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Arts & Culture

“Short Stories” At SPAC Presents NYCB “Unplugged”

Jay Rogoff
Penny Howell Jolly
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The New York City Ballet danced before a live audience Wednesday night for the first time since March 1, 2020, just before the pandemic shut dance companies down for well over a year. The special program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, “NYCB On and Offstage: Short Stories” presented 15 dancers, a fraction of the 95-member company, in excerpts from mostly narrative ballets, to music played by pianists Nancy McDill and Alan Moverman. This “NYCB unplugged”-style event, with principal dancer Maria Kowroski as a warm and useful host giving context for the ballets, offered a more casual, more intimate look than usual at this world-class company. 

The dancers performed on a bare stage before a blue backdrop. Instead of Titania’s sumptuous pink seashell bower from George Balanchine’s marvelous A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ballet with which NYCB opened SPAC in 1966, Miriam Miller made do with a cushioned armchair as she woke to fall head over heels for knock-kneed, donkey-headed Bottom, impersonated by Lars Nelson. The dancers brought their handsome costumes, though, so Miller wore her sleek gown to tease Nelson, wearing his sublimely stupid donkey noodle and seduced more by a handful of fresh hay than by the fairy queen.

In Balanchine’s pas de deux from Firebird, Teresa Reichlen danced one supernatural bird, then another as Odette in Balanchine’s adaptation of Petipa’s choreography from Swan Lake. In both selections, her long limbs expressed magical strength when she was lifted in high splits by Amar Ramasar as Prince Ivan in Firebird, by Stravinsky, and Tyler Angle as Prince Siegfried in Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara gave her first-ever performance as Aurora in the Rose Adagio from Tschaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. In this dance the ballerina must convey simultaneously the giddy excitement of a teenaged girl and the mature poise of a woman ready for marriage, She demonstrated both qualities in a series of unsupported balances on pointe as each of her four suitors promenaded her in turn. Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan, who often danced the role with NYCB, pointed out that while Swan Lake’s ballerina famously must whip off 32 zippy fouettés, Aurora in Beauty, also a Petipa ballet, has 32 instances at which, as Whelan put it, “she has to go up on pointe and do a trick.” In another excerpt from Beauty, high-flying Spartak Hoxha as the Bluebird—yet another enchanted fowl—danced a sparkling duet with Sara Adams as his love, Princess Florine, her hand to her ear, listening for his call.

The opening of Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free showed his knack for choreography celebrating American character and energy, with Ramasar, Hoxha, and Nelson strutting to Leonard Bernstein’s happy score as sailors on shore leave, while in the brilliant “Mistake Waltz,” from Robbins’ comic masterpiece, The Concert, six women performing to Chopin get the choreography hilariously wrong in increasingly ingenious ways. The finale of Balanchine’s exuberant cowboy ballet, Western Symphony, ended the evening, with dancehall girl Emily Kikta whipping her legs about and nearly clocking shuffling cowpoke Gonzalo Garcia, still sporting his pandemic beard. The evening felt like a joyous rehearsal for the real thing, when the full company returns to SPAC next year.

The New York City Ballet’s Short Stories program returns Thursday at 7:30 and Saturday at 2 PM. On Friday and Saturday at 7:30, NYCB will dance a program of excerpts from classic George Balanchine ballets. For ticket information, visit spac.org.

Poet and critic Jay Rogoff has published seven collections of poetry. His latest book is Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, from LSU Press. He has written about dance for many publications and is the dance critic for The Hopkins Review. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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