New York City Ballet: All Balanchine III (Hear the Dance: Italy)

Square Dance, Harlequinade

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; February 25, 2015

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet’s Winter 2015 season was a watershed in many ways. The quality of the ballets presented and of the performances across the board has been nearly uniformly extraordinary.

Not the least of the factors contributing to the successful season were the continuing opportunities provided to younger dancers to appear in lead or featured roles. Last Wednesday’s repeat performance of the “All-Balanchine III” program exemplified this. Soloist Erica Pereira debuted as the lead ballerina in “Square Dance” opposite soloist Taylor Stanley, and “Harlequinade” featured debuts in all the major roles, including by Anthony Huxley, also a soloist, as Pierrot, and Claire Von Enck, a member of the corps, as Pierette.

Pereira’s debut provided another example of how much her speed, control, and technical facility have developed, and how delightful a dancer she is to watch. While her performance in “Square Dance” lacked the manifest confidence that Ashley Bouder displayed in the same role a week earlier, Pereira has a natural aura of enthusiasm that makes her performances sparkle. Last week, in commenting on her debut performance as Pierette, I mentioned that she dances that character in everything she does. What I meant is that in whatever role she assays, she dances with effervescence and youthful flair, which are enviable qualities. Stanley too has progressed considerably this year. I once described him as appearing overly aggressive – he’s controlled that now, and he’s grown eloquent.

In “Harlequinade”, the portrayals of Columbine and Harlequin by Bouder and Gonzalo Garcia (both role debuts) looked different from those the previous week by Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz. While Bouder was as technically brilliant as ever, and teased appropriately, her portrayal lacked the coquettish edge that Peck gave it. Bouder really loves her Harlequin, and toys with him because it’s a cute thing to do, not because she’s part spitfire. And Garcia’s Harlequin was a perfectly likeable guy, not the egotist that was built into De Luz’s characterization. I didn’t find De Luz’s edgier portrayal enjoyable, but compared to it, Garcia’s characterization looked bland. Perhaps the next time the company revives the ballet, they can find a Mr. In-between for Columbine to mess with.

Huxley’s Pierrot was also more bland than that of Daniel Ulbricht a week earlier. It’s admittedly difficult to inject a sense of personality into a role that isn’t supposed to include one, but not doing so relegates the character to the status of a moving sad-faced mannequin. Something else needs to be there, even if nothing more than a sense of a soul. But Von Enck’s Pierette displayed enough personality to compensate for the absence of one in her Pierrot. Her debut was memorable.

Von Enck is a wisp of a dancer who has been with the company for a couple of years, including a stint as an apprentice. Until this season, she’s not, to my knowledge, been assigned a featured role. But she debuted a few weeks ago in Balanchine’s “Tarantella”, and now has been given the opportunity to portray Pierette as well. While her technique, understandably, is not yet as strong as Pereira’s, she handled the acting and the interplay with Huxley and Bouder unusually well for someone so inexperienced. And when she smiles, even the knowing, somewhat manipulative smile she wears as Pierette, she’s irresistible. Whether she will eventually be able to handle roles requiring greater depth remains to be seen, but this was a noteworthy debut. Also debuting in “Harleqinade” was Isabella LaFreniere, a member of the corps for only eight months, as La Bonne Fee. She’s a strong dancer who handled her assignment well, and with a palpable sense of confidence that is unexpected in someone so young.

These debuts are not isolated developments. The continuing rotation of dancers at all levels into new roles, the opportunities given to untested dancers to prove themselves, the openness to contemporary ballets as well as legacy masterpieces, and the company’s ability to absorb hits that might cripple other companies has been a hallmark of this season. As I write this, principal Tiler Peck is substituting for principal Megan Fairchild in “On the Town”, while up Broadway principal Robert Fairchild is preparing for the premiere of “An American in Paris”. Principals Jennie Somogyi and Anna Sophia Scheller have been injured for a substantial period of time, while Andrew Veyette and Chase Finlay suffered injuries of unknown seriousness during the season. And these are the only ones I know of – there may have been others.

Instead of inviting guest artists to fill the void, NYCB has turned to other principals, soloists, and corps dancers, who have performed splendidly.  But this isn’t a product of emergency – these opportunities, though perhaps accelerated a bit, would have been provided anyway.

Particularly impressive in new roles this past season have been Sterling Hyltin, who displays new growth every season even where you think there’s nothing new she can possibly show; Sara Means, who, based on her performance in Justin Peck’s “Rode,o: Four Dance Episodes,” may finally have been convinced to shed the aura of pathos that has dominated her roles in the past; Pereira, who’s effervescence has been augmented by increasingly skillful and speedy footwork; Lauren Lovette, whose debuts as The Novice in “The Cage” and as Juliet were shockingly good; and Georgina Pazcoguin, who excelled in whatever she was assigned this season. Of the men, Taylor Stanley has exhibited the most discernable acting improvement atop his already impressive technical ability; and Harrison Ball and Harrison Coll impressed as Mercutio and Benvolio in Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet”.

But these are only highlights, and don’t include the continuing performance excellence of NYCB’s other principals, or recognize the promise displayed by multiple members of NYCB’s corps. There have been disappointments – particularly in the more limited casting opportunities provided in “Romeo + Juliet” (the only lead debuts were by Lovette and Finlay). And one of NYCB’s most impressive soloists, Ashley Laracey, was seen only to a limited extent, and corps dancers Ashly Isaacs and Emily Kikta not at all (presumably the latter pair are recovering from injuries). But being able to witness the blossoming of ‘new’ members of the corps such as Indiana Woodward, Alina Dronova, and Claire Kretzchmar, as well as LaFreniere and Von Enck, helped ease the pain.

Looking forward to the spring 2015 season, the schedule is not as impressive on paper as were the two that immediately preceded it. But seasons that don’t look particularly good on paper have often proven to be unexpectedly wonderful, and one can impatiently await the return of Balanchine’s classic “Apollo” and masterpieces “The Four Temperaments” and “Symphony in Three Movements”, Robbins’s “Duo Concertante”, Martins’ “La Sylphide”, and a week of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, as well as repeat performances of Robbins’ “The Goldberg Variations” and Justin Peck’s new “Rōdē,ō”, Casting will provide the usual corps and soloist surprises, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that Bouder will lead the “La Sylphide” New York premiere.