New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
Weeks 2 through 4
September 26, 2023: Western Symphony; The Unanswered Question; Tarantella, Stars and Stripes
October 8, 2023: Apollo; La Sonnambula; Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
October 11, 2023: 75th ANNIVERSARY BIRTHDAY PROGRAM: Concerto Barocco; Orpheus; Symphony in C
October 12, 2023: Serenade; Orpheus; Theme and Variations
October 15, 2023: Concerto Barocco; Prodigal Son; Symphony in C
The second, third, and fourth weeks of New York City Ballet’s FALL 2023 season took off from where the opening week left off following a week of George Balanchine’s Jewels. Continuing the “Foundation” theme of this 75th Anniversary year, all the scheduled dances, with the exception of one by Jerome Robbins specially selected for the company’s Fall Gala (which this year I did not see), were choreographed by Balanchine.
In addition to the pleasant surprises that tend to pop up in seemingly undistinguished programs, there were undeniable highlights among the five performances I saw, including Tiler Peck’s return to superstar form with her explosive performance in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Chun Wai Chan’s debut as Apollo, Daniel Ulbricht’s Prodigal Son, and the Company’s actual 75 year birthday celebration evening. And there was one additional highlight that I’ll discuss more fully at the end of this review: enthusiastic full house audiences. [I was unable to see the Balanchine II program, which consisted of the familiar Agon (one of Balanchine’s “contemporary” masterpieces) and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, as well as the somewhat less familiar Bourrée Fantasque.]
With a few exceptions, I’ll consider the programs in the order presented (and will lump the last three programs together due to programming overlaps). Classics as they are, familiarity with most of the ballets is assumed.
The September 26 Program
The season’s second week got off to a slow start, with none of the Balanchine masterpieces that were crammed into the season’s 3rd and 4th weeks. But that didn’t preclude one of those pleasant surprises. On September 26, the second dance in the four-pronged program was The Unanswered Question, an excerpt from Balanchine’s 1954 piece, Ivesiana.
I’d seen Ivesiana once previously, in 2013, and remember not being very impressed with it. [In my subsequent review, I described it, en toto, as being dense, dark, and inscrutable.] But last year I saw an excerpt from that piece, the same piece that was presented on this 26th program: An Unanswered Question. It’s a very brief dance, but it’s chock full of atmosphere and the unexpected, all within the usually tired theme of a man’s vision of his ideal woman vision – and his being emotional tortured by this unattainable object of desire. Whether it ranks with other foundational Balanchine masterpieces is a valid question, but it’s certainly interesting.
Stripped of its context, An Unanswered Question loses whatever sense of place it may have had as part of a whole, but consequently there’s no need to wonder whether there’s a connection between it and the other components of the larger piece, and, if so, what the connection is; it’s its own dance – and on its own leaves an indelible visual impression. Obviously the value of the 5-10 minute piece isn’t its subject, but the way Balanchine presents it.
While a tormented man writhes as if in mid-dream (or in mid-nightmare), an image of a woman suddenly appears to him, carried by four men in black who transport her throughout the piece and who the dreaming man can’t see. The four manipulate the dream image’s body so as to make it seem to float on top of him, to coil like a snake (around the porteurs’ bodies), and to glide above him within an inch of his body without ever touchimg him or the stage floor. And as quickly as she appears she disappears back to wherever in the nooks and crannies of the man’s mind that she came from as the man reaches out in a futile effort to hold on to his dream.
That’s the whole thing.
When I saw The Unanswered Question in its Ivesiana context, the image in the second movement was performed by the now-retired NYCB Principal Dancer Janie Taylor looking like an ethereal vision, the angel I initially thought the character was supposed to represent. At the performance last year, the female role was performed by Ashley Laracey, now looking as much like Taylor in this role as Taylor did herself. But Laracey’s interpretation was different (or appeared to be different based on it being taken out of context). Instead of being an angelic vision, Laracey there was a stunningly sinuous serpentine siren, tantalizing the impassioned young man while her four carriers manipulated her like gelatin.
