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

April 30, 2024: Bourrée Fantasque, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Errante, Symphony in C 

May 1, 2024 (Spring Gala): Rubies, Dig the Say (world premiere), Underneath There Is Light (world premiere)

May 9, 2024: Interplay, Other Dances, Gustave Le Gray No. 1, Year of the Rabbit

Jerry Hochman

After focusing its attention on its Balanchine Foundation (Fall 2023 Season) and its Evolution (Winter 2024 Season), New York City Ballet is concluding its 75th Anniversary Celebration with a Spring 2024 Season focusing on its Future. While I recognize that new pieces are the lifeblood of dance companies – particularly those, like NYCB, known primarily for the quality of their legacy ballets, based on those ballets that I was able to see so far this season, NYCB shouldn’t rush to replace its continuing repertory anytime soon. On the contrary, significant future-facing ballets may be found more frequently by going backward: back to the future.

The world premieres presented at the Company’s annual Spring Gala, Justin Peck’s new pas de deux, Dig the Say, and Amy Hall Garner’s Underneath, There is Light appeared relatively unimpressive on first view. While each has something, or multiple things, to commend it, particularly in the selection and utilization of their respective scores, on first view Dig the Say presents nothing that hasn’t already been seen, albeit in a different context; and Underneath, There is Light, although taking a different approach from other dances with similar themes, came across on first view as diffuse and unnecessarily dense. On the other hand, the legacy dances presented in the three programs were either outstanding or close to it. The differences were striking – and obvious.

I’ll discuss the programs in order of presentation.

The April 30th Program:

The first program that I was able to attend this season included four ballets created by George Balanchine, one of which I’d not previously seen. It was a glorious program, capped by one of the finest performances of Symphony in C that I can recall.

Bourée Fantasque was created in 1949 to music by Emmanuel Chabrier that Balanchine curated from a variety of separate compositions. I didn’t recall having previously seen it, so I approached it as if I were seeing a piece that was new to me. As it turns out, I discovered that I did see Bourrée Fantasque previously, but performed by Miami City Ballet. My take on it based on the piece at this performance is the same as it was following MCB’s presentation.

On the surface Bourée Fantasque is a crazy quilt of movement quality and a rainbow of colorful costumes (by Karinska). But it all comes together as a dance that’s unusual, different, and overflowing with good cheer. As I wrote eight years ago, the ballet has an air of effervescence; of frivolity. If it were wine, it would be Beaujolais.

Bourée Fantasque is a non-narrative ballet, but in Balanchine’s non-narrative ballets there’s often more than simply a visualization of the music. That’s the case here. The ballet’s opening movement, which featured a duet with Mira Nadon and Andres Zuniga, reveals a touch of low-key comedy. The second, anchored by a pas de deux danced here by Emilie Gerrity and Gilbert Bolden III, is lovely with an air of mystery, with both dancers making optimum impressions. The final movement, which featured Emma Von Enck and Victor Abreu, was a model of ingenuity and visual effect.

Emilie Gerrity, Gilbert Bolden III, and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Bourrée Fantasque”
Photo by Erin Baiano

And then there’s the fabulous finale. The finale looks strange at first, in part because it’s different from so many other “big ending” ballets that Balanchine choreographed to Tchaikovsky. Regardless – and maybe because of – its relative strangeness, it’s great fun to watch. Here Balanchine maintains the sectional divisions that precede the finale, but separates the groups of ballerinas from each segment (if they were a watch, one group would be at 10 o’clock, another at 12, the third at 2). Like phalanxes of soldiers (a friend described it as three ponytail brigades), one unit would move forward and back, then another, followed by the third, and continuing basically in that form until the closing moments, as if taunting each other in feigned battle. It’s both intriguing and ingenious – and a little intoxicating to watch because it’s so unusual-looking. The result is a set of images that looks even more spectacular because of its novelty than it is.

Bourée Fantasque is rarely performed. That’s unfortunate – it deserves to be displayed more often than the few exposures in this program this season.

Megan Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht
in George Balanchine’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which Balanchine choreographed in 1975 to four movements of the five-movement orchestral suite of Georges Bizet’s “Jeux d’Enfants,” is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen of a toy soldier and his love for a paper doll. It’s a sweetly lachrymal little gem that might wear out its welcome if performed too frequently, but that’s not an issue here. Megan Fairchild danced her role as the doll that the soldier falls for, not inappropriately, as if it was a tune-up for Coppelia (which is scheduled to finally return to NYCB’s repertory next fall), but Daniel Ulbricht’s soldier is the real star here. I’ve seen this piece many times – always, to my recollection, with Ulbricht dancing the role. No matter how many times he’s cast in it, he always makes it look fresh.

