New York City Ballet's spring season has been a serious disappointment. This is one of the world's major companies, visiting London for the first time since 1983. It should have been a big deal. The four programmes have been awkwardly chosen and often inadequately performed. These last two bills moved from NYCB's core choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, to more recent work. Quality plummeted.
There are different worries here. If Balanchine's own company no longer look good in his ballets, they're in trouble; with the third programme, the question is why they chose to tour such weak material.
Zakouski, created by the company's director Peter Martins, is a sugary duet to music by various Russian composers. There are enough painful landings (on knees, on pointe) to make you wonder if Martins dislikes dancers. Advance publicity suggested that the departing star Nikolaj Hubbe might make an extra farewell in this number. No such luck.
Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance) is a slight ballet in celebration of Richard Rodgers. The central duet is blandly ecstatic and oddly off the music. The corps de ballet evoke the fairground with cartwheeling dances.
Mauro Bigonzetti's In Vento is a grappling number. Benjamin Millepied sits in a spotlight, twisting his torso, pulling himself into shoulder stands. Groups of dancers proceed to form rugby scrums, and then disentangle themselves.
Russian Seasons, by Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky, suffers by coming at the end of a very long night. It's a downbeat work, too episodic, but there's interesting material here. There are Russian folk motifs for the brightly dressed dancers, with line and chain dances, stamping little steps with tilting, swaying torsos.
Ratmansky finds lively twists in Leonid Desyatnikov's music, with flourishes that change the shape of a phrase. He also makes these dancers look more fluent and relaxed than they have all season. Even Wendy Whelan, normally such a tense dancer, is softer here.
The final programme begins with the grimmest experience of this whole visit. Thou Swell is another Martins stinker, set to music by Richard Rodgers. It's a 1930s nightclub ballet, with singers and couples in evening dress. It's badly sung, badly danced, badly designed and, finally, atrociously choreographed.
Martins mixes up ballroom and ballet clichés with endless swooning dips and fake emotion. As the singer Betsy Wolfe struggles through "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", the ballerina Darci Kistler does a coy little gesture for each condition. Waitress characters hobble through perky pointe-work. The footwork and changes of direction are fudged, while those swoons lack scale and stretch.
Tarantella is Balanchine at his broadest, with saloon-bar piano and what should be showstopping steps. Ashley Bouder is far too polite in it. Her partner, Daniel Ulbricht, does know that this kind of number needs putting across. He belts his tambourine so hard it actually disintegrates.
Western Symphony is more thigh-slapping Balanchine, with cowboys and showgirls bouncing through tricky steps. Only Teresa Reichlen finds the right tone. The rest get through the dances without making them exciting. Nilas Martins, son of the director, looks particularly unhappy.
Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite isn't enough of a good thing. It's an odd package of dance highlights from the musical, with some singing from the orchestra pit and some from the dancers. The material is terrific, but this isn't the best way to see it.
More seriously, most of these dancers look wrong. They're too polite and preppy to be convincing as street gangs. The Sharks come off better than the Jets, looking younger, more eager. Georgina Pazcoguin is superb as Anita, whirling through "America" with flashing feet and sumptuous back-bends.
She's a reminder that NYCB still has good dancers. Yet this whole season leaves an impression of misdirected talent. Even technically strong dancers have given unstylish performances, with blank or coy interpretations. NYCB used to be famous for its style: fast, fleet-footed, musical and bold. On this evidence, that energy has dimmed.
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