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

January 23 and 25, 2017
Apollo, Mozartiana, Cortege Hongrois
The Wind Still Brings, Composer’s Holiday, Spectral Evidence, Year of the Rabbit

— by Jerry Hochman

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah!
La-la, how the life goes on

In the wake of Peter Martins’s resignation as New York City Ballet’s Ballet Master in Chief, the company’s Winter 2018 season, which began Tuesday night, may seem to carry more significance than it otherwise would. That’s unfortunate by itself – and a bit more about that later – but the good news is that based on the opening night program of George Balanchine classics, and last night’s program of “21st Century Choregraphers,” the company is looking as good as it ever has in the past eight or so years, the period of what is widely considered the company’s Renaissance.

I must at the outset note two of the evenings’ exclamation points: Maria Kowroski’s exceptional Mozartiana – she’s nowhere near having to consider retiring; and the significance, and irony, of one of the contemporary ballet’s on Thursday night’s program: Spectral Evidence, a dance inspired by the Salem Witch Trials.

Serenade is my choice to open any and every NYCB season. But that’s not realistic. If it’s not Serenade, however, then Apollo, Balanchine’s 1928 masterpiece originally created for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, is a more than adequate substitute. Balanchine here does what he did better than any other choreographer – he tells a story without explicitly telling a story.

Apollo is performed regularly by ballet companies worldwide, so there’s no need to dwell excessively on details of it. Suffice it to say that it’s a marvel of pithiness and purity, two components of the neoclassical ballet style that he pioneered. My preference is for the earlier incarnation of the piece – one that includes the “birth” scene, which is how it was presented when I first saw it – but I can understand why Balanchine thought it superfluous, and that any semblance of a set or of colorful costumes might have been distracting.

Instead of elaborate costumes and a set, we have Apollo and the three muses, all in white, and the manifestations of their qualities: a lute (symbolic of Apollo’s function as god of music), a tablet (representing Calliope’s gift of eloquence and poetry), a mask (Polyhymnia’s gift of mime); and a lyre (Terpsichore’s gift of dance). Apollo gives these props – the attributes which are his birthright – to the muses because he doesn’t yet know what to do with them. They, in turn, instruct and guide him – and shape the mature god that he becomes as the dance progresses.  And his favorite is clearly Terpsichore (the deck is stacked: this is a dance, after all).

The cast did honor to this opening ballet of the season’s opening night. Particularly wonderful were Sterling Hyltin (Terpsichore) and Lauren Lovette (Calliope), each of whom seems to improve with every outing even though that doesn’t seem possible. Chase Finlay’s Apollo is almost perfect – but nitpick that I am, I preferred his extraordinary portrayal when he debuted in the role while still a member of the corps. Then he clearly was a nascent god evolving; now he’s more clearly in command from the outset. And he doesn’t quite have the economy of movement that I observed with Martins’s Apollo. But these differences are hardly noticeable. More noticeable was Ashley Bouder’s seeming discomfort as Polyhymnia. There was nothing at all deficient about her execution, but the portayal of this muse doesn’t require the monochromatic, dour demeanor that was consistently present throughout Bouder’s performance – although I suppose, given that Bouder’s portrayals are usually spot on and that Polyhymnia is at times (though not in this ballet) identified as the muse of sacred hymns, looking overly serious may have been intentional, and may be considered acceptable.

I last saw Cortege Hongrois three years ago almost to the day. At that time, Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle assayed the lead roles; at this performance Russell Janzen was Mearns’s cavalier. Janzen is a lot lankier-looking than Angle, creating a different visual impression, and his relative inexperience was evident, especially in contrast to Angle’s demeanor of extreme competence and confidence. But Janzen brings youthful charm to the role as well as competence of his own. His partnering looked flawless, and he excelled (to the appreciative gasps of many in the audience) in his solo variation.

Mearns executed as she did three years ago: not a step or arm or finger out of place, nailing every choreographic punctuation. But there’s a difference between a steely expression and a noble one, and I again didn’t see nobility here: on the contrary, until the joyous finale she approached her role more like an Odette who happened to be exiled to a lake in Hungary than a royal princess celebrating her wedding – or a ballerina celebrating her career (Balanchine created Cortege Hongrois as a gift to Melissa Hayden on her retirement in 1973). Indeed, the fact that Cortege Hongrois is not the Raymonda story, but a “parade” of out of context divertissements from the Act III celebration in Petipa’s original, makes the stolid expression even less arguably appropriate. And although her kabuki white pancake makeup has been toned down (it’s no longer pale white), it still looks pasty and unnatural. But those observations aside, her execution was merely flawless.

