New York City Ballet, Edinburgh Playhouse, 28/08/01
NYCB’s triumphant appearance at the Edinburgh Festival last year – including some of Balanchine’s greatest works - left me wondering just how the organisers were going to top that the following year. Well, they invited NYCB again. The opening night audience was packed, no mean feat in the cavernous Edinburgh Playhouse, and in the final week of the festival too, when the Fringe had finished and the town was noticeably emptier. The programme this time was quite different – all three bills this week contain no Balanchine or Robbins, but feature new works commissioned by the company in the last few years. This, we might conclude, is where they think they are going. It’s as if the Royal went abroad to tour with a selection of the work made for Dance Bites. A courageous decision, minister, as Sir Humphrey might have said. ( For those who aren’t fans of Yes, Minister, a translation of this civil-servant speak is appended at the end of this review)
Almost all the work NYCB are bringing is completely unfamiliar. However the opening programme featured Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto, an excerpt from which had been featured in the Royal’s first mixed bill after the reopening of Covent Garden. I’d seen this a few times then, but it suffered the fate of many excerpts – there was just enough to suggest that some larger point was being made and not enough to work out what it was. Whether it was the slight degree of familiarity or not, Barber Violin Concerto did look the strongest work on offer. Overall, the evening showed off the skills of some fabulous dancers but ultimately seemed rather insubstantial. Even after a day or two the details of some of the pieces seem to be fading – there was nothing that seared itself in the memory in the way that this company did before.
It is curious that when a programme sets out as its raison d’etre to introduce new work that in the printed programme available there is almost no information about the ballets themselves. Copious details about the music, yes, and the dancers, the original casts, and brief biographies of the choreographers with lists of their work. But nothing about the works themselves – any ideas behind them, the aims of their creators. While some programme notes can get to unbearably pretentious lengths or details, the complete absence of information seemed very peculiar. Whether this was deliberate, in an effort to make us focus on the work and figure it out for ourselves, or just poor organisation I don’t know.
The opening work was Appalachia Waltz, by Miriam Mahdaviani. This is set to traditional-sounding music played by an onstage trio – it was a shame that this had to be amplified, and rather poorly amplified at that. There was a curious disjunction in this, in that the men were costumed in shirts and braces, and were clearly hard at work chopping wood or whatever in the opening – but the girls with their diamond earrings clearly didn’t belong to the country. The piece moved away from its initial evocation of a rural setting to something rather less specific and defined. The first lead couple were Rachel Rutherford and Nilas Martin, who was having an unhappy time in the partnering department. The choreography seemed to be evoking some kind of emotional spat here, but there was no connection at all there between the dancers and this fell rather flat. This was in sharp contrast with the other couple (Jennie Somogyi and Sebastien Marcovici). who had a much more lively and acrobatic time of it – much the most enjoyable section of the piece, as the dancers conveyed a much greater engagement and sense of fun to the audience. Overall, this was pleasant enough, but not especially memorable. Given that the programme makes much of the original casts, and that this is a very recent work (2000), it’s odd that the opening night didn’t feature the same dancers. Albert Evans – very popular in Edinburgh last year- is listed in the original cast for both this and the following work, but did not appear.
Slonimsky’s Earbox was the first of the two Martins works this evening. We had seen something of Martins work at Edinburgh last year: and the Earbox, like Fearful Symmetries before it, is set to the music of John Adams. Fearful Symmetries worked well for ballet: British audiences were probably more familiar with it in Ashley Page’s version. But this score seemed less sympathetic. It was frantically active, and this was matched by furious activity from the cast, including a stunning display of energy and speed from Damien Woetzel, storming across the stage in brilliant red. It was a very talented cast, all clad in stingingly bright leotards, with Peter Boal and Margaret Tracey, and Nilas Martins (looking more relaxed) with Yvonne Borree as the second lead couples. Boal manages, in all the relentless activity, to preserve an elegance and an unhurried quality in everything he does. The overall impression though, was of a huge amount of talent surging about the stage in search of something substantial to get its teeth into.
Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto was a much more pleasingly crafted work, which held the attention throughout. It was also the oldest of the works on this programme, made originally in 1988. Martins’ leadership of NYCB and his choreography seem to provoke considerable argument in the US. It’s not an issue that many in the UK can really be in a position to comment on – we have seen so little of the company over here in the last fifteen years that we don’t have enough familiarity with the repertory or the dancers at first hand. This seemed an attractive and well made work. Perhaps the slight degree of familiarity helped: certainly some background detail about the intent to contrast different styles of movement of the two couples involved wouldn’t have come amiss. Two couples appear in turn: a purely classical couple in conventional , poised, aristocratic ballet steps, and a barefoot couple dancing in a more contemporary style. They swap partners, with results at first intense (the charismatic Jock Soto with Darcey Kisler) and then comic (the indefatigable Elizabeth Walker with Charles Askegard, who must be a least a foot taller than she is). It was a much more satisfying experience as a whole than as a little snippet. (This process works in reverse too – DNB’s excerpts from van Manen’s Three Pieces for Het which they performed at Sadlers this spring were much less persuasive than the entire work as performed at Edinburgh by DNB previously). Here the audience favourite seemed to be Elizabeth Walker – the audience reacted very positively to any light hearted moment in the evening, and there weren’t that many.
The closing work was by Christopher Wheeldon, who had had his fair share of publicity recently. SFB performed his Sea Pictures in London just the other week, and there is another Wheeldon to come from NYCB later this week. I had the strong sense of wanting to like Sea Pictures rather more than I actually did (we need some new blood over here). But it wasn’t as inventive or as interesting as his There Where She Loves for the Royal in the Linbury last year, a work which should definitely be revived. Mercurial Manoeuvres looked to be a denser, more abstract and less emotional piece than Sea Pictures. I would like to see it again from a different perspective: I was rather too near the stage than ideal for this. It features some intricately crossing lines of dancers whose interweaving would probably be seen to greater advantage from further back. Wheeldon certainly seems to handle a large female corps with confidence, their scissoring arms sending out strange semaphore signals. There’s attractive solos for Benjamin Millepied, and, at the heart of the work, a fine pas de deux for Jock Soto and Miranda Weese. At the end of it all, I somehow feel we know less about Wheeldon than at the beginning – this looked a very Balanchine Wheeldon to me. The more of his work I see, the less clear his own identity is. But there’s enough there to intrigue, and I look forward to his new work for the Royal next year.
In general, a positive reception, though it was hard to suppress a longing to see NYCB in some of its signature works. Perhaps some of these may not have been immediate hits, just as some Ashton works weren’t that warmly received in Britain initially. But sadly it doesn’t necessarily follow that because something’s not warmly received that therefore it will be regarded as brilliant later. It might just not be of the first rank. The best comment was overheard on the way out from an Edinburgh lady: ‘You have to remember that they are only as good as their choreographer’.
And Sir Humphrey ? Courageous was his way of saying foolhardy. But it was brave to go so relentlessly for the new – and Edinburgh if anywhere ought to be the place to encourage it. And it the search for the next Big Thing hasn’t been successful yet, then we all need to go on looking.