- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

NEW YORK — — An annual spring ritual played out in rainswept New York last weekend when the city’s two major ballet companies danced a kind of pas de deux on opposite sides of Lincoln Center.

At Philip Johnson’s elegant State Theater, specially built to George Balanchine’s specifications, the New York City Ballet offered programs rich with works by its two founding directors, Mr. Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and highlighted by a new and breathtakingly lovely ballet by Christopher Wheeldon.

In the cavernous reaches of the Metropolitan Opera, the American Ballet Theatre was performing the kind of grand ritual the space seems to demand: director Kevin McKenzie’s controversial, handsomely designed “Swan Lake,” with the iconic role of Odette-Odile danced by the extraordinary young ballerina Gillian Murphy.

Lincoln Center plaza, looking worn and waterlogged with an empty bandstand standing forlornly in its center, still teemed with life. New on its periphery were dozens of small white-tented booths selling everything from exotic and expensive hand-painted scarves to souvlaki. Groups of street musicians also helped attract a sizable crowd of Sunday strollers despite the weather.

It used to be claimed that choreography was king at the New York City Ballet when Mr. Balanchine and Mr. Robbins were turning out streams of masterpieces and that the dancer was supreme at ABT, which emphasized such stars as Erik Bruhn, Carla Fracci, Cynthia Gregory, Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev.

The differences in the two companies have been blurred over time, but at last weekend’s performances, they appeared again in sharp relief.

Mr. Wheeldon triumphantly restores the art of choreography to center stage. For the past couple of years, he has been resident choreographer at NYCB, appointed by Artistic Director Peter Martins. Mr. Wheeldon is considered the most talented, imaginative and accomplished choreographer to have emerged on the international ballet scene in years. For one so young — he just turned 30 — he already has a string of solid successes. He has created works for the NYCB, the Royal Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet and is scheduled to mount a new “Swan Lake” for the Philadelphia Ballet next spring.

His new ballet, “Carousel (A Dance),” is a nod to the 100th anniversary of Richard Rodgers. It takes Mr. Rodgers’ lovely music for the musical and both reveals and deepens its tenderness and romanticism.

Mr. Wheeldon has that rare gift only the finest choreographers possess: He knows how and when to be simple. And he begins that way. A large circle of 20 dancers walks slowly in clockwise formation while Alexandra Ansanelli moves counterclockwise on the circumference, looking toward Damian Woetzel standing in the middle.

Imperceptibly, all start to move faster and faster; the principals change places, and Mr. Woetzel finally is running headlong, yearning toward Miss Ansanelli, who is reaching out to him from the center. The circle vanishes, and suddenly the two reappear, alone.

Their meeting is tender, shy, rapturous. She barely can raise her eyes to him; he puts his hand on her cheek. He opens his arms wide to her, cartwheels in delight, swings her up in the air and kneels with her resting on his knee. Mr. Wheeldon is masterly at combining small intimate gestures with the large eloquent movements of ballet. The result is deeply moving and creates a magical aura around the two lovers.

The carousel music is conveyed playfully as the men in the corps carry the women on their shoulders in a winged position. The women hold wooden rods vertically, moving them up and down in alternate patterns, creating an astonishing effect of a make-believe merry-go-round.

Mr. Wheeldon has taken Mr. Rodgers’ familiar music and with great imagination gone beyond popular success to fashion something of pure gold.

American Ballet Theatre continues to put its emphasis on its stable of remarkable dancers. Casting is announced at the beginning of the season, while NYCB only announces ballets, not dancers. For “Swan Lake,” ABT fielded an impressive group of women: Last week they included Nina Ananiashvili, Julie Kent, Polomo Herrera and Irina Dvorovenko. Partnering them were premiers danseurs Ethan Stiefel, Julio Bocca, Jose Manuel Carreno and Maxim Belotserkovsky.

A week ago, the featured dancers were the magnificent Angel Corella and Gillian Murphy, the company’s newest Swan Queen. Miss Murphy is a dancer with refined technique and a sensitive response to music. Few dancers are equally at home in the lyrical demands of Act II and the bravura challenges of Act III, but Miss Murphy gave enthralling performances in each. As Odette, she moved with creamy but cool grace, and as Odile, she triumphed in its technical demands, tossing off fouettes and triple turns with an easy flourish.

Mr. Corella, one of the most exciting dancers on the stage today, was perfection in his dancing and has deepened his interpretation since the company introduced this staging of “Swan Lake” in Washington three years ago.

Standing out in the performance was Frederic Franklin as the Prince’s tutor. At 88 he brings a zest to the stage that would be remarkable at any age. Also notable was Joaquin de Luz as an infectiously exuberant Neapolitan in Act III.

The New York City Ballet continues to plumb its priceless heritage of ballets by Mr. Balanchine and Mr. Robbins. Mr. Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” was brightly polished, but his “Tarantella” did not fare as well. The two dancers were not quite up to all its stylistic challenges. In the role created for Edward Villella, Daniel Ulbricht demonstrated a phenomenal elevation. His leaps and jumps are spectacular, but he didn’t do all the steps. In between the bravura parts, he walked through the role.

Mr. Balanchine’s 1980 “Ballade,” one of the last works he created, was beautifully danced by Wendy Whelan, who brought sensitive, pliant phrasing to this atmospheric ballet.

Jerome Robbins’ “Piano Pieces” is a delight, if a minor one, and his “West Side Story Suite,” taken from his Broadway show, was a real crowd pleaser, offering the chance to see the NYCB dancers in street-gang form and to hear such elegant dancers as Mr. Woetzel and Jenifer Ringer belting out Leonard Bernstein’s tunes and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.

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