New York City Ballet

Saratoga Diary - Part 1

by Kate Snedeker

July 23 - 24, 2003 -- Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs

My only previous trip up to Saratoga Springs to see the New York City Ballet was memorable more for the continual, drenching downpours than the ballet performances. So, this summer I decided to journey up north during the last week of New York City Ballet’s Saratoga Season in pursuit of sunshine, ballet and even some horse racing. Saratoga, the dancers and the horses did not disappoint! What follows is a combination journal and review of the ballet performances, with a little glimpse into the rest of Saratoga.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

‘Chaconne,’ ‘Symphony in Three Movements,’ and ‘Carnival of the Animals.’

Arrived in Saratoga around 2pm after finally escaping from the thundershowers that had followed us all the way over from eastern Vermont. Driving in the (pouring) rain is not one of my favorite activities, but my mom and I managed to keep our spirits up with a bag of delicious peanut brittle. After I checked into the bed & breakfast, we headed over to the Saratoga train station so that my mother could catch her train back to New York City. By this time, storms were brewing again, and we were both a little startled to discover that due to construction the train station was no more than temporary trailer and a very muddy parking lot. As it turns out, my mother stayed drier at the train station than she did in the leaky-roofed Amtrak train.

In order to allow sufficient time for the sun to set, evening performances at Saratoga start at 8:15 pm. For most of the performances, I arrived at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) very early in order to soak up the pretty scenery and catch a glimpse of the dancers warming up on stage (some do, some don't).

The evening's performance, conducted by former New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Guillermo Figueroa, included George Balanchine’s “Chaconne” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” as well as the Saratoga premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals.” Led by Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins, “Chaconne” received a slightly loose performance, no doubt due in large part, to the notoriously slippery SPAC stage. Both Kistler and Martins were adequate, though neither had quite the energy nor precision that the central pas deux demands. Their partnering was not always completely smooth and Martins’ jumps could have used more stretch, though his beats were crisp. Instead, the performance really belonged to the corps with Amanda Edge and Antonio Carmena standouts in the second pas de deux. Carmena’s exuberance and energetic, yet clean, technique made him a joy to watch, and Edge’s crisp jumps and rock solid balances were equally as stunning. Jason Fowler, Saskia Beskow and Eva Natanya also were noteworthy in the lyrical pas de trois, a trio of long, flowing limbs. The pale, flowing costumes were by Karinska.

Wendy Whelan, Abi Stafford, Jennifer Tinsley (who replaced the injured Alexandra Ansanelli), Jared Angle, Tom Gold and Jock Soto were a strong lead cast in “Symphony in Three Movements.” It was a treat to see Angle, who has been sidelined by injuries for much of the last two years, dancing again in a classical role. A tall, long-limbed dancer, he is a skilled partner and elegant presence on the stage. In the pas de deux with Tinsley, Angle demonstrated the depth and awareness in his movement --for instance, his arms just didn’t hang in the air, they were held with an obvious energy and attention to line created from neck to fingertip. Stafford and Gold were mercurial, flitting across the stage in a series of quick, precise steps. Stunning in the final, long pas de deux, Whelan and Gold matched Stravinsky’s edgy music with a moving performance of Balanchine’s often limb-contorting choreography. Their obvious complete comfort with each other and the steps allowed for a performance that never wavered in intensity and flow, keeping the audience in rapt attention. The corps, which opened the ballet in the memorable diagonal line of coltish ballerinas, was a bit ragged. Lines were straight, but arms and heads tended to be held in a number of different positions.

The evening concluded with Saratoga’s first glimpse of “Carnival of the Animals,” Christopher Wheeldon’s charming tale of Oliver Percy, a young boy who spends a night in the Museum of Natural History. Based on a story written by Wheeldon while he was a student at the Royal Ballet School, now turned into a full libretto written and read by actor John Lithgow.   The ballet brings to life the people in Oliver’s life as the animals in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals”.

