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

May 17, 2024: Scènes de Ballet, Pulcinella Variations, Symphony in Three Movements

May 22, 2024: Pictures at an Exhibition, Red Angels, Play Time, Glass Pieces

May 28, 2024: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Jerry Hochman

The final three weeks of New York City Ballet’s 6-week Spring 2024 Season, and the final performance of the company’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, ended on a high: George Balanchine’s perpetually enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other than that, the future-facing theme of this Spring season – as presented in the three programs over the past three weeks that I was able to attend – included only two dances I’d not previously seen (and one of those, Scènes de Ballet, is an outlier).

More significantly, the final dances on each of the two programs (as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the third) were the best of the bunch. That says something, I think, to which attention must be paid. Echoing what I wrote after the first half of this Spring 2024 season, NYCB shouldn’t rush to replace its continuing repertory anytime soon.

I’ll consider the programs in the order presented.

The May 17th Program:

Christopher Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet, in a way, is one of the finest of the company’s future-facing pieces for the same reason that makes it an outlier. That’s because the future it’s imagining is not someone’s notion of ballets of the future; rather, it gives the audience a peek at dancers of the future: it’s performed solely by students of NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet. Like other similar ballets, it’s delightful, if not particularly complex. And that’s fine. Here, complexity isn’t a controlling ingredient; showing off these young SAB dancers is.

And these SAB dancers delivered a wonderful performance – those who were assigned primarily to dance as a group as well as those given more featured roles. In addition to being impressed overall, I was particularly impressed by the two young dancers from one of the less advanced (because of age) grading levels who handled their assignments with intelligence as well as competence. Based on the program’s casting, they were likely Sasi Shrobe-Joseph and Stella Tompkins. [I commented on the latter previously, and favorably, when she appeared as Little Red Riding Hood in Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty in February, 2023.]

Students from the School of American Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

One of the finer segments of the enjoyable dance is when one of these two young dancers (most likely Shrobe-Joseph) stands next to an ersatz mirror, and dreams of what it will be like when she grows up and becomes a ballerina – which is accompanied, on the other side of the “mirror,” by a brief pas de deux performed by a pair of SAB’s senior students, Peyton Gin and Corbin Holloway. Its impact on a viewer with functioning tear ducts is roughly equivalent to when Young Clara first envisions her older self dancing with her adult Nutcracker Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker. [Holloway earned the YAGP “Hope Award” at age 11 and subsequently appeared in the 2019 incarnation of YAGP’s Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala program.]

Students from the School of American Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Undeniably, Scènes de Ballet successfully displays the continuing influx of talent that NYCB can look forward to.

Pulcinella Variations is Justin Peck’s look backward – just as the score for it, according to the program note, was Stravinsky’s way of looking backward. Although it’s not one of his best or most entertaining dances, on first exposure to it I admired what Peck tried to do, and what he successfully accomplished. And on those occasions when I’ve seen it since its premiere at the 2017 Fall Fashion Gala, that admiration continues.

New York City Ballet
in a prior performance of Justin Peck’s “Pulcinella Variations”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The dance is a series of seven segments (with the third itself divided into three sections), each of which, except for the opening and closing, focuses on solos or pairs. The entire nine-dancer cast performed optimally, but I was particularly impressed by Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara’s “Scherzino,” Anthony Huxley’s “Tarantella,” Unity Phelan and Harrison Coll in the “Gavotta,” and most significantly by Andres Zuniga in the “Toccata,” which demonstrated. in case there was any doubt, that this corps dancer is ready for more advanced opportunities. The remainder of the superlative cast consisted of Miriam Miller and Preston Chamblee in the “Serenata” pas de deux, Mary Thomas MacKinnon in the “Allegretto” solo, and Emilie Gerrity in the “Andantino” solo.

And a word about the costumes. Designed by Tsumori Chisato, they’re  outrageously different, but perfectly appropriate for a piece in which the characters, essentially, are differently-faceted clowns. They’re as original in their way as is Peck’s choreography, even though classically based.

Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The program closed with Balanchine’s monumental Symphony on Three Movements. I’ve discussed this piece at length on many occasions and won’t repeat all of that here. Suffice it to say that I consider it to be one of ballet’s wonders of the world. The cast of thousands (actually, 32) was led by Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley, Emma Von Enck and KJ Takahashi, and Megan LeCrone and Jules Mabie.

The May 22nd Program:

Pictures at an Exhibition is a strange-looking piece, and one that may require multiple viewings to fully appreciate Ratmansky’s accomplishment. It’s worth the effort. The more I see Pictures at an Exhibition, the more artistically exhilarating it becomes.

In an obvious way, Ratmansky here attempts to replicate the pictures at an art exhibition that had previously been captured and memorialized in the famous eponymous composition by Modest Mussorgsky that serves as the dance’s score. The ballet would be sufficiently impressive even if that were Ratmansky’s only goal, but I think there’s more to this piece than making artwork come to life.

New York City Ballet
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” as a memorial to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died suddenly in 1873, at age 39. Shortly after the artist’s death, Mussorgsky visited a retrospective exhibit of Hartmann’s work at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, and felt compelled to replicate the experience in music. He selected some eleven paintings to present musically, plus “promenades” representing strolling from one picture or room to another. Ratmansky divides his ballet comparably – but each scene is enhanced by the dancers’ costumes, designed by Adeline Andre, as well as by projections against the upstage scrim of artwork or parts thereof (as well as the dancers’ costumes, designed by Adeline Andre), but not by Hartmann. Both the costumes and the projections reference artwork by Wassily Kandinsky.