Errante (which, translated, means “wanderer”) is a strange piece. In its original incarnation as Tzigane, to Ravel’s eponymous composition, it was choreographed as a vehicle especially for Suzanne Farrell after returning to NYCB following a sojourn with Maurice Bejart’s Ballet du XXe Siècle (Ballet of the Twentieth Century).

I never saw Tzigane, so, despite what I see as a regrettable name change, I looked forward to seeing Nadon’s interpretation even without having seen Farrell’s performance as a baseline. [I was privileged, and extremely fortunate, to have been in the audience for Farrell’s momentous return to NYCB – with curtain call after curtain call after curtain call … from an audience welcoming back its prodigal daughter – an experience I’ll not ever forget.] I have, however, seen photographs of Farrell in the role, and combined with seeing her live in other dances, I have a general notion of how she likely appeared. And since Farrell (to whom Balanchine bequeathed the rights to it) reportedly restaged the role and taught it to (or coached) Nadon, I expected a fairly similar portrayal.

Mira Nadon in George Balanchine’s “Errante”
Photo by Erin Baiano

That part of Errante didn’t disappoint. Nadon, who has been the company’s iron lady this season, danced the solo with a wonderful combination of elan and sultry sensuality, adding yet another dimension to her vaunted versatility. As a solo, it was perfection – or at least as perfect as it can be without being Farrell.

But it wasn’t just a solo. After the lengthy opening solo, Nadon was joined by Aaron Sanz. While he complemented and partnered her sufficiently well, he was soon joined by a four-pair set of similarly attired supporters cheering them on. At that point Errante crossed the line from being something reasonably unique to being something too closely resembling, in atmosphere if not choreography, the Gypsy Dance from standard productions of Don Quixote. [Oh gawd – is that Gypsy Dance going to get a name change too?] With the loss of its sole focal point, the piece became … ordinary.

Baily Jones and KJ Takahashi
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I won’t spend much time on Symphony in C since it’s so well-known and is performed frequently. That being said, the performances here merit superlatives. Gerrity and Chun Wai Chan led the opening Movement flawlessly. [Well, Gerrity (another ballerina who’s had a wonderful season) had one minor slip that had no impact whatsoever on her performance – I mention it only to prove I was paying attention.] Baily Jones and JK Takahashi led the allegro vivace Third Movement with vigor, and Alston Macgill and Troy Schumacher did the same with the similarly-paced Fourth Movement. [Jones had a slight ankle-twist in the Coda, but it, too, had zero impact on her performance. See “paying attention” above.] And the 38-dancer corps (including four apprentices) danced with remarkable precision throughout.

Unity Phelan, Alec Knight and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But the most superb of these superb Symphony in C performances was the Second Movement, danced by Unity Phelan and Alec Knight. The pair handled this adagio movement with non-specific emotion that perfectly matched Bizet’s score, combined with complete mastery of the choreography. I’ve never seen this segment danced with such understated passion. Kudos to them, and to the rest of the cast.

The May 2nd 2024 performance (The Spring Gala):

NYCB’s annual Spring Gala began with Rubies, a certain crowd-pleaser that obviously pleased the Gala crowd. Here it was given typically fine performances by Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, and by the always impressive Nadon as the Tall Girl. That’s nothing new. The evening’s draw for those attendees who didn’t come just to mingle with dancers at the Gala dinner were the two world premieres. Neither piece received the kind of ovation by which Gala audiences usually reward new pieces on a Gala program, no matter the quality, just because that’s what Gala audiences do. Here, to my ear, each received a fairly typical NYCB sitting ovation, minus accompanying cheers. Maybe they were hungry.

My preference between the two premieres is Peck’s Dig the Say, even though (or perhaps because) it has no pretensions beyond the pretension of applying mostly standard operating ballet steps to a non-standard operating score. It looks like something Peck could have knocked off during a coffee break while choreographing Illinoise.

