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Monday, January 26, 2015

Heart and Spleen: Confessions of a Strike-breaker

-- By Tom Phillips

Three years ago, mad as hell about New York City Ballet’s plan to triple and quadruple ticket prices, I and a few other balletomanes declared an audience strike against our long-time beloved ballet company.  We hoped a boycott would shake up the management, and force a return to popular prices.            
Three years later, they win.   Drawn by rave reviews and gorgeous pictures in the paper, I finally slunk back across my invisible picket line yesterday.  I paid 62 dollars for a seat in Row G on the side in the fourth ring – three times what I would have paid just a few years ago.  The reward was a brilliant triple bill of Balanchine classics – Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C – from a company dancing better than it has in years.  Is this the effect of prosperity?  If so, you can’t argue with success. 

Established stars and up-and-comers were all dancing with passion and precision, and the corps looked like they cared.   There were no more cases of arrested development among the divas – all looked like they had matured in the last three years.  In the first-movement allegro of Symphony in C, Ashley Bouder was crystalline without being affected, and her partner Andrew Veyette’s solo was crisp and strong.   But they may have been topped by the bounding grace of a young couple, Lauren Lovette with Joseph Gordon, in the third movement allegro.    
Savannah Lowery attacked Agon with assurance and agility.  And Adrian Danchig-Waring looked like a danseur noble

Still it was my prima ballerina, Sara Mearns, who brought me to tears in Serenade.  Mearns has internalized both Tchaikovsky’s music and Balanchine’s technique to the point where they are expressions of herself.  One movement brought a gasp as never before – a sudden, violent horizontal whirl in the arms of her would-be rescuer, just before he’s led away.  It seemed to augur increased beauty and mastery before the inevitable, early end of a ballerina’s whirl on the stage. 
Even the orchestra, under the feisty Clotilde Otranto, seemed engaged and free of the hiccups of past years. 
NYCB’s packaging and advertising is cheesy – slick photos of dancers sprawled on sheets, sparkly fake jewels on the new costumes for Symphony in C, a fluffy art exhibit in the promenade.  But what counts is the product, and the product is on a roll.  NYCB even has a hot young resident choreographer, Justin Peck, turning out new works people want to see. 

So it’s time to wake up, old man, and admit you’re on the wrong side of history.  

I shouldn’t have directed all my spleen at New York City Ballet.  They’re just doing what all of Lincoln Center is doing, indeed most of Manhattan and even parts of Brooklyn and Queens – going upscale, in a hurry.  Middle-class Manhattan is going to hell in a Gucci handbag.  Poor students and scruffy intellectuals have gone the way of the corner deli, now the corner branch of Citibank or Chase.  The new audience, everywhere, is more expensively dressed, many from out of town.  New York City Ballet was right – it can fill the theater at premium prices, with an audience of upscale New Yorkers and moneyed tourists.  In the fourth ring, I sat next to a Chinese lady in a fur coat.  

What’s the downside?  Just the shrinking of the audience pool.   Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein wanted to make ballet an American art form, and an essential part of their scheme was to invite everyone in to see the ballet, at prices anyone could afford.  It worked.  Generations of dancers – as well as writers and critics – were spawned amid the creative energy and democratic openness of the fifties, sixties and seventies. 

That was then.  Balanchine and Kirstein’s vision has faded, following Fiorello LaGuardia’s dream of opera for the masses.  New York City Opera is defunct.  The New York State Theater is now the David H. Koch Theater.  Inclusiveness is out. 

Will I ever be a regular patron of New York City Ballet again?  Not at these prices.  But I don’t want to miss the rise of Lauren Lovette, or the apotheosis of Sara Mearns, or the next big thing from Justin Peck.  Balletomania is incurable.  Heart and spleen, I’ll hang around.  

-- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips