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New York City Ballet: Donizetti Variations, In Memory of..., Firebird
-Onstage with the Dancers

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New York City Ballet

Founders, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein
Founding Choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins
Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins
Ballet Mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy
Children's Ballet Mistress, Garielle Whittle
Orchestra, Music Director, Andrea Quinn
Managing Director, Marketing and Communications, Robert Daniels
Associate Director, Communications, Siobhan Burns
Press Coordinator, Joe Guttridge

New York State Theater, Lincoln Center

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
June 1, 2006
Originally Published on

The Diamond Project: The Diamond Project is the sixth such festival of new works, with seven choreographers, from unique international backgrounds, presenting new ballets.

Donizetti Variations (1960): Music by Gaetano Donizetti (from Don Sebastian), Choreography by George Balanchine, Costumes by Karinska, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Guest Conductor Emil de Cou, Performed by Megan Fairchild, Joaquin De Luz, and the Company. Donizetti composed over 65 operas, plus chamber music, for some of the greatest singers of his time. Balanchine created this ballet for a "Salute to Italy". (NYCB Notes)

This duo, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz, are irresistible, as they gain energy and momentum with strong partnered chemistry. It also helps that they have similar statures (short, muscular, taut) and ingénue personalities. The Donizetti theme is vibrant and vivacious, perfectly powerful for the solo virtuoso spins and leaps, plus the partnered frenzy that goes on between company choreography. With trios of dancers in blues and browns, and the leads in pink, Balanchine created a visual and musical masterpiece. I especially liked the trumpet solo that added dynamism and a devilish dervish of dance.

In Memory of...(1985): Music by Alban Berg, Choreography by Jerome Robbins, Scenery by David Mitchell, Costumes by Dain Marcus, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Conductor: Maurice Kaplow, Solo Violinist: Kurt Nikkanen, Performed by Wendy Whelan, Charles Askegard, Seth Orza, and the Company. Berg's violin concerto was written in tribute to the late daughter of a friend, "dedicated to an angel". The music is divided into three sections, depicting her life, her illness, and her "transfiguration".

Alban Berg wrote this concerto after the death of his friend's daughter and stopped work on an opera that was never completed. With a broken heart, in the midst of World War II, Berg died, himself, and never heard this concerto performed. Maurice Kaplow conducted this work with passion. The costumes are shades of pastel, with Wendy Whelan, the representational figure for the young victim of illness, dressed in pink. Men are in more casual, loose fitting costumes, but later in pale leotards, since, in the second movement, the dancers dress in pale blue. Kurt Nikkanen is becoming a renowned solo violinist, heard often this season with the large number of concertos and works that require featured violin.

Wendy Whelan is an ethereal and vulnerable maiden, wispy and willowy, attentively and expressively partnered by Seth Orza, a dancer to watch. Charles Askegard, in seasoned fashion, seemed to be the sinister presence, perhaps the illness personified. Jerome Robbins is a master of magnetic presentation, and In Memory of... is a magnetizing work. The Company performed with stark attitude. Kudos to Alban Berg, Wendy Whelan, Maurice Kaplow, and Kurt Nikkanen, and kudos to Jerome Robbins.

Firebird (1949): Music by Igor Stravinsky, Choreography by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Scenery and costumes designed by Marc Chagall (1945), Scenery executed by Volodia Odinokov, Costumes executed by Karinska, Firebird costume supervised by Dain Marcus, Original Lighting by Ronald Bates, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Guest Conductor: Faycal Karoui, Performed by Sofiane Sylve as Firebird, Jonathan Stafford as Prince Ivan, Henry Seth as Kastchei the Wizard, Rachel Rutherford as Prince's Bride, and the Company as Maidens, Youths, and Subjects.

Balanchine's Firebird was one of his earliest creations for NYC Ballet that used such elaborate costumes and sets. Russian folklore is integrated in this ballet. Balanchine used Stravinsky's orchestral suite instead of the three-act score. In 1970, Chagall came to NYC to supervise the new costumes and sets for a new production, and Robbins contributed some new choreography. This new production was staged in 1985. (NYCB Notes). The plot centers on Prince Ivan, who captures a Firebird in the woods. When she begs for freedom, and her wish is granted, he receives a magic plume. Kastchei, the wizard, has enchanted a Princess and the maidens, but Prince Ivan rescues them all and marries the Princess. (NYCB Notes).

Sofiane Sylve has morphed this season into not just a great dancer, but now an exciting dancer. This ballet has been reviewed several times, and on each viewing there is something new to remember. The Chagall sets and backdrops, with signature Chagall Firebird, forests, flowers, birds, and moon, are worth the experience in themselves. Karinska's feathery red Firebird costume and all the costumes of the woodland creatures, Kastchei, and wedding scene costumes, possess Karinska's quintessential detail and creativity. Stravinsky's marvelous score, orchestrated under Faycal Karoui, is also an experience in itself.

This almost 60 year-old ballet is timeless and riveting. Jonathan Stafford superbly partnered Ms. Sylve as Firebird and Rachel Rutherford, as Prince's Bride. Ms. Rutherford blossoms more and more each season and radiates with sensuality and confidence. The story is another fairytale, this time about a grateful Firebird who rewards a prince for freeing her from capture. She gives him a magic plume that enables him to rescue a Princess and her maidens. Naturally, the Prince marries the Princess amid celebratory dance. This wedding scene, with children from School of American Ballet, is colorful and charming.

Fairchild and De Luz in Donizetti Variations
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan and Seth Orza in In Memory Of...
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik


For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at