In her role debut (a day early, replacing Laracey, who’d been quarantined), Sara Adams didn’t have much to do besides allowing her body to be moved by others, and there was justifiable first-time apprehension in her eyes through much of it. But she filled the role nicely, and added what to me was something of a gothic sense to it, almost making it look like she was inwardly reveling in the torture her vision produced. Harrison Coll repeated his appearance last year as the dreamer.
But the heroes of the piece were the men in black, who carefully manipulated Adams’s body into perfect positions without missing a location or adding a step. They were the same four who appeared in these roles a year ago, but still deserve to be recognized: Gilbert Bolden III, Preston Chamblee, Christopher Grant, and Alec Knight.
The program’s opening dance was Western Symphony, Balanchine’s jolly merger, of sorts, of stereotypical American West atmosphere with ballet. It’s Oklahoma meets St. Petersburg, and it all works because, from beginning to end, it’s great fun.
As presented here, the piece is divided into four movements, corresponding to the score (assembled by Hershy Kaye largely from classic songs of the American West, including “Red River Valley” and “Goodnight, Ladies”). Olivia MacKinnon and Bolden in the Allegro, Indiana Woodward and Jovani Furlan in the humorous Adagio, and Emily Kikta and Andrew Veyette in the Rondo, excelled. The piece once also included a “Scherzo” Movement (inserted before the Rondo), which was removed in 1960. My understanding is that this was due to a problem finding a dancer who could perform it with the speed required, but if that’s so, there are several ballerinas now with the company who might be able to handle it, and returning it to its original form would be worth the effort. [My understanding also is that this movement is included in Miami City Ballet’s presentation of Western Symphony. If they can do it, certainly NYCB can.]
Tarantella, also not what might be described as a masterpiece, is great fun as well. Here the two dancers were Erica Perreira and Ulbricht.
I’ve previously seen both, together, in this dance, and they usually played off each other very knowingly, delivering superb performances. This time I sensed a somewhat lower level of exuberance, but the piece is as audience-pleasing a dance as one can get, and the audience at this performance registered exactly that.
The program’s final dance, Stars and Stripes, is not one of my favorites, and also not usually considered in the same breath as Balanchine masterpieces. Choreographed to an assemblage of music by John Philip Sousa, Balanchine’s salute to his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 1940) presents something like a 4th of July parade, and the movement subheadings are at best outdated, and are far to militaristic now – although at the time of its premiere in January, 1958 Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, was President and the Pax Americana was in full bloom, so maybe at that time a feigned martial slant might have been fully appropriate. I much prefer Union Jack, which is in a similar vein, but chacun à son goût.
Regardless, Stars and Stripes is certainly worth reviving every decade or so, and certainly has a place in this season’s celebration. And here it was enlivened by the “Liberty Bell and El Capitan” Fourth Campaign, danced with their usual flair by Megan Fairchild and Roman Mejia, and by Sebastian Villarini-Velez’s invigorating Third Campaign (“Thunder and Gladiator”).
The October 8 Program:
The program that I saw on Sunday afternoon, the 8th, was the company’s third all-Balanchine program, and was one of the finest presented anywhere, at any time.
The program’s concluding piece, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (f/k/a Ballet Imperial), was icing on the evening’s cake. The primary reason, besides the music and choreography, was Tiler Peck.
I started describing Peck as “world-class,” and encouraging readers to see her before she became too aware of it, over ten years ago. Her path to stardom continued until shortly before the pandemic, when she sustained a potentially career-ending injury, and through the Covid isolation.
But something else happened during this period that began to be noticeable in her social media posts, and that continued after performances resumed. While she still garnered raves from the audience and a sea of international followers, she looked a bit less fluid than she was pre-pandemic (an understandable consequence of forced isolation). More important was what came across as a change in attitude; a sense of being somewhat full of herself, which manifested in performances as a greater tendency to display how great a ballerina she is.