The remainder of the cast left no doubt as to the celebration, whether as ethnic dance or more classical/royal, which complement each other in Balanchine’s remix, the third in which he mined Raymnda’s greatest hits (the prior two being Pas de Dix in 1955 and his 1961 Raymonda Variations). While Georgina Pazcoguin danced the featured role three years ago with greater gusto than Savanah Lowery did on Tuesday (Ask la Cour partnered on both occasions), her performance was more than adequate. And the corps seemed to be gushing at the opportunity to take the stage again, with some (especially Emma von Enck) positively percolating. What a joy it is to see dancers seemingly so happy just to be there.

Also flawless, but far more sensational, was Kowroski’s sparkling lead performance in Mozartiana, the middle piece on the program. I disliked Mozartiana on my initial exposures to it, including in performances by Kowroski, not because of any absence of choreographic quality, but because it seemed needlessly sorrowful – more of an elegy that the celebration I thought it should be. But my eyes were opened by Hyltin in her debut in the lead role several years ago, when I observed exactly the celebratory tone I felt had been missing (and, I found out later, Hyltin had taken that approach intentionally).

I’ve seen Mozartiana twice since, and either I’ve come to terms with any interpretation of it, or Hyltin’s approach has become dominant. Regardless, any deficiency I previously saw, or thought I saw, in Kowroski’s performance was overwritten by her crystalline perfection on Tuesday. Abetted by strong outings from her partner (Angle), and the corps (including equally flawless performances by four students from the School of American Ballet: Ruby Cosgrove, Alex Grayson, Olivia Hayes, and Maria Kashvili), Mozartiana, for me, was the evening’s highlight.

A very different impression was created by Thursday night’s program, which saw repeat performances of four contemporary ballets: Troy Schumacher’s The Wind Still Brings, Gianna Reisen’s Composer’s Holiday (both of which premiered at last Fall’s Gala), Angelin Preljocaj‘s Spectral Evidence, and Justin Peck’s initial NYCB hit, Year of the Rabbit. My opinions of each remain as they were following their premieres, so with one exception I’ll keep my comments to a minimum.

The Wind Still Brings is the best of Schumacher’s pieces to date – bright and breezy and primarily joyous. But it goes on too long, and the central – and seemingly most significant – segment contains imagery (of one dancer effectively compelling another to rise from a prone position while the first one falls into an adjacent position) that is repeated far too many times. I’m still struggling to find any “intended meaning” (not that the piece has to have one) beyond being movement appropriate to the music, aside from perhaps illustrating interchangeable relationships and the joy of being blue/orange leaves blown around in the breeze, but haven’t found one. That being said, every one of the engaging young NYCB dancers shined, and I particularly enjoyed the glittery Kristen Segin and Claire Kretzchmar.

Composer’s Holiday is still the little bundle of joy that I saw at its premiere. While hardly the most polished ballet of the bunch, Reisen takes chances, creates seemingly endless visual surprises (the kind that make you smile), and doesn’t overstay her welcome. And the piece is filled with dancers even less experienced than those in Schumacher’s ballet, further illustrating – as if any further illustration were necessary at this point – the seemingly endless bounty of NYCB talent. The lead dancers, Christina Clark, Roman Mejia, Gilbert Bolden III (an apprentice), and Von Enck, danced marvelously, abetted by the 4/4 corps (which included two more apprentices).

Both these dances seem derivative, to a degree, of Peck’s choreography. Year of the Rabbit was a sensation when it premiered in 2012, a breath of youthful, fresh air that didn’t seem beholden to any particular stylistic orthodoxy. It’s now beginning to show its age – not because it’s no longer a wonderfully inventive piece of choreography, but because Peck’s inventiveness has been on view on so many subsequent occasions. I again marveled at Peck’s stagecraft – particularly his use of the wings (and dancers emerging into and out of them), even though that’s no longer a choreographic novelty. The entire cast of six featured dancers and a 6/6 corps – which he here elevates to collective star status – excelled, but I would be remiss if I didn’t single out Indiana Woodward for particular praise: her solo, and her duet with Taylor Stanley, were danced exceptionally well.

