David Koch Theatre, New York, NY; February 4 and 6, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Christopher Wheeldon's 'DGV Danse à Grande Vitesse'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘DGV Danse à Grande Vitesse’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet presented two new programs during its Winter 2014 season last week. The first, under the catch-all label ‘Scenic Delights‘, included Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’s “Bal de Couture,” “DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and Jerome Robbins’s “The Four Seasons.” The second program, titled ‘Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work‘, consisted of Mr. Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” and George Balanchine’s “Union Jack.”

‘DGV’ is a highlight of this or any season, and its return after a brief absence is most welcome. I’ll discuss it further later in this review. But I will first address the performances last night.

The last time I reviewed “Dances at a Gathering,” this past October, and after gushing once again about this Robbins masterwork, I mentioned that it would be repeated during NYCB’s Winter, 2014 season, and that missing the opportunity then to see it and other Balanchine/Robbins masterpieces, or to see them performed again with new bodies and faces, is unthinkable. Little did I know how well the ‘new bodies and new faces’ would do, and how unthinkable missing their performances would be.

Choreographed to samplings of various piano pieces by Frederic Chopin, “Dances at a Gathering” was novel when it debuted in 1969, but it’s now one of many ‘piano ballets’. Even though each mazurka or waltz or etude or scherzo or nocturne is different, and even though the choreography for each piece is distinct and highlights different dancers or groups, after awhile it all begins to look and sound not necessarily the same, but delivered at the same decibel level. At recent performances, it was apparent that despite the perfectly crafted choreography and similarly executed performances, you could hear the audience grow increasingly weary of it all.

Not last night. The entire cast was ‘on’, and the audience knew it. That it was Jenifer Ringer’s penultimate performance with the company made it special. And any stray fidgets or coughs or seat-stirring that remained vanished when Lauren Lovette, the girl ‘in apricot’, took her turn on stage.

Anyone reading these reviews during the past three years has seen my comments about one or another of Ms. Lovette’s stunning debuts in a wide variety of pieces. It’s not only the accomplished, flawless execution the first time out that makes her performances, and particularly her debuts, remarkable. And it’s not the steps – she dances what everyone else who performs the role does. But when she dances, in all but the most rigidly emotionless pieces, the role looks different because she delivers it with a uniquely compelling and infectious stage personality – one composed equally of joy that never looks pasted on, of incandescence that she radiates, and of genuine warmth. As I’ve described previously, it’s a credible luminosity. She glows.

And so she did in “Dances at a Gathering.” At least on a non-technical level, the role requires the greatest variety of footwork and expressiveness. In her first paired dance, and in contrast to the quieter, more reflective mood and pace of the choreography that preceded hers, she was ablaze with non stop motion and quick changes of direction, bouncing back and forth and across the stage like a cross between a colt and a butterfly. Later, in a group of six, she was the third girl to sail headfirst into the arms of a waiting escort, the one with the most complicated twist in the air of the three (a soaring double, full body twist of Olympic proportions – higher, farther, faster). She pulled it off looking like a composed, self-assured daredevil. While the audience audibly giggled with glee at the first two leaps, Ms. Lovette’s leap prompted gasps. And in concluding segments where a more somber tone was required, she carried that off too, with aplomb. Over the years I’ve seen many dancers execute this role superbly (including Megan Fairchild, who is dancing it this season as well), but I’ve seen none do it better than Ms. Lovette did last night. And this was her debut.

But hers wasn’t the only stellar debut. Joseph Gordon, ‘in brick’, a member of the corps (and Ms. Lovette’s partner during the first rapid-fire dance I described above), brought with him not only capable execution and competent partnering, but a quality of excitement that matched Ms. Lovette’s. He bears watching. And in another role debut, Lauren King lent her natural smile and accomplished technique to her role as the girl ‘in blue’.

Excellent performances were not limited to role debuts. Rebecca Krohn, the girl ‘in mauve’, danced with unmatched purity and lyricism. As I’ve mentioned previously, Ms. Krohn is having a memorable season. Jared Angle, ‘in purple’, and Amar Ramasar, ‘in green’, both lent their exuberance and proven partnering skills, and Zachary Catazaro, a member of the corps who is being given an increasing number of featured roles, lent an air of youthful exuberance to his role as the young man ‘in blue’. Maria Kowroski, ‘in green’, executed with her usual polish and stratospheric extensions, and Gonzalo Garcia danced an exuberant man ‘in brown’. The performance was also graced by the spirited accompaniment of pianist Susan Walters.

And then there was Ms. Ringer, who danced one of the three more prominent women’s roles (with Ms. Krohn and Ms. Lovette). Based on this performance, it’s an unfortunate time for Ms. Ringer to leave. Her performance was skillful, exuberant, and gracious, and more youthful than it had any right to be. She’s leaving on a high level, and her absence will be missed.

The other dance on last night’s program, “Union Jack,’ is not one of my favorite Balanchine pieces. Like his “Stars and Stripes,” it is a spectacle – a brilliantly crafted spectacle, but a spectacle.

