Fire and Ice From N.Y. City Ballet

New York City Ballet performs a surreal
New York City Ballet performs a surreal "Firebird." In the title role, Sofiane Sylve, below with Jonathan Stafford, is glamorous but flightless. (Photos By Paul Kolnik -- New York City Ballet)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

The great artists make it look easy, whether it is Mozart spinning his joie de vivre into a concerto or Sasha Cohen (on a good day) skimming weightlessly over the ice. Easy is a different quality from perfect, which is freighted with effort and practice. Easy is light, unstrained and high-spirited. It is everything you want a ballerina to be, but more often what you get is a less desirable trait: the perfectionist's chilly self-absorption.

Both were present on the New York City Ballet's program Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Each of the six works featured capable dancers, but only "Allegro Brillante" flaunted a truly glorious pair -- Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel, who made this fiendishly virtuosic ballet by George Balanchine look so wonderfully easy.

Weese is a dancer of remarkable fluency. She dances without hesitancy or fear, and seemingly without thought -- there are only ease, lightness and unwavering command. What's especially exciting is her aggressive stripe. She charges into steps. Flies into turns. And at the end of some blistering phrase, she can pause in a balance and float awhile, riding nothing but Tchaikovsky's music and air. The leading role in "Allegro Brillante" was not something she had carefully constructed step by step -- it was simply her natural habitat.

Woetzel stepped in for an injured Philip Neal, and what a bonus that was. Neal is a perfectly nice dancer, but Woetzel, a 20-year veteran of the company, is one of the most authoritative, bravura performers out there, and Wednesday he matched Weese's expansiveness with a grand-scale relishing of his role. One only wished the corps de ballet were tidier; the picture was occasionally marred by ill-placed feet and ragged timing.

Balanchine and Jerome Robbins's "Firebird," which capped the evening, is a whole universe writ expertly small, with Stravinsky's rich brew of a score boiling poetry, violence and denouement together with amazing brevity, and Marc Chagall's phantasmagoric scenery and whimsical costumes. With their padded-out potbellies and yards of tulle and assorted colorful froufrou, Kastchei the Wizard and his subjects looked like surrealism by way of Mardi Gras.

This work is so complete -- it just lacked a firebird. Sofiane Sylve is a lovely creature, but she was glamour without mystery. She was perfect -- and all wrong. Where was the sense of flight, of belonging to the air?

When Prince Ivan (Jonathan Stafford, too slight for the role) spun her on one leg like a tilted weather vane, there was no release in the upper body, no feeling of whizzing abandon. The supernatural existed in the decor, but it didn't live in the dancing. Perfection left her no breathing room.

The rest of the evening belonged to other Balanchine works and Stravinsky scores, except for a "Romeo and Juliet" balcony scene by Sean Lavery. A former City Ballet dancer and now assistant to NYCB chief Peter Martins, Lavery does nothing new or different with this scene of furtive love under the stars. It is stupefyingly standard, and you have to wonder why it was included -- ah, but its excerpted Prokofiev music fit with the evening's "all-Russian" label, and marketing must have its way, one supposes.

After the terrific "Allegro," the program lost momentum bit by bit. "Duo Concertant" is a familiar ballet, thanks to Suzanne Farrell's stagings for her company on at least two recent occasions here. There were interesting differences, however, between the performances by her dancers and the rendition by City Ballet's Yvonne Borree and Nikolaj Hubbe. The emotions were more filtered in Farrell's dancers, and there was more of a sense of mystery and elusiveness. Borree and Hubbe, however, were exuberant and full of feeling. You could believe their relationship was alive and changing in the moment. Hubbe is an especially wise dancer. He knows how to jump big but land small at the feet of his delicate partner. His calm and stable partnering was also a perfect foil for Borree, whose speed sometimes got the better of her.

When "Monumentum pro Gesualdo" wasn't being ruined by the the Opera House Orchestra's poor peformance, it was all about Teresa Reichlen and her long, exacting legs. Reichlen underplays her dancing -- she doesn't throw in exclamation points or demand our attention. She is cool and efficient, like the young techie who saunters over to unfreeze your computer with a few well-directed keystrokes, performing miracles with gum-snapping nonchalance. Charles Askegard was the able if colorless partner in this and the next work, "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," with which "Monumentum" is customarily paired.

Call me shallow, but I found the loose end of Rebecca Krohn's belt, flapping away at her tiny waistline, distracting in "Movements." Everyone else's belt was tacked down, but Krohn's hung like a dangling shoelace. There's not much to the costumes here; the women wear nothing but white leotards, accessorized only by slim white belts. The look, like the choreography, is severe and clean -- unless a little sloppiness creeps in.

Krohn, however, is a dancer to watch. She is in the company's corps de ballet, but in this leading role she moves with the crisp, unmannered assurance of a more seasoned performer. With her youthful prettiness and ease of movement, Krohn bears a striking resemblance to the former principal dancer Alexandra Ansanelli, who left last year for the Royal Ballet. But her refreshing simplicity of approach sets her apart. Perhaps she will be the next to toss off the impossible as if it were her native language.

This program repeats tomorrow afternoon.

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