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

February 9, 2024: Ballo della Regina, In a Landscape, Hallelujah Junction, The Concert

February 15 ,2024: Opus 19: The Dreamer, Solitude (world premiere), Symphony in Three Movements

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet’s Winter 2024 season, the second segment of its 75th Anniversary Celebration, continued over the last two weeks in much the same manner as the first two weeks. That is, there was another world premiere ballet (as well as one that for all intents and purposes was a premiere), and several returning ballets, a few of which had been away far too long.

My review of this season’s first two weeks focused on the world premiere ballet by Tiler Peck, Concerto for Two Pianos, and the return of Alexei Ratmansky’s Odessa (as well as the performance by guest artist Ashton Edwards in Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing). For the performances during the second two weeks that are being reviewed here there are similar highlights: the world premiere of Ratmansky’s Solitude, the reappearance of a ballet that had been absent so long that few knew it existed (Albert Evans’s In a Landscape), and the return to the repertory of Jerome Robbins’s The Concert and George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.

New York City Ballet in a prior performance
of George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

As I did last time, I’ll first address the world premiere and Evans’s dance, followed by comments on the other pieces in rough program order.

Solitude:

It’s been reported many times that Ratmansky’s new ballet, his first since returning to the company as its Artist in Residence, was inspired by a photograph he’d seen, and that it relates to the death of children in Ukraine. That’s true, but there’s far more to Solitude than that.

In summary, Solitude is a miraculous work of dance art that was given superlative performance by its premiere night cast, led by Joseph Gordon.

The dance that Solitude will most likely be compared with is Sir Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, which also is about the death of a child (or children) and which is generally considered to be a masterpiece. I’ve agreed with that assessment. But although the subject matter of the two ballets is roughly the same (and even though both rely on Mahler compositions as their musical base), Solitude is very different from Dark Elegies.

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

Dark Elegies has not been performed in this area, to my knowledge, for quite awhile. Although here it was most frequently presented by American Ballet Theatre, the most recent performance of it that I attended was a superb rendering in 2014 by New York Theatre Ballet (a repeat performance of its company premiere a year earlier), so it’s been a long time. But I remember it well, particularly the choreographed and emotional expressions of anguish by the lead couple (the parents), the complexity of the choreography for each couple, the support the parents receive from other members of the community, and of course, since it’s Tudor, the visualization of the psychological impact of the child’s death. But we don’t know whether one or more children died (I’ve always assumed it was the parents’ one child) or the reason for the child’s death. And as much as I enjoy Mahler’s music, I’m less enamored of his songs (maybe because they’re sung in a language I don’t understand, although their expression of grief is apparent), even though in Dark Elegies, in tempo and tone and timbre they fit Tudor’s choreography and the subject matter like a glove.

Solitude has the same qualities, though expressed very differently. We know exactly what the cause of the child’s death is (Ratmansky tells the viewer in the program that the dance is dedicated “to the children of Ukraine, victims of the war”), and the Mahler compositions he uses relate overwhelming sadness, but do so far differently than do the lieder in Dark Elegies.

And there’s at least one further difference other than, obviously, the nuts and bolts of the choreography and staging. One of the reasons I appreciated the NYTB performance of Dark Elegies so much was its more intimate atmosphere. In a large theater, despite whatever excellent performances of it there may be, there’s a distance, a separation from the audience that a more intimate setting would, and did, remedy. Even though it was presented in a typically large theatrical setting, the way Ratmansky has staged and structured Solitude eliminates that as an issue: the solitude in Solitude is painfully apparent, and maximized when the stage is otherwise empty, and the larger stage allows for a visual counterbalance and a more expansive and complex presentation.

Joseph Gordon in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

For much of the beginning of the piece, set downstage audience-left is the body of a dead child (given the subject matter, that’s understood) with the lead character, apparently the child’s father (Joseph Gordon, who here delivers the performance of a lifetime) kneeling on the stage floor next to the body. At some point soon thereafter, the focus of the dance expands to include dancers who populate the audience-right side of the stage. Subsequently a few other dancers would watch him and then move on…into a community that recognizes the death but is used to it, and in which there’s a sense of collective and accumulated grief that accompanies the knowledge that this particular child’s death is just one of many that they’ve all suffered through – as well as the numbness that such sudden and horrific deaths, repeated over and over, can inflict.

