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

February 23 and 27, 2024: Opus 19/ The Dreamer, Solitude, Symphony in Three Movements

February 29,2024: Ballo della Regina, In A Landscape, Hallelujah Junction, The Concert

March 3, 2024: Stars and Stripes, Tarantella, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Carnival of the Animals

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet closed out its six-week Winter, 2024 Season with a new program that included the return of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals, as well as the ever-exciting Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Also during the final two weeks of its season I was able to attend repeat performances of programs I’ve previously reviewed (most with different casts). Among the highlights were two particularly noteworthy performances by Alexa Maxwell, role debuts by Emma Von Enck and David Gabriel, and the opportunity to see Alexei Ratmansky’s Solitude again, and again.

Alexa Maxwell in Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I’ll first provide additional comments on Solitude (as I warned I would in my initial review), followed by the remaining pieces from the four performances I attended in rough performance order.

Solitude, revisited:

I reviewed Solitude at length in my prior review, and won’t rehash all that again. But on second and third view I saw things that I had neglected to include in my previous review, as well as, at the November 29th performance, an entirely new cast.

If you haven’t read my earlier review, or any review, of Solitude, go back and read it. Please. Otherwise, the bits and pieces below may not make sense.

Early on, during the community’s initial appearance, the dancers approach where the father is kneeling next to his son (though not identified by character in the program, we assume, with fair reason, that they’re father and son). They align themselves across from him in a diagonal roughly mid-stage right, the women (I think there were five of them) place themselves or were arrayed by their partners so that their torsos and legs are presented sideways, and then the women, followed by the men, slowly but surely press their upper torsos and heads toward the stage floor.

This image is an indirect quote from the first part of another Ratmansky masterpiece, “The Shostakovich Trilogy” – specifically its first component, Symphony No. 9. In that piece, the lead couple is seen sprawled horizontally across the downstage floor, with the lead couple facing sideways toward the audience, and slowly but surely their heads are being pounded (metaphorically) into the stage floor. There the image represents the repression of the Soviet/ Stalin government against the individual and individual freedom at that point represented by that couple. I saw the downward movement as indicative of being forced, pushed, into submission.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The image in Solitude is used to express a different, but related, impact. Here I didn’t see circumstances pushing the couple into the stage floor – here the couples are being pulled into the stage floor. That is, rather than representing governmental oppression, here the image is used, I think, to reflect the fact that the entire community has suffered loss, maybe the loss of children. After the children are buried, the constant mental urge to reunite with them remains – effectively, a continuing pull toward the ground that holds their children.

Whether I’m “right” or not, or if there is a “right,” it’s as powerful an image here as its sibling was in Symphony No. 9.

The other image I overlooked was that, as the ballet moves toward its ending and the father returns to his position kneeling against his son’s body, the stage lighting, which had been dim throughout, suddenly brightens for a second or two, and then returns to its consistently grim ambiance.

I’m not sure what Ratmansky means by this. The only explanation of the seconds-long bright light that makes any sense is that the light is the visual representation of a Russian bomb falling on the town – perhaps a flashback (literally) by the father of the bomb that killed his son. More likely, however, is that while the father is mourning his son, there’s yet another Russian bomb killing another Ukrainian child.

Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan (center)
and New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In my prior review I focused solely on the majestic portrayal by Joseph Gordon as the father. On second view on February 23, I can only repeat the superlatives I stated then. But the supporting cast, which I didn’t address previously, is essential to the flow of the dance as well. The dancers don’t come with character identification, so I can provide none (one of the women might be the boy’s mother, but there’s no indication of that whatsoever – they’re all anonymous members of the suffering community). In the three leading female roles, the first cast featured Mira Nadon, Sara Mearns, and Indiana Woodward. Nadon, who is costumed in a simple black leotard, appeared to be more of a comforting presence in terms of length of time spent physically close to the father. But Solitude really is a cast-wide ballet, with each cog contributing and no one cog dominating (other than the father). Nadon, Mearns, Woodward, and the rest of the outstanding supporting cast, provide the record for the community-wide loss and grief that’s essential to the ballet.