But with this performance (and others that followed it), Peck – the original – was back. Her performance here, with or without her partner, Joseph Gordon (who performed admirably here and later in the program), blew the roof off the stage. Every move she made, every step she took, was perfection. And as she completed a series of circle leaps as strong and as excitingly executed as I’ve seen by danseurs when their roles called for it, the audience went collectively nuts. She nailed every inch of the piece, maintaining her characteristic control of time but not changing the choreography in the process.
Remember her now legendary transition in a performance of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux that I saw live, and that probably went viral on the internet? This performance was at least its equal, and was one of her performances that will be indelibly embedded in this viewer’s memory.
The evening’s program began with Apollo, which Balanchine choreographed in 1928 for Diagilev’s Ballet Russes, and which is one of those landmark ballets that one must see more than once. Per season.
Balanchine tinkered with it following its Paris premiere, and continued to do so after its NYCB premiere in 1951.I first saw Apollo before Balanchine made his final paring, eliminating the ballet’s opening “birth” scene in an effort to reduce the dance to its essence. Having seen it both with and without, I prefer it with the deleted scene because it’s an aid in seeing the story the dance tells (and I understand other ballet companies continue to perform it with that scene).
Frankly, the birth scene is superfluous, and it’s not the most pleasant of scenes to watch. But it’s an introduction to Mt. Olympus, which to me is of considerable significance, and, in its prior incarnation, was an image and mythic concept that was reprised in the ballet’s final image as the Muses form a “sun” image for the “sun god” as he climbs his way to his destined location: Mt. Olympus. That reference back to Mt. Olympus was deleted also.
One way or another, Apollo still tells its story of the young Apollo being educated in the arts by three Muses.
Some claim that it is Apollo who instructs the muses after designating their respective areas of responsibility. While this may have been the intent of the ballet’s first incarnation, choreographed by Adolph Bolm, which premiered in Washington D.C. roughly six weeks before Balanchine’s version premiered in Paris – but I don’t know for sure since that earlier version disappeared almost as soon as it premiered. But with Balanchine’s version (in whatever edited iteration it may take), this contradicts the choreography and the story the choreography tells – of the youth Apollo, the nascent god being none too sure of what he’s supposed to be or do, being educated by the muses to assume his role as a god. Or, as NYCB’s own website summarizes it: “Apollo presents the young god as he is ushered into adulthood by the muses of poetry, mime, and dance.” Seeing it the other way makes no sense.
Chan debuted as Apollo two nights earlier; I saw his second outing. In a word, his execution was exceptional, particularly for one so new to the role. There was a power behind his delivery that marked his Apollo as the god he was born to be. That impacts both positively and negatively – in his initial characterization, particular compared to other Apollos, he doesn’t present quite youthful enough, and as a result doesn’t grow into his mythical role. But some Apollos never transmit the power that he eventually must show, so overall I think that Chan is ahead of the game; I don’t doubt that his portrayal will eventually communicate Apollo’s evolution, as well as his power.
The three muses in this cast also debuted in their roles two nights earlier. This was a “tall” cast, with Isabelle LeFreniere as Callliope, Emily Kikta as Polyhymnia, and Mira Nadon as Terpsichore. LaFreniere and Kikta danced their roles sufficiently well, and as she’s done throughout her career to date, Nadon was dominant in her role – though she would benefit by enlivening her rather stoic facial appearance during the course of the piece. Regardless, the three made for a smashing final display, with their long legs visualizing varying degrees of arabesque penchée, and accordingly making the group pose especially radiant.
The enigmatic La Sonnambula was the evening’s middle piece. Here the occasion was marked by Alexa Maxwell’s performance as the Sleepwalker. Maxwell imbued her role, which she debuted in two nights earlier, with a slightly different-from-the-norm character. Most of the Sleepwalkers I’ve seen portray her as ephemeral; a spirit notwithstanding her corporeal form. Maxwell, intentionally or not, changed the role to that of a naïf; a wide-eyed innocent. For her, the character difference worked very well. Anthony Huxley, who also debuted in the role of The Poet two nights before, successfully communicated the requisite disbelief and fascination, and eventual enfatuation, that are essential to his role.