All this is demonstrated not only in the staging and choreography (which I’ll get to below), but in the music. Ratmansky uses two Mahler compositions: the “Funeral March” from Symphony No. 1 (Movement 3), and the 4th Movement “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5. The “Funeral March” is a well-known and brilliant sequence relating to death, possibly the death of a child by dint of an unusual twist: the Funeral March is the melody from a multi-society children’s nursery rhyme: Frère Jacques [aka, among other titles, “Bruder Martin” and “Brother John” (“Are You Sleeping, Are You Sleeping, …”)], except as Mahler adapts it it’s distorted, played in minor key, slowed (but still readily recognizable), and delivered with emphasis on bass and oboe. All this effectively converts the death/ funeral into a sardonic commentary. [“Are you sleeping” referring to death, not sleep.]

Further, Mahler interrupts this morbid funeral march with eerily happy-sounding music (evocative of Shostakovich, and at times sounding a bit like Klezmer), before returning to the slowly-disappearing sound of the march – essentially stating musically that there’s more to grief than mourning. There’s the constantly rekindled memory that accompanies the perpetual pain.

(r-l) Joseph Gordon
and School of American Ballet student
Theo Rochios
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

This is a Mahler master-stroke that Ratmansky masterfully translates into a powerful, and uniquely focused dance. With the support of the score he visualizes this tragic death of a child by anonymous forces outside the child’s (or his father’s) control, while concurrently evoking memories of the child while alive, happy and playing – and then returning to the anguish and pain. At the same time, Ratmansky amplifies this reality of grief to apply to the community as a whole in the form of happy memories permanently overshadowed by the deaths of their own children in the same war. [I’ve frequently commented on the sense of humanity with which Ratmansky imbues so many of his ballets with the same sense of humanity reflected in many ballets by Robbins. To the best of my recollection, Robbins approached his In Memory Of… (ironically relating in large part to the death of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s widow) in a manner similar to Ratmansky’s approach here (although in a much different situation and stage environment), and with similar impact.]

This, as much as anything else, differentiates Solitude from Dark Elegies (at least my recollection of it). People in mourning don’t dwell on their grief 100% of the time. Although that grief overwhelms everything else, it’s human nature for grieving people to remember the child (or any deceased person close to them) the way that child lived – and each time that the happy memory enters the mourner’s thoughts, the melancholy that eventually returns is accompanied by increased pain – and anger where the death was sudden and preventable (rather than, say, a consequence of disease or a natural disaster).

(bottom left) Joseph Gordon
and School of American Ballet student Theo Rochios,
and New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude”
Photo by Erin Baiano

My recollection of choreographic details are vague – Solitude is a dance that’s best visually inhaled without noting choreographic details. For now, broad generalities will have to suffice. [I expect to see Solitude again at least one more time this season. I may then correct any errors in describing Ratmansky’s choreography that may inadvertently have been made following one viewing (which I’ve already done in revisions to this original posting) and add comments about the outstanding performances by other members of the featured cast).]

After the opening scene of Gordon with his dead child and the initial visualization of the community, slowly but surely the other dancers (there are 13 more in total), wearing mostly identical costumes in blue, blue/gray, or gray (at least from my point of view, given the appropriately dim lighting), and with some of the featured dancers in stark black costumes, dance as if numb to the pain but at the same time recognizing it: limbs are turned (not emphatically or angularly; slowly) downward and inward. And when the tempo of Mahler’s score increases. the pace of the dance picks up consistent with it, but consistent with the memory of the grief as well.

Occasionally, a couple of dancers approach Gordon and the child, and clearly empathize and offer condolences, but, again, move on. At some point, two dancers lift up the dead child and take him into the procession they’ve formed, while Gordon remains in his original position. As the boy walks with them, eventually being “escorted” offstage, one realizes that boy is attending his own funeral (as Gordon imagines it). Then, alone on stage, Gordon finally rises and dances an agonizing, and relatively lengthy, solo that encapsulates his emptiness.

The other dancers gradually return, as does the boy (in Gordon’s character’s memory), here interacting with them as he may have done before his death. Shortly thereafter, Gordon, who had returned to his original position downstage audience-left, rises and joins the other townsfolk, but at the same time is isolated from them in his own world. His movement qualities reflect what I’ve tried to describe – the constant, continuing agony of his child’s death, interspersed with memories of the child alive. Gordon’s despair eventually turns to anger, manifested by, among other things, an explosive series of circle jetés (coupé jeté en tournant en manége) as if, in his character’s mind, he’s trying to deal with the accumulated alternating rage and misery and/ or to escape the overwhelming pain.

