Divertimento No. 15
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, New York
January 30 and February 5, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Michael Popkin
"Times change and we change with them" runs an old saying and nothing danced at NYCB this season has shown this more than the look of Divertimento No. 15. One of Balanchine's tutu and tiara ballets, the opening night cast in 1956 included Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Tanaquil Le Clercq and Patricia Wilde. It depends on ballerinas with a capital "B" and over the years City Ballet has cast it with tall and leggy women who also have perfume. Each woman dances a challenging allegro and a lyrical andante pas de deux. The Dance in America video of parts of the ballet (the variations and pas) made in 1977 features Merrill Ashley, Maria Calegari, Susan Pilarre, Stephanie Saland and Marjorie Spohn. A decade ago, Jennie Somogyi, Pascale Van Kipnis, Wendy Whelan, Margaret Tracey and Rachel Rutherford danced it; and, more recent casts included Miranda Weese and Carla Korbes. The three men in the cast partner and each dance variations but they appear somewhat anonymous: you have the impression that they are there to support the women and are present more as a social group than as individuals.
In the two performances I saw over the past week Megan Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, and Ana Sophia Scheller danced the ballet along with Rutherford. As all except Hyltin and Rutherford are smaller dancers, cut from a different physical mold than prior casts, the look of the ballet changed accordingly. Each individually danced with facility; the ballet was presented clearly and much of the dancing was well finished. Fairchild's impossibly fast sixth variation was memorable, as was Scheller's buoyantly classical allegro followed by a rich and dreamy adagio; Rutherford, returning to the stage after the recent death of her mother (Gage Bush Englund) appeared vulnerable and more beautiful than ever. The casting as a whole, however, made the ballet appear bright and zippy and emphasized the allegro passages over the adagio. The grown up, womanly sophistication the ballet once breathed was gone; with Fairchild's dark coloring and Scheller's slightly Latin exotic looks set against the blond all-American features of Hyltin and Peck, you could have been at a costume party for cheerleaders at U.C.L.A. The different way the dancers responded (or at times didn't respond) to the music than in the past was also striking: they did the steps but didn't appear to be hearing the music; the rhythm was carefully observed but there was little sense of the musical phrase. Altogether the poetry was taken out of the work; it was as if you were watching a different ballet.
Looking at the group of young soloists on the stage together with Fairchild (a principal dancer), it struck me that many of the dancers promoted in the company these past few years nearly conform to a type from the Royal Danish Ballet (the company Peter Martins was trained and bred in) and you could say this of principal dancers Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder as well: neat, sunny women; the waist nearly bisecting the body so that the figure is neither long legged nor long armed; physically capable, well centered dancers who would look perfectly at home cast in the pas de six in Act III of Bournonville's Napoli. By physical talent they are jumpers and turners, allegro dancers who have to push themselves to get lyricism in adagios. Each of the young dancers in Divertimento transcended this generality as an individual: Fairchild stretches her lines in pas de deux; Scheller has an epaulement and aplomb that make her a beautiful adagio dancer; Hyltin isn't the type at all but is rather wild and spontaneous - but the type nonetheless holds as a growing phenomenon in the company as a whole and the fact that NYCB cast the ballet this way speaks for itself.
What happened to the musicality in the piece is another question and harder to answer. In a weekend that saw superbly musical performances of Concerto Barocco, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and La Valse in the Balanchine repertory, Divertimento was a lone casualty from this point of view; in general the company danced in top form this week. The breakneck tempi set by conductor Faycal Karoui in Divertimento may have been partly to blame - Fairchild's sixth variation was set so fast that it's hard to imagine anyone being able to listen to the music while dancing to it. But I tend to think that the casting was responsible for the musical deadness of the ballet as well as the lack of sophistication. These are all dancers who are musically sensitive in other contexts; it may well be that in addition to everything else, choreography made on taller and more lyrical women looks different from the rhythmic and melodic point of view when performed by a smaller genre of dancer: steps and phrases that would have projected and read more clearly as phrases on a taller and longer body get lost in translation when danced small.
2009 by Michael Popkin
Photos: Top - Ana Sophia Scheller and Adrian Danchig-Waring; Bottom - Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar in Divertimento No. 15: both by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet.