Celebration of Rodgers Is Beyond 'Swell'

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It started with the mayor talking, it ended with Bernadette

Peters singing, and in between, the New York City Ballet's opening night

delivered a triumphant evening of dance.

Galas are essential for fund-raising, and the big ballet companies must

come up with them twice a year. They rarely live up to the name. But Tuesday at

the State Theater, the audience got more than its money's worth: three showy

new works, one of them a masterpiece and another a glamorous blockbuster, all

set to the endlessly melodic songs of Richard Rodgers.

Rodgers was a man of the theater, and it was not a leotards kind of night.

The theatricality began with the first offering, Robert La Fosse's "Land of

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Nod," a Fellini-esque whimsy set to Mack Schlefer's magnificent arrangement of

themes from little-known shows such as "Pipe Dream" and "Allegro." It's a

circusy dream ballet, with the dreamer, the appealing Megan Fairchild, carried

onstage on a magic carpet. Unless, of course, she is the dream, conjured by the

clown danced by La Fosse (wearing Greg Poplyk's enticing black-and-white

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cacophony of dots, stripes and checks). Or are they both figments in the

daydream of S´┐Żbastien Marcovici, the circus worker whose bin is labeled

"Stardust, Spangles and Dreams"?

La Fosse has done some first-rate choreography, and "Nod" has elements of

striking beauty (and three superb performances). But it is swamped by the

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confusions of its libretto.

No such problems hamper Christopher Wheeldon's wondrous "Carousel (A

Dance)," and it's not just because we already know its sweet heroine and sexy

hero from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Wheeldon has distilled

the story to an essence, a romance amid the circling crowd on a carousel.

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Alexandra Ansanelli is the girl, first timid, then swept away by the intensity

and tenderness of Damian Woetzel's carnival roustabout. There hasn't been

anything to equal their dramatically charged, achingly romantic duets since the

last by Jerome Robbins, and the audience erupted with entirely justified

bravos.

A masterwork, it seemed an impossible act to follow. But Peter Martins did

it, with his lavish, jazz-tinged "Thou Swell." Set in Robin Wagner's gleaming,

art-deco nightclub, it's a big, beguiling suite of 16 Rodgers standards from

the 1920s and '30s. This club features eight spiffy servers, an onstage band

with two singers (Debbie Gravitte and Jonathan Dokuchitz) and four couples

dressed to the nines in Julius Lumsden's eye-popping evening clothes. When

Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins, Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, Maria Kowroski

and Charles Askegard, and Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette were done with their

enchanted evening, so, it seemed, were we. Peters was a surprise. She won't be

back, but happily the others will - after 43 "Nutcrackers."

Sylviane Gold is a regular contributor to Newsday.

DANCE REVIEW

NEW YORK CITY BALLET OPENING NIGHT GALA. Ballet master in chief Peter

Martins. "Celebrating the Music of Richard Rodgers": "Land of Nod" by Robert La

Fosse; "Carousel (A Dance)" by Christopher Wheeldon; "Thou Swell" by Martins.

Seen Tuesday at New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, Manhattan. "Nutcracker"

performances begin tonight and run through Jan. 5.

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