Short Stories

Saturday night’s City Ballet program was Short Stories - three unrelated narrative pieces on one bill. I had seen all three of the pieces on separate occasions and really liked only one and my reaction wasn’t too different this time, although after seeing all three pieces in one night, the difference between the one I liked, Fancy Free, and the ones that didn’t thrill me, Prodigal Son and Firebird, was clear: Fancy Free told the story through dance; the other two told the story through movement. The actual dancing in Prodigal Son and Firebird seems secondary to the pageantry used to tell the two stories. I suppose this is okay - certainly the crowd agreed, giving the principal dancers in the latter two rowdy rounds of applause - but it’s not my taste.

Fancy Free was one of the first ballets Jerome Robbins choreographed; in fact he choreographed this ballet while we was still a student at City Ballet, shortly before becoming George Balanchine’s co-choreographer. Fancy Free also marked the first time Robbins collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and we all know what success they had together in the future (see: West Side Story). Fancy Free, when it premiered, was an instant hit and went on to inspire the full-length musical On the Town. Now it’s another classic piece in the City Ballet cannon. Fancy Free finds three sailors on leave in New York City; they show off for each other and, eventually, for two ladies. It’s fun, free-wheeling and decidedly un-fancy, which may be why I like it so much. It’s whimsical and accessible, with nothing high concept or pretentious about it - just some sailors looking for fun in the city. This is a great piece to begin with and on Saturday night I knew I was in for a treat when I read that Robert Fairchild, who you’ll remember from previous reviews, is a new principal dancer, would be one of the three sailors. He was charming and thoroughly entertaining here, dancing the part once danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Fun side note: The first time I saw Fancy Free, before the curtain rose they showed rehearsal footage of Robbins teaching Baryshnikov the dance!) Joining Fairchild as his fellow sailors were Daniel Ubricht who was both funny and impish, and Tyler Angle, another new principal dancer, who is lithe and limber and light on his feet. This got the evening off to a fantastically fun start.

Unfortunately, the last two pieces are, in my opinion, rather boring. Prodigal Son has interesting themes and perhaps if explored in a full ballet could be compelling but condensed into this thirty minute one act, it’s mostly a bunch of Gollum looking ghouls marching around on stage. Joaquin de Luz, a principal dancer from Madrid, was the titular son and began his performance with energy, but the ballet itself didn’t ask too much of him. Though it was nice to look at him for most of the second scene in nothing but his briefs, I found myself restless and waiting for the next intermission.

After the second intermission, Firebird closed the show. There’s a little more dancing in Firebird but the real star of that ballet is the backdrops. The piece was originally inspired by Marc Chagall paintings, some of which are faithfully recreated as backdrops. The costumes are also inspired by the paintings and so from a visual art perspective this ballet is very appealing. Here too, though, good dancers were underused. Jonathan Stafford, who I liked very much as the Cavalier in this season’s The Nutcracker, was good when he danced, but mostly his character just walked about the stage. Ashley Bouder, who was nice but not breathtaking as the Dewdrop in The Nutcracker, showed improvement here as the Firebird but again, there wasn’t enough dancing - instead, much of her stage time was spent getting from point A to point B while en pointe.

I chose to go to this program so that I could see Fancy Free again and I’m glad I did get to see it, especially with the captivating Robert Fairchild dancing around in a sailor’s uniform, but I think in the future, I may shy away from a great piece I’ve already seen if its go-withs are drab and none too entertaining.