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

January 17 and 20, 2017
La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird

Jerry Hochman

The opening night of any NYCB season often seems to set the standard for the ensuing weeks. Tuesday’s opening program of New York City Ballet’s Winter, 2017 season, which I saw repeated with different casts on Friday, included only one ballet that I consider a masterpiece. But the three Balanchine short story ballets that are rarely seen on the same program nevertheless provided an unusually special season opening.

Each of the three pieces has Ballets Russes roots in one way or another, and each cast gave dramatically different portrayals of lead roles, even though the choreography is always the same. Some performances I thought were better than others, but with rare exception each was noteworthy.

The masterpiece, Prodigal Son, was created by Balanchine for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929, and is as vibrant and wrenching today as it must have been at its premiere. The last piece that Balanchine choreographed before the company disbanded later that year, Prodigal Son exemplifies Diaghilev’s largely successful efforts to merge the best in then-contemporary dance, music, and visual art. And it sends a message to now-contemporary choreographers that creating a ballet that makes visual sense and is accessible to an audience is not incompatible with experimentation, innovation, and invention.

Prodigal Son is so well known that it requires no elaboration. But a focus on the two main characters is revealing. On opening night, the Prodigal Son was danced by Joaquin De Luz, and The Siren by Maria Kowroski; on Friday, the roles were assumed by Daniel Ulbricht and Teresa Reichlen. De Luz’s Prodigal Son is more wild than angry, and more adolescent than adventurous. Ulbricht, who has improved in the role significantly since his debut in 2010, is now more angry and adventurous, and I find the latter portrayal far more compelling. But, with one exception, each executed superbly.

Teresa Reichlen, Daniel Ulbricht, and members of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Teresa Reichlen, Daniel Ulbricht,
and members of New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The exception has been a sticking point with me for some time. I suppose I’m hopelessly prejudiced by having seen Mikhail Baryshnikov dance the role. Perhaps for that reason, each of these portrayals lacked the fire in the opening scene that makes that scene so compelling. Somehow Baryshnikov’s fury boiled over and consumed the stage, from his rebellious son’s hated of his father’s restraints and the limited scope of his existence, to his pounding his fists into his thighs as if he were pounding them into a wall (as opposed to tapping a drum), to his feverish escape (De Luz and Ulbricht come closest here). Maybe I’ll never see the same fiery portrayal again. But I keep hoping for it, and expecting it, and being disappointed when it’s not there.

The role of The Siren is another matter. I’ve seen many different portrayals, and those that are most effective are those that are cold, but that also silently reveal, through their eyes, the manipulative, calculating intelligence underneath the icy facade. Both Kowroski and Reichlen executed the choreography flawlessly, which almost goes without saying, and Kowroski’s performance was particularly physically gutsy. But on Tuesday she was more mannequinish than sirenish. Reichlen has the advantage of being younger, and came closer to oozing the irresistible magnetism that I find essential. As I described to a friend, at this point in her career, Kowroski dances the role like an exotic dancer who has the experience to know exactly what she needs to do to separate her victim from his money (and his dignity) and does it and nothing more. It’s business. Reichlen, on the other hand, knows that she’s going to destroy her prey just by her seductive presence. It’s more like a game that she knows she’ll win, and she relishes it. The role works either way, but I prefer the latter.

Balanchine choreographed La Sonnambula in 1946 (its original title was Night Shadow) for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the successors to Diaghilev’s company. It was added to NYCB’s repertory in 1960, and I was able to see one of Allegra Kent’s last performances in the lead role. The program notes assert that the piece brings to mind romantic ballets like Giselle and La Sylphide, but to me that’s superficial. In the Romantic ballets you know what’s going on even if it’s the product of some mysterious force – it’s unreality with a message. Here you have no idea what’s happening or why – it’s a mysterious reality, with no discernable message.

But this nitpickiness doesn’t matter in the least. La Sonnambula is a memorable piece of dance theater not just because of its haunting mystery, but because of its craft in every respect, from the evocative score (an assemblage of music by Vittorio Rieti after operatic themes by Bellini), to the remarkable set (by Alain Vaes), to Balanchine’s extraordinary choreography for the second part of the one-act story. The group dances are serviceable, and the divertissements are fun to watch, but the overall staging, and the choreography for the Sleepwalker, make the ballet.

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "La Sonnambula" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay
of New York City Ballet in
George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Although the choreography doesn’t change, I’ve seen two basic deliveries of the role of the Sleepwalker. Most show the character as an empty vessel; an apparition moving through space with exquisite ethereality and filigree finesse – which makes her cradling of the Poet in her arms after he’s murdered all the more other-worldly. If there’s more there, it’s hidden – the character’s presence and execution are everything. [A recent example is Janie Taylor.] Others, perhaps as a consequence of their stage personas, imbue the Sleepwalker (without changing anything) with intelligence. She can’t speak or provide facial expression, but there’s a there there. [A recent example is Wendy Whelan.]

