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New York City Ballet

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Editorial Review

New York City Ballet's year-end investment in D.C. pays off richly

By Sarah Kaufman
Friday, December 11, 2009

It was a quintessential New York City Ballet program, given in thoroughly unconventional circumstances: Wednesday night, the audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House saw the marathon outpouring of Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering," bookended by the buttoned-up formality of George Balanchine's "Mozartiana" and his decidedly unbuttoned romp "Stravinsky Violin Concerto." What's new is the timing. The bulk of the troupe is back home at Lincoln Center putting on "The Nutcracker."

City Ballet has never split itself in this way while it is in residence at its home theater. But the arrangement makes sense, because the company's customary Opera House slot in early March isn't available next year (the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra will be there instead). This week, however, was open, and both parties found a sensible way to make use of it.

Forty percent of City Ballet turns out to be a powerful brew. What makes it work is that we got the right 40 percent: mostly principals, including such seasoned ballerinas as Jenifer Ringer, Wendy Whelan and Maria Kowroski. The works on Wednesday, as well as those to come in performances stretching through Sunday evening, allow ample opportunity to see the company's top dancers in relatively small-scale works that offer some of the repertoire's meatiest roles.

"Dances at a Gathering," for 10 dancers who unspool waltzes and solos, secretive flirtations and group get-togethers to a full hour of Chopin piano etudes, is a prime example. In all of Robbins's prodigious output, for Broadway as well as for ballet, there is no greater expression than this of his profound sensitivity about relationships, the perceptions about human behaviors and the insights about what connects us as we whirl around in the great spiraling fireball of life. At its most elemental, this piece is an ode to dancers, to their quicksilver magic and openhearted charm. In a larger sense, "Dances at a Gathering" is also a celebration of community, not too stylized, not too perfect. These are Robbins dancers, after all: casual, unpretentious. We recognize them as our own tribe.

As easygoing and "natural" as this stream of brief, light interludes appears, it's a monumental achievement. As the story goes, it was Balanchine who urged Robbins to keep making the ballet longer and longer. Robbins ought to have kept his own counsel. Still, his inventiveness is remarkable; this ballet constantly renews and refreshes its ideas.

The solo is one of the best of these. Benjamin Millepied walks on at the start with his back to us, lost in thought, scarcely dancing at all until some invisible force launches him into high, beautiful jumps, like a bird in flight. It's as if the music -- a test of endurance that pianist Cameron Grant sailed through -- is playing with him. This is dancing as a form of rumination, which makes this very private opening moment so interesting, so enlarging.

Later on, there's another unusual solo: Kowroski is alone after her partner abruptly leaves. Unperturbed, she continues sweeping those long, satiny legs around the stage, utterly contented. Another man walks on, studies her while she waltzes. Here's the thoroughly modern ballerina: She doesn't need him, but she doesn't mind the attention, either.

The heart of the ballet was an achingly soft, melancholy duet danced by Yvonne Borree and Tyler Angle. But I found Ringer to be the most riveting of all, and it was mostly because of her eyes, never leaving her partner.

I kept thinking of Antony Tudor, ballet's premier teller of short stories, and of modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor; both of them, like Robbins, have a gift for bringing about subtle, small changes in mood and in circumstance that are truly miracles of expression. In its purest moments, that's what "Dances at a Gathering" is, wonders strung like pearls.

In comparison, the Balanchine works were much cooler, though "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," with Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar, and Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, had a distinct, fresh energy that the "Mozartiana" lacked. Both works contrasted private, intimate glimpses with showy and competitive play, but "Mozartiana" felt a bit weighed down, despite Whelan's radiant composure in the opening section. Daniel Ulbricht's bounding elevation was the real star here, in the Gigue; Whelan and partner Jared Angle, who tended to smudge steps, seemed detached. The contrast was striking: the reverential "Mozartiana" put the dancers on a pedestal, while Robbins settled them on firm ground.