New York City Ballet

'Carnival of the Animals' and 'Guide to Strange Places'

by Kate Snedeker

May 14-15, 2003 -- New York State Theater, New York

As the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon has contributed a wide variety of ballets to the company’s repertory. At the 2003 Spring Gala, Wheeldon unveiled his latest ballet, Carnival of the Animals , a delightful adventure through the animal kingdom, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Oliver, the boy, is locked in the Museum of Natural History and during the night, all the people he knows come to life as various animals.

Based loosely on a story Wheeldon wrote while at the Royal Ballet School, the ballet is accompanied by narration written and performed by the actor John Lithgow. Lithgow’s rhyming prose combines the innocence of a child’s view of the world, with an adult perceptions and sophistication. Jon Morrell’s scenery is wisely simple, leaving the focus on the dancers and his delightful costumes, which subtly mix the human and the animal so that neither are lost. These are not humans dressed as animals, but humans with very animal like characteristics.

Wheeldon’s genius is apparent in both his casting and the choreography. He clearly knows the dancers well, matching the natural qualities and talents of each dancer to their role, human and animal. The choreography is a wonderful mix of classic dance, character dance and some fun romps, and using the natural humor and pathos of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals .

P.J. Verhoest, a student from the School of American Ballet, is a red-headed and impish Oliver, excellent in a role than involves dancing and interaction with the various characters. Charles Askegard, as the school teacher, turned lion was notable for an impressive and dignified series of turns in second. His pupils, Oliver’s schoolmates, become weasels & rats, their fussy parents strutting hens and cockerel, played by the tallest members of the corps. Ask LaCour and Jason Fowler were notable as two of the cockerels.

The two elderly sisters in the park, danced with deadpan humor by Pascale van Kipnis and Rachel Rutherford, are reincarnated as turtles. With umbrellas as their shells, brightly colored bloomers peeking out, they dance the world’s slowest can can on their rolling benches.

Lithgow appears as the plump school nurse turned elephant. Clad in an enormous ball gown, she is escorted, supported and partnered in her waltz by a quartet of pink and white-tuxedoed nice, danced with mock seriousness by Antonio Carmena, Daniel Ulbricht, Kyle Froman and Adam Hendrickson.

The school wrestling team appears as jackasses, complete with huge ears, their choreography a series of stylized wrestling moves. Oliver’s piano teacher becomes a long-armed baboon (Arch Higgins), the nervous librarian, a kangaroo. In her dreams the librarian, danced by Yvonne Borree, becomes mermaid, complete with chorus line of fish (the backdrop of course, the famous blue whale).

Kyra Nichols, as Oliver’s worried mother, is a cuckoo, fretting about her missing son. She is comforted by James Fayette as the father. In the final scene, Christine Redpath, a NYCB ballet mistress, is elegant and touching as Oliver’s Aunt who has always dreamt of dancing Odile/Odette. To the strains of the Dying Swan, she dances her swan solo, her white gloved arms becoming the swan’s wings. Redpath, with her natural elegance and fluid arms, made the solo memorable and poignant

In the end, Oliver is reunited with his parents and a joyous finale ensues. Sophisticated yet simple, this is one of the best new ballets to enter at NYCB in recent years. A deft mix of storytelling, dance and theatre, it leaves one eager for Wheeldon’s next treat.

Natasha Katz lit the ballet, and Andrea Quinn conducted.

Peter Martins’ new ballet, Guide to Strange Places, which previewed during the gala officially premiered the following night. Set to the John Adams composition of the same name, Guide to Strange Places is Martins ninth ballet to music by Adams, and part of a month long celebration of Mr. Adams’ music at Lincoln Center. The preview, conducted by the composer, also marked the United States premiere of the score.

Julius Lumsden’s grey, hazy backdrop contrasts and blends with Catherine Barinas’ striking costumes. The men, Sebastian Marcovici, Benjamin Millepied, Nilas Martins, Philip Neal and Jock Soto wear grey unitards, a slightly lighter shade at the ankles and chest, the women are clad in brightly hued dresses, the tops of their tights dyed to match the dresses. Both men and women appear and disappear through blacked out doorways in the backdrop.

Martins’ edgy choreography is swirling and powerful, pulsing to Adam’s driving score. In the beginning, the men raise their partners into twisting lifts, soaring and dropping with the ebbs and flows of the music. For both men and women, the working leg often in attitude derriere. The central section of the ballet is a series of pas de deuxs, with each couple dancing a a brief solo, the backdrop hue changing to match the woman’s dress. Jennie Somogyi was often sideways in Nilas Martins’ whether being rolled, spun or lifted., Benjamin Millepied & Alexandra Ansanelli and Janie Taylor & Sebastian Marcovici were given more vibrant, and youthful choreography, which they danced with elegant energy . Philip Neal and Miranda Weese were sleek and sophisticated as the fourth couple.

In an extended, sensual pas de deux, Jock Soto began by lifting up the sides of Darci Kistler’s long skirts, tying them around her neck. Having freed her from her previous existence, they engaged in a tangled, passionate pas de deux, Soto poised over Kistler’s prone body, limbs intertwined, which concluded with the release of her skirts.

In the end, all five couple lined up on stage, hand to hand, the line changing to Adam’s dissonant brass chords. Danced with more precision and tightness on Thursday, Guide to Strange Places has moments of interest, but is ultimately limited by John Adam’s music. Driving and often atonal and dissonant, the music becomes increasingly difficult on the ear and seems to elicit little emotion in the cast. Though the ballet is powerfully danced, with fully involved performances by all the dancers, for it to really succeed, the music needs to be as pleasing as the dancing.

Thursday’s performance also included Hallelujah Junction and Symphony in Three Movements.

Mark Stanley lit the ballet.

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