And I noticed one occurrence that I’d never been aware of in all the prior times I’d seen La Sonnambula. As the Sleepwalker carries the now (presumably) dead Poet up to what (presumably) is her room, her passage up the unseen stairs and across two windows before entering her room is illuminated as she passes each window – though no image or her and/or the Poet is seen. Here, when she reached her room, I observed two face images – presumably her and the poet – in silhouette against the shaded window. They’re alive – maybe; sort of. As with any great ballet, one finds “new” evidence of significance, and genius, with each exposure.
The October 11, 12, and 15, 2023 Performances:
I’m combining these three programs together because so many of the dances overlap. Where appropriate, I’ll reference all performances of a particular dance at the same time.
NYCB’s initial program, comprised of Concerto Barocco, Orpheus, and Symphony in C, took place at City Center on October 11, 1948. These three pieces have remained part of the nucleus of the company’s repertoire ever since.
To honor that performance, and to celebrate the company’s actual 75th birthday, this original program was repeated on this year’s October 11 program. All three pieces were well-performed (for this occasion, one wouldn’t have expected anything less), although I was less impressed with Concerto Barocco this time around than with the other program components. Led by Unity Phelan, Emilie Gerrity, and Andrew Veyette, the dancers all glowed appropriately for a birthday celebration, but the lead pairings, to my eye, didn’t coalesce optimally.
On the other hand, the performance of Concerto Barocco in the season’s closing performance, with Nadon in a New York role debut, LaFreniere, and Bolden in his role debut, was just right. The only improvement might come when Nadon varies her facial image, but in Concerto Barocco, that’s not significant. And Bolden’s performance was startlingly good. I singled out Bolden previously as an unusual dancer who may have a difficult time finding a niche because of his unusually compact and muscularly thick body structure. But I found his presence so interesting that I expected he would. This season he did – and his performance here, as well as in Western Symphany earlier in the season, displayed not only his easily recognizable intensity, but a fluidity that I’d not seen in his work previously. That he partnered very well was a bonus. He deserved the promotion he received to Soloist following this final season program.
The second piece on the Birthday Party program, and the second one the next night, was Orpheus.
I’ve discussed Orpheus previously, and won’t repeat all of that here. Suffice it to say that the ballet, which Balanchine choreographed in 1948, is another narrative ballet that somewhat streamlines the myth, but that at this point could benefit from additional paring down. A candidate for the choreographic room floor would easily be the episode with the Bacchantes, which as presented exists solely as a plot device to enable Orpheus’s lyre to float above his final resting place (eventually to be repurposed above the Koch Theater box office). At this point, however, without Balanchine’s input, any such tinkering wouldn’t be advisable.
Orpheus is enhanced by Isamu Noguchi’s set (with original lighting by Robert Bates), which is a marvel of simple but clear vision. Seeing Orpheus escorted “down” to the Underworld as if he were really descending is a creative marvel, especially for its time. The simulation takes effect when the lighting behind the scrim in front of which Orpheus and the Dark Angel walk slowly moves upward – making it appear as if Orpheus and the Dark Angel are moving downward. When a viewer realizes what’s happening, it’s an epiphany. And part of the reason it works as well as it does is that the “light” orbs are designed to match the simple boulders seen earlier in the piece, which are so evocative of the strikingly simple set creations Noguchi provided for several dances choreographed by Martha Graham.
Difficult to sit through as it may now seem, the piece is still emotionally potent when it’s performed with proper passion, as it was in the superb performances by Laracey and Gordon on the 11th. Gordon’s torment was palpable at all stages of the piece, laced with both boundless energy and miserable futility. And Laracey played Eurydice in a way I’d not previous seen: she was a siren (a qualitatively different siren from her The Unanswered Question). As they made their way up from the Underworld, she was Orpheus’s overly enthusiastic temptress, with the length of her legs seemingly growing longer as she wrapped herself around the increasingly tortured Orpheus. Hers was the most sensuous Eurydice that I can remember – and that characterization helped make the role, and the scene, work.
