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

April 19, 2022 (season opening)
Serenade, The Goldberg Variations

April 28, 2022:
Divertimento No. 15, Afternoon of a Faun, Allegro Brillante, The Four Seasons

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet opened its Spring 2022 season on April 19 the way all NYCB seasons should begin, with the company’s signature piece and its most iconic among a host of iconic legacy ballets: George Balanchine’s Serenade, paired on the program by one of many Jerome Robbins masterpieces, The Goldberg Variations. In a way, both ballets – and particularly The Goldberg Variations – set the tone for this NYCB season. Although there will be a smattering of newly choreographed pieces, it’s highlighted by masterpieces from its past. To some extent that’s always the case, given NYCB’s heritage of masterpieces. But this season’s centerpiece will be a two- week celebration of the 50th Anniversary of NYCB’s venerated Stravinsky Festival, which will include, for the first time in several seasons, Balanchine masterpieces Symphony in Three Movements, Duo Concertant, Apollo, Orpheus, Agon, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, among many others. This season, going back to the future is not just a routine occurrence, but its focus.

Before I begin to discuss the dances, I must recognize up front what I usually save until the end of most reviews. In the course of his introductory welcoming remarks, NYCB’s Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford addressed the continuing war and human catastrophe in Ukraine; recognized the presence in the audience of Alexei Ratmansky and his wife Titiana, and Irina Dvorovenko & Maxim Beloserkovsky, Ukranians all; and announced that the esteemed NYCB orchestra would then begin NYCB’s season with a special performance of Ukranian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody for String Orchestra, dedicated to the people of Ukraine.

And almost overlooked by the wrenching opening references to Ukraine, this performance of Serenade was specifically dedicated to the memory of Dr. William Hamilton, the company’s long-time and beloved orthopedist (those two words together sound like an oxymoron, but I know that in this case that description is correct), who passed a month earlier. His wife, Dr. Linda Hamilton, a former NYCB dancer, was also in the audience and acknowledged.

Now for more mundane concerns.

Sterling Hyltin and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Serenade was brilliantly danced, as it always appears to be, and was led by the same cast I reviewed at the beginning of last season. I won’t repeat what I wrote so recently – except to re-emphasize how dazzling Sterling Hyltin’s performance as the “Waltz Girl” is, and how her absence will be missed after she retires in December, which was recently announced. Nor will I focus on the pieces presented last Thursday, although I’ll discuss them briefly, except for a sensational performance by Christopher Grant in his role debut, overshadowing a merely superb performance by Unity Phelan in her debut, in Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun.

The Goldberg Variations

Nothing celebrates the “back to the future” emphasis this season more than The Goldberg Variations, the embodiment of that concept in one ballet

I’ve discussed The Goldberg Variations in some prior reviews, but not recently, and not in the context of this “back to the future” theme that I’ve invented for the season.

The Goldberg Variations is a complex moving tapestry – appropriate for the musical tapestry to which it’s choreographed. The comments by late pianist, music writer, and teacher Charles Rosen in his notes to one of his Bach recordings (quoted in the NYCB description of the ballet): “The Goldberg Variations are, in fact, an encyclopedia: a survey of the world of secular music. There are canons, a fugue, a French overture, a siciliana, a quodlibet, accompanied solos, and a series of inventions and dance-like movements.” Robbins’s ballet also includes a variety of dance forms, but, like the score, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Bach’s composition is divided into discreet, though at times to me almost indistinguishable, segments: there’s an opening aria, then thirty variations, followed by a closing aria. Robbins’s ballet is divided into an introductory theme, an initial set of variations, a distinct second set of variations, and then a concluding synthesis. I don’t doubt that the combined number of variations equal the number in the Bach, but that’s not as important as the overriding theme that Robbins lets gently waft over the entire piece: the recognition of a connection between styles of the past and those of the present; the indebtedness of current and future dance generations for the past’s legacy; and a reciprocal reverence to both – and, by logical extension, to dance generations to come.

New York City Ballet in a prior performance of
Jerome Robbins’s “The Goldberg Variations”
(taken from the 4th Ring of the David H. Koch Theater).
Photo by Paul Kolnik

There are some things that many consider to be essential to do in a lifetime: seeing The Goldberg Variations, at least once, must be one of them.

The piece opens with a couple, here Miriam Miller and Preston Chamblee, costumed to immediately bring to mind Bach’s Baroque period. The couple briefly dances in Baroque style, and reverentially, to each other. They then yield the stage to the dancers in Part I of the Variations, who are dressed in non-specific generic contemporary-looking ballet costumes. The six lead dancers in Part I — Emilie Gerrity, Ashley Laracey, Daniel Applebaum, Jovani Furlan, Aaron Sanz, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez — liberally mixed with the supporting corps, then execute Robbins’s contemporary choreography to Bach’s Baroque melodies and harmonies. Each variation (or in some cases each separate segment within the variation) ends with a reverential bow by the dancers to each other or to those who simply stand on stage and watch, acknowledging them and thanking them for the privilege of having danced with, and for, them.

