Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in "Who Cares?" New York City Ballet   Photo Paul Kolnik Choreography George Balanchine  © The George Balanchine Trust

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in “Who Cares?”
New York City Ballet
Photo Paul Kolnik
Choreography George Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust

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

January 19, 2016
Candide Overture (orchestra), Barber Violin Concerto, Fancy Free, Who Cares?

Jerry Hochman

The opening night program of New York City Ballet’s Winter 2016 season appeared less interesting than usual seasonal opening nights. There was no blockbuster classic (e.g., Apollo), no sentimental and symbolic perennial favorite (e.g., Serenade), no Ratmansky, no Wheeldon, no Peck, and no premiere. Instead, following an introductory orchestral rendition of the Overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (more on that below), NYCB offered a tribute of sorts to its historical leadership with three familiar (if not easy) pieces: one by Peter Martins (Barber Violin Concerto), one classic by Jerome Robbins (Fancy Free), and one salute to the music of George Gershwin by George Balanchine (Who Cares?). There wasn’t even an individual dancer’s debut in a featured role to provide a dollop of excitement. On paper, it was to be a relatively low-key and unglamorous opening night.

But little that NYCB has presented in recent years can be characterized as low-key or unglamorous, and Tuesday’s performance was no exception. It may have lacked an opportunity to see impeccable performances in masterpiece ballets, but the program proved the self-created adage that nothing improves a good ballet more than seeing it a second, third, or tenth time.

I’ve written previously that succeeding Balanchine and Robbins was guaranteed to result in Martins bearing the brunt of unfavorable comparisons. Rightly or wrongly, he was severely criticized by many for the direction in which he appeared to be taking the company and an asserted lower level of distinction among the post-Balanchine company dancers, and it was almost inevitable that his choreography, by comparison, could never measure up to those masterpieces created by his predecessors. But the company’s fortunes have turned around so dramatically over the past six to eight years that it’s impossible not to give Martins credit where it’s due. Under his stewardship, the company is now performing better than it has in decades, it features a stable of young, stellar principal dancers, and it has a seemingly endless flow of talent on which to build a continuing future.

And Martins’s choreography, seen with eyes less prone to predisposition, is not as lackluster as many initially opined. Barber Violin Concerto is one example. Though not a masterpiece, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work.

Created in 1988, Barber Violin Concerto is a dance for two couples. The novelty is that one couple dances in what may be considered ‘ballet’ style, the other in ‘modern dance’ style. Sounds like a gimmick – but gimmick or not, this one works.

The dancers initially appear in duets with their style-compatible partners – first Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen (replacing Ask la Cour) as the ‘ballet’ couple, followed by Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle as the ‘modern’ pair. They then gather briefly as a group, and subsequently change partners for another set of separate duets. The choreography is fun to watch – the classy but relatively stolid ballet style vs. the free flowing, vibrant, barefoot modern dance style. Though not a thorough description of either style (and not intended to be), the distinction between the two styles, and the relative strengths of each, are clear in the choreography, and clearly expressed by each of the dancers. But that’s not what makes this piece work – there’s a visual game afoot to see the impact one ‘style’ has on the other when they go head to head – or foot to foot.

When I last saw Barber Violin Concerto, the ‘ballet’ cast was Teresa Reichlen and Jonathan Stafford, the ‘modern’ dancers were Angle and Fairchild, and I thought that the clear ‘winner’ in this little contest, to the extent one style can be seen as ultimately trumping the other, was ballet, with the serenely accomplished Reichlen calming Angle’s bare-chested aggressiveness, and a commanding Stafford ultimately prevailing over a spunky Fairchild.

A different cast, even in part, yields different results. At Tuesday’s performance, I felt that Fairchild and Angle had the upper hands, or feet. All four dancers performed exceptionally, but Mearns brought to her role too much of the dour, tragic, Odette-like persona that I’ve seen many times before in her performances. This didn’t impact the choreographic execution, but the emotional balance shifted, and Angle’s power dominated Mearns’s pathos and bewildered emotional awakening. Where Reichlen’s ‘class’ had previously dominated, here Angle’s quiet ferocity did. Janzen came across as somewhat more malleable than his classical partner, and in the duet with Fairchild, who danced her ‘modern’ style with exceptional flourish and abandon, he was not so much above such silliness as annoyed that she was as ebullient and uncontrollable as she was. He appeared dumbstruck when she manipulated him to carry off a ‘modern’ combination without trying.

Robbins created Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre in 1944, it premiered with NYCB in 1980, and the dance has never been absent from either company’s repertoire for very long. The story of three sailors on shore leave looking for love is not just familiar, but iconic. At this performance, Joaquin De Luz, Tyler Angle, and Amar Ramasar were the sailors, Georgina Pazcoguin and Sterling Hyltin the women they try to impress, and all have been seen and reviewed previously. Each delivered not only superb technical execution, but the character distinctions that permeate the piece and make it as memorable as it is. Hyltin’s irresistible girl-next-door and Ramasar’s somewhat sweet take on his ‘Latin lover’ role provided the dance’s highlights. The audience responded rhapsodically, as if it had been a premiere.

Who Cares? is almost as familiar to ballet audiences as Fancy Free. A compendium of dances choreographed to sixteen Gershwin songs from the 1920s and 1930s, the sheer variety of movement that Balanchine choreographed to every song takes this ballet beyond being merely an evocative period piece. Who Cares? is one of those vibrant and accessible Balanchine pieces that sends both audiences and critics home happy.

The structure of the ballet is a progression from songs danced by the corps to dances fluidly moving from groups of female and male soloists to pairs, and then pairs and solos by the lead male dancer, Robert Fairchild, and each of the principal ballerinas: Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Savannah Lowery, all ultimately gathering at the dance’s conclusion.

As wonderful as all of the dancers who performed in it were, Peck and Fairchild were particularly extraordinary. I’ve reviewed performances of both in this piece previously (they danced The Man I Love together, to roaring applause, and Peck brought the house down, as she always does, with Fascinatin’ Rhythm), and they seem to improve with age. It’s not just the effortless and seamless perfection that one expects, and usually receives, from NYCB dancers, nor is it just chemistry – abundant as it was. It was a quality of casual confidence that showed not that Peck and Fairchild were dancing steps imposed on them, but that they were moving to some inner voices and executing steps that were as natural to them as breathing.

Their performances, particularly those together, are increasingly rare gifts. If you enjoy great ballet performances, you miss a performance of theirs at your peril.

As I mentioned earlier, the program began with the NYCB orchestra playing the Overture from Candide. An orchestral introduction to a season has become something of a new tradition of late, but Tuesday’s opening was perhaps more special than usual, as it was the first introduction-to-a-season, and the first repertory program, that the company’s new Music Director, Andrew Litton, conducted. Under Litton’s flourishing baton, the orchestra, one of the finest ballet ensembles anywhere, performed the Candide Overture magnificently – as it did the accompaniment for the ballets that followed.

So even with what appeared to be a not particularly interesting opening night repertory, between exceptional ballets, distinctive performances, and the redoubtable NYCB orchestra, the evening provided – without Voltaire’s cynicism – the best of all possible worlds.