New York City Ballet

'Serenade,' 'Thou Swell,' 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'

by Kate Snedeker

January 22, 2003 -- New York State Theatre

On January 22nd, the New York City Ballet celebrated the 99th anniversary of George Balanchine's birth with performances of two Balanchine classics, "Serenade" and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and the official premiere of Peter Martins's "Thou Swell." The celebration was tinged with sadness, as Martins emerged from the curtain to inform the audience that Irene Diamond, the major donor behind the Diamond Project, had died earlier in the day. Thus the evening became not only a tribute to Balanchine, but Diamond's years of strong support for New York City Ballet.

The evening opened with" Serenade," danced to Tchaikovsky’s haunting “Serenade for Strings.” The highlight of this very magical performance was the debut of Sofiane Sylve in the Dark Angel role. With her impressive, crisp technique, Sylve was a stunning and powerful Dark Angel. Her supported pirouette with Fayette was absolutely rock solid, with nary a wobble, giving it a very surreal quality. She also had no problems with the final lift, radiating an icy power as she was carried, standing, off the stage.

Jennie Somogyi and Kyra Nichols were outstanding in the other principal roles. While age has limited Nichols’s extension and jump, she is still every bit the ballerina and made the most of the understated emotion in Balanchine’s choreography. The flow and exquisite attention to detail in her dancing made her dancing magical and emotionally powerful. James Fayette partnered Nichols with care, though the lack of height, and energy in preparation in the lifts were an indication of her declining physical power. The corps, in Karinska’s ethereal long skirted costumes gave a equally solid performance, despite an unfortunate slip and fall by one dancer as she made her entrance.

Following" Serenade" was the official premiere of Peter Martins’s "Thou Swell," which was previewed on opening night last November. Set in Robin Wagner’s 1930s ballroom, with Jules Lumsden’s sleek costumes, "Thou Swell" is built around the music of Richard Rodgers. The four principal couples take turns dancing to sixteen Rodgers songs, accompanied by musicians onstage -- singers Debbie Gravitte and Jonathan Dokuchitz and the Paul Pizzuti trio -- as well as the offstage NYCB orchestra.

Rachel Rutherford substituted for Jenifer Ringer due to injury. Though Rutherford was elegant with Fayette, one missed the emotional depth that is so apparent in the partnership of Ringer and Fayette. The additional rehearsal time seems to have resulted in a much more relaxed, enjoyable performance than in November.

Martins’s choreography is fun, energetic and smooth. However, as a whole, "Thou Swell" still lacks in underlying cohesion and emotion. The problems seem to lie both in the casting and musical choices. In choosing sixteen different songs, Martins tries to make a whole out of a number of wonderful, but fragmented pieces. The fact that all were written by Richard Rodgers, does not necessarily mean that they work well together.

Also, though all four of the main couples, Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins; Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard; Darci Kistler and Jock Soto; and Rutherford and Fayette brought energy and presence to their dancing, the choice of music for each couple didn’t always seem to work. Kistler and Soto were as smooth as silk, and oh-so-elegant in their pas de deux to “Isn’t It Romantic." But as wonderful as their performance was, it didn’t have a romantic feel. Perhaps Ringer and Fayette would have been a better choice for this music. In addition, although it was wonderful to see Nilas Martins in his guest spot on the piano, he didn’t have the proper spring or crispness in his dancing for the quick steps in the duo with Borree to “Getting to Know You."

One enjoyable aspect of the ballet is the interludes where the young waiters and waitresses get to strut their stuff. The waiters were all danced by apprentices, a rare opportunity to see the future of NYCB’s male ranks.

The evening closed with an appropriately over-the-top performance of Balanchine’s "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", an excerpt from the Richard Rodgers’ musical “On Your Toes”.

Adam Hendrickson, who has emerged as a talented character dancer, was memorable as the Morrosine, the premier danseur noble, showing off his considerable acting and dancing skills. Andrew Robertston, another dancer who has been seen in a number of character roles, made his debut as a wonderfully off-the-wall, macho gangster. With Kurt Froman no longer in the company, Jason Fowler and Stephen Hanna stepped in to take over the roles of the twin bartenders. Sean Suozzi also debuted as the thug, and Fayette made his third appearance of the night, this time as the Big Boss.

However, it was the performances of Damian Woetzel and Maria Kowroski that brought the house down. With the bizarre, surreal plot and comic book-like approach to the acting sections, this is a ballet that demands a larger than life -- bordering on outrageous -- performance. Woetzel and Kowroski both delivered right on target. Woetzel, who has been oddly near-absent from the State Theatre stage this season, is clearly in his element -- he acts well, taps well and pushes himself to the limit in the frenetic, ever faster, death-avoiding final dance.

Kowroski, with her miles-high legs, matches Woetzel in pushing the limits. In the final high kick sequence, she pushed her extension past 180 degrees, her heels coming perilously close to Woetzel’s head, her back arched to the extreme. While pushing the limits is not appropriate in many ballets, this is one ballet where the outrageous is the expected. When Big Bosses can wake up from the dead, and cops are of the Keystone Kops mold, ultra-high kicks are just the norm. In all, an excellent performance, with all the outrageous humor, dancing and acting that make this such a rousing end to a night.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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