The New York Times, Dance Review
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Published: May 15, 2011
The generous breadth of taste shown by New York Theater Ballet with its Signatures series is good for New York’s whole dance scene. This weekend at the Florence Gould Hall it showed pieces by Frederick Ashton, Merce Cunningham and Antony Tudor — three of the 20th century’s supreme choreographers — as well as a world premiere by the British choreographer Richard Alston. Larger than the excellence of any one work here, which is saying much, was the stylistic diversity of the program. I’ve been grateful for this company before; I’ve never admired it more than on this occasion.
The company has performed the four older works before — Ashton’s “Capriol Suite” (1930), Cunningham’s “Septet” (1953), and Tudor’s “Jardin aux Lilas” (1936) and Soirée Musicale” (1938) — but the great highlights of Friday’s rich performance were nonetheless “Septet” and “Jardin aux Lilas,” both strikingly improved from their last showings by this company. The Alston premiere was accomplished, full of interesting detail and vastly superior to the new works at New York City Ballet this year.
I don’t get the point of its title, “A Rugged Flourish,” or its choice of music, Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations. Still, I hope the company keeps it in repertory. Whereas I sat out City Ballet’s new “Seven Deadly Sins” twice on Saturday, this will repay further viewing.
Mr. Alston is one of the most musically astute choreographers alive. In the 1990s I preferred what he made to Rameau music to Mark Morris’s dances to the same composer, and what he made to Astor Piazzolla tangos to Paul Taylor’s. When I don’t appreciate his response to a piece of music, I’ve always found it rewarding to re-examine his choices.
His program note here says: “Copland’s ‘Piano Variations’ have a brave stony rigor, repeatedly ringing out in grand gesture. ‘A Rugged Flourish’ portrays a young hero’s courage and determination — strong enough to be alone, yet all the stronger for eventually accepting company.” Mr. Alston shapes his charmingly quasi-narrative sequence with seeming effortlessness from this score’s structure.
A faunlike boy (the softly riveting, adolescent-looking Steven Melendez), after dancing alone, meets six nymphs and has an extended dance duet with one (Rie Ogura), before allowing the six to dance together and then becoming one of their number in the finale. The costumes are by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan; Mr. Melendez’s look recalls the more heroic protagonist of Tudor’s jungle-story “Shadowplay” (1967, to be revived next week by American Ballet Theater). But there are abrasive tensions in Copland’s modernist harmonies that the choreography avoids.
In fact, the audience would probably enjoy “A Rugged Flourish” more if the recurrent harshness of Copland’s writing — played here by Mariko Miyazaki — didn’t seem to get in the way. But it also makes Mr. Alston look relatively polite, especially in the dances for the women, and more conventional than he actually is. (The women are on point. Mr. Alston, a modern-dance choreographer, has choreographed point work only a few times in the last 30 years. He does so here tactfully rather than tellingly.)
The finest dances are for Mr. Melendez, alone and with Ms. Ogura. The opening solo has really marvelous self-contradictions and explorations: Mr. Melendez faces one way and jumps the other or advances in a new direction while looking behind, and the mixture of impulsiveness and reflectiveness is compelling. The duet has a tension that is half competitive, half getting-to-know-you: warily, they present each other with dance material that keeps extending them as personalities.
The Theater Ballet program notes about Tudor encourage the audience to regard him as a psychological choreographer, which is the wrong way to prepare for “Soirée Musicale” and a relatively trite way to follow “Jardin aux Lilas.” The pure-dance “Soirée,” set to Rossini, is a bright study in different 19th-century dance styles. It seems to want to look more predictable and dated than it is; you have to home in on its dance details to find it rewarding, but its three male-female duets, its female trios and the changing structures of its larger ensembles all have memorable ingenuities.
There are novels, poems, plays, operas and modern-dance works that all penetrate further into the human psyche than does “Jardin,” whose psychological subtleties are unusual only by ballet standards. Even so, “Jardin” really is a masterpiece by the standards of any art. Its dramatic skill lies in its rapid and economical garden-party alternation of social decorousness and private revelation, and in the amazing, modernist restraint with which it sets those changes to the various colors of its score, Chausson’s “Poème” for violin and orchestra.
The structure is such that very often the dance shows how the characters are unable to open up, while the music shows what they are feeling. (And though the eyes stay true, the face says least of all.) This works because the body language, from Caroline’s first conflicted, closed-arm gesture, is acute: a hundred deft strokes show us how divided these characters are.
Friday’s “Jardin” — better than the already good ones we saw from this company in 2008 — was especially fine. Elena Zahlmann as Caroline and Ms. Ogura as An Episode in the Past of the Man Caroline Must Marry (I wish someone had persuaded Tudor to give them all names) were especially attuned to character, music and atmosphere. And the ballet has a doubled intensity on the Gould Hall’s small stage (still larger than that of the Mercury Theater, where it had its premiere).
Friday’s “Septet,” excellently led by Joshua Andino Nieto, was immeasurably improved from the company’s performance three months before. There was far less acting overlay, a far fuller trust in Cunningham’s choreography, and a rare sense of the musicality of these dances.
Both in the movement it sets to silence and in the motionless standstills and tableaus it sets to music, “Septet” often makes the independence of music and choreography obvious. But it is a far richer and stranger work when it shows you how attuned to Erik Satie’s harmonies and rhythms it sometimes is. Way beyond occasional step-for-note fidelity, its gestures and groupings sometimes release movement into the air to match or underscore Satie’s chords. There is a restraint here akin to Tudor’s.
Modernist economy is also apparent in Ashton’s earliest extant ballet, “Capriol Suite.” Beneath its mock-Elizabethan idioms, its cool charm and its bubbling inventiveness, the choreography places its faith in pure form. I know of no British company that has performed this work since Ashton’s death in 1988. Here, as throughout this program, New York Theater Ballet does us great service.