New York City Ballet, Moving to Its Own Rhythms

An expressive Darci Kistler, with Stephen Hanna, solidified the New York City Ballet's organic performance of Balanchine's
An expressive Darci Kistler, with Stephen Hanna, solidified the New York City Ballet's organic performance of Balanchine's "Serenade." (By Paul Kolnik)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Dancing in its most glorious, spare simplicity -- free of every unnecessary detail, even, in one case, of musical accompaniment -- was on display Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the New York City Ballet opened its five-day engagement. Here was proof that ballet needn't be ornate to enthrall an audience. A pair of great ballerinas, a corps that can move and three plum works -- George Balanchine's "Serenade" and "Symphony in C" and Jerome Robbins's silent "Moves" -- proved the point.

As ballet increasingly falls victim to narrowness and condescension -- the kind of thinking that says only familiar full-length works will sell -- dancing itself can be left out of the picture. Not on this program, the first of two slates of mixed repertory that NYCB will perform here. What strikes you foremost is the dancers' sweep, their ability to simply get moving, and to do it with speed. A powerful propulsion was at the core of each work. "Serenade" hummed with a purposeful rushing-about kind of industry; "Moves" slowed the engines down a touch for a careful study of its dancers' visual rhythms; "Symphony in C" had a clear, exuberant drive and sharpness.

Energy is one thing, however; precision another. Arriving after their winter season at home, the dancers look overworked. This was noticeable in the two Balanchine works, where the corps is in nearly constant motion. One doesn't look for rigidity: Balanchine did not use his ensembles with the strictness of his classical forebear, Marius Petipa. Balanchine's patterns have more air in them, more breathing room. Still, where rows of dancers should have moved of a piece, they frequently didn't. Raggedness crept into "Serenade" -- mostly in the arms, waving about like branches in a storm -- and "Symphony in C," where the turns were a jumble at the end.

Compensating for this were strong performances in the leading roles of each work. Darci Kistler's streaming legato was the keystone of "Serenade." At times she borders on melodramatic, but she isn't afraid of passion. Her expressiveness is as full and daring as her dancing; the way she scoops up Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" in her arms, or lives those hair-flinging moments of despair at the end as if she were 14 and just lost her first love, is something to see. What I admire most, however, is how she takes up space; tall, broad-shouldered, not sylphlike in the slightest, she seems to push the walls back when she moves. In the secondary roles, Sara Mearns echoed this uncontained expansiveness, while the lighter, smaller Yvonne Borree came across as earnest but brittle.

If Kistler was all woman, Wendy Whelan, in the adagio movement of "Symphony in C," was pure mystery. She balances stateliness and control with a spellbinding musicality; seamlessly partnered by Philip Neal, she seemed part of another dimension entirely. Indeed, it's always a bit of a shock to see her busting out pirouettes with all the other whirling dancers in the finale to this triumphant confection set to Bizet's music of the same name.

Sandwiched between the two classics, "Moves" held the center, in more ways than one. Open and uncluttered and performed without music, it was the perfect palate-clearer between two musically rich works. It also crystallizes how Robbins was useful to Balanchine, as they loved dancers in such very different ways. In his works, Balanchine buffed and precision-tuned his dancers. In his, Robbins was more apt to show us how the sausage was made.

In "Moves," the dancers are in practice clothes, simple leotards and tights and T-shirts. The fact that they dance without music may seem like a gimmick, but it's simply another iteration of how dancers work. It's the private side, how they work on their own, absent the rehearsal director and the pianist. Robbins takes us there, conjuring that hidden atmosphere of dancers trying moves over and over with the music in their heads. The emotional impact is surprisingly strong: When one young woman jumps into the arms of her partner, and he cradles her gently for a beat longer than you expect, the moment is thick with intimacy and vulnerability.

"Moves" looks casual, but it has an elegant structure and even the playfulness is rigorously phrased -- the dancers enter in a chorus line, and grant us individual views; then it's just the men, then ladies, couples and the group finish. With all its economy, though, there is a lively, affectionate tone. It feels much more genuinely human than the choreographer's more heralded but less warm studio scene in "Afternoon of a Faun." Robbins gets at what's in the studio when there's no audience, and he finds there, as only he could, rich veins of visual imagery and concise storytelling. And art.

This New York City Ballet program repeats tomorrow evening and Sunday afternoon. The company's second program opens tonight, and repeats tomorrow afternoon and Sunday evening.

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