I promise I’m going to give you a complete and serious review of the New York City Ballet’s performance at the Koch Theatre on Saturday, February 1st 2014. However, I can’t resist starting with the two most endearing and unforgettable moments of the evening. First, a pair of prodigiously talented little girls danced with astonishing precision and panache as the Pearly Princesses in Balanchine’s “Union Jack”. Kudos to Natalie Glassie and Phoebe Golfinos who are surely headed for stellar careers if the promise they showed that night does indeed come to full flower.
Second, a pony named Spanky made his debut pulling the cart in which Natalie and Phoebe rode on stage and then he proceeded to relieve himself. Stage fright, perhaps? After all, he was replacing the beloved donkey, Giorgio, who had that role for so long. (Ashley Bouder tweeted “We will forever miss Giorgio (RIP), but tonight we welcome Spanky to Union Jack”.)
In any case, Natalie and Phoebe as well as Jenifer Ringer and Amar Ramascar portraying the delightfully goofy music hall couple gamely continued cavorting, albeit perhaps a bit farther downstage than had been planned. The minute the thunderous and well-deserved applause subsided, the front curtain came down and a voice over the loudspeaker said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please excuse us while we clean up our act.” The audience roared approval and within minutes, the curtain rose again. The show must go on!
All right, as promised, onward to my full review of the double bill with Jerome Robbins’ dreamy “Dances at a Gathering” with Balanchine’s dazzling “Union Jack”. I was reminded by these choices that Robbins, whose works were so often dramatic and full of humor or pathos, could also create a ballet that is mostly pure movement. The dancers, in minimal costumes and accompanied by a solo piano, only occasionally hinted at romantic liaisons or rivalries. (Brava to Nancy Walters for her superb and tireless rendition of the Chopin pieces. Also, special praise for the lovely Brittany Pollack, promoted to soloist 2013, who gave an especially fine performance. )
Yet in the same way that I like seeing Robbins in a low-key mood, I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing Mr. B with his showman’s hat on. “Union Jack” is most definitely not a “leotard ballet”. On the contrary, it is nothing short of a spectacle. Balanchine created it to honor our British heritage during our Bicentennial in 1976. The large stage at the Koch fills up with 74 dancers in varying elaborate costumes and headdresses as they represent Scottish and Canadian clans, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
The music is an orchestral arrangement by Hershey Kay of traditional British melodies including hornpipes, sea songs, work chants, jigs, and drill orders of the Royal Navy. For the finale, the entire cast uses hand flags in semaphore code to signal “God Save” the Queen” while the dockside backdrop lifts and a huge Union Jack Flag descends. Spoiler alert: Very loud cannon fire at the end both startled and delighted the audience members, all of whom left the theater in a much jollier mood than they had been earlier on a dark and drizzly winter evening in New York City.
Yet if these ballets underscored different facets of the talents and proclivities of the two master choreographers, they also shared a good measure of folk and character steps and sequences. Dance teachers take note: Consider adding character dance classes to your curriculum if you are hoping that your pre-pro ballet students will get jobs. At one time a staple of serious ballet training, character classes have given way to other dance forms in recent years. Modern, jazz, tap, and hip hop are wonderful idioms but they should not replace schooling your charges in theatricalized versions of traditional dance forms.
On a final note, I’ve previously lauded the New York City Ballet for improved corps work but unfortunately, some of the ensemble work in “Union Jack” was ragged. Have a look at the photo that accompanies this review where it originally appeared on BroadwayWorld.com:
http://tinyurl.com/ky4n6ou Teresa Reichlin, leading the center row, has her head in the epaulement line. The dancer leading the row on stage right has her head cocked oddly toward her right hand. The dancer leading the row on stage left is staring straight ahead. Just sayin’.