A great success when it was performed at the New York State Theater in June, on this first night in Saratoga, “Carnival of the Animals” received much applause, but the performance was hampered by a number of factors. First of all, the large, open nature of the amphitheater made it difficult for the orchestra to project, and the changing weather made it near impossible to stay in tune. In addition, the large size of the SPAC stage presented some issues during the ballet because in order to shrink the width of the stage and to allow the patrons in the far side seats to see, all sets had to be set back on the stage, framed by very wide, angled wings. With Jon Morrell’s simple, but ingenuous sets, the “Carnival of the Animals” needs a cozy stage, and looked a bit distant and overwhelmed at SPAC. The increased distance between the orchestra and dancers may also have been a problem, as the communication between first time Carnival of the Animals conductor Richard Moredock and the dancers did not seem entirely comfortable, with several musical endings off from the choreographic endings.

Still, the dancing was excellent, with a couple of notable debuts. Jenifer Ringer made her first appearance in the Cuckoo section as Oliver’s mother, a role that was choreographed on her before she was injured early in the the spring season. In the tender and poignant duet, Ringer and (her real-life husband) James Fayette were very believable as Oliver’s worried parents. Aaron Severini made his debut as one of the mouse cavaliers to John Lithgow’s hilarious school nurse turned waltzing elephant. Also of note were the performances of P.J. Verhoest, an SAB student, as Oliver and Rachel Rutherford and Pascale Van Kipnis as the slow motion can-can dancing sisters turned turtles. Christine Redpath, in Morell’s deep backed cocktail dress and long white gloves was superb as Oliver’s aunt recalling her glory days as a ballet dancer in a moving solo to “The Dying Swan”.

Thursday, July 24, 2003
2pm and 8:15 pm, both ‘Coppelia’

The thunderstorms had not yet made their final exit for the week, making watching and performing at SPAC somewhat of an adventure. High humidity and pouring rain can turn the stage into a virtual ice-rink, and the walk from car to seat a challenge in staying dry and mud free. Luckily the only incident of the day was a wind burst during the matinee performance which startled those sitting on the lawn and preceded a very brief downpour.

George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s classic version of “Coppelia” was performed both in the afternoon and in the evening. The matinee was supposed to be the occasion of corps member Megan Fairchild’s debut as Swanilda. However because of an injury suffered by Alexandra Ansanelli, Fairchild was cast in all four performances of “Coppelia.” (Both Yvonne Borree and Jenifer Ringer had previously danced the role, but neither were apparently recovered enough from injuries to take on the role.) Fairchild got rave reviews from the local press for her debut performance opposite Damian Woetzel on Tuesday night, but I was a bit nervous in anticipation of her dancing the role twice in one day. The role of Frantz, however, was split between Damian Woetzel (evenings) and Benjamin Millepied (matinees).

Megan Fairchild’s performances as Swanilda were very impressive, especially for a dancer who has been in the company just over a year (Fairchild was made an apprentice after the 2001 SAB Workshop in early June of 2001, but did not receive her corps contract until the summer of 2002). A tiny, slim dancer, she has a cherubic face, and wonderfully straight, slender limbs. Especially during the matinee performance, when the daylight washes out much of the attempts at spotlighting the dancers, the roles must be danced “big” in order to stand out from Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s multicolored set. Fairchild was certainly up to this challenge, her Swanilda a young bundle of energy. In the first act dances, she displayed a delicious crispness and quickness in the very precise choreography, and was jollily hyperkinetic in the Scottish dance in the second act. For such a young Swanilda, Fairchild’s acting was surprisingly effective, her emotions telegraphed via her wonderfully expressive face. It was indeed a young interpretation of the role, and with time and experience should come more depth, especially in some of the mime sequences. With more performances under her belt should also come greater comfort with the choreography which will allow her to have great greater stretch and depth of motion in her dancing.

Dancing opposite Fairchild at the matinee and evening performances, respectively, Benjamin Millepied and Damian Woetzel were stunning in their individual dancing and solid, supportive partners. The chemistry between Millepied and Fairchild was especially effective, and, not surprisingly, she seemed more comfortable with his partnering (she was originally supposed to dance with Millepied, thus she likely had very little time to rehearse with Woetzel).

With his dark-haired good looks and innocent rascaliness, Millepied was a very natural Frantz. His quick, crisp beats and breathtaking ballon also made for an energetic and youthful Frantz, a perfect match for Fairchild’s Swanilda. Also impressive was Millepied’s acting, which has grown in its depth and detail. The final pas de deux was performed with great poise and fluidity, though Fairchild looked slightly fatigued by the end. Her series of beats across the stage simply flew, yet did not lose any of their intended crispness. Millepied’s double tours were nicely rotated, though he really shone with his high, light beats and assembles. The tricky shoulder lifts and leaps of faith were smoothly and confidently performed, and the pas de deux in general had a fluid and delicate quality.

In the evening performance Damian Woetzel, who first performed the role more than a decade ago, went all out in his dancing and his acting. Though Woetzel is a young looking 36, his roguish, flirtatious Frantz seemed a little too much at times opposite Fairchild’s very innocent Swanilda. (His Frantz, however, would have been just perfect opposite Alexandra Ansanelli’s over the top Swanilda, which it was intended to be). In the first act, he flirted with village girls, and added a little flourish to every exit and entrance. He pulled out all the stops in the middle section of the final pas deux, showing off his stunningly tightly and quickly rotated tours and pirouettes, flawlessly throwing in a jaw-dropping double tour-double tour into the sequence of pirouettes to double tours snapped to second position after landing. A hard act for Fairchild to follow, and in her second performance of the day, she wisely opted for clean, crisp dancing over fancy tricks. The shoulder lifts were not as smooth, perhaps because of Woetzel’s greater height and less familiarity with Fairchild.

At the matinee, Adam Hendrickson was a youthful and caring Dr. Coppelius, crafting his characterization with many wonderful details. This Coppelius clearly cared very deeply for his creations, gently straightening up Coppelia in the opening scene. Robert LaFosse, taking over the role in the evening, was a more comic and crotchety, his characterization robust and animated. The gentler side to LaFosse’s Coppelius was revealed after a very scary slip by new corps member Austin Laurent, who was dancing his small solo as the Acrobat Automaton. Laurent, who has performed the role in every performance this year, is an elegant and long-limbed dancer. His splits are simply beautiful, his legs fully stretched beyond 180 degrees, but towards the end of his brief solo at the evening performance, Laurent slipped going up into a split, coming down very awkwardly. After having chased Swanilda’s friends out of the workshop, LaFosse spent several moments clearly whispering to Laurent, and lifted him very carefully back onto the cushion. Laurent did not reappear in the third act, and one hopes that he is not injured.

The quartet of divertissements in the third act all received sparkling performances. Led by Amanda Edge and Lindy Mandradjieff at the matinee and evening respectively, the young students in the Waltz of the Golden Hours, students from the School of American Ballet and local Saratoga ballet schools, were crowd favorites, their smiles as joyous as their dancing. Both Edge and Mandradjieff were notable for their precise footwork and energy. A fleet-footed Dawn, Abi Stafford was vibrant and quick in the numerous turns without sacrificing fluidity or control. Carrie Lee Riggins brought zest to the role of Spinner, barreling through the numerous turns. In the evening performance, Dena Abergel was a sweet Prayer, gracious with the children and giving every step its due reverence. Discord and War was led with gusto by Aesha Ash and Seth Orza, who were both especially impressive in the evening performance.

Standout performances in the solo roles were backed up by an excellent corps de ballet. The male dancers, especially, attacked the folk dances with gusto, leaping and jumping with the long, colorful ribbons a swirl. The were matched by the energetic and precise female corps. Problems in synchronization still appeared in the dances for Coppelia’s friends, but all the women were solid in the tricky leap to one foot, which since it’s done in a line, can look bad if any one dancer is off beat. Taking over the role of the littlest friend from Megan Fairchild, new corps member Sterling Hyltin was adorable in her timidity and hesitation.

Leo Delibes’ score was conducted by Maurice Kaplow in the afternoon and Richard Moredock in the afternoon.

Editor's note:  For Saturday and Sunday's entries (July 25 - 26) click here.


Edited by Jeff

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