Spectral Evidence packs a wallop. Although I still think it’s somewhat overbaked, there’s no denying that it includes images and performances that are searing and indelible. And perhaps taking a cue from some of the previous criticism, the especially unsettling images at the ballet’s 2013 premiere (and in subsequent performances thereafter) of the dance’s four young women being figuratively incinerated has been toned down: unless my memory is faulty (always a possibility), now instead of writhing amid colors mimicking flames, the women are pictured amid smoke-like shades of white. The change may have the unintended effect of blurring Preljocaj’s message by making them appear to have been transported to some heavenly anteroom, but the ballet’s overall impact is still emotionally venomous and violent. It’s a painful ballet to watch.

Spectral Image is not a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials – its characters are the witches’ accusers (to blame the accused “witches” for “unexplained” physical manifestations of what was theocratically accepted as evidence of witchcraft) and the male authority figures who are both attracted to and repulsed by the impact that these girls and their explanations for their actions (to blame the accused “witches”) have on them. In the ballet, the ministers (both in the religious sense and as ministers of justice) are tempted and intellectually (and physically – either in fact or in their minds) seduced by these young women, and all are victims of the contemporaneous enforced doctrinal rigidity and subsequent societal paranoia.

Whether the “witches” of Salem were “real” witches or not doesn’t matter here: for this ballet’s purposes, they’re collateral damage. What does matter in this piece is the process used to convict the 20 women and men who were subsequently executed, and many more who were accused – the use of dubious “spectral evidence” to prove the accusations, and the law enforcers’ willingness to believe what they wanted to believe and what their orthodox doctrine required that they believe.

Preljocaj’s images of the John Proctor-like figure (magnificently portrayed by Amar Ramasar, in the role originated by Robert Fairchild) destroyed by his own forbidden attraction to Tiler Peck (reprising her original role) and her irresistible metaphorical message are unforgettable. One sympathizes with none of them – and with all of them at the same time. Megan Fairchild, Ashly Isaacs, Megan LeCrone, Sean Suozzi, Finlay and Stanley completed the wickedly good cast.

In 1953, Arthur Miller created his memorable play The Crucible. The subject of that play was also the Salem Witch Trials, but that subject is generally accepted as a metaphor for Miller’s real target: the mostly false accusations of Communist conspiracies and Communist sympathizers hiding behind every rock reflected in the McCarthyism that dominated the period’s political atmosphere and headlines, and in the lives of the accused that were ruined. Even though I doubt that Preljocaj had any particular topical agenda in creating his ballet, clearly, at least to me, Spectral Evidence is designed to illuminate the nature and consequences of forces at work that are not immediately evident.

Which brings me to Martins and his resignation, and the company as it now stands. I’ve never met any of the people involved, including Martins, and I don’t know what the truths of the accusations against him are – but, clearly, all such allegations are to be taken seriously and evaluated. I know that there are too many instances of people getting away with behavior that others for whatever reason are afraid to, or barred from, recounting; too many instances of authority being justification for actions demeaning or destructive to others; and too many instances of behavior being covered up to protect sacred cows. But I know also that there are too many instances of people being falsely accused, that perception can be influenced by unstated agendas, and that not everything is black or white

But the haste with which reputations are destroyed or, perhaps worse, erased, is something else. The apparent tendency now by some to ignore Martins’s contribution to NYCB in light of accusations against him is a rewriting of history that’s both unfair and unwarranted. Just as he was criticized for what was seen as NYCB’s decline in overall quality after Balanchine’s death and for choreography that seemed lackluster after Balanchine and Robbins (impossible acts for anyone to follow), he deserves to be credited for the company’s indisputable rebirth over the past 8 or 9 years as I, and others, have noted on many occasions. Neither the company’s perceived decline nor its resurgence may be exclusively his doing, but responsibility and accountability cut both ways.

The company that is having what some describe as a “new beginning” is the company that Martins shaped: the dancers that represent the company are dancers he selected; the ballets being performed this year (and maybe next year and the year after as well) are dances he scheduled; the “new” choreography he championed represents chances he took, some of which failed, but many of which successfully illuminated pathways for budding choreographic talent; treating and marketing his dancers as remarkably talented dancers next door rather than gods and goddesses, which other companies have since emulated, occurred under his watch; and the bountiful opportunities provided to dancers to grow in front of NYCB audience’s eyes may be his greatest legacy. He may be difficult, distant, temperamental, and/or manipulative, and may indeed have done some, most, or all of what he’s been accused of. But for ultimately making NYCB the most exciting ballet destination in town, he deserves our thanks.

And life goes on.