In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons from the 1920s, a chiffon-clad woman at the edge of a cliff in an Alpine landscape exclaims, "The great outdoors! I just love them!"
Every summer we can even enjoy many of "them" as venues for music and dance. Good fortune took me to Saratoga Springs, an hour past Tanglewood, at the beginning of New York City Ballet’s three-week annual visit to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (through July 27), one of this country’s most spectacular sites for outdoor presentations. I fed my soul on three performances, plus "Classic Black," a superb exhibit devoted to the history of black dancers and choreographers, at the National Museum of Dance (through May 2003), where I also watched NYCB dancers teach budding dancers. And I fed my body on the supernal pastries and sublime smoked salmon en baguette with crème frêche and fresh dill at Mrs. London’s, unforgettable fried chicken at Hattie’s Chicken Shack, and seductive peach daiquiris at the Adelphi, the last remaining Belle Époque hotel in Saratoga from its heyday in the 19th century, when Jim Fisk and Lillian Russell came "to take the waters."
I’ve been curious about the current state of NYCB, since very few of the principal dancers I knew and loved are still with the company. Boston native Damian Woetzel was the lead sailor in Fancy Free, the 1944 Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein dance (Robbins’s first ballet and still his most charming) about three sailors on leave in New York — the one that evolved into the musical On the Town. Woetzel’s leaps and spins are still impressive, and so is his comic timing. And his midair diagonal corkscrew spins were even more dazzling in his appearance as the Ace of Spades in Jeu des cartes, Peter Martins’s 1992 deconstruction (parody? imitation?) of Balanchine style, a busy, garish piece using the same Stravinsky score Balanchine used for his own versions in 1937 (The Card Party) and 1951 (The Card Game). Bad critics hated the Balanchine; the best critics, like Edwin Denby, called it a masterpiece. Now it’s gone. Woetzel’s Queen of Hearts was the sassy and spirited young redhead Janie Taylor, not yet a principal ballerina but clearly on her way to becoming one.
I missed the sole Balanchine-only program of the week but was happy to see one of my favorites, Who Cares? — Balanchine’s setting of an anthology of Gershwin favorites. "The Man I Love" is one of his most moving and vulnerable pas de deux, and it was danced with clean definition and understated passion by principals Jenifer Ringer (American, dark hair, porcelain skin) and Nicholaj Hübbe (Danish, graceful, large-boned, noble-headed). Hübbe continues the NYCB tradition of European dancers who don’t get Balanchine’s vaudeville allusions — when he jumps back, his hands should seem to be pushing him away from the imaginary cane they’re holding. Still, by the time we got to "I Got Rhythm," the high-kicking finale in which Balanchine mirrors his own seminal image of Apollo (Hübbe) and his three Muses (Ringer, Taylor, and Jennie Somogyi), the whole house was rocking.
The other Balanchine works performed my weekend were the lovely Raymonda Variations (elegant Romantic music by Glazunov, with elegant Yvonne Borree and grinning Philip Neal as the central couple, though the most interesting footwork belongs to the line-up of soloists in the series of variations); Stravinsky’s Firebird (tiny, explosive Alexandra Ansanelli), in which the Chagall sets get as much applause as the dancing, which there is far too little of in this much-revised Russian folktale cum spectacle; and the evergreen Serenade, Balanchine’s first American ballet (1934), his inspired setting of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The corps was a bit ragged, the three leading women (veteran Darci Kistler as the "falling girl," cool Yvonne Borree as the "leaping girl," and lively soloist Kathleen Tracy as Canova’s statue "The Angel of Fate") and two men (large-scaled Charles Askegard and NYCB lifer Kipling Houston) were coolly if not deeply affecting. It’s still one of the company’s wonders.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center now has pre-concert talks, so I got to hear one of my favorite Balanchine dancers from the 1960s, diminutive, ethereal Suki Shorer, give, with the help of a young NYCB apprentice, an illuminating lecture demonstration of Balanchine techniques (two years ago Knopf published the book on the subject, Suki Shorer on Balanchine Technique). Most ballet companies, Shorer said, divide the body into horizontal sections (head, shoulders, torso, legs), but Balanchine divided the body vertically, so that each dancer became more "centered." She showed us exercises in speed and balance; she explained how Balanchine made sure that each movement was beautiful and fully developed, how jumping should be "the opposite of bouncing," how a dancer should descend from a jump "like a mother bird on her eggs." She even mentioned that Balanchine’s favorite movie was The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Serenade, she said, is "a ballet about movement, not about steps." She talked about its origins and its gorgeous non-stop images: the famous opening line-up was like a "California orange grove"; the elevated wrists descending to foreheads was the "aspirin dance"; the dancers peeling off from a diagonal line was "a wave breaking." She said that even though she had danced it hundreds of times, a recent Serenade brought tears to her eyes.