In the second cast that I saw on the 27th every role was assumed by someone new to it, and each member of this cast delivered the same level of excellence as the first cast. Nevertheless, there were slight differences, some more significant than others.

One of these more significant differences was the portrayal of the father. With Gordon there was little if any change in facial expression throughout; rather, the father’s remarkable and unmistakable panoply of emotion came entirely from within. Adrian Danchig-Waring’s father was more overtly emotional – not dramatic, and certainly not melodramatic, but appropriately visualized. One not only could feel this father’s pain, but on occasion could see it clearly etched on his face. This was the finest performance I’ve seen Danchig-Waring give. As it was for Gordon, his was the performance of a lifetime.

Adrian Danchig-Waring in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The role that Mearns played in the first cast was assumed by Unity Phelan, whom I saw as more emotionally involved with the father’s plight. On the other hand, the role played by Nadon was portrayed in the second cast by Isabella LaFreniere, who seemed more distant than Nadon did. Von Enck took over Woodward’s role, and executed it with equal strength. And in this cast the role of the child was played by Felix Valedon, a student from the School of American Ballet, who appeared to be about the same age as his predecessor in the role – about 13 or 14 – and delivered a similarly solid performance as well, with all but the most minor differences in emphasis between the two.

But take what I’ve said with a grain or two of salt. For this dance, everything that needs to be seen is in Ratmansky’s choreography and staging – performance differences that I see may be different from what others see, and in any event are of minor significance compared to the piece as a whole.

The tragedy and the miracle of Solitude is that a work of art so astoundingly brilliant could emerge from incidents that are so heartbreaking – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing deaths of children that uncaring Russian bombs/ drones inflict. The dance’s dynamics – the changes of visual focus from a father and his dead son to a community that has already seen a surfeit of death and then back again to the father and son, the variety of moving imagery (in both senses of the word “moving”) that are perfectly expressed by choreographer and casts, and the artful, impeccably selected and utilized excerpts from compositions by Gustav Mahler that comprise the ballet’s score – yield a ballet statement that presents everything about the particular subject and then ends at its emotional apex. Nothing more needed to be said.

(l-r, forward) Isabella LaFreniere, Unity Phelan
and Andrew Veyette in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano”

As I watched Solitude again, and again, I recognized the true scope of Ratmansky’s accomplishment here. Not only has he crafted a masterpiece work of dance art; he’s also created a living memorial to the children of Ukraine. In its way, it’s as monumental, and as memorable, as “Trojan Women” by Euripides and Picasso’s Guernica. It doesn’t just invite viewers to see the anguish, it implores them to feel the pain.

Solitude is one of two Ratmansky dances seen so far in this performance year. The other, Odesa, is also a masterpiece, but far more complex. Obviously Ratmansky is particularly adept at choreographing suffering and tragedy. But although that’s true, that’s not the extent of his brilliant work. Next time, for a change of pace, maybe try a comedy.

The balance of the February 23rd and 27th programs:

I’ve written previously that Opus 19/ The Dreamer is not one of my favorite Robbins ballets. I can see clearly the male lead’s search for an ideal, but in my previous review I noted that the performances by Phelan and Taylor Stanley, although technically well done, didn’t quite display the level of passion I’d seen in prior performances.

This cast was repeated on the February 23rd performance, and the performances, particularly Stanley’s, improved significantly. This time the appropriate level of passion as Stanley’s character searches for his ideal woman was maintained, and communicated, throughout.

And then there was the performance on February 27th. Tiler Peck was scheduled to dance the lead female role opposite Gordon, but withdrew reportedly due to a recurring injury. So Maxwell, who had debuted in the role a few days earlier with a different partner, filled the gap.

Gordon’s passion was somewhat muted, but it was his execution of Robbins’s passionate choreography that supplied the necessary ingredient for his successful performance. But Maxwell was a vision of a different color – not just from Phelan in this run’s first cast, but from anyone I’d seen in the role previously.

Her execution was top notch; no surprise there. But I saw more than that; a different ingredient. I don’t know if she intended to project it this way or if I’m the only one who interpreted it as I did, but Maxwell’s female object of desire was more than that – in her performance I saw that she was searching too.

Alexa Maxwell (forward) and New York City Ballet
in Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Seeing this (or at least determining this based on what I saw Maxwell project) gave Robbins’s ballet a different feel, one he most likely had not intended, one with something of a feminist slant, and one that increased my interest, and my involvement, in the piece as a whole.

The final dance in these programs was Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. The performance that I saw on February 15th had Ashley Laracey replacing Peck as the girl in a color I described as “salmon,” Erica Perreira as the “Jumping Girl,” and LaFreniere as the third featured girl. The performance on the 23rd  was very different because Peck danced the role (and may have aggravated her injury in the process, since to my knowledge she’s been out since). Her role here included the circle of pique turns through the moving corps (the architecture of Symphony in Three Movements is outrageously complex – and simply brilliant), exiting audience-left with a flourish of impossibly fast turns. Her performance in this role usually brings the house down. Here, however, though still faster than most, she appeared to slow a bit (possibly favoring the injury) – noticeably enough so the audience response wasn’t as vocal.

On the 27th, Laracey returned to lead the piece (this time as scheduled; and this time her costume looked “orange” to me; maybe just call it a different shade of red), and Von Enck and Emilie Gerrity debuted in their roles as the “jumping girl” and the third girl to appear, respectively. Von Enck sparkled, as ever, and Gerrity danced her role more than adequately. Laracey, however, slowed her superfast turns as she exited from the circle of pique turns, making them look identical in speed to the pique turns earlier in the circle. It seemed as if she’d given up trying to match Peck. I won’t speculate why this happened, but it was surprising. The rest of her performance was as high caliber as it always is.

The February 29th Program:

The February 29th program was a repeat of the program I previously saw on February 9th. All four dances left different impressions than those on the earlier program, in almost all cases a perception based on a casting changes. There were role debuts in leading roles in Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina, and near-debuts (the actual debuts occurred a few days earlier) in Albert Evans’s In a Landscape, Peter Martins’s Hallelujah Junction, and Robbins’s The Concert. All were significant.

I suppose it’s better to have an opportunity to dance a role, even if it’s only for a single performance in the season (which often happens with evening-length ballets), than not dance it at all. But debuting roles in a particular dance’s final performance of a six-performance season, and perhaps the last time that the ballet will be scheduled for several years, seems cruel. But then, maybe NYCB’s Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford and Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan know something about future scheduling of Ballo della Regina that hasn’t yet been released.

David Gabriel in George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In my review of earlier this season, I noted the fine performances by the indefatigable Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the lead roles. But I also observed the absence of the regal aura projected by Merrill Ashley, who premiered the role. I was wrong…not as to Ashley, but as to the necessity for some regal aura. That’s not a necessity, since the ballet is being danced for the queen, not by or of the queen. [I need to take some basic Italian.] And it’s supposed to emphasize speed and clarity. But I’m still of the opinion that some sense of gravitas is necessary to come close to the impression that Ashley gave. Maybe, as a friend said, it’s the length of the ballerina’s legs combined with the speed and clarity.

Regardless, in her role debut, Von Enck went a long way, intentionally or not, to avoid the constant happy-as-a-clam smile on Fairchild’s face throughout her rendition. Though it may have been the product of understandable jitters, Von Enck varied her facial expression, particularly, but not exclusively, at the ballet’s beginning.

That doesn’t mean that she abandoned her sparkly stage personality. And she performed well – with exactly the level of speed and clarity needed to execute Balanchine’s wickedly difficult choreography, including but not limited to the diabolical hops en pointe that Balanchine peppers throughout the choreography.

Emma Von Enck in George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But I noticed one characterization that I hadn’t seen in Fairchild’s performance. To my eye, Von Enck appeared to be ever so slightly behind the beat – and I must emphasize that “slightly” means exactly that: most wouldn’t have noticed. This is something that she’ll overcome with more outings – but I think there may have been something else going on here. The tempo for the ballerina’s solos (abundant here) were delivered at a blistering speed – even by NYCB standards, where speed is as prevalent in the theater atmosphere as oxygen.

In the overall scheme of things, however, and whatever the reason, this is minor. It was a very fine role debut.

