N.Y.C. Ballet's 'Voices': Everything Sparkled Except the Stars

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

If last week's opening program of the New York City Ballet put the full company on view, the second set of works, performed over the weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House, was a showcase of individual dancers. Dubbed "Four Voices," it was also a sampler of the creative output of the men who have contributed most to the company's current repertoire: former resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and the two men who previously held that title, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

The four works -- Wheeldon's "Carousel (A Dance)," Martins's "Zakouski," Balanchine's "Agon" and Robbins's "The Concert" -- weren't in any way similar, but together they were a good fit, sharing a sense of cleverness, musical intelligence and polish. They furthered the company's brand attributes, if you will: the qualities of irreproachably good taste, well-directed physicality, clean technique and, in the brainy "Agon" as in the slapstick "The Concert," great wit.

Yet the dancers who led each work on Friday's program weren't quite as consistent. NYCB possesses a wonderfully rich, deep treasury of ballets, but judging from this engagement, its stable of star-quality dancers is somewhat thinner.

Perhaps Tiler Peck, in the company just three years, signals a brighter future. Looking every inch the tender ingenue, she was the love interest in "Carousel," Wheeldon's dazzling shorthand of the Richard Rodgers musical, created for the composer's centennial in 2002. As Julie, the factory worker who falls in love with a carny, Peck gradually blossomed into innocent, openhearted abandon, while her partner, Damian Woetzel, had a reckless, high-strung intensity that hinted at the musical's tragic outcome.

Wheeldon's account, however, stuck to the heady mists of new love amid the chaotic glory of a fair, brilliantly evoked with nothing more than a strand of colored lights and dancers whirling in a dozen different ways to such Rodgers tunes as "The Carousel Waltz" and "If I Loved You." You could admire the choreographer's adroit sense of theater, but Peck and Woetzel's impassioned pas de deux distilled Wheeldon's major gift, that of tinting an unbroken stream of movement with a wholly believable range of feeling. With incisive economy, Wheeldon got you to care about those two.

This wasn't the case in "Zakouski," though I don't think that was Martins's aim with his suite of Russian music for two dancers. Still, you can't help but look for a story when a man and a woman dance together, and Yvonne Borree and Benjamin Millepied offered none. Nothing wrong with the dancing; Millepied, especially, had ample opportunity to show off his soaring jump and an elegant weightedness on the folksier steps, particularly in his solo to a juicy excerpt from Stravinsky's opera "Mavra." (Here as elsewhere, Martins crafted the male role out of bits from his own dancing past, particularly Balanchine's Gyspy-inspired "Tzigane.")

But the infectious music -- doses of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, played grandly by violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Richard Moredock -- cried out for more deeply felt dancing. Borree, capable but colorless, gave only so much, and no more. Even her moments of spunk were reined in, ladylike. There was little sense that she relished the role, though some of the steps Martins gave her did look unkind, for example the big jumps landing hard on her pointes and leading into a scrambling allegro. She fell in one of these sequences, recovered after a moment of shock, yet still the mask stayed in place, hiding whatever might be inside.

"Agon" offered a fine showcase of Wendy Whelan's absorbing intensity, and of Teresa Reichlen's nonchalant command, though the ballet was not as well served by the male leads. The retirements in recent years of such giant talents as Peter Boal, Jock Soto and, just weeks ago, Nikolaj Hubbe leave the company with a dearth of charismatic virtuosos. Albert Evans is a strong and appealing dancer, but there was little sizzle between him and Whelan on Friday; he couldn't match her prickly sense of daring. Sean Suozzi's saraband solo was marvelously calm and clean, but in filling out the foursome of leading men, Tyler Angle and Amar Ramasar betrayed more effort and less authority.

The evening closed with Robbins's "The Concert," a laugh-out-loud sendup of theatergoing's stuffiest pretensions, with Sterling Hyltin -- hair like Rapunzel, legs like Cyd Charisse -- in a promising debut as the flouncing, airheaded lover of music and millinery. Pianist Nancy McDill played along in great good fun.

Two more dancers made thrilling debuts in yesterday's matinee. Janie Taylor, a little-seen principal who has been prone to injury, led a piercing "Serenade" that was danced as it should be danced, with the Opera House Orchestra (under the baton of Maurice Kaplow) giving Tchaikovsky his full measure of magnificence. Without veering into emotional excess, Taylor showed herself to be an artist of wondrous complexity: lightweight but strong, dancing on a stretched-out, generous scale but with a tinge of tragedy. Her courage was undoubtedly strengthened by Philip Neal's superb partnering; his keenly musical dancing brought the male role into focus in this female-dominated ballet.

In an excellent cast, Ashley Bouder also stood out for her magnetic warmth and airy jump. Capping the afternoon, Gonzalo Garcia's unhurried composure made for a sterling debut in the taxing third movement of "Symphony in C," in which he was paired with the charming, hummingbird-quick Megan Fairchild.

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