topcontact's review of: Concierto de Mozart

‘Scotch Symphony’, ‘Concierto de Mozart’, ‘Scéne d'Amour’, ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’
By Eric Taub

"...Jeff Bruckerhoff's delicate lighting simply walking and dancing side-by-side, performing the same hops, jumps, and poses in near unison, as if simply strolling together..."

Balanchine's odd little Scotch Symphony has always been a favorite of mine, with its rousing Mendelssohn score and wry commentary on La Sylphide. The ballerina role is among Balanchine's most intriguing, ranking with those of Le Baiser de la Fée and Mozartiana as mysterious women who are more than what they first seem.

As with most of her stagings of Balanchine, Farrell's Scotch is a treat. I don't want to dive into the whole can of worms about whether her company dances Balanchine "better" than City Ballet. City Ballet can do a tremendous job staging Balanchine if it commits the necessary resources, although in some seasons that's a bigger "if" than others. Also, there's no denying that City Ballet has stronger dancers, on every level, than Farrell.

And yet, when I saw her company perform the La Source at Jacob's Pillow last summer, I was moved to tears by the dancers beautiful phrasing and musicality, in which every bit of the ballet connected together, as if in one long, magical legato phrase which rolled like a wave from curtain to curtain. It brought back to me, with the jarring immediacy of Proust's madeleines, that a big part of the addictive thrill of attending NYCB night after night in the Seventies was immerse one's self in Balanchine's invisible yet all-pervasive artistic presence. The seldom-explained corollary to his famous admonishment that dancers should "just do the steps" is that, in doing so, they'd make manifest Balanchine's own artistic intellect.

As staged by Farrell, La Source again became a witty dialogue between two geniuses, Delibes and Balanchine, who marshaled his dancers in brilliant counterpoint or complement to Delibe's golden melodies. For a few blissful minutes, Farrell brought Balanchine's invisible hand back to life, and it was as if scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly City Ballet's current La Source seemed harsh and punchy, and Jenifer Ringer's witty, Parisian asides to the audience which had once charmed me, now seemed only encrustations which hid those all-important steps. I was, and am, grateful to Farrell for a chance to experience, after so many years, a taste of the magic which changed my youth, a magic which I'd slowly forgotten until Farrell brought it back for me in a silent thunderclap of pink satin and tulle.

It was much the same with Scotch as with La Source, although not quite as stunning an epiphany. Throughout the ballet, with its rousing opener to the symphony's second movement, romantic adagio and triumphant finale, I was again entranced by the musicality of Farrell's dancers. Phrases were drawn out and played against Mendelssohn's emphatic beats with an almost playful lightness; the catch and release of a long breath as opposed to the punchier gasps of today's more-athletic City Ballet style. It wasn't until I started watching Farrell's stagings that I began to appreciate how City Ballet today often breaks Balanchine's phrasing into discrete units a diagonal here, an enchainement there which, while simpler to teach and learn, can rob his ballets, especially neo-Romantic gems like the two I've been describing, of their grander arguments. Farrell burnished her staging to a glowing gold, with many small details once again shining after hiding under years of tarnish.

So, Kennedy Center's orchestra, under Ron J. Matson's baton, did the Mendelssohn proud, as Shannon Parsley flew through the redoubtable "red-socks" demi role, leading the opening ensemble with some wickedly flashing batterie. As that rollicking opening faded, the ensemble, with the men particularly resplendent in Holly Hynes' somber formal kilts, departed, and Parsley nodded briefly to Momchil Mladenov, who proceeded to the adagio movement's odd romantic encounter. Mladenov, tall, almost-ascetically thin and dark-featured, was an ideal Scottish prince, soon joined by the appropriately red-headed Highland sylph of Bonnie Pickard. Or is she a sylph? Balanchine matched Mendelssohn's peculiar alternations of sadly sweet and pretty strings and woodwinds with almost dirge-like intrusions by the horns with "narrative" which merges the silly and sublime. Mladenov partnered Parsley impeccably through delicate duets which have the same, repeated finish: Parsley takes his hand and bourrees towards the wings, as if leading him into the woods, when suddenly he's confronted by those be-kilted corps men, who prevent him from following her. Instead of the threatened confrontation, though, Pickard returns and lets the men lift her and throw her bodily into Mladenov's arms. I've seldom seen those tosses look quite so light and airborne as here; they were breathtaking.