I’ll get to the music after a brief discussion of the dance, which is essentially a pas de deux for Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia. The atmosphere (created by Brandon Sterling Baker’s set and lighting) is somewhat like a combined indoor/ outdoor gym, a makeshift play area under elevated train or subway tracks, or a construction or warehouse. Each of the wing curtains features a numeral, lending credence to the third alternative, but it doesn’t really matter – the point, I think, is that whatever the area may have been intended to be, it was repurposed here as a play area. And the costumes (by Humberto Leon) were nondescript brown/grey, adding nothing that might detract from the sense of urban play.

In a similar way, here ballet has been repurposed as urban play.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia
in Justin Peck’s “Dig the Say”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The choreography may be seen as having assumed the format of an escalating competition of sorts, but I saw play rather than competition (“look what I can do” as opposed to “anything you can do…”), starting with one or the other of the pair bouncing or passing a ball – a red ball (as I recall) about the size of a volleyball – back and forth, or bouncing it off a wall (the upstage wall), until Mejia tosses it into the wings in favor of more adult, and more sophisticated, stuff.

The remainder of the piece is a classical pas de deux grafted onto the score, which is the only unusual quality of the piece. It was a classical pas de deux out of context, featuring the pair’s usually brilliant execution.

So, ultimately, what made the dance different was its score (and the urban-ish setting derived from it).

The score Peck uses is “Dig the Say,” by Vijay Iyer. Ears to the ground as usual, I had no idea who Iyer was – though from the sound of the music (played live by PUBLIQuartet) it was low decibel jazzy-ish, overlaid with an ambiance of “soul.” So I thought Iyer was an obscure jazz artist from jazz’s formative years. Don’t ask how I came to that conclusion – maybe because the piece didn’t give me a migraine. As it turns out, I wasn’t far wrong….about the music. I was very wrong about Iyer.

Iyer is a contemporary American-born composer, pianist, bandleader, producer, musicologist, and writer of Tamil descent, based in New York City, who has garnered more honors and awards than can fit in this review – including winning a 2013 MacArthur Genius Award and being voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat magazine international critics’ polls in 2012,2015, 2016, and 2018. He joined the Senior Faculty at the Department of Music at Harvard in 2013, and has been a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and The New School, among others. He recently served as music director of the Ojai Music Festival, was artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been featured in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Composers in Focus series. And that’s just for starters.

Dig the Say was commissioned by the Bach Society Festival for Brooklyn Rider, and premiered in 2012. According to the “eamc” website: “As part of a large-scale commissioning project, the [Brooklyn Rider] quartet asked several composers to write works inspired by a creative muse of the last 50 years. For Dig the Say, Iyer took singer James Brown as his muse. The title of the work, as well as its four continuous movements [I. carry the ball, IIa. this thing together, IIb. up from the ground, and III. to live tomorrow] come from the lyrics to Brown’s song “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’ (Just Open Up the Door, I’ll Get it Myself).”

In another article, Iyer told the writer that Brown is one of his biggest musical influences and that what sounded like a bad idea on the surface drew him to it. “To try and write a string quartet as a tribute to James Brown, that just doesn’t sound right,” he explains. “It’s almost so wrong that it’s right. This is exactly the wrong thing to do so I know I have to do it.”[From a 2016 article [unattributed] on the KUAF website titled: “When Bad Ideas Lead to Innovation: Vijay Iyer’s Transformations.”]

Perhaps Peck, similarly, decided to do exactly the wrong thing to do – to choreograph a classical ballet to “Dig the Say,” but he had to do it. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he was inspired maybe not so much by the score, but certainly by the names of the movements to it. [Now we, or at least I, know where that idea of using a “ball” came from, as well as “doing things together” (playing) “up from the ground” (ballet). Clever.

Even if one thinks that Dig the Say is of minimum significance, which is my position, it’s nevertheless within the vaunted tradition of doing the same old thing in new and different ways.

Miriam Miller
in Amy Hall Garner’s “Underneath, There Is Light”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Garner’s Underneath, There Is Light, sees the same old thing in new and different ways too, but the result, while far more ambitious, is less accomplished. That being said, I’ve grown to appreciate aspects of the piece in hindsight more than I did as I watched it, which leads to my ultimate indecision as to its overall merit. [Translated: for now, I’m punting.]