But, of course, he can’t escape.

Eventually the child (young Theo Rocchia, a student at the School of American Ballet who appears to be maybe 13 or 14 years old) returns to his death position, Gordon returns to his kneeling position beside his dead child, and the life of the community, miserable as it has become, goes on, but in permanent memory of deaths with which they are all too familiar. Even the soaring lifts that Ratmansky inserts in this concluding scene are focused inward and downward, numbed by the events but still unalterably affected by them. And when the dancers exit, the final scene is exactly as it was when the dance began, with Gordon positioned downstage audience-left, kneeling beside his son and alone in his grieving solitude as the curtain comes down. At the end of the day, and at the end of this dance, grief is painful and personal.

One more quality of note – for now. There’s an upstage scrim with colors applied horizontally (either painted on or projected), resembling a distant landscape or horizon. [Lighting designed by Mark Stanley.] As the dance progresses, the scrim rises from the floor revealing solid dark grey at its bottom that moves up as the scrim gradually does. And as the dance ends, the colors (sometimes, to my eye, indicating the flash of indiscriminate Russian bombs on Ukraine land) in the scrim disappear, yielding only the bleak dark gray sky – and a jumble of something at the foot of the scrim looking like rubble…and maybe bodies.

In every conceivable respect, Solitude is an eloquent masterpiece, an instant classic that I feel fortunate, and privileged, to have seen.

In a Landscape:

The late Albert Evans was a highly-respected company Principal (I had the pleasure of watching his performances many times) who occasionally choreographed as well. In a Landscape is one of three dances he created for the company, this one as a piece d’occasion for the company’s 2005 Opening Night Gala. Thereafter, apparently, it was never seen again. Where, and why, has it been hiding? It’s a most interesting piece, and was given gripping, stellar performances by its two dancers, Ava Sautter, currently a member of NYCB’s corps, and Gilbert Bolden III, who was recently promoted to soloist.

The piece isn’t “about” anything, but it gives a definite sense of being about something, even if it’s intentionally unclear what that something is. The movement quality is stark and displays no characterization (although in this ballet the absence of characterization is a type of characterization), and the costumes – as I recall a black leotard and black mesh-like tights for Sautter and a black or dark gray short-pant outfit for Bolden, is decidedly emphatic in its unimpressive simplicity. And the movement looks simple too, although it includes an abundance of intricate partnering.

The ballet’s initial image shows Bolden emerging from the upstage left (audience right) wings, pulling Sautter, who is somewhat sprawled on the stage floor. When they reach roughly a third of the way across the stage, the pair abandon their positions and proceed to dance a sterile-looking, emotionless duet. At first I thought this was a poor man’s Agon (with respect to Agon’s central pas de deux), but it soon became clear that there was something different about it. Where Agon delivers a sense of mutual though emotionless dependency, here the sense is of a sort of captivity (although one might discern some sort of implied relationship sotto voce as well).

Ava Sautter and Gilbert Bolden III
in Albert Evans’s “In a Landscape”
Photo by Erin Baiano

After approximately ten minutes of this (the dance is choreographed to a score by John Cage (“Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard,” Nos. 1 and2, and “In a Landscape” – which to my ear sound nothing like the music he composed to accompany dances by Merce Cunningham), the pair return to their previous upstage positions and Bolden proceeds to pull Sautter toward the other side of the stage.

At this point, it’s clear that the pulling mechanism, if there is one, is so thin or so transparent that it can’t be seen as the stage is lit. More likely, however, it’s a simulated pull, with Sautter transported slowly, approaching the stage’s vertical midpoint as the curtain comes down. The upstage area where this occurs corresponds to the location in which the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous “floating on air” sequence occurs (in the Grand Pas de Deux finale of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”). So, with the machinery for a simulated pull in place, Sautter and Bolden are positioned exactly where that mechanism is that “moves” a panel of the stage floor to simulate unsupported and movement-free transport.