I also saw two performances of Robbins’s 1945 Interplay (music by Morton Gould), with its cheeky, jazzy, "loose" Broadway style and athletic challenges (after "Free Play," "Horseplay," and romantic "Byplay" comes "Team Play"), which the young corps dancers (especially Daniel Ulbricht) embodied with agile ease. A second Fancy Free, with two different sailors (one of them Ulbricht), was considerably tighter and sharper than the one earlier in the week.
I was delighted by what I saw. NYCB is still a source of the greatest pleasures dance can offer. And yet, and yet . . . I have to say, nothing I saw was as thrilling as what the company under the guiding hand of Balanchine himself regularly provided. Beautiful and brilliant — and musical — as the dancers still are, few of them danced as if their lives depended on it. There’s a palpable loss of inflection, of a strong sense of individual personality from either principals or corps. Under Peter Martins, the great Balanchine dancers who are still around — Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy, Edward Villella — are no longer coaching NYCB dancers, and it shows.
Someone who might help is NYCB’s new music director, Andrea Quinn, a Britisher still in her 30s. The performances she led — both Stravinsky pieces and the Tchaikovsky — were exceptional for their clarity, continuity, light touch, and powerful climaxes. Even when I didn’t like the choreography, this was some of the best musicmaking I’ve heard all year.
NOT EVERY OUTDOOR VENUE has the luxury of a weatherproof roof. For a 6 p.m. Sunday concert at Franklin Park, Charles Anspacher’s Boston Landmarks Orchestra had a portable bandshell facing directly into the glare of the late afternoon sun. The musicians couldn’t see the conductor. So after a half-hour delay, with an announcement by no less than Mayor Menino himself, the orchestra moved behind the bandshell, under a little tent, allowing the audience to sit in a grove of trees rather than in direct sunlight. The sound system had to be jettisoned, but even the noisy picnickers in another part of the grove began to quiet down and move in to listen to rhythmically alert, sweetly nuanced, unamplified performances of E.E. Bagley’s National Emblem March, Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Old American Songs (the latter sung with plush lyricism and raucous wit by one of Boston’s best singers, African-American baritone Robert Honeysucker, at the top of his form), and an early Gershwin exercise in harmony, Lullaby, composed in 1919 (same year as "Swanee") for string quartet but already quietly sounding like a haunting Gershwin tune (the program had it miscredited to Ira Gershwin, George’s lyric-writing brother).
Honeysucker’s ovation encouraged him to return for an encore, Escamillo’s Toreador Song from Carmen — a good plug for the Boston Lyric Opera’s scheduled free "Carmen on the Common" (pronounced, in Boston: "Cawmin awn the Cawmin") this September. He got an even bigger hand for this. The program ended with Leroy Anderson’s familiar Fiddle-Faddle plus two more encores, a somberly moving "America the Beautiful" and an infectious Stars and Stripes Forever, with folks either clapping along or shaking out their blankets in time to the music.
I was told that the same concert on Boston Common the night before drew some 3500 listeners — way up from last year’s inaugural concert. By the time Honeysucker started to sing, the Franklin Park audience had swelled to a few hundred. But it was a touchingly, impressively diverse crowd: multi-racial, infantile and senior, human and animal, the chaired and the chairless, the heterosexual and the heterogeneous. "It’s like a Rockwell painting," someone said. WBZ was distributing fans; Polar was distributing free drinks. A good time, as they say, was had by all.
Among the other Landmarks events this season will be Joan Kennedy reciting Peter and the Wolf on the Common Saturday morning July 27; "Romantics in the Park (Beethoven and Tchaikovsky) July 28 and 29 (Chandler Pond Park in Brighton and then the Common again); and a Mozart and Haydn evening on George’s Island (August 10), the Common (August 17), and Jamaica Pond (August 18). You certainly can’t beat the price. And few free events are as delightful.