The All Balanchine program Friday evening featured three diverse works: the plotless Donizetti Variations, the somber one act ballet La Sonnambula, and the uplifting Russian fairytale classic Firebird.
Donizetti Variations is a bright, cheerful, and light piece with Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette as the lead couple Friday. Balanchine created the ballet in 1960 for Salute to Italy, a New York City Ballet program celebrating the 100th anniversary of Italy’s unification. Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) composed the music for Don Sebastian de Portugal.
Supporting Ashley and Andrew are six female dancers and three men, all clad in Coppélia style costumes with a bright blue background. I liked Ashley’s phrasing, with elongated pauses in arabesque, flowing arms, exaggerated shoulder and head movements, in synch and complementing the beautiful music.
The solo work for the male is more technically challenging, with tricky sections consisting of four controlled pirouettes to single pirouettes in plié, all with arms in second position (to the side) with palms facing out on the singe pirouettes. In a similar section at the end of the piece, Andrew performed 12 consecutive single tours, punctuated with a double tour to the knee. Like the pirouettes, he performed the tours with arms in second position. A single tour is a very basic step for male dancers, but stringing together 12 consecutively ending with a double tour is challenging, particularly when a smile and pleasant facial expression is required. The male solo has a lot of beats, punctuated with double tours and Andrew’s articulation on the beats was quite clean. The partnering, like the costumes, reminded me of Coppélia. The partnering section had something I hadn’t seen before: Ashley performed single tours, supported by Andrew, a unique touch from Balanchine.
The supporting cast danced well together, in unison with the music.
Balanchine choreographed La Sonnambula in 1946 for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with music by Vittorio Rieti. New York City Ballet first performed it in 1960 with Allegra Kent and Erik Bruhn as leads.
With 19th century era sets and costumes, the ballet opens with a regal party scene as the Poet (Robert Fairchild) joins the party. All eyes are on him as the host of the party, the Baron (Amar Ramasar) introduces him to the Coquette (Sara Mearns). The Poet and Coquette flirt and dance, then sit and enjoy divertissements.
Daniel Ulbricht was outstanding as the Harlequin, which featured multiple split jumps. The solo had a sense of humor; in several sections in the solo, the Harlequin paused due to back pains, then recovered and resumed dancing. His solo ends with a horizontal dive off stage, hopefully a gentile landing on a gymnastics crash pad.
The party resumed as the Coquette, dressed in a black gown, took off her mask and danced romantically with the Poet. The Baron took the Coquette away as the party ended for dinner. The Poet was now a lost soul, searching for his new love. However, the Sleepwalker (Wendy Whelan, who will give her final performance October 18) bourreed on to the scene holding a candle as if in a trance. The Poet was smitten (from the more detailed repertory notes available in the lobby, the Sleepwalker was the Baron’s wife). The jealous Coquette saw the two in a romantic embrace and told the Baron who then pulled a knife and stabbed the Poet. The Sleepwalker danced over his lifeless body and ultimately picked him up and carried him away. In the end, all eyes were on the balcony where the Sleepwalker took the Poet as the curtain closed. I agree with the repertory notes: “The story remains mysterious, inviting different interpretations of the characters’ actions and relationships.”
Although not my favorite ballet, I enjoyed the intense interaction between Fairchild and Whelan; the mysterious Sleepwalker mesmerized Fairchild as he unsuccessfully attempted to interrupt her sleepwalking trance.
The evening concluded with the wonderful Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s 1910 score. The piece was originally commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes, based on Russian folk tales of a magical bird. Michel Fokine choreographed the original piece.
Balanchine’s New York City Ballet version debuted in 1949 with Maria Tallchief as the Firebird with costumes and scenery by Marc Chagall. According to the program notes, Balanchine used the orchestral suite rather than the three-act score, simplifying the story and emphasizing the mythical elements of the Firebird’s character. Balanchine changed the versions in 1970, 1972 and 1980, with Jerome Robbins choreographing the section with Kastchei the Wizard and his subjects.
The ballet opens to the backdrop of beautiful Chagall scenery as Prince Ivan (Ask la Cour) wonders around the forest. The tall, elegant Teresa Reichlen as the Firebird appeared with a series of frenetic, bird-like jumps. He is mesmerized by her and captures her, leading to a tense pas de deux in which the Firebird attempts to escape. Eventually, he gains her trust and she gives him a magic feather.
The 29-minute work moves quickly; after the forest scene, the Prince falls in love with a princess. The Prince is attacked by many bizarre monsters led by Kastchei the Wizard, although I’m not sure why. Wikipedia says that in the longer ballet, Ivan confronts Kastchei to ask to marry one of the princesses. The two quarrel and Kastchei sends his magical creatures after Ivan.
During battle, the Prince remembers the magic feather, and pulls it out. The Firebird appears and gives him a magic sword, which he uses to kill all of the strange monsters. The ballet ends with the wedding of the Prince and his bride (Savannah Lowery) to the dramatic and inspiring final musical section, dominated by loud horns. I could see the conductor Rossen Milanov conducting with great gusto and inspiration during this dramatic section.
Multifaceted Theresa shows her vulnerability after her capture, yet reveals strength during the battle. She acts the part of a bird with fluttering arms and bird-like leaps throughout. In a dramatic moment, she confidently calms the forest and brushes the dead monsters off stage as the princesses enter.