New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 19 (Fall 2023 Season Opening) and 21, 2023
New York City Ballet opened its 2023-2024 performance year, its 75th Anniversary, with a full week of George Balanchine’s masterpiece, Jewels. I attended two of the performances, September 19 (season opening night) and September 21.
The last time I saw Jewels with all three of its component ballets was at the 2017 dearly departed (and sorely missed) Lincoln Center Festival celebration of Jewels’s Fiftieth Anniversary. At that time, each of the Festival’s constituent companies – the Paris Opera Ballet, NYCB, and the Bolshoi Ballet – danced one of ballet’s component parts: respectively, at the Festival performance I attended, Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. That program was revealing not only for the dancers’ performances, but for the light it shed on Jewels as a whole. And it included exceptional New York debut performances by Myriam Ould-Braham of POB in Emeralds and Alena Kovaleva of the Bolshoi in Diamonds.
The two NYCB performances I saw last week were exceptional in a different way. Not only was there, with a few minimal exceptions, superb execution, but they provided far more than that: an opportunity to reexamine the brilliance of a ballet classic (Emeralds), to see exceptional lead role debuts (by, among others, Indiana Woodward, Mira Nadon, Emma Von Enck, Isabella LaFreniere, and Chun Wai Chan), to experience the theatrical magic of invisible but nevertheless palpable positive vibes passing back and forth across the proscenium (in Thursday’s Rubies), to witness a “save” that may be as much of a classic as the ballet in which it occurred (by Sara Mearns), to see one of the final performances of a retiring NYCB Principal stalwart (Russell Janzen), and to be privy to an exceptional class reunion.
The company has emphasized that its 75th Anniversary celebration scheduling is designed with a specific purpose in mind: to record the NYCB’s trajectory from its founding to the present: that is, from dances choreographed by Balanchine, its co-founder (the Fall 2023 season is exclusively devoted to Balanchine pieces, with one exception for the Fall Gala); to Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and more contemporary successes (the Winter 2024 Season); to a future marked by primarily “new” choreography (the Spring 2024 Season). Some ballets for one season are carried over to the next, and there are some strange scheduling choices, but overall many more temporarily furloughed masterpieces are being presented in this one performance year than NYCB audiences have seen in too long a time.
Although there are other Balanchine ballets that I enjoy seeing more (and a few that I don’t enjoy seeing at all), Jewels is the crown atop the Balanchine oeuvre. It’s the first evening-length plotless ballet, but this fact may only be important for the milestone it represents: Jewels is far more significant for its other qualities, among them being that it’s a celebration of the living history and continuing evolution of the art form known as Ballet. And in this sense though it’s without a narrative, Jewels tells a story.
So, this first week of its 75th Anniversary season celebrates two evolutions: NYCB, and Ballet as a public concert art form.
But Jewels wouldn’t have looked as good had Balanchine simply traced ballet’s evolution from one primary stylistic form to another and another. He didn’t – he took Romanticism first, then Contemporary (in the form of his choreography to Stravinsky’s jazzy score), and then “went back” to Russian classicism (enhanced by Balanchine’s neo-classical style). Whether his intention or not, to me this order of presentation says something too.
Many believe that that Diamonds is an homage to a lost Russian Imperial Era. Well, to some extent it is, even if only by definition – Imperial Russia is the period within which Classical ballet arguably reached its zenith. But its significance is more than as a choreographic elegy, and in a way it explains why I’ve found many Diamonds performances to be too filled with pathos.
Ballet in the Romantic style is essentially on life support or already dead – certain Romantic ballets have prevailed over time, but no one (at least no one I’m aware of – except perhaps as a reimagining within its original thematic framework, a la Alexei Ratmansky) is choreographing new evening-length ballets in the Romantic – or, as in Emeralds, in a quasi-Romantic – style). And I think Balanchine would have acknowledged that the contemporary is contemporary only at a point in time. I doubt that Rubies was intended to be a statement as to where ballet was headed in the future. But he saved his exploration of Russian classicism Diamonds, for last – not because it was a requiem or because it’s the finest of the three, or just because it has the most flashy ending, but because it represents ballet’s continuing foundation; its classical heart. While Emeralds /French Romantic ballet and Rubies /jazzy contemporary ballet have their moments; I believe, even if not a stated intent, that Balanchine turned to Russian classicism for the final Jewels gem because, well, a diamond is forever.
