City Ballet: Apollo, Donizetti Variations and Mercurial Manoeuvres

Saturday night marked my final ballet outing for City Ballet’s 2010-2011 season. (Not to worry, though - the 2011-2012 season has been announced and I’m booked!) I was supposed to see Donizetti Variations, Mercurial Manoeuvres and Thou Swell, the final piece being a tribute to the music of Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein*. When I arrived at the State Theatre and received my program, there was a note saying that, due to an injury, Thou Swell would not be performed and instead I would be seeing, in this order, Apollo, Donizetti Variations and Mercurial Manoeuvres. I will admit that I was a little disappointed that I would not see Thou Swell. I’d been looking forward to it because I really like that music (and also because Robert Fairchild was scheduled to dance in it). But, the main reason for going was to see Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, and now the night would be ending with his ballet. And it turns out, I liked Apollo. So crisis averted!

Apollo, a Balanchine ballet, was a “See the Music” piece (just as Thou Swell was set to be). This meant that before the ballet, the orchestra was lifted from the pit up to eye level and City Ballet Music Director Faycal Karoui and frequent conductor Andrews Sill chatted about the music we were about to hear. I had never been present for a See the Music piece, but I think I might seek it out again.

I found the chat really added to the interestingness of the piece. My ear isn’t sophisticated or trained well enough to pick up on the intricacies in classical musical that Karoui and Sill pointed out. I found myself listening for certain moments in Stravinsky’s score throughout the piece. (I also learned this: Around the time this ballet was created, many people were calling Balanchine a god. Balanchine would demure and say there is only one god, and that’s Stravinsky. The two collaborated so frequently that Stravinsky was, in essence if not in title, City Ballet’s composer in residence.)

The dancing was very lyrical. Long and languid movements were followed by short, staccato ones, mirroring the cadence of the music. Some choreography seemed very modern for the music, but somehow it worked because the dancers were really explorers.

Apollo (Chase Finaly) is exploring his power and is visited by three muses: Terpsichore (Sterling Hyltin), Polyhymnia (Tiler Peck) and Calliope (Ana Sophia Schiller). When Apollo finally finds his one true muse, Terpsichore, the two meld into one in a stunning tableau. Finlay was good and strong as Apollo, though I’m very curious to see Robert Fairchild in the role. (He made his debut as Apollo earlier this year when City Ballet was playing in DC’s Kennedy Center. Due to an injury, Fairchild isn’t dancing the role at City Ballet this season; Finlay has stepped in.)

Schiller was pretty and Peck was passionate. But my gal Hyltin stole the show. She’s so fluid and elegant on stage - she absolutely commands it. When she flutters across the stage she looks like she’s floating. Her long, willowy arms extend every movement, adding a little extra grace to each move.

Next was Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations. This was a piece I’d seen before. I suppose if you can get past the St Paulie’s girls costumes, this presentational ballet is fairly whimsical and pretty. There’s no story, just amusing dance. In the middle of the ballet, there’s a set in which lead dancers, in this case the game Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz, trade dances before dancing together in a jumptastic, crowd-pleasing way, very reminiscent of Stars and Stripes. In fact, the orchestration toward the very end of the piece actually sounded a little like that. Donizetti Variations is perfectly light, fun fluffy filler.

And finally, dear readers, was Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, Op. 35. This ballet was the last one Wheeldon choreographed while still a City Ballet dancer. In the season following Manoeuvres’ premiere (in 2000), Wheeldon retired from dancing and focused full time on choreographing. Once again, I was impressed with Wheeldon’s attention to all the elements of a stage production.

Manoeuvres, which calls for 21 dancers, begins with translucent red curtains of staggering length on the sides of the stage. This first movement - with the curtains - is fiery, passionate and unyielding. The choreography is ongoing and fierce in its velocity, much like the music. Indeed, it is mercurial. (During this part, the company is led by Gonzalo Garcia.)

Then Jared Angle and Jennifer Ringer appear. They’re dressed in blues. The lights begin to change. The tempo of the music slows a bit. Angle and Ringer are encapsulated by four opposite sex dancers and engage in what looks like a game of chess as they try to get to one another. Finally, they break free and engage in a beautiful pas de deux.

The red has completely vanished, but the passion it represented hasn’t. With cool blue lighting them, they dance their love. Angle shows off Ringer as a lovely flower to be worshipped. They dance not with the furious intensity of the beginning movement; here, their dance is a paragon of intimate intensity. Shades of blue populate the stage and the music is a gentle legato.

After their pas de deux, Angle and Ringer leave the stage and the ensemble reappears, as does some of the red. But Angle and Ringer return, banishing the fire. Wheeldon then plays with various formations intertwining with each other. This is where the sharpness of his choreography is most exquisitely on display. (Many times, when so many dancers are on stage and they have to move in and out of each other, the choreography can look loose and sometimes even a little sloppy. Not so in this Wheeldon ballet.)

It is also here that you feel an almost militaristic sense, not the least of which is because of some march-like steps and the blue and red costumes accompanied by increasingly white light. In fact, as the piece ends, with all 21 dancers filling the stage, much to my delight, the light becomes so pure and light, and the trumpet almost sounds as if it’s playing reveille. We know that whatever the politics of days past, whatever it was that was keeping Angle and Ringer apart, is now over. It’s the dawning of a new day.

And that’s all for the 2010-2011 New York City Ballet season. Visit for information for and to book tickets to the 2011-2012 season.

*Extra Credit: Can you name Richard Rodgers’s scions, the next two generations of Rodgers composers? And for bonus extra credit points, can you name the Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor who has a connection to all three? (Look for the answers in Friday’s (June 17) Media Morsels.)