The performance the next night, filled with role debuts, couldn’t have equaled that – and didn’t. While Davide Riccardo (who was also promoted to Soloist at season’s end) was reasonably impressive as the Dark Angel (there’s not much one can do with that role beyond looking intense), Adrian Danchig-Waring’s Orpheus and Brittany Pollack’s Eurydice didn’t have the character depth or the physical passion that had saturated the piece the previous night.
In the program on the 11th,, Orpheus was bracketed by Serenade and Theme and Variations. The former, which is more beloved than any other dance in NYCB’s repertory (and which I’ve discussed many times previously), was marked by Phelan’s NYC role debut as the central “waltz girl,” and Pereira’s commendable outing as the “jumping girl.” Gerrity (as the “dark angel”), Danchig-Waring, and Christopher Grant (his a NYC role debut) completed the very fine performance.
Theme and Variations, which I’ve also discussed on many occasions, was first created on the predecessor of ABT in 1947. It premiered with NYCB in 1960, and in 1970 was revisited and included as the final movement (in the ballet) of “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3.” I have a special fondness for Theme – when I first saw it (with ABT, and Gelsey Kirkland, and Mikhail Baryshnikov) in the 1970s, it was the dance that enlightened me as to Balanchine’s choreographic genius; everything I’d had difficulty with prior to that finally made sense.
But having seen Theme both as a standalone and as part of “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3,” I prefer the latter. Even though the only thing it has in common with the earlier component parts is its composer and choreographer, seeing it as part of a greater entity makes Theme appear even more impressive. It’s highly unfortunate that the company elected to dance only Theme during this 75 year anniversary celebration rather than the entire suite, which hasn’t been performed in far too long a time.
Be that as it may, Thursday’s performance was led by Fairchild (substituting for Peck) and Gordon. Although both looked a bit tired (understandably), and at times were a bit behind the music (perhaps because of limited rehearsal time together), the audience may not have noticed. I also thought as I watched it evolve that to a limited degree some parts, or some steps, and been deleted or modified. That observation might simply have been a product of not having seen it in too long a period of time. But if that’s so, it’s as regrettable as it was unnecessary.
The middle piece in the season’s concluding performance was another iconic piece: Prodigal Son. Unlike Orpheus, Prodigal Son, like Apollo, needs no “update” whatsoever. It’s as much a masterpiece now as it was when it premiered in 1929 with Ballet Russes, and in 1950 with NYCB.
I’ve seen too many performances of Prodigal Son to count, including by Baryshnikov. [I regret never having been able to see Edward Villella’s portrayal; I caught him at the end of his performing career, and missed that.]
Of all those who have assayed the role who are still currently with the company, as well as many who have since retired, Ulbricht’s Prodigal Son is the most moving. But time passes, and it may be that this was to be one of his final Prodigal Son performances. I attended this program specifically in order to see Ulbricht, and was not disappointed. He still dances the role with the passion and energy that his performances previously displayed, even if his leap over the familial perimeter fence may no longer be quite as high as it used to be. He still beats his thighs like a drum (rather than the taps I’ve seen from others), still walks into the local Biblical gentlemen’s club with arrogance and bravado, and still sinks to the depths afterward. Little things have changed (here he had to assist in the removal of his clothing; and I don’t recall The Prodigal’s underwear changing color from gray to black when he returns home), but these are minor quibbles.
The performance’s only significant disappointment was Miriam Miller’s portrayal of The Siren (a qualitatively different “siren” …). I’ve seen her dance the role before, including as I recall her role debut (opposite Huxley), and her portrayals then were more venomous. Although it can’t be made too obvious, here there was no sense of dominating evil at all.