Emeralds is the most difficult of Jewels’s gems. It’s longer than the other two components (or just seems that way), and its message, at least in initial impressions, is less clear. For many years I thought that it was the weak link in the Jewels chain (further evidenced by the fact that it’s the only Jewels component that’s not routinely performed on its own).
In addition to feeling somewhat lost by it (as opposed to being lost in it), my early exposures – partly because of the set (beautiful, but with its blue/green rather than true emerald color looking something like an undersea grotto) and partly because of the way the choreography was executed (ports de bras that to my eye were akin to swimming strokes) – led me to conclude that a significant part of the ballet was being danced underwater.
Seeing the POB’s performance of it at the Lincoln Center Festival changed my impression, and it made more sense. [We established a long time ago that I’m a little slow.] That presentation, and particularly Ould-Braham’s execution (as the second ballerina lead), came across to me as occurring in some woodland glade rather than underwater– not inappropriate for the French-focused Romantic style. [It’s hard to believe, and considerably disappointing, that Ould-Braham (I’ve seen her surname spelled with and without the hyphen) will be retiring from POB this coming year without having returned at least one more time to New York.]
The two performances of Emeralds that I saw last week cemented this connection more. The ballerinas were sylphs, not nymphs (not that it makes much difference – except, I suppose, to sylphs and nymphs), and the choreography clearly samples choreography from still-extant Romantic ballets: Giselle and La Sylphide. The lead ballerinas (respectively, Woodward – partnered by Tyler Angle, and Nadon – partnered by Davide Riccardo, all in role debuts) made the choreography clear. They weren’t “swimming”; rather, the ballerinas were discovering themselves and their capabilities (surrogates for Ballet discovering itself) as well as executing steps and port de bras that emphasized the Romantic ideal. Woodward did beautiful work here, and Angle did as well, although there was something about the way the lighting hit his bald pate that pulled eye attention, and added an unwelcome sense of imbalance to their presentation. Nadon’s portrayal Thursday was still more miraculous. Nadon isn’t a little ballerina; she’s solid, and can be dominating (as she’s shown as the Tall Girl in Rubies). Here she had to be delicate, and with Riccardo’s highly capable help, she pulled it off. As a friend observed afterward, Nadon may be the only current NYCB ballerina capable of handling the lead roles in each of the three Jewels ballets (including the lead in Rubies, not only the Tall Girl).
The roles of the “second” lead ballerina (sometimes referred to as “the Walking Girl”) made different impressions, although neither did anything choreographically wrong. Emilie Gerrity (partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring) on Tuesday appeared to be a bit too careful, requiring a more solid contact with the floor as if to compensate for a certain insecurity. She seemed to be working too hard. On the other hand, Megan LeCrone’s execution of those same steps on Thursday was smooth as silk, and she smiled (not inappropriately) at various points, giving her a stage personality beyond just executing steps. Overall, hers was a superior performance. [Danchig-Waring partnered LeCrone as well, replacing Aaron Sanz.]
The trio of dancers was performed quite well by Sara Adams, Brittany Pollack, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez on Tuesday, and by India Bradley, Mary Thomas MacKinnon (both in role debuts) and Spartak Hoxha on Thursday. These are substantial roles that require top-flight execution, especially by the danseurs, with respect to both their individual execution and their partnering. As I’ve observed previously, Villarini-Velez merits a promotion (he’s now a Soloist).
Overall, these Emerald performances went … swimmingly. [apologies]
Rubies is so frequently performed as a standalone that it requires no elaboration from me. While its timelessness may be debatable, its capture of a mood, of the Balanchine /Stravinsky collaboration, and of a sense of jazzy joy and sensuality is undeniable. It looks like great fun to dance; it’s certainly great fun to watch. And if one looks, one can see elements of style that reflect other Balanchine/ Stravinsky collaborations both before and after.
