rodeo, Four Danced Episodes.” Phot by Paul Kolnik.

My review of Justin Peck’s new ballet, set to Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” is here. It was performed in a program that also included Christopher Wheeldon’s “Mercurial Manoeuvres” and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Here’s an image from the latter ballet:

Ramasar, Mearns, and Sterling Hyltin in Alexei Ratmansky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Ramasar, Mearns, and Sterling Hyltin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

“Ballet 422,” or the Hard Work of Art

BALLET422_PRESS_01Last fall I saw the Ballet 422 at the Tribeca Film Festival, which is now coming out in theatres. I can say that it is one of the finest dance films I’ve seen, far surpassing the director Jody Lee Lipes’ previous foray into the genre, New York Export: Opus Jazz. Heretical as it may sound, I found it better than Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse, the film it most closely resembles, partly because much of the choreography in that documentary was so dire. (At almost three hours, it was also excessively long.) Like Wiseman, Lipes doesn’t identify the characters, my one complaint. But he does well to focus his film on a single subject, the creation of a ballet, from start to finish. It’s a nailbiter.

The ballet is Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, made for New York City Ballet in 2013. (It was the company’s 422nd work, hence the movie’s title.) I was there for the première in January and can attest to the fact that it was a pretty thrilling event; the ballet is fast-paced, full of detail, imaginative, and deeply musical. It also includes a real coup, a convincing underwater dream-ballet. A couple (Amar Ramasar and Sterling Hyltin) falls asleep on the beach; the woman rises and is drawn ever deeper into the waves. The dancers’ bodies, intertwined and intricately patterned by Peck, become the sea’s eddies and foam. Peck has a knack for creating vivid, and very specific, imagery with groups of dancers. It’s not just pretty pretty.

BALLET422_PRESS_03 (1)-1

The film shows the process from the very beginning, as Peck works alone in the studio, listening to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta la Jolla on a boom box and video-taping short phrases of movement with his IPhone. These ideas are translated into sketches drawn with stick figures and dots representing floor patterns and shapes. There’s no talking, no voiceover, just work. Rehearsals are periods of intense creativity, experimentation, and problem-solving, but also of close observation and rigorous imitation. Peck doesn’t let anything slide. In one scene he corrects a young dancer who is trying to recreate a complex set of movements for the arms. She does it again and again. Each time he says “no,” not unkindly, but unwilling to settle for anything less than what he has in mind.

The sheer amount of work is staggering. At several points in the film, one or another dancer, including Peck (then in the corps de ballet) looks almost inhumanly tired. The work is also mentally exhausting, requiring precise imitation, memory, analysis, instant playback. In one of the most fascinating moments in the film the dancers do nothing more than count out the beats in the music, figuring out how the steps fit into the notes. There’s no artificially-constructed melodrama here—the drama is the work itself.

We see fabrics being dyed and cut, hairstyles being sprayed rigidly into place, tempi adjusted by the conductor, musical dynamics discussed, lights experimented with. (The one thing we don’t see, oddly enough, is the company’s artistic director, Peter Martins.) I chuckled at the sight the mustaches for Vienna Waltzes, all pinned up on a board, each labeled with a dancer’s name. The film-makers have been given remarkable access, even to the inner sanctum of company class, where wan-faced dancers in motley rehearsal gear sweat and go through their daily paces. The backstage areas are unadorned, even dingy. This is the factory-floor where illusions are created.


Peck is involved in every aspect of the production: costumes, lighting, musical interpretation. Calm, blank-faced, mouth slightly open, he watches, scouring details, and then goes home—we see him taking the elevated subway line to his small apartment where a portrait of Jerome Robbins hangs on the wall—to watch rehearsal videos and fine-tune some more. At only twenty-five (now twenty-six) he shows surprising self-assurance and composure. The only time he seems to lose his nerve is during a slightly awkward interaction with the orchestra—certain boundaries are not be crossed.

As opening night approaches, tension mounts, faces become strained. It’s surprising how few smiles one sees. A few people manage to keep their good humor and spread it around: Cameron Grant, the pianist, with his perfect hair and calm demeanor, is an unflappable, fatherly presence. Amar Ramasar, the male lead in the ballet, seems to be in a perennial good mood. Moments before going onstage, his tense ballerina asks if they should run through their duet one last time. He smiles and says, with gusto, “don’t worry, I’m just going to grab those hips.” Her jaw relaxes ever so slightly.

