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Review: SPAC offers gala farewell to Whelan

Review: SPAC offers gala farewell to Whelan

Saratoga said good-bye to one of its favorite ballerinas Saturday night.
Review: SPAC offers gala farewell to Whelan
New York City Ballet Principal Dancers Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall, perform as Whelan is set to retire from the company after 23 years as a principal dancer at SPAC Saturday, July 12, 2014.

Saratoga said good-bye to one of its favorite ballerinas Saturday night.

At the annual New York City Ballet Gala at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, crowds cheered and shed tears as they watched the divinely inspired Wendy Whelan take her final bow.

Whelan’s last SPAC curtain call came after a stirring showing in the Christopher Wheeldon duet, made for her, “After the Rain.” Set to Avro Part’s hypnotic “Spiegel im Spiegel,” played with understated elegance by violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Alan Moverman, Whelan did what she always has, enthralling the audience with her affecting presence.

Whelan, along with her partner, Craig Hall, took the viewers by the hand and carried them through a touching pas de deux, a quiet nod to the moment when sadness gives way to moving forward. In bare feet, a prelude to Whelan’s entry into modern dance, she and Hall were spellbinding in their gentle touches, in which they hugged, leaned on each other and laid together on the ground.

Hall knew this occasion was special, thus he too transcended with Whelan into a realm where hearts met on a spiritual level. And everyone in the seats soared with them. Needless to say, Whelan will be missed; her official retirement is Oct. 18 in New York City.

The night also saw the SPAC premiere of “Acheron,” a shadowy work by the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence, Liam Scarlett. The title of the ballet, Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G for Organ, Strings and Timpani, references the mythological “River of Pain,” an underworld waterway. The work did indeed look as if the dancers were descending — some against their wills — into a murky, watery universe.

Cast members started with their backs to the audience, their arms spread wide, like they were going to take flight. As they bent to the floor, swaying like a tide, Rebecca Krohn remained standing and was swept away, the first to be pulled in by the stream.

With the organ dominating, sounding like crashes of ocean waves, the dancers looked to be slogging and swimming through mire. But the choreographer’s intent was never swampy; rather, Scarlett showed the way, with his vivid choreography, for an ensemble of lost souls.

The evening, a tribute to Great Britain, finished with a flourish with George Balanchine’s tribute to the island nation with “Union Jack.” Set to Hershy Kay’s orchestration of traditional British tunes, the ballet began with a parade of Scottish and Canadian guards. Dressed in kilts, the regiments marched in clean formations that astonished with enthralling simplicity. One of the best sections is the percussive variation with Savannah Lowery and her MacDonald of Sleat guard marching en pointe and then letting loose in high kicks and pas de chats.

After the guards returned inside the palace gates, Balanchine had some fun with an over-the-top Pearly King and Queen, danced blithely by Andrew Veyette and Megan Fairchild. The dance concluded with a send-up to the Royal Navy, with the principal dancers returning to lead salty diversions with their fellow sailors. It ends with the dancers signaling with flags the code for “God Save the Queen.”

Of course, the New York City Ballet Orchestra performed as it always does,– with ardor, launching the dancers and the audience to heady heights.

Bravo for New York City Ballet. It was another marvelous, but all too short season at SPAC.

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