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New York City Ballet Offers a Music Lesson Along With Four Ballets Set to Scores by French Composers

As a welcome surprise during the New York City Ballet matinée on Saturday, March 1st 2014 at the Koch Theater, the recently renovated orchestra pit rose so that Interim Music Director Andrews Sills could give us an interesting history lesson with the musicians in full view. Under the direction of Guest Conductor Henrik Vagn Christensen, they played passages from Debussy’s “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” and from works by Saint-Saëns, Wagner, and Chopin while Sills explained that Debussy was “a bridge” between the legacy of the romantic age and the modern era.

All four of the ballets on the program for the afternoon, entitled “À la Française”, were set to music by French composers. The opener was “Acheron”, choreographed for NYCB by Royal Ballet Artist in Residence Liam Scarlett. Sketchy program notes mention that the title “is of Greek origin” but a little Googling revealed that in Greek mythology, Acheron was one of the rivers of the Underworld and that there is still a river in Greece called Acheron that is rumored to lead to Hades. I don’t know whether or not Scarlett was thinking about those references when he made his ballet but I suspect that he might have been. Mark Stanley’s lighting creates a dark and moody ambience as the ensemble of 10 dancers, three principal couples, and a male soloist wend in and around one another, sometimes walking backwards and at other times appearing not to see what is in front of them. Leaving aside the possible context, however, the piece is riveting and worthy of being in the repertoire. Yet unfortunately at this matinée, the ensemble work was messy. Also, after turning in an excellent performance as the male soloist, Anthony Huxley tipped over when he landed a double tour to the knee on the very last note of score. He caught the floor with his hand but the audience let out a collective gasp.

“Afternoon of a Faun”, choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1953, was next with Sterling Hyltin and Craig Hall doing a fine job as the couple. The piece, set in a ballet studio, is a fresh take on the poem by Mallarmé about a faun and nymphs that was more literally interpreted in 1912 by Nijinsky. Robbins choreographed the piece for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballerina who was married to Balanchine and was paralyzed from the waist down by polio at the age 27. If you’d like to explore that poignant bit of dance lore further, take advantage of the fact that The Film Society of New York is showing Nancy Buirski’s acclaimed 2013 film, “Afternoon of a Faun: Tannaquil le Clerq” now through Thursday March 6th.

The charm of Robbins’ “Faun” is significantly enhanced by the use of the ballerina’s unbound hair as part of the choreography. The same is true of the third ballet that afternoon, Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht” to the music of Gounod from “Faust”. At first the ladies have low ponytails but the whole ensemble rushes back in for the climactic final scene with hair loose and flying. The effect is breathtaking. A note, though, to the second corps girl on stage left and one other girl who had their hair in side ponytails for the earlier scenes. The sight of your hair draped over your shoulders in front of your costumes was irritatingly distracting and spoiled the uniformity of Mr. B’s vision.

The closer, Balanchine’s “La Valse”, brought to the stage beloved ballerina Janie Taylor and her husband, Sébastien Marcovici. The pair was slated to perform as members of NYCB one last time that same evening before heading to California where Marcovici will begin his new job as a ballet master for the LA Dance Project. Taylor told Margaret Furher of Pointe Magazine Online, “I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to be doing yet. As of now I don't have plans to join another ballet company, but I want to give myself a little time to figure it all out." I’m sure I’m one of many who hopes that she won’t retire from the stage any time soon. Her performance as the woman in “La Valse” who is mesmerized by the figure of Death and eventually succumbs to his powers was electrifying on Saturday afternoon. The rest of the cast, including Marcovici playing the role of her lover and Jared Angle portraying Death, was superb as well. The best of luck to Taylor and Marcovici as they embark on this new chapter of their lives!

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