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

April 14 and 16 (matinee), 2016

Symphony in Three Movements, Sweet Fields, Symphonic Dances
Heatscape, Viscera, Bourree Fantasque

Jerry Hochman

Miami City Ballet continued its inaugural visit to Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, following its gala opening night with two diverse programs that not only show off the company, but that demonstrate that it is one of the country’s finest. And the first program began with a bang.

Miami City Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "Bouree Fantasque" Photo Gene Schiavone.

Miami City Ballet dancers
in George Balanchine’s “Bouree Fantasque”
Photo Gene Schiavone.

While I saw its presentation of Balanchine’s Serenade for one time only at Wednesday night’s gala as an homage to its Balanchine and New York City Ballet roots, beginning its formal programming with another Balanchine masterpiece, Symphony in Three Movements, represented more of a challenge, as well as an opportunity for MCB to prove how fine a company it is. While ultimately I see NYCB’s recent performances of it as somewhat superior, that doesn’t in any way mean that MCB’s presentation was less than stellar.

One of the many triumphs of NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, Symphony in Three Movements stands out for sheer invention and dazzle. Complex but never tortured, endlessly fascinating despite being devoid of emotional gloss, the piece is a marvel of geometric variety with all forms in perfect harmony; propelled forward – but not controlled – by the rhythm of the score. I’ve previously described it as an Art Deco ballet, filled with circularity combined with angularity; the ballet equivalent of New York’s Chrysler Building.

Well, Miami has its own Art Deco architectural tradition, and in Symphony in Three Movements it clearly also has its own Art Deco ballet. Its version is danced with the same finesse and technical excellence that NYCB’s dancers bring to it, but with perhaps a bit more swagger, reflecting that MCB is rooted not only in Balanchine and NYCB, but in the cultural ambience and heritage of its home.

The MCB corps danced brilliantly, as did the male leads (Kleber Rebello, Renan Cerdeiro, and Jovani Furlan), without the intensity that NYCB’s male leads (like Amar Ramasar) bring to their roles, but with distinctive and somewhat surprising flair. And although the female leads danced superbly as well, here they were a bit weaker than their NYCB equivalents. Patricia Delgado (the ballerina in red/salmon) showed the precision and technical facility required, but appeared uncharacteristically restrained, and lacking the speed of NYCB ballerinas who assay the role, particularly Tiler Peck and Sterling Hyltin (whose performance in this role I once described as the equivalent of an undetonated bomb). And Nathalia Arja (who looks more engaging each time I see her dance) was far too ‘out there’ in the movement frequently led of late by NYCB’s Erica Pereira. But the more I thought about Arja’s performance (hers was the kind of performance one thinks about after it’s done), the more I realized that being ‘out there’ may be perfectly appropriate for MCB’s temperament, and consequently for its incarnation of this piece. MCB may be NYCB South, but it’s not a clone.

Sweet Fields, which Twyla Tharp choreographed in 1996 for her own company, is rarely seen in New York. That’s unfortunate. While it may on paper appear to be a different treatment of the same themes presented so brilliantly in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, the two are as different as night and day. As with Graham’s piece, there’s majesty to Sweet Fields, but here it’s on a smaller scale, and its gifts are simple.

To ten classic Shaker songs, Tharp creates distinctive dances reflecting the sect’s essential simplicity, each as pure as distilled water. There’s no outward complexity to it: movement quality is basic skips and turns (and not so basic, but perfectly appropriate, shaking of the hands), with an occasional lift, and where there are multiple dancers, they form lines or simple geometric patterns. The costumes (by Norma Kamali) are equally simple white, and with one exception (a duet), the men and women are separate, per the Shaker tradition. It hardly looks Tharpian – but in one of the songs, Brevity, I saw the male soloist breathing and concurrently lifting his arms and upper body in a manner that looked particularly Tharp-like. Each of the twelve dancers presented the deceptively simple-looking dances with far more than simple competence, but I was particularly impressed with the performances by Leigh-Ann Esty, Nicole Stalker, Chase Swatosh, and Ariel Rose.

A repeat performance of Alexei Ratmanksy’s choreographically and visually colorful Symphonic Dances, which I’ve previously reviewed, completed this program.