Then the cast in Part II of the Variations replaces the Part I cast, with different, and to me more “advanced”-looking, contemporary costumes. The difference between the two sections, aside from costuming, is that the six leads in Part II are presented as couples – Phelan and Taylor Stanley, Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, and Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon – and each pair is assigned a separate, lengthy pas de deux.

Following their pas de deux, each pair subsequently returns to the stage, but having changed their costumes into something that looked more “Baroque” – as if the Baroque costumes of the opening Theme pair and the contemporary costumes of the Part I dancers had merged. The supporting corps did the same.

(l-r) Daniel Applebaum, Emilie Gerrity,
Ashley Laracey, and Aaron Sanz
in Jerome Robbins’s “The Goldberg Variations”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In the final segment, Robbins pulls it all together – as Bach does. The cast from Part I joins that from Part II. Ultimately all retreat to the stage perimeter as the opening Theme couple, Miller and Chamblee, return, now wearing contemporary costumes matching those of the Part I dancers. They repeat the initial theme, and the piece ends with mutual respect and acknowledgment – reverence – not only from the Baroque couple to each other and from the contemporary dancers to the Baroque ones, but also, effectively, from one period to another, from one choreographer to one composer, and from one cast to its choreographer. As I’ve previously written, had I the opportunity, I would have done the same.

The performances were uniformly excellent, which, judged by the audience reaction on its conclusion, is an evaluation attendees shared. and I must recognize pianist Susan Walters. Her featured piano playing is always top-flight, but with The Goldberg Variations she must remain at that level for nearly 40 minutes. Her performance merited the vociferous audience acclaim that she subsequently received.

Aside from the genius inherent in Bach’s music and Robbins’s choreography, the message of The Goldberg Variations is a particularly significant component of this NYCB season. By definition, the 50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival will feature legacy dances that Balanchine and Robbins choreographed to Stravinsky compositions, as well as contemporary pieces to Stravinsky choreographed by Justin Peck and Silas Farley. Fifty years ago it was the Balanchine and Robbins pieces that were contemporary, and groundbreaking. Now they join others, like Serenade, as NYCB legacy ballets. What has happened since they were created owes a debt to what came before, just as, say, Symphony in Three Movements owes a debt to Concerto Barocco, which was created some 25 years earlier. It’s a continuing and expanding circle, with roots that run deep. Said differently, as Bach does with the concluding aria in The Goldberg Variations, it’s a return to the beginning, and a continuing reverence.

Afternoon of a Faun

Created by Robbins in 1953, Afternoon of a Faun is a classic that requires little in the way of narrative explanation. Suffice it to say that to Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a self-absorbed young male dancer rests and practices before a mirror in a dance studio; a self-absorbed young female dancer soon enters the same studio, they briefly practice together, some sort of connection between the two is made (at the least recognition of the other’s existence), the male dancer kisses her lightly on the cheek, and then the female dancer leaves.

It’s an iconic piece in part because of the dancers’ apparent narcissism, but I think more so because it’s both simple and somewhat profound. Regardless, the question with respect to evaluating performances of Afternoon of a Faun isn’t so much the dance’s theme or choreography or even execution, but the interpretation given it by the two dancers. This applies to last Thursday’s double role debut by Phelan and Grant.

Unity Phelan and Christopher Grant
in Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun”
Photo by Erin Baiano

As regimented as it sometimes appears to be, dancers may inject something of their own personalities and interpretations into featured roles. As long as any such slant is consistent with any point the choreographer is trying to make, that’s not a problem – on the contrary, it’s often expected and welcomed; its why balletomanes go to multiple performances of the same ballet. But it becomes problematic when one or the other changes the nature of the character being portrayed.

That didn’t happen here. But there were significant differences between Phelan’s delivery and Grant’s.

By way of comparison, this performance immediately brought to mind the “Faun” I’d most recently seen, performed by Lauren Lovette and Kennard Henson in October, 2018. I thought both performances were excellent, and that Lovette in particular added a slight but welcome sense of responsiveness to her role, but I’m aware that some purists thought that any indicia of response to the other, even minimal, was more than what Robbins had wanted.

I think the purists are probably right as to Robbins’s preference, but wrong to suggest that even a minimal response was too much. It depends. And just as I thought Lovette’s execution did not inappropriately change the piece or her character, I think that Grant’s performance here can be considered the same.

Unity Phelan, here with Adrian Danchig-Waring
in Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Phelan delivered a magnificent performance, but without any response at all to her encounter with Grant. That’s not a bad thing; it’s the usual way the role is interpreted. Her execution was crystalline; she oozed statue-like beauty. Somehow, as detached as her character was, I sensed a warmth hidden within the cold, self-absorbed surface – but Phelan kept it sufficiently buried such that it was only a “sense” of warmth, rather than anything I or anyone else could point to.

