New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

January 24 and 29, 2017
Scenes de Ballet, The Cage, Eight Easy Pieces, Scherzo Fantastique, Stravinsky Violin Concerto
La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird

— by Jerry Hochman

It’s a continuing revelation, but as I’ve been reporting for the past half dozen or so years, one can always leave a NYCB program not only having seen stellar performances and choreographic gems, but also knowing that the company’s abundance of superb dancers will continue into the foreseeable future. The January 24th and 29th programs during the company’s Winter 2017 season, which included a plethora of significant, and outstanding, role debuts by members of the corps, soloists, and recently promoted principals, exemplify this.

Sunday’s performance was the third “Balanchine Short Stories” program I’ve seen this season, and it becomes more remarkable with each view, and with each different cast.

In its 2012 Spring Gala, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins premiered Mes Oiseaux, a piece that was more significant for the almost giddy confidence it displayed in his new ballerina “birds” than for the choreography itself. At the time, I considered it a celebration of the abundance of talent on NYCB’s horizon. One of the three female corps dancers at that performance, Lauren Lovette, is now a principal; one, Ashly Isaacs, a soloist. The “newest’ corps dancer in the group at that time, Claire Kretzchmar (who I deemed the “centerpiece” of that ballet), was given her first significant leading role – not counting George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” – on Sunday in La Sonnambula.

In the pieces in which I’ve seen her since Mes Oiseaux, Kretzchmar has appeared not only as a highly competent dancer (which is a given for this company), but also as unusually radiant, with an ebullient quality not usually evident in a tall dancer. Coupled with her appearing unusually thin appearance even for a NYCB ballerina, I anticipated that her Sleepwalker would be the “vacant” type: an emotionless, ethereal apparition. I was wrong. Her face didn’t betray any emotion – it’s not supposed to. But instead of being vacant, hers was the “driven” Sleepwalker, one with an inherent intensity, similar to the portrayals by Wendy Whelan and Sterling Hyltin. [The impression was abetted by hair that looked like it had been zapped with electricity.]

Kretzchmar’s execution was quite good overall – maybe not as smooth as portrayals by dancers with greater experience, but that will come. The only serious deficiency I noted was at the ballet’s ending: she noticeably adjusted her arms, stiffened her torso, and buried her legs into the floor as her Poet, Zachary Catazaro, was delivered to her, and seemed to make it to the wings, barely, on a wing and a prayer.

Catazaro did well in the opening section, but didn’t seem to connect with Kretzchmar’s Sleepwalker as intensely as I’ve seen those who have assayed the role of the Poet do in prior portrayals this season. That being said, I could find no fault with his execution, except for appearing a bit stiff – which is not incompatible with the role, and almost too powerful – which is.

Catazaro’s more successful navigation of the opening “masqued ball” section of the piece was abetted by Ashley Laracey’s Coquette. Laracey’s portrayal in every respect was remarkably spot on – not too demure (as was Sara Mearns’s earlier this season), not too “out there” (as some might have considered Rebecca Krohn’s portrayal, although I would disagree), but a perfect balance. Her performance did not look like a role debut – but it was. It’s exciting to watch Laracey, still a soloist, successfully execute every new role I’ve seen her dance.

The Baron is the dance’s imperious and toxic force, but he’s not given much opportunity to display these character qualities. Aaron Sanz, in another role debut, didn’t quite exude the power or the poison that Amar Ramasar does so skillfully, but that’s to be expected. For a debut, it showed considerable promise.

The leading roles in Prodigal Son were also debuts: Miriam Miller was The Siren, and Anthony Huxley the title character. Aside from one serious error, both debuts were merely sensational.

Miller made a distinctive impression when Martins cast her as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in January, 2015, while she was a company Apprentice. She joined the company the following year. She’s difficult to ignore, even if for some inexplicable reason one might want to: taller than most, rail thin, with legs that go on forever but somehow are still in perfect proportion to her stretched body. That she has a pretty face doesn’t hurt the overall image. Although one would think that Miller would be a little young for the role of The Siren, in other respects, physically, she’s ideal. Anticipating her performance, the only question was whether she could handle the characterization – which, despite providing little in the way of emoting opportunity, is an essential ingredient in the role.

She did. It was a smashing debut.

Like the Black Swan, but without a Svengali or a white-feathered body double, the role of The Siren requires being a seductress without the object of the seduction knowing he’s being seduced or capable of resisting. My usual complaint is that the ballerina dancing the role goes through the choreographic motions – but the role requires more. The Siren must be more than a mannequin executing Balanchine’s steps: she must, additionally, be irresistible and in total control. But since Balanchine’s choreography permits little in the way of physical or choreographic variation, whatever emotion The Siren delivers comes from the power she infuses into execution and demeanor. Miller’s Siren is the grafting of a twenty-first century woman onto a twenty-first century (B.C.) woman: a self-made force with the brains and the guile, as well as the beauty, to lead and to conquer. She had a bit of difficulty soon after entering the stage wrapping her cape around her arms, but that’s the only critical observation one could make.

When I saw Huxley exit the tent when Prodigal Son began, I winced. He’s so slight that I thought there was no way he could possibly convey the essential power. But Huxley’s performance won me over fairly quickly. Instead of being a rebel, this Prodigal Son had wanderlust. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that made his role believable to me.

