A Ballerina's Goodbye

At tribute, Patricia McBride's most lustrous heirs had trouble re-creating her artistry

PATRICIA McBRIDE'S recent gala here was more than a sentimental tribute to the well-loved ballerina who is retiring after an illustrious 30-year career with the New York City Ballet. McBride went out in her own modest but memorable style, and the gala was thoughtfully arranged by company director Peter Martins to underscore how many ways this style could be employed.

When you picture a typical NYCB ballerina, you might think of the classic long, thin body; a vertical, open attitude; limbs that spear like daggers into space. Patricia McBride's image isn't anything like this.

She looks angular in my mind's eye, with legs kicking up in high spirits, torso twisting, back deeply arched. Maybe one shoulder is cocked, or her head is slightly askew with an arresting glance, and her arms are partly curled so that they hide her face or pull her away from stability. Most often she seems to be in the act of flinging herself about in fun or flirtation. But at rare times she retreats inward, to enact some private subtext of what she's dancing.

The gala program on June 4 was an assemblage of excerpts from McBride's repertory, nearly all originally choreographed for her by Peter Martins, Jerome Robbins, or George Balanchine. McBride danced five of the numbers, and her roles were taken in the others by younger principals in the company, so the performance not only celebrated the end of one extraordinary career but affirmed a continuing tradition.

I hadn't seen anyone but McBride in some of the roles. Even the most lustrous of her successors not only looked different from her but had difficulties doing what she did. This isn't because they lack ability, but because McBride has a personal quality that all her choreographers have utilized and that she reinforced as she settled into new ballets.

The program opener, ``Tarantella'' (Balanchine), featured NYCB's newest bright light, Margaret Tracey, with Gen Horiuchi in the part created by Edward Villella. Tracey is young, eager, and technically brilliant. She easily mastered the steps of this bravura duet, and even added a few embellishments of her own. But Tracey's rhythmic sense, and Horiuchi's, too, were almost dogmatically square to the beat, and this told me volumes about McBride. What made McBride so spectacular in a piece like this was her rhythmic flexibility, a musicality so secure that she could dance around the meter with great freedom, delaying and speeding up to make tiny expressive surprises, fresh ones at every performance.

The great Merrill Ashley took over McBride's luxuriant role in the ``Fr"ulingsstimmen'' (Voices of Spring) section of Balanchine's ``Vienna Waltzes,'' and the occasion drew from her a degree of smiling circularity I've never seen. A somber section of Robbins's ``The Goldberg Variations'' featured the wonderful Darci Kistler, who, like McBride, has the ability to dance seriously without going blank.

Another of McBride's specialties was her daring. In Martins's ``Valse Triste'' she demonstrated an almost reckless impetuosity in hurling herself into Robert LaFosse's arms - backwards, upside down, off center, at terrific speeds and without the slightest hesitation.

When Judith Fugate tried intricate things of this sort in the Intermezzo from Balanchine's ``Brahms Schoenberg Quartet,'' she couldn't undo her natural reserve and classical alignment enough to manage it smoothly, and Heather Watts just goofed her way through the technical and stylistic pitfalls of ``Rubies.''

Kyra Nichols and Maria Calegari in Robbins's ``Dances at a Gathering'' and Valentina Kozlova in ``Liebeslieder Waltzer'' of Balanchine were more neutral in their approaches to McBride's duets, leaving the thought that new visions of these roles will always be possible again. One reinterpretation that has already appeared is Stephanie Saland as the Pearly Queen in the Costermonger Pas de Deux from Balanchine's ``Union Jack.'' Where McBride was a lady, or a would-be lady, in this music-hall turn, Saland mugs it for maximum laughs and vulgarity.

Patricia McBride, in spite of her bravura and romantic roles, is by nature a soubrette, and ``Copp'elia,'' which Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova revived for her, was one of her most successful roles. The third-act pas de deux, which she danced with Ib Andersen, was perhaps less memorable and less typical of her in this ballet. I would have preferred to see her as the doll-come-to-life who charms and then trumps Shaun O'Brien's Dr. Coppelius.

Besides this lovely comic scene, and ``Tarantella'' and ``Rubies,'' I think we'll most remember McBride for her introspective ``The Man I Love'' in Balanchine's ``Who Cares.'' In the gala performance, with LaFosse, she seemed more serene than she'd ever been.

Her happiness and security seemed to build all evening, until the last dance, a solo variation from ``Harlequinade.'' This was a touching choice, since the dance ends with her blowing kisses to the audience, and she did it graciously. Her original partner in this and so many other ballets, Edward Villella, gave her flowers and kisses at the end.

All during the evening she was ecstatically cheered by a jam-packed audience. She got big bouquets from Robbins, Martins, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and took final bows with her former partners, Bart Cook, Ib Andersen, and LaFosse, who had escorted her last dances, and Anthony Blum, Robert Weiss, Shaun O'Brien, Sean Lavery, and her husband, Jean Pierre Bonnefoux.

In the brief preliminary ceremony - she was hailed by Kitty Carlisle Hart, head of the New York State Council on the Arts, and Mayor Ed Koch - McBride thanked Peter Martins for making the tribute possible. ``It was such a wonderful surprise,'' she said. ``I just wanted to quietly sneak away, but he wouldn't let me.''

Neither would we.

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