Nevertheless, that it may not be a choreographic masterwork doesn’t really matter. Watching a stage filled with strikingly costumed dancers in motion, seeing the evocative, exhilarating sets (scenery and costumes by the esteemed Rouben Ter-Arutunian), and hearing the increasingly emotion-grabbing music (a commissioned score by Hershy Kay, adapted from traditional British music) dramatically and thrillingly played by the NYCB Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Capps, matters. And the roars that greeted the dancers at the ballet’s conclusion, after semaphore hand flags, positioned by the dancers, signaled ‘God save the Queen’, shows that the piece, which premiered in 1976 and was Balanchine’s tribute to the U.S. Bicentennial festivities, is an audience favorite.

Of the performances, there were three significant debuts – Sterling Hyltin (lead in ‘Dress McDonald’ and ‘Royal Navy’), Ashley Bouder (‘RCAF’ and ‘WRENS’ lead), and Savannah Lowery (lead in ‘MacDonald of Sleat’ and ‘Royal Navy’). All three executed commendably (although anyone dancing the lead in ‘WRENS’ will suffer compared to my memories of Suzanne Farrell), and Ms. Lowery was particularly sparkling. Laudable as well were the performances of Joaquin De Luz (lead in ‘Lennox’ and ‘Royal Navy’), and the take no prisoners knockout performances by Ms. Fairchild and Andrew Veyette in the ‘Costermonger Pas de Deux’ (abetted by super little performances by School of American Ballet students Shelby Mann and Maya Roselsky as the ‘Pearly Princesses’). And it seems that when NYCB needs the services of a convincing temptress, even for a moment, the go-to girl is Ms. Lovette, who briefly distracted Mr. Veyette. It’s essentially the same role she played when I first saw her dance, on January 28, 2011 (and prior to her memorable first ‘featured’ performance later in that same program in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”), when she very briefly appeared as the third-girl temptress in Susan Stroman’s ‘Frankie and Johnny…and Rose,’ from “For the Love of Duke.”

Mr. Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse” was first performed by the Royal Ballet in 2006, and entered the NYCB repertoire in 2012. It is one of those rare plotless ballets that is riveting from its first minute and never lets go. Its score (“MGV: Musique a Grand Vitesse” by celebrated London-born contemporary composer Michael Nyman) brings to mind the work of Philip Glass, and consequently, and not surprisingly, the piece as a whole resembles, in impact though not choreographically, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” But although ‘DGV’ engenders a similar emotional high as the landmark Tharp piece, the choreography is in no way the same, and it’s thrilling to watch on its own merits.

‘DGV’ is presented on a darkly lit stage with the only set being a series of connected metallic-colored rock-like formations rising horizontally upstage right to left that make the setting look even more stark (scenery and costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant; lighting by Jennifer Tipton). It looks other-worldly, like a Martian landscape after being bombarded by jetsam that just happened to land in a horizontal line. The set also serves as a divider of sorts: while most action takes place in front of the formation, there is also action – mostly resembling choreographic commentary by a ‘chorus’ of dancers – taking place behind it.

With that kind of set, and the ebb and flow of the pulsating music that has an almost hallucinogenic effect, one might expect the piece to eventually numb the mind. But it never does – the images and pace vary constantly. Although it has no emotional gloss, ‘DGV’ is a superb and exciting piece, which was expertly performed by the lead cast of Tiler Peck, Ms. Fairchild, Gonzalo Garcia, and Mr. Veyette, and particularly Ms. Reichlen, Ms. Kowroski, Craig Hall, and Tyler Angle, as well as the 8/8 corps.

‘DGV’ was bracketed on the program by Mr. Martins’s “Bal de Couture,” and Mr. Robbins’s “The Four Seasons.” “Bal de Couture” was created for NYCB’s Fall 2012 gala, a salute to fashion designer Valentino. It’s a fashion show in two parts, surrounding a pas de deux/trois that may have been intended as a distillation of a scene from “Eugene Onegin.” As a piece d’occasion, it was somewhat fun, though choreographically thin, and the strange overblown costumes were appropriate nods to haute couture. But as a regular component of NYCB’s repertoire, it’s no longer fun. Even strong debuts by Erica Pereira, Brittany Pollack, and Ms. Lovette, the ballerinas (as opposed to ‘models’) in the marshmallow white, black, and red tutus, couldn’t help. The only dancers who came off reasonably well in the overblown costumes were Ms. Krohn and Ms. Reichlen, perhaps because they most physically resemble runway models and their costumes looked a bit more like real gowns, and Ashley Laracey (in another role debut), who looked comfortable and was able to move. And even though the piece has been trimmed since its premiere, it’s still pretentious and pointless. Mr. Martins, and the company, might be better served by jettisoning the fashion show and concentrating on developing the central section further – but replacing the billowing costume that kept finding a home covering Janie Taylor’s face.

The evening concluded with a winning overall performance of Robbins’s unpretentiously operatic “The Four Season,” led by Ms. King’s gracious lead in ‘Winter’, Sara Mearns and Jared Angle’s fine execution of ‘Spring’, Ms. Krohn (what? again?) and Mr. Ramasar leading a sultry ‘Summer’, and Ms. Bouder, Mr. De Luz, and Daniel Ulbricht infusing ‘Fall’ with fresh air. Guest conductor Nicolette Fraillon led the reliably stellar accompaniment by the NYCB orchestra.