Miami City Ballet Leigh-Ann Esty and Michael Sean Breeden in Twyla Tharp's "Sweet Fields" Photo Daniel Azoulay

Miami City Ballet
Leigh-Ann Esty and Michael Sean Breeden
in Twyla Tharp’s “Sweet Fields”
Photo Daniel Azoulay

The Saturday afternoon program opened with Heatscape, a piece recently created for MCB by NYCB’s Resident Choreographer, Justin Peck. Peck’s remarkable facility with moving large groups of dancers can look similar from one piece to another, and in many ways Heatscape resembles his most recent NYCB success, Everywhere We Go. But some stylistic similarity is not an uncommon feature of works by the same artist, and certainly is evident in works by other choreographers (many of Balanchine’s ballets have a basic choreographic similarity). As long as they’re not choreographic carbon copies, there’s nothing wrong with similarity from piece to piece. Moreover, Peck’s clever inventiveness is so welcome that any such similarity from one piece to another doesn’t matter – it still shows remarkable choreographic skill, and presents a fascinating movement cornucopia. And it’s still eye candy.

Here Peck has choreographed to Bohuslav Martinu’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra. He’s choreographed to Martinu previously (Paz de la Jolla), but this is a superior effort. It’s a plotless ballet divided into three movements, with a cast of nine women and eight men. Each of the distinctive movements is led by an equally distinctive duet. Emily Bromberg (partnered by Cerdeiro) danced exquisitely in the first movement; this was another of several impressive performances by Bromberg during this engagement. Tricia Albertson’s role (partnered by Rebello) in the second movement was more angular-looking, but also more dramatic. Both duets were very well done. And Jennifer Lauren danced with particularly vivacity in the third movement, making the most of her one appearance in this piece (Jeanette Delgado was cast in the role for its other performances).

I had occasion to review Liam Scarlett’s Viscera four years ago, during its premiere season, and concluded that this abstract piece is a powerful and memorable work. Time has tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, and Viscera doesn’t look quite as unique as it once did, but it’s still a marvelous piece that’s exciting to watch, and far superior to what Scarlett has choreographed to date for NYCB and ABT.

This second program concluded with Balanchine’s rarely performed Bourree Fantasque. I’ve observed previously that classics are classics for a reason, and that ballets rarely performed are rarely performed for a reason as well. Bourree Fantasque is a strange-looking piece. Created for NYCB in 1949 and to my knowledge last performed by the company in 1993, it’s filled with images that seem to make no sense, and is inconsistent from movement to movement, and within each movement. On first view, it looks a mess – a reason not to perform it regularly. But it isn’t.

I suspect that MCB’s Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez included Bourree Fantasque in this program as a companion to the Ratmansky ballet that closed the other program, which also, on the surface, appeared to be an incoherent mess. But it’s not the way I saw Symphonic Dances, and it’s not the way I saw Bourree Fantasque.

Ultimately the Balanchine ballet is tighter, with a more distinctive center of gravity (in the presence of Simone Messmer’s character). But at least on the surface, and like Symphonic Dances, it’s a crazy quilt of movement quality and a rainbow of colorful costumes (by Karinska), and seems to have no point beyond being a visualization of the music – four bundled pieces by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. The ballet has an air of effervescence; of frivolity. If it were wine, it would be Beaujolais; if candy, a lollipop. But like Symphonic Dances, it also has something of a dark side.

The ballet’s opening movement, which featured a duet with Jordan-Elizabeth Long and Shimon Ito, was relatively nondescript, with a touch of low-key comedy. The second, centered with a pas de deux for Messmer and Rainer Krenstetter, was lovely with an air of mystery, and the final movement, which featured Arja and Renato Penteado, was a model of ingenuity and visual effect.

That this engagement was an artistic success is indisputable. But what it also represents is the huge leap forward that MCB has made since I last saw it – as impressive as the company was even then. Under its co-founder and first Artistic Director, NYCB’s renowned Edward Villella, MCB achieved remarkable artistic prominence in a relatively short time. Since assuming the position four years ago, Lopez has taken the company yet further; it is now indisputably a company of international stature.

In my review of MCB four years ago, I stated that my only regret was that I couldn’t bottle some of the MCB dancers and take them back to New York. Based on this engagement, it’s clear that I don’t have to. I suspect they’ll be back soon.