Her partner, Gabriel, had no such issues His solos – not conducted at the same breakneck speed, were models of clarity and technical accomplishment. And the audience noticed. His was a dazzling display of what it takes to be a danseur noble, and NYCB has few male dancers with that quality. [I overhead one person saying he looked and danced like David Hallberg with dark hair.] It will be interesting to see if the company takes advantage of this quality in future casting.

I was quite impressed with Albert Evans’s In a Landscape, as discussed in my previous review, as well as with the superb performances by Ava Sautter and Gilbert Bolden III. Whether one likes it or not, it has that rare quality of being interesting. In this program, the roles were assumed by Dominica Afanasenkov and Alec Knight, who had their role debuts earlier in the run. As was the case with the other duo, both dancers delivered strong performances. But Afanesenkov, just by her appearance (as in the earlier performance, both dancers wore stoic expressions throughout), created a slightly different impression. Where Sautter looked dark and somber (as much a consequence of the lighting as anything else), Afanasenkov looked radiant and innocent, even without any change in facial demeanor at any time during the course of the dance. The result, in terms of the performance, is that what I had sensed initially as representing some sort of “capture” looked different here; not a capture as much as a willing encounter. As with their predecessors in the roles, both dancers delivered exceptional performances.

Dominika Afanasenkov and Alec Knight
in Albert Evans’s “In a Landscape”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Hallelujah Junction, which in this performance was led in part by corps dancer Lauren Collett, is one of Peter Martins’s best dances. [That’s not a backhanded compliment. For a variety of reasons, Martins’s choreography has too often been dismissed as inferior; Hallelujah Junction, among others, should overrule that prejudgment. It’s a finely conceived and choreographed ballet.] But in the performance the story wasn’t the choreography as much as Collett’s performance in it. When she first joined the company in November, 2019, I didn’t notice her, anonymous as she and most other corps dancers are when framing the featured dancers. And then there was the pandemic. But in April, 2022, she appeared in a performance with Tom Gold Dance (Gold is a former NYCB Soloist), and in my subsequent review wrote that she lit up the stage. The following year, again appearing with Tom Gold Dance, I described her as a dancer to watch. Since then, she’s appeared in several featured NYCB roles, and my evaluation remains the same.

Collett acquitted herself well here (as did her featured colleagues Stanley and AJ Takahashi). Things happen, and you never know what the future will bring. But it will be interesting to watch her growth as a NYCB dancer, and stereotypically Balanchine ballerina, over time.

Lauren Collett and Taylor Stanley
in Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Perhaps the most significant of the dances was Robbins’s The Concert. I had written previously, based on the earlier performance I attended this season, that the piece had lost some of its nascent hilarity. Time passes; things change. But this performance, and particularly Maxwell’s Diva, injected the piece with the appropriate understatedly madcap level of humor.

The March 3rd Program:

Christopher Wheedon’s Carnival of the Animals premiered with NYCB in 2003, and aside from a revival ten years later, hadn’t been seen here since then. I can describe few ballets using this word, but Carnival of the Animals is delightful, and I’ll return to it in its proper place as the concluding dance on this program shortly.

The afternoon opened with Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes (which was also performed in the Fall, 2023 season).

I’ve frequently written that Stars and Stripes isn’t one of Balanchine’s best ballets. It’s a paean to his adopted country, and to me its structure is too militaristically focused (in presentation seemingly more so than the similarly structured Union Jack). But in this program, labelled “family-friendly” (which it was) it presented in a more benign way. The entire program was bathed in smile-inducing pieces, and Stars and Stripes became one of them by association if nothing else – and if the audience is having a great time, it often has a contagious impact on stolid critics. This time, watching it was a blast. Perhaps Stars and Stripes has found its appropriate scheduling niche.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes”
Photo by Erin Baiano

It all came across as somewhat tongue in cheek, beginning with Sara Adams leading the First Campaign (“1st Regiment: Corcoran Cadets”), carrying over to the Emily Kikta led Second Campaign (“2nd Regiment: Rifle Regiment”), through to Daniel Ulbricht commanding the Third Campaign (“3rd Regiment: Thunder and Gladiator”) and concluding with the kitschy Fifth Campaign, with all regiments in front of a billowy American flag. In between Fourth and Fifth was the duet Fourth Campaign (“Liberty Belle and El Capitan”). I could not find anything at all critical (or, for that matter, outstanding) in any of the Campaigns, but I must highlight Ulbricht. He’s probably danced this role almost as often as Candy Cane in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” – which is a lot of times – but he never phones it in. The audience roared for him, as well as for the smashing Liberty Bell/ El Capitan duo of Nadon (replacing Peck), and Roman Mejia.