Grant’s performance was another matter. There wasn’t anything the Grant did, choreographically, that exceeded boundaries, but his performance was unlike anything I’d previously seen in this role, and it was astonishing to watch.

Somehow, Grant managed to make his body make statements without any apparent corresponding movement. When he first glimpsed Phelan enter the studio, his eyes somehow perceptively widened. They reacted, even though Grant’s body didn’t, and they became a focus of a viewer’s attention. And as the two became physically closer, Grant’s hands actually grew – or somehow seemed to (maybe it was the way he opened his hands). They too reacted, leaving the impression that Grant felt impelled to touch her – again, without any choreographic change. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was seismic. Was it what Robbins wanted? I don’t know, but since he cast Dominican-born Francisco Moncion as the Faun/Dancer for the piece’s premiere, reportedly for his “animal” quality (per a footnoted reference in Wikipedia), the interpretation that Grant gave would not have been inconsistent.

And as if to drive the point home, after Phelan’s character leaves the studio, Grant sprawls on the floor – as the Faun/Dancer does in every other role performance. But – there was a lingering energy here that Grant transmitted, and that he obviously intended to convey. The opportunity lost, this Faun still kept the accidental connection in his mind, and in his eyes. He didn’t hit the studio floor to rest as if nothing had happened. He remembered, and couldn’t get that memory out of his head, or out of his body. Again, nothing that Grant did was different from the requisite choreography, but his was the most emotionally magnetic Faun performance I’ve seen since the Joffrey Ballet’s restaging of the Nijinsky original.

Balance of 4/28 program

On the same program as Afternoon of a Faun, NYCB presented three more legacy ballets: Divertimento No. 15, Allegro Brillante, and The Four Temperaments.

Sebastian Villarini-Velez
in George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Divertimento No. 15 fits neatly into that theme of “back to the future” that I discussed at the outset. Mozart’s composition was created in 1777 in honor of the name day of a family friend who was also a member of the Hapsburg aristocracy. Perhaps for that reason, the music has a festive air to it, but in a classical (rather than a “folk”) way. Balanchine picks up on this, and although the ballet is divided into discrete movements to match the composition, it has a fluidity to it that makes the music not only sound like Mozart, but as if Mozart were transported to the 21st century. It illuminates Mozart’s composition in a completely unexpected way, rendering the visualization and the music sound concurrently classical and contemporary. The past and the future as one. And there is aristocratic reverence and dignity to it, and classical order and balance, but these qualities are supplanted by thoroughly modern speed and attack. It’s a gem.

Indiana Woodward
in George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The ballet opens with a stunning tableau, but quickly gets down to business. It’s divided into discreet sections matching those in Mozart’s composition: “Theme and Variations” (subdivided into Theme, First Variation, Second Variation,” and through to the Sixth Variation; a Minuet, Andante, and then the Finale. Each of the featured dancers delivered very fine performances. They included in “variation” order: Sara Adams (who seems to grow in confidence with each outing), Ashley Hod, Ashley Laracey, Emily Kikta, Peter Walker, and particularly Indiana Woodward, who in the Sixth Variation moved across the stage floor like a spinning top on a table. The Minuet was danced with flair by the eight-ballerina corps, and the Andante was joyously performed by the six featured dancers noted above, as well as Harrison Coll and Aaron Sanz, who had earlier performed the dance’s brief Theme opening segment.

Sara Adams
in George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante echoed the sense of balance as well as the exuberance in his Divertimeno No. 15, but in a more expansive and romantic way, befitting the switch from Mozart to Tchaikovsky (his Piano Concerto No. 3).  It’s non-stop movement. The brief piece, here danced by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, is augmented by a corps of four women and four men.

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle
in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The lead ballerina role requires bravura execution, and Peck (replacing Sara Mearns) was breathtakingly good, displaying the impeccable phrasing and timing that one has come to expect from her, and that she delivers every time. Tyler Angle, a superb partner for any ballerina, seems particularly energized when appearing with Peck, even with his bare pate. The corps generally looked very good, although one of the men, one with less experience than the others, had a difficult time keeping his ballerina centered.

Jacqueline Bologna and Joseph Fahoury
in George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The evening concluded with another Balanchine masterpiece, The Four Temperaments. The cast was virtually the same as I reviewed last season, so I’ll limit my remarks to a few performances. As was the case last season, Jacqueline Bologna, partnered by Jonathan Fahoury, opened the piece with seething passion underlying the cool exterior. Sebastian Vallerini-Velez delivered a masterful Melancholic Variation (he also is improving with each outing), and Adrian Danchig-Waring did the same with the Phlegmatic Variation.

The Four Temperaments is a celebration of the human spirit, and the thrilling leaps as the dance ended sent the audience home smiling – and pointed the company in the direction of the 50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival, which begins on Tuesday, as well as to its chosen full-length ballet this season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, always a springtime joy.