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

January 30 and February 3 afternoon, 2017
Divertimento No. 15, The Four Temperaments, Chaconne
The Red Violin, dance odyssey, Russian Seasons

— by Jerry Hochman

I’ve written once or twice or ten or twenty times before that New York City Ballet is presently burdened with an embarrassment of riches, top to bottom. This was again evident in the two performances in the two NYCB programs I saw last week: another brilliant “All Balanchine” program, and one that featured ”contemporary” choreographers, titled “New Combinations.”

The performance highlights include (but are not limited to): Russell Janzen’s superb debut in the Phlegmatic Variation from The Four Temperaments; Emilie Gerrity’s dynamite unscheduled premature debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, Ashley Laracey’s triumphant and captivating lyricism in Peter Walker’s delightful new bauble, dance odyssey, and Maria Kowroski continuing her already brilliant season in Chaconne and Russian Seasons. But if you don’t read further, you’ll miss the opportunity to hear me gush further about these, and other, performances, as well as a very engaging art exhibition.

Saying that the New Combinations program included pieces by contemporary choreographers suggests that the ballets by Balanchine aren’t contemporary. As Tuesday’s All Balanchine program demonstrated, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s been awhile since I last saw Divertimento No. 15, but Balanchine’s ballet somehow looks even better now than I recall. Mozart’s composition was created in 1777 in honor of the name day of a family friend who was also a member of the Hapsburg aristocracy. Perhaps for that reason, the music has a festive air to it, but in a classical (rather than “folk”) way. Balanchine picks up on this, and although the ballet is divided into discrete movements to match the composition, it has a fluidity to it that makes the music not only sound like Mozart, but as if Mozart were transported to the 21st century. It illuminates Mozart’s composition in a completely unexpected way, rendering the visualization look, and the music sound, concurrently classical and contemporary. It’s a gem.

The ballet has an irregular balance to it, not just because the composition is broken into “uneven” movements, but because of the way Balanchine structured and staged it. For example, there are five lead ballerinas, but only three lead danseurs (with one of each being the ballet’s leads among leads), but at no time does it look like two men are missing. There is a “corps” of eight women, but no men, and these corps dancers don’t so much support the leads as become alternative foci of their own. The “Theme and Variations” Movement (which follows the opening Allegro) begins with the theme, danced by two of the men, but the closing variation is a ballerina solo. And there is aristocratic reverence and dignity and order, but these qualities are supplanted by thoroughly modern speed and attack.

Ashley Bouder (fabulous in the final Variation) and Chase Finlay were the superb leads among leads, but the featured dancers – Ashly Isaacs, Unity Phelan (her role debut), Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira in the Second Variation (who looks suddenly unleashed), Joseph Gordon and Cameron Dieck – also excelled. The most extraordinary segment, however, was the penultimate Andante, with a seeming endless and seamless procession of pairs and trios and a sense of fabulous kaleidoscopic informality. And as contemporary as it now looks, Divertimento No. 15 was choreographed in 1956.

Ten years earlier Balanchine choreographed another, and very different kind of, masterpiece, to a score he had commissioned six years before that from Paul Hindemith. While nominally inspired by the Greco/Roman notion that humans are comprised of varying degrees of four essential “humors,” and that the dominance of one over others results in certain physical and psychological “types,” The Four Temperaments is really about far more than a human’s emotional components. It (and Hindemith’s score) is a celebration of the human spirit in general: what humans have in common regardless of personality differences, not what might distinguish one from another. And the final images of ballerinas being gently lifted skyward as they traverse the stage to the accompaniment of what sounds like church bells is as potent a statement of the human spirit, and gratitude for its collective blessings, as anything I can recall seeing. It gets me every time.

This performance featured several role debuts, including Olivia Boisson and Lars Nelson setting the tone in the initial pairing during the ballet’s opening Theme segment, followed by Sara Adams (who debuted in her role a week earlier) and Daniel Applebaum, and Gerrity and Dieck. All looked splendid, as did Anthony Huxley in the Melancholic Variation. But the ballet’s, and the evening’s, most significant role debut was Janzen’s.

Janzen, who on first view I described as a redwood tree of a danseur, is growing into a versatile stalwart with a rare combination of intensity and charm that is as endearing as it is surprising. And he seems to excel in debuts, from his 2014 debuts, while he was still in the corps, partnering Teresa Reichlen in Diamonds to the central role in Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertanze’ (rivaling the memorable execution by Adam Luders at that ballet’s premiere), and now as the unemotional but tormented soul in the Phlegmatic Variation. All this in an outward shell of lanky youthfulness. He’s now a Principal, and anything but wooden.

Chaconne isn’t on the same level of genius as the other two ballets on the program, but it has lots to recommend it anyway, especially when Kowroski is the lead ballerina. Created in 1976, Chaconne is Balanchine’s fifth effort to mine Gluck’s Orpheo et Euridice (the others being in connection with productions of the opera in 1936, 1963, 1973, and 1975), and is the only one intended as a standalone ballet – although it uses much of the choreography from the 1963 production. The music used here was composed as the then obligatory festive conclusion to the opera, and has no connection thematically to the mythological story – it’s just festive, and the characters have no identity (although, if you try hard enough, you could impute an emotional distillation of Orpheus and Euridice in the pas de deux for the two principals, but that’d be a stretch, and an unnecessary one).