Everything else worked. Most significantly, Huxley got the image of banging his fists into his thighs right. Not only did he look like he was pounding his fists as one might into a table or wall (as opposed to tapping on a drum); one could, at least in the orchestra, hear the sound as his fists hit his skin. That’s only one ingredient in the communication of the character’s anger and frustration, but its absence, to me, diminishes the impact.  In other respects, Huxley’s characterization was also on target throughout.

I observed only one minor error in his portrayal. In the final scene, which otherwise was as moving as it’s intended to be (indeed, it was handled so well by Huxley and Sanz as the Patriarch that for the first time in a long time, even knowing what was coming, I choked back a reflexive tear), Huxley approached the gate to his family home and essentially collapsed without banging on or draping himself over the gate. That needs to be fixed (or else how do his sisters know he’s there?).

Much more serious, however, was a near catastrophic miscalculation. At one moment during their pas de deux, The Siren positions her feet on his lower legs and leans forward as if she were a figurehead on a ship’s prow. Before she leans forward, he’s supposed to grab her lower legs to hold her in place. But Huxley grabbed Miller too low. As she started leaning forward, it seemed everyone in the theater who knew the ballet sucked in air at the same time, knowing that she was going to fall over. Sure enough, as she started doing what the choreography required, Miller fell over. Only breaking Huxley’s hold on the way down enabled her to break the fall, but she still hit the ground hard (perhaps on her knee – I couldn’t tell), although she got up quickly. This may have been a consequence of Miller’s being so tall, but it should have been adjusted in rehearsals and compensated for.

The third ballet on the program, Firebird, was also supposed to include a debut in the lead role, but the corps dancer originally scheduled had to withdraw. She was replaced by Ashley Bouder, whose portrayal, impossibly, becomes more astonishing each time I see her in the role.

But the other leading roles were debuts. Emilie Gerrity danced well as the Prince’s Bride, but Silas Farley’s debut as the Prince was particularly noteworthy. Aside from superb execution, this Prince was as impassioned and powerful as Catazaro’s was earlier in the season. But his portrayal was also lighter – by that I mean he seemed less weighty, and, combined with his partnering prowess (and lifting strength), he gave the piece a sense of airiness that, in hindsight, previous portrayals did not. It was a memorable debut. My only criticism: in the final tableau, Farley might consider a less electric smile, and without baring his teeth.

The program on the 24th included a repeat performance of Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, with Lovette reprising the role of The Novice that she first assayed two years ago. The only aspect of this performance that differed from her role debut was the absence of surprise that she could pull off such a dramatic role, and do it so well (and so viciously), since it seemed so contrary to her stage persona. And Jared Angle also excelled as the second Intruder, delivering the essential strength, magnetic attraction, and fatalism, coupled with his usual superb partnering.

Included in the program was Justin Peck’s Scherzo Fantastique, which debuted at Saratoga last summer and had its NYC premiere earlier this season. It’s a striking-looking, colorful ballet that conveys a theme of sunshine and boundless energy. The costumes (by Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung) echo the exaggerated tropical-themed backdrop by Jules de Balincourt, and the choreography matched the summertime spirit. It’s another highly enjoyable piece of choreography by Peck, neatly executed by Brittany Pollack, Taylor Stanley, and Huxley (in another of his Puck-like roles), with a corps of eight.

The evening closed with portrayals by the leads in Stravinsky Violin Concerto that were so extraordinary, but so typical, that one takes them for granted. The pair in Aria I, Maria Kowroski and Ramasar, maneuvered their way though Balanchine’s angular, impossibly demanding choreography ith apparent ease, and in the Aria II, Hyltin and Robert Fairchild were both flawless and breathtaking to watch.

But for me the program’s highlights were its peeks into NYCB’s future. Eight Easy Pieces is relatively inconsequential – not a bad ballet at all, but neither is it particularly memorable. What it does is fit the Stravinsky music, eight “easy” piano duets. Rachel Hutsell, Olivia MacKinnon, and Alexa Maxwell, all members of the corps, executed the correspondingly “easy” choreography very well.

Yet more impressive in terms of NYCB’s future was Scenes de Ballet, the second piece that Christopher Wheeldon choreographed for the company. An abstract ballet that focuses on the talent being developed in a top-flight ballet school, the piece was performed by 62 students from the School of American Ballet. Designed like an abstract ballet studio, the dance takes these young dancers through their paces, but does so without the drama, or predictability, of Harald Landers’s Etudes. It’s a delightful, engaging piece, notable for what it shows of developing NYCB talent at all levels.  Especially  impressive were young dancers who already appear highly capable of joining the company on graduation, including those featured in the central pas de deux, Gabriella Domini and Davide Riccardo. All excelled – except one young man could use some training on where to put his hands when he lifts his ballerina partner.

Maybe it’s illusory that New York City Ballet has undergone a renaissance over the past half dozen or so years, roughly corresponding to the critical beating it took after Miami City Ballet appeared at City Center in 2009. Whatever the reason, NYCB has become a fun destination, and its embarrassment  of riches continues.