On Tuesday, the lead roles were performed by the ageless Megan Fairchild, a reborn Anthony Huxley, and Nadon as the Tall Girl. I’ve seen each dance these roles before, but given Tuesday’s celebration, each took their roles a notch higher than I’ve previously seen. With Fairchild and Huxley, the accent is on Rubies’ playful side. While the sensual side was not abandoned, it wasn’t accented as some portrayals are – and perhaps came close in some viewers’ eyes to not being there. But to me this is not a significant flaw – Balanchine wouldn’t have inserted the obvious playfulness into the choreography without intending it to be there: Fairchild and Huxley simply amplified it.
And what a continuing pleasure it is to watch Huxley now. A few years ago Huxley traded his usually dour demeanor for a smile, and the result is a connection with the audience not just based on technique, but on stage personality as well. Nadon executed her Tall Girl role to the hilt, reflecting the total command of the role that she’s exhibited since her role debut a couple of years ago. [An aside (another one): much has been made in social media posts about changes made to Balanchine’s original choreography here and in other ballets. Seeing how Balanchine intended a ballet to be executed is certainly enlightening, and in some cases an explanation for such changes is in order. But with respect to Rubies, and particularly the opening steps for the Tall Girl, what’s presented now is far more impressive (and not inconsistent choreographically with the rest of the piece) than what I’ve seen in old video clips, regardless of whether Balanchine was aware of or “authorized” any such modifications.]
Thursday’s Rubies performance included role debuts by each of the lead dancers: Von Enck, Jovani Furlan, and Christina Clark (as the Tall Girl). I saw no flaws in any of their performances, except to note that Furlan looked considerably more pensive that Von Enck – which is an observation, not a criticism. As for interpretation, Von Enck appears to be very much in a similar physical mold to Fairchild, as are their effervescent qualities. But Von Enck (and Furlan) didn’t give short-shrift to the ballet’s sensual side, with, in the key “simulation” segment, Von Enck providing all that the choreography both required and suggested, without overdoing it as some ballerinas do.
Furlan executed well, but, understandably, was more focused on his partnering than his stage personality. Perhaps lessons from Huxley are in order. But Von Enck has stage personality to spare, and showed it in her dancing pizazz. Von Enck is clearly, already, an audience favorite. On stage she’s a peripatetic pixie, flying from spot to spot with ease, percolating but being crystalline at the same time. Sooner or later she’ll need to display more than that – and to an extent she did here – in terms of augmenting, rather than changing, the stage persona she transmits naturally to avoid being typecast as a soubrette … or a peripatetic pixie.
The two Tall Girls in Rubies excelled. Superlatives can’t begin to communicate the dominance that Nadon displayed on Tuesday. Simply put, she’s awesome in this role. Clark, in her Thursday role debut, presents a far different visual impression and delivers a far different role impact. Clark did nothing to find fault with – she appeared confident rather than tentative, and executed the choreography with finely-tuned precision. And in a sense she’s already made the role her own – I don’t recall another Tall Girl with the air of joy that her movement transmitted (not facially – her face was perfectly apt; neither too stern nor too gleeful). But Nadon has made such a formidable impression in this role that she’s effectively a model for it. [Emily Kikta has performed the Tall Girl very well also, but the impression she leaves isn’t as indelible.] Although Clark is tall and has super leg extension, she’s quite thin. That’s not a fault, but in this role she doesn’t have the gravitas that Nadon does. Regardless, based on this performance Clark will carve her own niche.
At the outset of this review I mentioned as one of the qualities present in the two performances I attended was a sense of “invisible positive vibes” going back and forth across the proscenium. [The opposite would be the impact of an unresponsive “dead” audience.] I don’t just mean vocal appreciation for superb execution – it’s a different galaxy from that. Rather, it’s an air of mutual encouragement and support, of each feeding off the other, and I sensed it in the audience’s reaction to Thursday’s Rubies. When Von Enck completed her first lengthy solo, the audience exploded, and in response she appeared to alight, and to be energized even more than she was before. And that same level of theatrical electricity continued throughout the rest of the dance. When it happens, it’s a glorious experience to feel a part of.