Is Sautter’s character a captured animal, or human, prey? Is this a metaphor for some other kind of captivity or submission? The viewer doesn’t know. But the piece is so interesting-looking, and was so well-executed by both dancers that this lack of specificity doesn’t at all matter – as the audience’s rapt attention and boisterous reaction during the curtain calls recognized.

Since In a Landscape was originally cast for Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal, I suspect that Whelan, the company’s Assistant Artistic Director, had something to do with its return to the repertory. Are there any more such seemingly long-lost ballets hiding in NYCB’s attic?

The balance of the February 9th program:

That evening’s program opened with the return of Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina. As I may have mentioned previously, I was in the audience for Ballo dell Regina’s premiere, and watched Merrill Ashley’s legendary performance – and recall the audience’s reaction both to that performance and the ballet as a whole. [Even though it’s anecdotal, in those days (despite what may be current wisdom), audiences – at least those who inhabited the orchestra – generally were not thrilled with Balanchine’s forays into avant-garde ballet. As the audience exited after Ballo‘s premiere concluded, I heard several ecstatically proclaim “Balanchine’s back!”]

I haven’t seen Ballo very often since then, but notwithstanding very fine performances, I’ve not seen any ballerina equal Ashley’s performance. After seeing last Friday’s performance, that remains the case.

Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley,
and New York City Ballet,
in George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina”
Photo by Erin Baiano

That’s not to say that this performance was lacking in a particular way. Megan Fairchild was an effervescent Queen, flying through the choreography as if she were a sprite unbound. But maybe that’s the deficiency – Ashley’s performance, or at least my memory of it – was less buoyant than grounded, with a sense of earthly majesty, and no one I’ve seen in the role since has been able to quite match it. Gravitas is an overused word (which I’m guilty of overusing), but that’s the sense that’s missing.

As her supporting four featured dancers, all four (Alston Macgill, Emma Von Enck, Ashley Hod, and Olivia MacKinnon) did excellent work, but Hod had the more distinctive choreography, which she displayed flawlessly.

I’ve reviewed former Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins’s Hallelujah Junction several times, and won’t revisit it here. Suffice it to say that it was given strong performances by featured dancers Alexa Maxwell, Gordon, and the particularly outstanding KJ Takahashi.

Mira Nadon, with pianist Elaine Chelton,
in Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Robbins’s The Concert is a comic masterpiece. [I’ve used that word a lot recently, not so much reflecting a lowering of standards, but more a consequence of the special scheduling this 75th Anniversary Year that features an abundance of such ballets.] The cast, largely consisting of role debuts since it’s been so long since NYCB last performed it (Mira Nadon, Andrew Veyette, and Meaghan Dutton O’Hara were the leads), wasn’t bad at all. But … something was missing, and I can’t quite figure out what that is.

With nothing else to attribute it to, I suspect that the tempo set by the NYCB orchestra (not by hilarious pianist Elaine Chelton) was a tad too slow. I have no idea whether that’s an accurate comment – just a sense I had; but maybe it’s worth examining, and, if so, remedying.

Mira Nadon in Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The balance of the February 15th program:

The February 15th program opened with Opus 19/ The Dreamer. This Robbins ballet has been regularly in NYCB’s repertory, and I’ve reviewed it many times before. I won’t address it now except to briefly comment on the lead performances.

Both Taylor Stanley and Unity Phelan executed the lead roles well. But…as with The Concert, my memory of other performances is stronger. Neither did anything wrong, and it wasn’t the orchestra’s tempi, but to me there was a level of passion that I’ve seen most recently in performances by Gonzalo Garcia and Gordon, and Lauren Lovette and Sterling Hyltin, that seemed missing to me. Maybe I’ll change my opinion on second view next week.

Isabella LaFreniere and Jules Mabie
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Symphony in Three Movements, which closed Thursday’s program, is one of my favorite Balanchine non-narrative ballets (or any ballet, for that matter). And unlike Opus 19/ The Dreamer, it hasn’t been on a NYCB program in quite some time. Its return is most welcome. All the featured dancers (Ashley Laracey (the girl in “salmon”) replacing Tiler Peck, Erica Pereira (the “jumping” girl), and Isabelle LeFreniere, the last of the lead ballerinas to appear) performed well, as did their partners (Jules Mabie, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and David Gabriel), and as did the 26-dancer corps. Again, I’ll see this same cast next week, and I’ll expand my comments about this ballet, another masterpiece, then.