I’m not sure what Garner intends to show with this piece – or whether she intends to show anything. But the dance’s title, as well its broad strokes and its carefully curated score, seem to support a visualization of life on the surface (the surface of what is unclear and may be irrelevant) as being frenzied, purposeless, and haphazard, but beneath the surface is the strength/ beauty/ tranquility of light – or something like that: an inversion of sorts, of the characteristic dichotomy of sadness/ madness/ evil below and light/ relief/ deliverance emanating from above (or, alternatively, from a great distance beyond the horizon).

Underneath, There is Light is choreographed to an assemblage of seemingly disparate compositions by five composers The names of the pieces are listed in the program under the heading “Music,” as “I” through “IV” (with “I” encompassing two compositions), but there is no listed series of “movements” or “segments” for the piece itself. So although the choreography is somewhat tethered to the score, the dance is independent from it, and follows its own path.

Garner divides the dance into two distinct segments, although within the first, lengthier, segment there are subtle choreographic differences. The bulk of the dance appears to have been choreographed to the first three listed compositions. Jonathan Dove’s “Run to the Edge,” which opens the piece, is filled with dramatic force, transmitting a sense of urgency, danger, and fear. That sense continues with William Grant Still’s “Cumbia y Congo” from “Danzas de Panamá,” beginning with percussive sounds, but mellowing somewhat while maintaining a more melodic but still fast pace, which continues, with more tension and feverish action, interrupted by periods of percolating silence, in the “Fuga con pajarillo” (fugue with birds) from Aldemaro Romero’s “Suite for Strings” Thereafter, the pace abruptly changes. There’s a period of calming near-silence provided by Michael Zev Gordon’s somewhat enigmatic “From New Year to Yom Kippur” from his album “Diary Pieces 2018,” which is followed by the even more serene and peaceful orchestral tones of Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of the Janiculum,” from “Pines of Rome.”

Though unusual, the assortment isn’t as strange as it sounds – at least in terms of what Garner apparently is trying to show. On the contrary, they’re a perfect fit. I saw plenty of cross-stage movement, which could indicate running as a norm (as in leading hectic lives, or running away from something). When the sense of the music changes to the two “dance” composition sections, there was some breakdown of the choreography to include a focus on individuals or pairs or trios (exemplified primarily, in my memory, by Miriam Miller and her partners, but seemingly each member of the cast was allocated a brief opportunity to shine) performing distressed vignettes before yielding to the continuing rapid-fire processional. However, despite the 19-dancer cast and the brief visual interruptions, there was a sense of emptiness – not only of soul, though that’s there, but of space. Too much of the stage was bare too frequently, with none of the solos, duets or trios lasting long enough to give an impression beyond frenzied, non-directed movement.

(l-r) Chun Wai Chan, Mary Thomas MacKinnon,
and Gilbert Bolden III
in Amy Hall Garner’s “Underneath, There Is Light”
Photo by Erin Baiano

And then this first segment ends with an apocalyptic crescendo (the ending to what must have been the orchestral version of the Romero piece). The stage went dark, and the audience started dutifully applauding, thinking the piece had ended. But it was only a lengthier than usual temporary pause. When light re-illuminates the stage, the setting is entirely different. There’s minimal movement, a sense of awakening, and of light and peace restored. The lighting and set (by Mark Stanley) give the impression, at least to me, that this was underground (or after the rubble of the pre-“lights-out” event had settled). With Mary Thomas MacKinnon leading the action, all was serenity. Underneath, there was light.

Garner’s use of corps dancers throughout the piece is admirable – though several were substitutes for injured dancers of higher rank, I don’t see what difference that might have made – and using newbies like Grace Scheffel (who appeared to have the lion’s share of newbie responsibility) may well have added to the sense of fear and apprehension that permeated the first segment of the piece. And Garner’s musical selections are so specific and jibe so completely with what I see as her apparent intent, that I didn’t see similar examples of this undeniable intelligence in her choreography may be the result of my simply not recognizing them on first view.

(l-r) Chun Wai Chan, Grace Scheffel and Gilbert Bolden III
in Amy Hall Garner’s “Underneath, There Is Light”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Given the positives, and Garner’s obvious determination to have the piece presented as it was, I’ll withhold critical judgment until I have an opportunity to see Underneath, There Is Light again. Maybe I missed something. It happens.

The May 9th Program:

Nothing cures the doldrums created by a late cold-snap than an unexpectedly very fine program and superb role debuts.

