- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

NEW YORK CITY — IIt’s easy for a dance fan to have a love affair with New York City in spring, when the weather is glorious and two of the finest ballet companies in the country — in the world — are playing on opposite sides of Lincoln Center. A couple of spectacular new buildings devoted to dance have risen as well, providing the logistical support to help great art come to life.

While American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet were drawing crowds to evening performances, student groups in front of Lincoln Center’s fountains were performing for lunchtime strollers. One day it was a live-wire group of dancers, a gospel choir and a band from Stevenson High School in the Bronx. It was a pleasure to see this kind of grass-roots performance encouraged in the heart of the city’s major performance complex.

ABT opened its two-month run at the cavernous Metropolitan Opera last week with a festive gala heavy on glamour and snippets of high-power dancing.

The company emphasizes its stars, superstars and super-duper stars — and has a right to do so. It boasts headliners from all over the world — especially men, who take dancing to heights of athletic brilliance never seen before in such concentrated numbers. The fine ABT dancers we see in Washington are reinforced for the New York season by such luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca, Alessandra Ferri, Vladimir Malakhov and Diana Vishneva, who ramp up the wattage.

It all made for a gala in which each group tried to outdo the last. Julie Kent and Angel Corella, both appealing dancers, turned “Other Dances,” the charming folk-dance-tinged pas de deux that Jerome Robbins created for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, into a charm number, with coy little smiles marring the sweet gravity called for in this small masterpiece set to Chopin music.

An extended excerpt from “Le Corsaire” came off better because sheer bravura is its goal, and the five soloists blazed through in high style.

What fared best of all in this show-off evening was Diana Vishneva as a bewitching courtesan vamping a group of jaded roues. With sensuous aplomb, she played her seductive powers for all they were worth as she was borne aloft by her admirers. The spectacle fit the evening’s glamorous mood to a T.

At a matinee two days later, the full-length “Corsaire” received a boffo performance. The ballet’s sheer, joyous excuse for being is its pyrotechnics, and Mr. Corella as the Slave and Herman Cornejo as the comic seller of beautiful women properly stole the show with jaw-dropping performances.

New centers for dance

Two recent buildings are adding to the health of New York’s dance community. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has pursued new artistic wellsprings throughout his career, recently embarked on what he calls his last artistic project. He envisions his new Baryshnikov Arts Center as a catalyst for artists of all disciplines to come together informally, exchange ideas and find new ways of collaboration.

BAC is located in Hell’s Kitchen in the top three floors of a building called 37 Arts. It contains four large studios (two of them can be combined into a single black-box theater) plus office space and a conference room. There is no attempt to ignore its gritty neighborhood — the building’s walls are proudly made of poured concrete — but the high-ceilinged space is suffused with light from its soaring windows.

Mr. Baryshnikov has plunged into experimental projects, given fellowships to emerging artists and offers desperately needed low-rent studio space to established dance groups. (For-profit Broadway shows pay a higher price.)

While BAC revels in its working-class environment, the Alvin Ailey company has built a stunning new building at 55th Street and Ninth Avenue that radiates glamour and prestige.

The street-level floor grabs attention with huge blowups of the photogenic Ailey dancers caught midflight in its windows. The six-story glass building — with a basement level housing a small state-of-the-art theater — accommodates the myriad Ailey projects: the main company; Ailey II (the junior company); the Ailey School, which teaches 5,000 students a year; and the Ailey summer camps (seven throughout the country).

New York City Ballet

Every other year, NYCB gives commissions to seven choreographers from around the world. Not all are successful enough to survive on their own, but they are serious works, fully staged.

I saw two of the new ballets: Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Two Birds With the Wings of One” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Evenfall.”

Working in a light vein, Mr. Bonnefoux brought his North Carolina Dance Theatre to the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda earlier this spring, using the country music of the Greasy Beans onstage. For NYCB, he choreographed a dramatic work to the percussive sounds of the sought-after Chinese composer Bright Sheng, who was on hand to conduct the premiere. Two women made the work arresting: soprano Lauren Flanigan and ballerina Sofiane Sylve. Each in her way brought high drama to the stage, backed up by Mr. Bonne foux’s striking choreography for a group of six men.

Mr. Wheeldon’s “Evenfall” was illuminated by his phenomenal ability to create interesting visual patterns and an instinct for creating a mood or a suggestion of drama without being literal. There were striking moments — the corps of women bent to the floor, their arms stretched out in an upside-down V, their gray tutus spiked up in the air. Mysterious moments, too. Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel stood linked in a long embrace as the corps swirled around them. He slipped out of her encircling arms; later, the motif was repeated. The Bartok piano concerto and steel-grey lighting gave the work a chilling effect.

Another highlight of the NYCB program was watching Joaquin De Luz, Tyler Angle and Mr. Woetzel make a joyous romp of Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.”

The most treasured moment in a memorable week? Probably the company’s sublime performance of George Balanchine’s 1960 “Liebeslieder Walzer” set to music of Johannes Brahms.

Two onstage pianists and four singers conjured up the atmosphere of a private evening soiree. It was a dream cast: Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Miss Weese, Wendy Whelan, Mr. Angle, Charles Askegard, Nikolaj Hubbe and Nilas Martins are artists able to convey the nuance and vagaries of romantic love and plunge headlong into the passions it evokes.

Visually “Liebeslieder” is ravishing. In an elegant 19th-century drawing room, the four couples enter one by one, the women dressed in beautiful satin ball gowns and heeled slippers designed by Karinska.

The ballet is in two parts. The first feels warm and domestic, with the couples showing attraction, indifference, rejection, tenderness. After a pause, the room is transformed into a dreamscape: Its walls become transparent, the background is star-filled; the women wear airy tulle skirts and pointe shoes and soar in the air. We are entering an otherworldly setting with dancers its idealized inhabitants.

Mr. Balanchine has made many dances in waltz time (his sumptuous “Vienna Waltzes” is scheduled later this spring by NYCB) but none more moving than “Liebeslieder.” To my knowledge, it has never been performed in Washington. It would be wonderful if the company would bring this priceless jewel on one of its yearly visits.

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