Ballet 422 is about as close as many of us will ever get to the creation of a new work of art. The dancers are revealed for what they are; phenomenal technicians, willing and intelligent collaborators, tired bodies. At the screening I attended, the dancing, especially by Tiler Peck (no relation) drew gasps from the audience. But another thing also shone through: a kind of loneliness at the heart of the process. At the end of the day, it all comes down to one person, creating something out of nothing.


Balanchine x 6

Here’s my review of the Jan. 20 and Jan. 22 programs at New York City Ballet, which included six works by Balanchine: Serenade, Agon, Symphony in C, Donizetti Variations, La Valse, and Chaconne. Not bad for two nights at the ballet.

A little excerpt:

“These Balanchine evenings quickly establish the company’s core values: musicality, speed, lightness of touch, spaciousness, style. They also impress upon the audience the vast range of balletic modes in which the choreographer worked…. The ballets are not only worlds in themselves but, taken as a group, they seem to encompass most of ballet.”

Teresa Reichlen in Serenade. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Teresa Reichlen in Serenade. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The continues through March 1.

A Final Nutcracker

Columbine and Harlequin in ABT's Nutcracker. Photo by MIRA.
Columbine and Harlequin in ABT’s Nutcracker. Photo by MIRA.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre is having its last run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before moving to the west coast next year. For the first time since its premiere in 2010, the theatre is full… Can’t help feeling a pang of loss. It’s a wonderfully imaginative rendition, a great antidote to Balanchine’s pitch-perfect version. Here’s my review of last night’s performance for DanceTabs, with Cory Stearns and Hee Seo in the lead roles.

Evergreen–Why Balanchine’s Nutcracker never Gets Old

Tiler Peck as Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers. (photo by Paul Kolnik.)

Last night I saw my umpteenth performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker at New York City Ballet, and was once again impressed by the construction, power, and fluency of this version. Yes, it was a particularly tight performance, without a weak link—even the kids were especially lively. But it’s not just that. There is something in the way the choreographer paced the action, the dancing, and the music that both streamlines and enlarges it. I talk about it some more in my review for DanceTabs.

And if you just can’t get enough, here is an excellent piece by Laura Jacobs about the history of the ballet, from Vanity Fair.

Ethan Stiefel Moves Ahead

Ethan Stiefel as Albrecth in Giselle, 2001. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Ethan Stiefel as Albrecth in Giselle, 2001. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

I sat down with Ethan Stiefel a few weeks after his return to New York from New Zealand where, for three years, he was the artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. We talked about his time there, his transition from dancer to director, his choreographic aspirations, and his plans (and non-plans) for the future. You can find the interview here, at DanceTabs.

Hidden Stories

BalletCollective in All That We See. © Matthew Murphy.
BalletCollective in All That We See. © Matthew Murphy.


Troy Shumacher’s dances always seem to contain some kind of story, even if you can’t quite tell what that story is. He likes to work with writers, painters, and composers; together they develop a hidden libretto. The results can be a little mysterious. At the same time, his dances have a lot of intention; the dancers are never less than engaged. Their movements seldom feel gratuitous or showy. (And the dancers he chooses, all from City Ballet, are so good!) His ensemble, BalletCollecive, just ended a two-night run at the Skirball. I reviewed it here.

And here’s a feature on Schumacher I wrote for the Times.

Going Up

Word came this week of Russell Janzen’s promotion to soloist at New York City Ballet. This dancer, who joined the company in 2008, has suddenly emerged as a new force in the company, a natural actor with a commanding presence onstage as welll as an expressive, assured partner. I missed his début in Balanchine’s Davidsbündlertänze last season, but by all accounts it was extraordinary for its depth and sensitivity. More recently, he infused the opening section of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3—one of those ballets you simply want to get to the end of—with new urgency. Suddenly, it mattered. In Chaconne, he  manages to be both regal and light, and a great foil for the blazing Sara Mearns. He hasn’t done much, but somehow you just know he’s got a lot to give.

Russell Janzen and Ashley Laracey in Balanchine's "Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Russell Janzen and Ashley Laracey in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.
In Davidsbündlertänze, with Cameron Grant at the piano. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
In Davidsbündlertänze, with Cameron Grant at the piano. Photo by Paul Kolnik.