My only regret with respect to having seen these three foundational dances is having seen each only once, and the absence of debuts in these roles by promising soloists and members of the corps – and there are many of them. But seeing each once is better than not seeing them at all.
The program on the 11th, and in the season’s final performance, both concluded with Symphony in C. The piece, like others on the 11th, was the concluding piece in the company’s first program (a year after it premiered with the Paris Opera Ballet as Le Ballet de Cristal). It’s never absent from a NYCB season’s repertory for very long.
Both Symphony in C performances were exemplary.
For the Birthday performance, Fairchild and Gordon excelled in the First Movement (Allegro Vivo), as did Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, both of whom I’ve seen dance the Second Movement (Adagio) many times before. Emma Von Enck and Mejia blazed through the Third Movement (Allegro Vivace), with Von Enck delivering her usual sparkle and Mejia his usual power. And Indiana Woodward and Troy Schumacher gave an ebullient rendering of the Fourth Movement (also Allegro Vivace).
Standing ovations are rare at NYCB, where a sitting ovation is the more frequently-seen option. But following Symphony in C at this Birthday performance the audience rose en masse to salute the dancers for their performances, and the company for its birthday. And just as some in the audience began to make their way to wherever NYCB audiences usually race at a program’s conclusion, the curtain rose again, and the stage was filled with the Symphony in C cast and NYCB staff standing behind a table on which a 75th Anniversary emblem had been placed (from my vantage point I couldn’t tell whether there was a cake underneath it), and began to sing Happy Birthday to the Company … joined before the first stanza concluded by the audience. Imagine company dancers and staff and a full house audience of nearly 2600 collectively singing Happy Birthday to a ballet company!
And the joy continued after Symphony in C concluded NYCB’s Fall 2023 season.
At this performance, Peck and Chan set the pace for the rest of the piece with their brilliant performances in the First Movement; as she displayed in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Peck is back dancing at the top of her game, and missing one of her performances is unthinkable. This was followed by Phelan and Alec Knight doing exemplary work in the Second Movement, which was succeeded by Baily Jones and Cainan Weber—rare opportunities for members of the corps to dance featured roles in a foundational ballet this season – buoyantly delivering the Third Movement, and concluding with Gerrity and Peter Walker leading the Fourth Movement. As much energy as there was on the stage was matched by the electricity that permeated the house. Another audience eruption, and another unusual standing ovation – though this time without singing Happy Birthday.
I must also, once again, commend the NYCB Orchestra for the pitch perfect sound and invigorating tempo it produced throughout this season.
After this season’s programs, one observation comes immediately to mind: rumors of Balanchine’s artistic death have been greatly exaggerated.
Balanchine (and Robbins) classics are the backbone of the NYCB repertory, and contrary to some claims, audiences will continue to come to see these classic ballets, whether performed by star dancers or by dancers they’d not previously seen.
At every performance I attended this season the house was full or close to it (and I understand that the same can be said with respect to performances I did not see). [I can’t speak to how many seats were filled with comps, but from my vantage point that wasn’t a factor.] It may just have been the consequence of the year-long special celebration, but judged by the attendance at, and the reception received, at each of the performances I attended, I doubt that.
Sold out audiences, and rapturous applause, are the gifts that ballet-goers give ballet companies. Sold out houses the fifth, or tenth, or fiftieth time most audiences have seen the dances on a particular program say more than the occasional full house for a new piece that then dwindles after the novelty fades.
Ballet companies need to develop audiences and to produce new work to augment their legacy repertory. Of that there’s no doubt. But the notion that the Balanchine ballets no longer attract audiences is absurd. On the contrary, the classics attract the kinds of audiences that companies want – audiences that come back. While there may be an occasional new ballet that might be as artistically successful (e.g., by Wheeldon, Ratmansky, J. Peck, Abraham) and can draw an audience based on quality, they’re relatively rare. Audiences don’t need to be force-fed new ballets with no reason for being beyond being new ballets, and self-serving proclamations of Balanchine’s contemporary irrelevance are themselves irrelevant.