I’ve already discussed Diamonds, the Jewels crown jewel that’s both a tribute and a foundation; a celebration unto itself.
On Tuesday’s opening night, the honor of dancing the lead roles was given to Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen. I’ve seen each dance these roles before, but to my recollection not together. Janzen’s presence carried special significance, since he was scheduled to retire that Sunday, September 24, after two more Diamonds performances. [Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this Farewell. Suffice it to say, in summary, that Janzen’s quiet efficiency, his purity of execution, and his well-honed partnering will be greatly missed. I remember his performances well, especially those in which he partnered Reichlen, but none more than his role debut in Balanchine’s Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertanze,’ which somehow equaled the superb performance by the dancer who originated the role, Adam Luders, which I saw at its 1980 premiere performance.]
I recognize Mearns’s undeniable skill in executing the technical demands of this role, but I’ve often been critical of the pathos she usually injects into the first section of it. Even though the piece, particularly in this segment, echoes a sense of, and certain phrasing from, Swan Lake, this ballet isn’t that, and this role isn’t Odette. Mearns did ratchet down the pathos this time, but as fine as her execution was, and despite the fact that the audience was ecstatic at its conclusion, to my eye there was still something missing – a quality of serenity that should be more visible than pain or pathos. And this “something missing” was amplified in comparison to Janzen’s calm control, attentive partnering, and subdued passion for the classical ballerina ideal with whom his character shares the stage.
And then there was that miraculous “save” I mentioned at the outset. It happened following one of Mearns’s solos as she rotated on point toward the audience-left wings. Suddenly, as she got near the curtain (turning on point continuously as she did), she very visibly began to list like an ocean liner ready to sink. Her upper body was so out of position that a fall appeared inevitable, perhaps prefaced with a curtain grab. Everyone in and around me, and I’m sure many more, reacted with both astonishment and concern. Falling, hard, seemed a certainty. And then, miraculously, Mearns pulled herself vertical without skipping a beat or any change in demeanor, and with no sign of panic. I don’t mean this as some backhanded compliment; on the contrary, it demonstrated not only Mearns’s upper-body strength, but her inner strength as well.
Thursday’s Diamonds cast fared better. LaFreniere and Chan, both in role debuts, executed flawlessly, with no extraneous emotional baggage. And Chan was simply spectacular, recognized at its conclusion by the NYCB audience’s typical sitting ovation.
And then there was the alumni reunion.
I’ve attended similar celebrations before, but few with the unbridled joy evident on Tuesday night.
Reportedly, the company assembled some 750 of its alumni dancers at a gathering the previous night, to which the public was not invited, as something of an internal launching point. The focus on alumni Monday night carried over to the “formal” opening on Tuesday, as Jonathan Stafford, NYCB’s Artistic Director, in introductory remarks to that audience, announced that some 250 alumni were in the audience that night, and that the audience should remain past the conclusion of the performances for a special presentation.
Following final curtain calls for Diamonds, the house curtain opened again moments thereafter to a stage filled with NYCB alumni, cheering each other, the audience, and anyone else within earshot. That they managed to make their way from watching Diamonds from multiple theater levels to the stage to get into position for their own celebration seemed an impossibility – but then, these are NYCB dancers, and moving from one position to another a considerable distance away, gracefully, is part of a Balanchine dancer’s DNA.
Even though I, as well as most of the civilian audience, was unable to discern who most of the dancers were – even dancers get older – a few were clear, including Edward Villella, who anchored the front line. He was escorted on stage by Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent, and Jock Soto, and shared the front line with, among many others, Merrill Ashley, Lourdes Lopez, and Suzanne Farrell. It was akin to attending a performance by one of your favorite dancers, to the 75th degree. It was a Diamond Jewelsbillee.