After a lovely, lyrical introductory opening with dancers dressed in costumes that evoke a distant time and place (a connection, perhaps, to the opera production that the audience would have just seen, complete with Baroque-looking allusions to Gluck’s late Baroque/early Classical style), the contemporary neoclassical non-narrative festivities begin with a progression of distinct dances: a pas de trois (with Ashley Hod, Andrew Scordato, and a particularly buoyant Isabella LaFreniere – both Hod and LaFreniere in role debuts); a pas de deux for Lauren King and Harrison Coll (his role debut); an all-female pas de cinq led by Claire Von Enck (her role debut); and then segues to the somber but sublime pas de deux featuring Kowroski and Adrian Danchig-Waring, in which Kowroski again displayed the distant-looking but seething-under-the-surface precision that mark her best performances. And then, in the concluding ‘chaconne’, she turns on the charm she so rarely displays, and she and Danchig-Waring (and the rest of the cast) looked appropriately … festive. What a season Kowroski is already having.

Saturday afternoon’s New Combinations program couldn’t be at the same level as Balanchine, but if you expect what the program’s title says you’re going to get, it was very good indeed.

Peter Martin’s The Red Violin is a difficult ballet to like, in part because its score (Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by John Corigliano, adapted from his score from the 1998 film The Red Violin) is difficult music to like: there’s nothing at all bad about it in general, but the violin sound, which dominates it (and which was executed superbly by Kurt Nikkanen, one of the many NYCB Orchestra’s many virtuosi) includes a preponderance of “screech,” which may be fine for emphasis, but which can sound grating if used as a major ingredient in the composition.

Martins does a fine job bringing this music to life, but as well-choreographed as it is, and as well-executed as it was, it’s not particularly appealing to watch – although the enjoyability factor is increased by former NYCB dancer Carole Divet’s textured pastel costumes for the women. It comes across as an ascetic exercise (especially with the apparently intentionally unemotional demeanor), long on technical intricacy (in/out turns, movement that is at one moment synchronized, at another sequential, at another syncopated), modern lines, and choreographic intelligence, but short on anything that would make you want to see the piece more than once a decade. Phelan, Megan LeCrone, Finlay, and Zachary Catazaro led the cast, supported by Coll, Gerrity, Gordon, and King. [Sounds like a law firm.]

Peter Walker’s dance odyssey is a different matter. I enjoyed Walker’s initial piece for the company, ten in seven, a great deal; I feel the same about dance odyssey (although the title’s non-capitalization for no apparent reason is becoming annoying). To a curated selection of pieces by Oliver Davis, one of which is titled Dance Odyssey, Walker’s new ballet is as enjoyable to watch as The Red Violin isn’t.

Loosely divided into five segments (matching the five Davis pieces), Walker mixes and matches his twelve dancers in visually appealing ways. Most significant, however, is a simple but glorious penultimate pas de deux for Laracey and Danchig-Waring. Laracey, recovered from a debilitating injury, is often used as a gold-steel (and cold-steel) ballerina who makes lines and angles look molten. When she gets to dance softly, it’s a revelation. That was the case here. Impeccably partnered by Danchig-Waring, Laracey looked like liquid gold in motion, but with an aura of gentle receptivity that enhanced Walker’s already lyrical choreography. It, and Laracey’s execution, took your breath away.

The balance of the cast was equally fine, with Devin Alberda and Huxley delivering an understated hilarious duet, Tiler Peck again demonstrating the timing and phrasing that has made her performances destinations, and she and Catazaro leading trios. dance odyssey isn’t a great ballet, but it doesn’t pretend to be. What it is is well-worth seeing.

What is a great ballet is Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. I’ve discussed it on many occasions, and won’t repeat that discussion again. Suffice it to say that it’s a marvel of simplicity amid complexity, of passion amid relentless continuity, and of folk dancing that isn’t folk dancing.

This performance included Kowroski as the emotionally tormented central character She’s a little too Balanchine-ish for my taste here, but what she may lack in exterior vulnerability she more than makes up for in impassioned eloquence and elasticity. Abi Stafford repeated her exquisitely nuanced portrayal. The story of the performance, however, was Gerrity’s sensational debut. Originally scheduled to debut in the role later this week, the debut was accelerated by an injury to Sara Mearns. Gerrity held nothing back – it was an emotionally devastating explosion – to me a necessity in that character at that point in time in this ballet.

As should be evident, the plethora of role debuts is further indication, as if any were still necessary at this point, of this company’s remarkable depth of talent. Leaving the theater after performances like those seen last week (and the week before) leaves one giddy.

This Winter 2018 season, leaving (and entering) the theater by itself also can make one giddy. Under Martins’s watch, each winter season the company hosts an art exhibition that supposedly has some relationship to ballet, tangential as that relationship may be. This year, the sixth in the series, features an installation by Jihan Zencirli (aka Geronimo), and it’s contagiously bubbly – with reason: the installation consists of streams of balloons of different colors and sizes that float from the rafters of the theater’s Promenade almost to the floor. At first I thought that the arrangements looked like agglomerations of leukocytes, then more pleasantly, like streams of bubbles blown by some heavenly super-bubble-blower. And because the balloons gradually lose pressure and may need to be changed, the installation looks different every time it’s seen – somewhat as a ballet may look a little different from one performance to another. It may not be “high art,” whatever that is, but it’s great fun.

Not exactly fun, and definitely not bubbly, is next week’s return of Martins’s Romeo + Juliet – and, unfortunately, perhaps renewed examination of the slap heard ‘round New York.