The middle of the program was filled by two Balanchine pas de deux: Tarantella, vibrantly performed by an ebullient Erica Pereira and Sebastien Villarini-Velez, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, danced by Indiana Woodward (who had debuted in the role the previous night) and Anthony Huxley. Woodward may not yet have the flair and personal add-ins that Peck does, but her execution here looked flawless, and both transmitted infectious enthusiasm, as well as a fair amount of awe.

I didn’t recall seeing the program’s (and the season’s) closing piece, Carnival of the Animals, previously. But I did. It premiered in 2003, and was reprised in 2013, which is when I first saw it. I loved it then, and love it still.

Harrison Coll
and School of American Ballet student Hannon Hatchett
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Choreographed by Wheeldon to “Le Carnaval Des Animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns, the dance tells a story that depicts a young boy named Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third (now, apparently, just reduced to “Oliver”) who falls asleep in the American Museum of Natural History (the one that used to have the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of it), only to dream that the people in his life have taken animal shapes (or, seen another way – and maybe more accurately – the boy dreams that the animals in the museum come to life as people in his life). And it features a libretto by John Lithgow, who was the original Narrator. Here the Narrator, who doesn’t just sit and read, was played by Terrence Mann, whom I remember vividly from his role as Rum Tum Tugger in the original Broadway cast of “Cats.”

So, you think, we have a bunch of dancers running around in animal outfits like the mice in the aforementioned George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Not exactly. The animals (and other inhabitants of Oliver’s memory) that come to life are recognizable dancers acting like animal characters in Oliver’s memory, most with minimal costume that don’t hide their true identity. Among others, Oliver’s classmates become weasels and rats, his teacher a lion, members of the school wrestling team morph into jackasses (it’s funny – not necessarily social commentary), an aunt becomes a swan-memory, and a bookish librarian becomes a kangaroo who dreams of, and becomes, a mermaid in a sea of humanoid fish. The choreography is uniformly ingenious, and the dancing here was uniformly wonderful.

Unity Phelan (center) and New York City Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Each of the dancers in featured roles created an outstanding character that went beyond caricature. These were, after all, human animals. While I cannot list each member of the superlative cast here (including the corps of fish, tropical birds, fossils, and even the weasels and rats), highlights include Phelan as the Kangaroo/ Mermaid, Harrison Coll’s dexterous Baboon/ Piano Teacher, Laracey’s touchingly-played Cuckoo (accompanied by Andrew Veyette), Janelle Manzi and Mary Elizabeth Sell as a pair of Tortoises peeking out from their umbrella shells (and looking happy as clams), Mann’s Narrator and “Elephant”, who managed to be poignant and hilarious concurrently, and the performance of Hannon Hatchett, an SAB student, as Oliver.  Most noteworthy, however, was Mearns’s remembered Swan, wearing a mostly black matronly costume and dancing slowly and somewhat mournfully to “The Dying Swan” while, toward the end, a white swan (dubbed Odette, danced by Ruby Lister) traverses upstage – an in-joke on an in-joke on an in-joke played straight and with a heart of gold.

Sara Mearns (r, foreground), Ruby Lister
and School of American Ballet student Hannon Hatchett
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Carnival of the Animals isn’t grandiloquent ballet, but it’s more than fluff: it’s well-crafted and great fun for adults and children alike, as well as for the dancers, who seemed to be enjoying it almost as much, if not more, than the audience. I hope it’s not on the 10-year plan, give or take a year (2003, 2013, 2024): it deserves to be seen and enjoyed more frequently than that.

On to the Spring Season’s installment of NYCB’s 75th Anniversary celebration.