Dance Review: New York City Ballet at Kennedy Center

ON POINTE: Company veteran Jennie Somogyi, accompanied by Nilas Martins, finds nuances in George Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer."
ON POINTE: Company veteran Jennie Somogyi, accompanied by Nilas Martins, finds nuances in George Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer." (Paul Kolnik)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dancing is said to be a young person's art, but the self-possession and expressive richness of mature ballerinas turned the second program of the New York City Ballet's Kennedy Center engagement into an event Friday.

It didn't hurt that the evening featured two of George Balanchine's finest creations -- "Concerto Barocco" and "Liebeslieder Walzer" -- as well as Christopher Wheeldon's "Liturgy," a cryptic and compelling pas de deux as intricately wrought as Celtic silver. These beauties require dancers who know what they are doing, and fortunate casting delivered exactly that.

Some of the featured ballerinas -- Darci Kistler, Jennifer Ringer, Wendy Whelan -- have been in the company two decades or more. Kistler, unbelievably, will have 30 years of dancing behind her when she retires next year; these were the final Washington performances of an extraordinary career. Jennie Somogyi and Maria Kowroski have been with City Ballet for about 15 years. I emphasize the years of service to make a point: Young spitfires can generate excitement, especially in ballets that rely on strength and technique, but there is no substitute for the assurance and poetic revelation that veteran artists -- especially those with the intelligence of these ladies -- can bring to the most sophisticated works.

"Concerto Barocco's" deceptive simplicity took on an aspect of understated glamour with Kowroski as the lead dancer. You could say this ballet is all about the music: It follows Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor like a stream hugs its banks. But more than ever on Friday, it was also about female beauty.

Its all-female cast (but for a man who appears briefly as a discreet "plus one" for the lead dancer) is an idealized sisterhood. The dancers are a mix of athlete and showgirl: modest, supportive, clasping hands and clustering around one another protectively. The way they inch together almost imperceptibly, and melt into formation for winding daisy chains, has always expressed to me the unspoken solidarity of the female bond.

It was all the more so with Kowroski at the helm, the goddess whom those attentive neophytes might one day hope to be. In this tightly contained world she found room for abandon, tossing her long legs high and your heart with them. Yet there was such a purity to her dancing that the outsize extensions never looked extravagant; the largeness of her movements was an echo of the uncomplicated sincerity of the whole piece. Abi Stafford was a fleet and charming second ballerina, and Stephen Hanna was Kowroski's noble escort. The excellent violinists were Kurt Nikkanen and Oleg Rylatko.

"Liebeslieder Walzer" offers another view of Balanchine, a more lyrical and emotional approach, ever able to mine the music -- here, it is Brahms's songs -- for undiscovered veins of gold. It's clear from the aggressively historical set design, an ornate ballroom hung with a chandelier, and from the four couples' lavish formal attire that this is the kind of society where honest feelings are kept under wraps. But then the dancing begins, and we get flickers of attraction and doom amid all the correctness. One by one, with a group of singers and pianists performing for them as if in an intimate home recital, the couples rise for brief waltzes that take on more and more emotional color. Janie Taylor breaks away from Tyler Angle, extends a leg behind her; with her heavy satin skirt draped over it, it is like a wall he cannot breach. He rushes to her, she freezes him with a look.

Somogyi is all serpentine curves; as her partner, Nilas Martins, tries to coax her closer, her frame gets softer still, but it's more collapse than surrender.

Kistler was the most upright of the women, though there was a bit of self-deluding Blanche Dubois to her character, elusive one moment, manipulative and flirtatious the next. Ringer, paired with a tenderly responsive Jared Angle, underwent the most turbulent inner transformation, made apparent in a deeply musical performance, and at the end she seemed frightened of the feelings she'd stirred up.

"Liturgy" was of another order, sleek and bare, but it also felt like a glimpse of some old, old ritual, with Arvo Part's moaning strings and Whelan, flickering like flame, each movement fully phrased. There was something that hinted at sacrifice in her inner-directed intensity, and in the care with which Albert Evans handled her, but at the end it seemed he had been the victim all along.

Also on the program was "Les Gentilhommes," by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, an uneventful view of nine men reeling off classroom technique that felt starched and dry, ruffled necklines notwithstanding. It was one more affirmation of the fact that this evening fully belonged to the ladies.

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