After Mladenov wised up and refused to follow Pickard, and she made the magical transition from semi-sylph to real, live woman by pirouetting into his arms (Balanchine was nothing if not romantic), everyone returned for a suitably grand final and triumphant final movement, where Pickard and Mladenov joined the ensemble as thoroughly human and quite happy lovers. No poisoned scarves in this Highland!

Next was a rare bit of Balanchineiana, a revival of the adagio from his 1942 Concierto de Mozart, staged in for the ballet of the Teatro Colon in Argentina in 1942. While Balanchine's best-known Mozart ballet, Divertimento No. 15, evokes a world of sublime harmony, far removed from worldly romance, the adagio from Concierto shows what might be the tender beginnings of a fresh romance, or the tender summer of a long-established one.

Just as some of the most touching moments of Scotch's lovely adagio come when the leads simply walk together, however briefly, so too does the Concierto adagio present a strong and sweet Elisabeth Holowchuk and gracefully attentive Matthew Prescott entering, and leaving, and indeed, spending much of their time together in pearly blue grotto of Jeff Bruckerhoff's delicate lighting simply walking and dancing side-by-side, performing the same hops, jumps, and poses in near unison, as if simply strolling together. While Balanchine's devised much intriguing partner-work for the pair, the moments when Prescott's actually turning and lifting Holowchuk are rare accents punctuating their time together, rather than the knotty romantic heart of their duet.

One of the first such moments comes early, when he lifts her through some long, slow supported jetés. Even though she's suddenly airborne, she doesn't alter the timing of her steps, but what had been a patient pacing of the stage became big, peaceful curved brushstrokes above it, as each jeté took took the shape of slow, weightless arc through space. It's a sweet and touching moment, which Balanchine doesn't belabor. Here, he underscores nothing. Throughout the duet there are hints of the lead couple opening up to each other, as they reveal themselves in their steps. More and more they change from shadowing each others' steps as they move in parallel, to focussing their attention directly on each other. Soon, in the finest tradition of ballet adagios they face each other and join in creating ever-grander shapes, as if they're just learning that together they're more beautiful (and, as this is a Mozart adagio, more serene) than apart. Some of these moments are happily familiar, as in when Prescott supports Holowchuk in a pretty arabesque, and each raises an arm overhead, putting together two halves of the familiar fifth en haute.

Lest the movement become too cut of the same cloth, Balanchine gives the pair a pose that's stunning but, again, undersold, as Prescott settles in to a deep lunge, enfolding Holowchuk's stretched-out body and also far-from-vertical in a long, protective embrace, a pose which they repeat, briefly, near the ballet's end. For those moments they're like butterflies alighted for a moment on a leaf, before they resume their perigrinations. They again resume their gentle side-by-side progression of small leaps and steps, until it takes them off the ever-dimming stage as the curtain falls.

I don't necessarily think this adagio is among Balachine's great masterpieces, but it's constructed with his familiar musical acuity and some delightful surprises from his bottomless well of invention. It's sweet and charming, and deserves to be performed more often. It may not have been onstage since the mid-Eighties, when a regional company put it on, making the videotape Farrell as a guide for staging this long-lost ballet, which was never part of NYCB's repertory.

After Balanchine's deft touches to Mozart came a stylistic sledgehammer in the Scéne d'Amour from Maurice Béjart's 1966 Romeo and Juliet. Here the powerful but occasionally bland Runqiao Du's Romeo courted Ashley Hubbard's flexible and playful Juliet, all to the suitably bombastic strains of Berlioz' eponymous work. Wistfully caressing his hand (was it last touched by Juliet?), Du moons about the stage until Hubbard more-or-less materializes from the wings, for a duet that tries to be more about playful adolescents than lovers, at least at first. At one point Du flips Hubbard, stretched out in a split, over his back and places her in an impressive balance, still stretched in that 180-degee split, but with her legs perfectly perpendicular to the stage. Later, she pulls her working leg into an ankle-to-the-ear extension, and leans off balance as Du holds her by that extended leg's calf. It's a little scary, a little impressive, and a lot tacky. Even then, Béjart had a gift for the choreographic mot injuste. Eventually, two male ensembles of Capulets and Montagues rush in, fight, leave a few dead bodies, and pose melodramatically. Hubbard sobs horribly at the sight, then Du folds her in a tight embrace as they lie entwined onstage and the piece ends.

