New York City Ballet performed the donkey pas de deux on Wednesday during its "Short Stories" program at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
During the last several years, Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s relationship with New York City Ballet has thinned, with the outdoor venue allowing the founding flagship company to fade with fewer and fewer performances.
The pandemic strained things all the more. Last year’s season had to be canceled. And this year’s, due to COVID-19 restrictions that were in place during the planning, dancing had to be limited.
Thus City Ballet’s 2021 SPAC season, now dwindled to four days from a once robust four-week season, includes just a handful of dancers and two pianists (Alan Moverman and Nancy McDill) with the audience sitting in socially distanced pods.
Because there is no orchestra and no cast of nearly 100 dancers, this year the audience has to settle for of a lecture-demonstration style show. Dancers are performing short snippets of ballets between a lot of talking. Actually, too much talking.
On Wednesday night, the ballet’s opener, principal dancer Maria Korowski was the host. This veteran dancer – appearing poise in street clothes and standing in a slight first position -- was perfectly charming in a program called “Short Stories.” Reading from index cards, she explained the origins and plot lines of such ballets as “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Firebird” and “Fancy Free.”
Then the dancers would appear in costume to discuss their takes on the roles and how they prepared. Beloved ballerina and the company’s Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan also made an appearance, discussing coaching of Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara on the Rose Adagio, one of ballet’s most difficult ballerina feats.
But people in the seats want to see the dancers dance. And when they did, it was over too quickly.
Of course, it’s City Ballet so there were still flashes of brilliance. For example, it was a Dutton-O’Hara who is in the corps de ballet, proved her strength in the adagio where she must remain balanced on one leg while her four international suitors promenaded her in circles.
Principal dancer Teresa Reichlen was sublime as the Odette, the enchanted swan princess and plucky but vulnerable as the Firebird. Reichlen has the maturity to pour into her technical know-how a heart that moves an audience.
It was also fun to laugh a little bit – with the three sailors in “Fancy Free” in the opening scene when they first arrive in the big city, the donkey pas de deux from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the hilarious mistake waltz from “The Concert.”
Sadly missing were all of the sets and props – including the frilly, pink clamshell that Tatiana, danced by Miriam Miller, sleeps in. It was replaced with a mismatched backstage chair.
Also missing was the corps de ballet that beefs up every ballet with their energy and precision beauty. The hoards of swans from “Swan Lake,” which were absent, was especially keenly felt.
Still, the audience made do, enjoying the dancing, which always ended too soon with more talk resuming.
I understand that SPAC had to work with COVID-19 restrictions. But these talk shows are better for an audience unfamiliar with ballet. After decades of ballet, SPAC audiences are astute and know much of what was told to us. So revelations were slim.
As one observer put it “it’s better than nothing.” But how much more can City Ballet and its audiences lose?
New York City Ballet will repeat “Short Stories” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 15, and 2 p.m. Saturday, July 17.
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