Sterling Hyltin’s portrayal on opening night is in the latter category. It’s something about her presence, of course, but also that she never gives a vacant portrayal of anything: she’s a mesmerizing, sentient being even if she can’t show it. And her bourrees are miraculous – she squeezes more into a given space than anyone. I must admit that this time I thought her upper body – possibly because of the quality of the bourrees— was not as rigid as it should be, and has been on other occasions. But that didn’t detract from the sensation that she was lighter than air; a vision that her Poet could manipulate with the slightest touch.

As The Poet, Chase Finlay, in a role debut, was exactly in character. He was a bit wooden, which is a tendency of his, but that’s not incompatible with the role. Indeed, his rendition of The Poet was consistent with being a “Poet.” Finlay was an “outsider” – a visitor invited by someone (we don’t know who) who feels uncomfortable being there (we don’t know why), and who may have had some previous relationship with The Coquette (we don’t know exactly what). He comes to life with the appearance of the Sleepwalker, and the contrast between his initial character personality and his expressiveness after meeting this mystery woman was masterfully done.

Equally masterfully done at this performance was Amar Ramasar’s The Baron, who has some relationship with The Coquette (we don’t know what) and with the Sleepwalker (we don’t know what). But Sarah Mearns’s Coquette was played way too demure for my taste, as if she was afraid to smile. That may not be an inappropriate interpretation of the role (perhaps she’s afraid of appearing too vivacious in the presence of The Baron, and must conceal her true emotions), but the word “coquette” connotes otherwise.

On Friday, Tiler Peck (in her role debut) and Robert Fairchild assumed the roles of The Sleepwalker and The Poet. Peck is at her most spectacular when the role calls for blazing speed and allows distinctive nuance. This one doesn’t. But that observation might lead to a conclusion that roles that require more delicacy are not her strength. That would be wrong. She does both. Here, her Sleepwalker was more of the first “type” – less intense, less cerebral, but smooth and soft as silk. And seeing her dance the role with Fairchild as The Poet was a bonus on several levels. Fairchild played The Poet very differently from Finlay. He became the life of the party soon after he arrived, happy to be there and particularly happy to be dancing with The Coquette (presumably not for the first time). And his interplay with Peck was extraordinarily emotionally intimate, as if they’d been rehearsing their roles together for years.

At this performance, Rebecca Krohn danced The Coquette with appropriate sensuality and flirtatiousness. She was the epitome of a coquette, and she played off Fairchild brilliantly, each enhancing the portrayal by the other. Hers was one of the finest executions of this role that I’ve seen (particularly noteworthy considering it was her role debut), and I’ve seen many. On the other hand, Justin Peck’s The Baron was overly bland, and ultimately was lost amid the sparkle that surrounded him.  Additionally, I would be remiss not to note the commendable role debuts of Kristen Segin, a particularly vivacious Alexa Maxwell, and Harrison Coll (who also excelled in his role debut on Tuesday as one of the Prodigal Son’s Servants) in the Pastorale pas de quatre, and Claire Von Enck and Sebastian Villarini-Velez in the Pas de Deux.

Teresa Reichlen of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Firebird" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Teresa Reichlen of New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Firebird”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Diaghilev commissioned the score for Firebird from the young Igor Stravinsky in 1910, soon after Ballets Russes first season, and the full-length ballet, with choreography by Michel Fokine, premiered shortly thereafter. Balanchine reconceived it for NYCB in 1949, using Stravinsky’s orchestral suite rather than his full length score. The result, a distillation on multiple levels, is not particularly successful. After seeing it the first time, I would only consider returning in order to re-ingest the magnificent set by Marc Chagall.

As the years passed, however, I came to appreciate some stunning performances, even if the overall ballet still left me cold. On Tuesday, Reichlen delivered one of them. Her Firebird was an exotic vision, a cross between a red swan and a flamingo, and her execution so dominating that nothing else (other than the Chagall sets and costumes) came close to matching it in visual brilliance. And while some might say that her arms were too swan-like, they were magnificent, and her exit into the wings prior to the finale was gasp-producing. I thought nothing could equal it.

But on Friday, Ashley Bouder did.  Hers was a more nuanced, if not quite as spectacular, performance. Bouder was a bird of a different feather, more cerebral than sensual, but perhaps her interpretation is more appropriate for a “real” mythological bird. She also had the advantage of sharing the stage with Zachary Catazaro as Prince Ivan, and Ashley Laracey as the Prince’s Bride. Catazaro had the emotional vitality that his counterpart on Tuesday (Justin Peck) did not, and, in contrast to Savannah Lowery’s portrayal on Tuesday, which faded into the shadows in comparison to Reichlen’s, Laracey matched Bouder’s beautiful bird with a vision of a Russian Snow Maiden come to life. The performance was so chock full of arresting images that I almost overlooked those Chagall sets and costumes.

Next Sunday, NYCB will repeat this program with a plethora of role debuts. If you’re at all interested in witnessing NYCB’s continuing evolution, as well as in enjoying an exceptional program, you should see it.