Friday, January 31, 2014

Sara Mearns, defying the laws of physics

Sara Mearns in Diamonds

Great ballet dancers are often said to have superpowers: defy gravity, move with the speed of light. Sara Mearns seems to have the unusual power to change the viscosity of the air around her. Her movements can alter speed from rapid to slow in an instant, and so they mirror the movement of the music, not simply its beat, even when to do so seems utterly impossible. Needless to say, her performance in Diamonds last night perfectly demonstrated her unusual musicality and outstanding épaulement. And why all of the New York balletomanes seem to be in love with her.

Mearns’s fellow-dancer Tiler Peck has developed some of this same superpower - she also can change the speed of her movements mid-turn or mid-lift reflect the music. It’s not quite the same as Mearns (yet?) but she still turned in a beautiful performance as the lead in Emeralds. Abi Stafford, the other lead in Emeralds, doesn’t have this at all - she’s precise but a little dull in the role.

Overall, seeing Jewels at the New York City Ballet is an inspiring experience. The dancers are all so familiar with the choreography and the style; many have added little details to their performances that make them stand out. The corps is especially effective in this version, with strong attack and excellent synchronization, making their collective role a key part of the ballet and not simply standing in the background. 

Ashley Bouder, as the lead in Rubies, had many of the little details that make a performance interesting - a particularly aggressive toe flick stood out in my memory as well as the humor and skill with which she instantly turns of her body from board stiff to limp at the beginning of the pas de deux. Likewise her partner Gonazalo Garcia had some great touches, especially a comic strong-man routine that reflected a brief blast of noise from the brass instruments. Nevertheless, Bouder and Garcia’s performance did not top the version I saw from Natalia Osipova and Steven Mcrae earlier this month. Osipova and McRae had an energy and fierceness that lit up the audience, like this was their last performance ever and they were going to burn themselves into oblivion; Bouder and Garcia dance this with humor, but also like they’ve got another five performances of the same ballet this week.

The NYCB dancers explain Jewels

I was intrigued that the program notes from the New York City Ballet claim that the jewels decor and costumes are “actually a device to unify sections that would otherwise be disparate.” I wonder if the cynical program notes are right - is this a marriage of convenience, pretty packaging, and sparkly costumes? I think they underestimate the power of their own ballet. In fact, I would argue that the perfect division of styles into three categories makes its own unity, and that other devices appear in the three different sections, reminding the viewer of one or the other. For instance, the simple walking step that forms the backbone of the second and fourth movements in Diamonds is also a key part of the two pas de deux in Emeralds. In fact, the first and third sections of the ballet are pretty much built from the principle of making small movements more complicated or profound. The similarity in the style of Mearns and Peck's performances help bring these two movements even closer together, and the musical way in which all three leads approach their parts shows more connections between the jewels. Maybe that’s not enough to claim that the work as a whole holds real coherence, but I think it’s more interesting to explore the reasons they’re kept together than why they should be split apart. New York City Ballet’s unity of technique and experience with the ballet demonstrates in part why the ballet should be viewed as a single work.

New York City Ballet, Jewels, January 30, 2014. Choreography: George Balanchine, Costumes: Karinska; Emeralds: Music: Gabriel Fauré, Leads: Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar, Abi Stafford, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Lauren King, Anthony Huxley, Megan LeCrone; Rubies: Music: Igor Stravinsky, Leads: Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, Savannah Lowery; Diamonds: Music: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Leads: Sara Mearns, Zachary Catazaro.

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