I'm afraid I've made it sound more interesting than it is, as Béjart, even then, was painfully heavy-handed about his banalities, framing every idea, good, bad, indifferent, or just plain silly, as if it were the work of a genius (of which he clearly has no doubts). It doesn't take long for the self-indulgent "invention" of his contorted poses and narrative to grate on the nerves. Today, he'd be that despised Internet poster WHO HAS TO TYPE EVERYTHING IN CAPS. (Please forgive me.) I remember a colleague years ago summed this work up with "you can feel yourself getting stupider as you watch it," and I'm at that point in my life when I can't afford to lose any more brain cells. In 1967, Balanchine staged his celebrated Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet from the 1936 musical On Your Toes for Farrell and Arthur Mitchell in the roles originated by Vera Zorina and Ray Bolger. Now Farrell's staged it winningly for her own troupe, who launch into its happy silliness with jazzy gusto. It's nice to see Farrell's company able to invest in better production values. Not only did they have an orchestra, but Jay Depen speakeasy sets and decor set a perfect faux-Jazz-age jollity, as it might be recalled a decade later. Hynes' costumes are a colorful delight, especially for the partying girls, with their short-skirts, fishnets and enormous bright bows like derriere-enhancing bustles.

As the Strip-Tease Girl, Katelyn Prominski filled in for an injured Lisa Renau. Even while tossing her garters to the winds, Prominski had a fresh appeal, a kind of girl-next-door friskiness at odds with the tawdriness of her profession (even when presented cartoonishly in this "play-within-a-play"). Was it an act for the lowlife patrons, or was she indeed fresh from the cornfields? Kurt Froman, the former City Ballet corps dancer who left to appear in Movin' Out, was a sensational Hoofer, properly entranced by Prominski's sexy friendliness. Although this staging, like all of Farrell's, has a wealth of nicely realized detail, it blows past what should be a very Big Moment: when the Hoofer pays off the Big Boss, and dances with the Strip-Tease Girl for the first time, he helps her down from her runway by holding out his hand so that she might step on it with one of her high-heeled shoes, and he lowers her like his hand's become a one-shoe elevator. This is such a brilliant image, speaking of the Hoofer's adoration of the girl, with interchanges of power between the two about which one might write for days, that to have Farrell's dancers toss it away just plain hurts. One look at the film of this scene with Zorina and (ugh) Eddie Albert shows the emphasis Balanchine wanted placed on this moment, as he composed every shot himself.

Ah, but once Prominski and Frohman started dancing together, it was another story. A certain formal reserve quickly melted through the medium of shared dance steps, as was often the case in musicals of the era (how many times did Fred jolly Ginger out of a snit by drawing her into a few turns around the floor?). Richard Rodgers' jazzy score caught the pairs' increasingly contagious enthusiasm, until Benjamin Lester's Big Boss shoved them apart. Whether Prominski's sweetness on the runway was an act or not, there was no mistaking the joy she and Frohman found echoing in each other. After the well-played comic interludes the arrival of the "three blind mice" cops, the departure of the reveling throngs (I do love the girl who licks a finger and presses it to her backside to show the world she's sizzling hot), and the disposal of the corpse of the guy who got too friendly with the Girl without first paying Frohman encountered Prominski half-sprawled on the bar in poignant despair, and, having suitably accoutered themselves in tap shoes, they tap and grind away to far dirtier blasts of Rodgers' from the orchestra, especially those signature high-kicks Prominski delivered while draped backwards over Froman's arm. As happy and wild as Prominski was, Froman was even wilder, and danced sensationally in the Hoofer's ever-more-desperate repeats of the ballet's finale before the police grab his would-be assasin from the audience. Flurries of taps, violent multiple pirouttes and crashing leaps emerged from Froman in a torrent. Who knows if he'd have grown so had he stayed with City Ballet? In the post-curtain, happy-ending dance Balanchine added to Slaughter for its revival, Prominski traded solos with Froman, jauntily brushing him out of her way as she took over center stage. She could be one to watch for!

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