NEW YORK — The showpiece of the winter season of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) at Lincoln Center - and the only new work - is "The Beethoven Seventh," audaciously choreographed by Twyla Tharp to the triumphant themes of the composer's familiar symphony.
The ballet premired last Saturday (performances continue Feb. 1 and 3) on a program that began with the full company on stage in practice clothes singing "Happy Birthday" to George Balanchine to commemorate what would have been the founding ballet master's 96th birthday. The performance that followed featured two Balanchine works bookending the Tharp premire.
Ms. Tharp has come to NYCB for a second outing on terms distinctly different from her first. A choreographer who emerged from the modern dance world to electrify American ballet companies with works that infused classical technique with a movement version of street talk, Tharp was invited in 1984 to stage a piece for NYCB in collaboration with Jerome Robbins. Together they choreographed a fast-paced work entitled "Brahms/Handel."
Tharp has used composers as varied as Jelly Roll Morton and the classical masters. She has choreographed for film, television, the Broadway stage, and her own modern dance troupe beginning in 1965. But the group disbanded in the late-1980s when she became artistic associate at the American Ballet Theatre.
Now Tharp is back with a challenge: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. She is not the first choreographer to take on the masterwork. In 1905, Russian musicians chastised Isadora Duncan when she performed in St. Petersburg for dancing to an all-Beethoven program, including the adagio from the Seventh. Later in the century, the Russian-born choreographer Leonide Massine used the same music for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Tharp's take succeeded on more contemporary terms, an abstract ballet for 18 dancers who performed difficult tasks with a perilous vivacity that was breathtaking. An ensemble of six couples, led by Jenifer Ringer and Peter Boal, were hidden in darkness as the curtain went up to the opening sounds of the orchestra, conducted by George Cleve.
Only gradually could the dancers be seen - an effect devised by Tharp's frequent collaborator and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton. A black scrim rose on what looked like a scribble of dancers, swirling in ever-changing patterns around the stage with a wind-gust velocity. Gradually Boal took on the circular motif to transform it into a virtuosic blur of multiple turns in place.
The chic black costumes are designed by Isaac Mizrahi. The women wore wispy skirts, with some colorful knee-length tights beneath the see-through fabric.
As always, Tharp broke up the classical technique with movement jokes - a male dancer walked nonchalantly through the fast-moving couples and a break-dance shoulder-and-arm sequence for Boal. Later, Tharp's signature shrugs, double takes, and pelvis jiggles came into play when Damian Woetzel joined partner Miranda Weese for the third movement.
For Tharp, the heart of "The Beethoven Seventh" is the second movement, with a pas de deux for Wendy Whelan and a bare-chested Nikolaj Hbbe. The pair picked their way down a diagonal shaft of light to emerge into positions for a ballroom dance sequence punctuated by solos for each.
Whelan has a rapid, floor-kicking passage; later there's an anguished center-stage solo for Hbbe, in contrast to the rest of the ballet, where the only emotion on display is the joy of performing.
The ballet finale to the fourth movement is a stunner, with the men lifting the women in waves over their heads to echo the grandeur of Beethoven's climax.
The two works by Balanchine complemented the notion of creativity during this special evening by reminding the audience of his wide range as a choreographer. "Episodes," set to the orchestral works of Anton von Webern (first seen in 1959), and which once had several sections by Martha Graham that were later dropped, shows Balanchine the startling inventor.
The dancers are clothed in tights and T-shirts to show off bodies more mechanical in action than human. The lush, lyrical style of the first three movements of the "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" (premired in 1966) could not be more different.
Its fourth movement, a Hungarian gypsy dance, featured an incandescent performance by Maria Kowroski, the newest principal dancer with NYCB. The young Ms. Kowroski is blessed with a stage presence (and the longest legs in memory) that recalls the legendary stars of the company when Balanchine was alive.
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