The hit of the evening was Jerome Robbins’s Other Dances, which was choreographed for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I saw them dance the piece at its American Ballet Theatre premiere in June, 1976, roughly a month after its world premiere at a gala for NYC’s Library of the Performing Arts. I’ve seen it many times since then, often with superb, exceptional performances.

Indiana Woodward and Joseph Gordon are now included in my roster of superb performances. Theirs was a traditional execution of the piece, thoroughly focusing on, and perfectly executing, the folk roots of the dance.

Indiana Woodward and Joseph Gordon
in Jerome Robbins’s “Other Dances”
Photo by Erin Baiano

If there was anything to criticize (and a stretch is required to find anything) it’s that the folk expressions were delivered with such absolute perfection that they looked a bit “mannered.” But they’ll get past that quickly, and make the roles not only the way most people expect them to be, but with added individual characteristics not inconsistent with Robbins’s choreography (as I discussed in my October, 2018 comparison of the Other Dances as performed by T. Peck and Joaquin De Luz to that by Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo).

The evening began with Robbins’s Interplay. I’ve seen this piece many times before, and it’s not one of my favorite Robbins dances. But in choreographic context, it presages the urban “street” sense (of the time) of many of Robbins’s subsequent pieces, including (but not limited to) N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz and his ensemble dances for West Side Story.

Alston Macgill and Victor Abreu
in Jerome Robbins’s “Interplay”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In addition to Alston Macgill, who seemed to be everywhere at once (and who has had a noteworthy season), the appropriately youthful and lively cast consisted of Sarah Harmon, Kennedy Targosz, Rommie Tomasini, David Gabriel, Abreu, Takahashi, and Zuniga.

I’ve had difficulty with those pieces choreographed by Pam Tanowitz. Those few that I’ve seen have appeared sterile, academic, and emotionless, appreciated more by like-minded purists rather than typical ballet audiences. Perhaps that’s why Gustave Le Gray No. 1 was such a pleasant surprise.

Choreographed to Caroline Shaw’s composition, even though the dance is as emotionless as others, it flows as well as simply moves from one position to the next. Much of this quality is provided by the superb Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung costumes, presumably with input from Tanowitz. Each of the four dancers – Naomi Corti, Emily Kikta, Ruby Lister, and Nadon (see my “iron lady” comment above) – is costumed identically: in flaming red body suits and shoes, brilliantly abetted by red, gauze-like material cut like scarves and connected on one end to the dancers’ arms or shoulders and on the other end to their ankles so that whenever the dancer moves, the “scarves” flow with them. It’s a neat visual trick, but it’s an indispensable ingredient in the dance, giving movement that might otherwise look static instead look fluid.

(l-r) Emily Kikta, Naomi Corti, Ruby Lister, and Mira Nadon
in Pam Tanowitz’s “Gustave le Gray No.1”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Gustave Le Gray No. 1 also has a quality rarely present in the examples of Post-Modern dance I’ve seen:  a sense of humor. The music is played live (by Stephen Gosling) on piano, which is stationed mid-stage audience left – effectively being the dance’s set. But toward the end of the piece, the dancers gather around the piano and pull it across to mid-stage audience right, with Gosling rising from his piano stool and traveling with, and concurrently playing, the piano as it moves – and upon arrival one of the dancers grabs a replacement piano stool from the audience-right wings and places it so Gosling can continue playing while seated.  Even though there’s no apparent purpose to this (the music quality and tempo didn’t change as the piano was moved), the visual interruption is startling, and prompts giggles. Humor without purpose is still humor.

The remainder of the dance’s movement quality is interesting though not particularly unusual. But here that’s not a bad thing. And the dancers’ execution throughout appeared impeccable – and Gosling deserves recognition for not only going above and beyond, but across.

(l) Emma Von Enck and New York City Ballet
in Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The evening concluded with J. Peck’s Year of the Rabbit, his 2012 masterwork that put him and his choreography on the map. The experience of seeing Year of the Rabbit during its first season was thrilling – its impact was similar to that of the pieces by Jiri Kylian when Nederlands Dans Company appeared at City Center in the late 1970s in its difference from the norm and in the visual excitement it generated. It was a breath of fresh air, and it still is.

Each of the lead dancers (Maxwell, Miller, Von Enck, Coll, Chan, and Takahashi), as well as the 12-dancer corps, excelled.

On to another two weeks of repertory, and then the mid-Spring A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most enchanting ballets that Balanchine created.