There must be a reason for this. My hypothesis is that in Pictures at an Exhibition, Ratmansky utilizes and honors Kandinsky, a Russian-born artist who returned to Russia after the Revolution but who subsequently was directly or indirectly coerced into leaving because of official disapproval of his artwork, in the same way that he utilizes and honors Dmitri Shostakovich in his “Shostakovich Trilogy” (though the latter is more direct and obvious) – and in the process continues to covertly criticize Soviet Communist artistic orthodoxy.

Regardless of any underlying motive, the dance stands or falls on its own, and Ratmansky’s choreography here is his usual interesting and complex creation, representing the Hartmann paintings (and interim interludes) as captured musically by Mussorgsky. My only complaint is that Ratmansky utilizes the original form of the score, composed for piano, rather than subsequent orchestrations of it, which are far more powerful. To me the piano version, regardless of how well-played it is (and here it was, by pianist Stephen Gosling), minimizes the composition’s (and the ballet’s) significance. But then, using the “original” version of anything is usually what Ratmansky prefers to do.

Mira Nadon
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”
Photo by Erin Baiano

At this performance, I found several segments and performances to be particularly noteworthy. The opening choreographed interpretation of a musical interpretation of a painting, “The Gnome,” featured Mira Nadon (replacing Sara Mearns). Nadon here is astonishing; is there nothing that this ballerina can’t do, and do convincingly? And “Tuileries,” danced by Tiler Peck with another brilliant display of ballet artistry (replicated in the segment titled “The Market at Limoges,” with Roman Mejia). “Baba Yaga,” danced by Andrew Veyette, Laracey, Nadon, and Rommie Tomasini, and the entire cast in the concluding “The Great Gate of Kiev.” In addition to those specifically mentioned, the cast included Aarón Sanz, Phelan, Tyler Angle (replacing Adrian Danchig-Waring), and Zuniga.

Tiler Peck
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Red Angels, choreographed in 1994 by the late Ulysses Dove, is also a visualization of its score – Richard Einhorn’s “Maxwell’s Demon.” There’s nothing wrong with it – the dance or the music – but to me it’s a one-note ballet that loses its novelty quickly.

Einhorn, a well-known American composer, here uses an electric violin to create the music’s piercing sounds that are mixed with more moderate but no less electric-sounding music. It was composed prior to Dove’s dance, from 1988-90, and has four separately-created, though similar-sounding, components. Its genesis is fascinating. Apparently, it received its sound, and its name, in connection with energy in a variety of forms. The title is derived from a novel by Thomas Pynchon that references a creature invented by physicist James Clerk Maxwell who could outwit the second law of thermodynamics and create energy from nothing. In that sense, the almost melodramatic score works. [Of at least equal significance is that the score was performed, live, by Mary Rowell, who was the personal platform for the music. Einhorn didn’t create “Maxwell’s Demon” for her, but it couldn’t have been created without her.]

And drama, if not melodrama, is integral to the ballet. In a recent interview with Madelyn Sutton for NYCB, Einhorn hypothesizes that Dove may have been inspired by “Rilke’s poems about angels, the Duino Elegies. The angels in Rilke’s poems are awesome creatures, not these white, flippy-floppy winged creatures; they’re incredibly strong, intense, supernatural forces as much as natural forces. I have no idea if Ulysses read Rilke at all, but it’s that kind of an angel I’m sure he had in mind.”

India Bradley and Taylor Stanley
in Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Dove’s angels are indeed intense, supernatural forces. They’re red, and live in an atmosphere of red that the choreography matches in dynamism. With its vibrant appearance and equally vibrant imagery that reflects classical ballet movement as if energized by electricity on some red planet, Red Angels must have looked extraordinary in 1994.

But after repeat viewings the choreography is overshadowed by the score and the staging (and the lighting by Mark Stanley, and the costumes by Holly Hynes). And notwithstanding the apocalyptic-sounding score and the fine performances by India Bradley and a particularly dominant Davide Riccardo (each in role debuts), and Gerrity and Stanley, the dance no longer conveys its original novelty, and, to my eye, the one-note drama and one-note color imagery grates as much as it electrifies. This may be why the dance is infrequently included in any given year’s repertory.

But at least Red Angels had (and to many may still have) drama and intensity and strength. Gianna Reisen’s Play Time has only one thing going for it: the fact that its score was composed by Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter, and visual artist Solange Knowles. There’s little doubt that Knowles is the major attraction for the piece, and the composition she created, though not particularly distinctive, is pleasant and danceable.

New York City Ballet in Gianna Reisen’s “Play Time”
Photo by Erin Baiano

My initial evaluation of the dance’s choreography following Play Time’s premiere at NYCB’s 2022 Fall Fashion Gala was that there’s no there there. This performance ratified that initial impression. The dance does have outrageous costumes (by Alijandro Gomez Palomo for Palomo Spain), which I found interesting on first view. Now, however, unlike other dances with outrageous costumes, they’re not pertinent to anything. Once you get beyond the glitter that’s poured all over each of them (that doesn’t show in the included photographs), they’re just weird.

New York City Ballet in Gianna Reisen’s “Play Time”
Photo by Erin Baiano

More importantly, the choreography doesn’t move in any given direction, or with any meaning. Even if one theorizes that the “Play Time” of the title doesn’t necessarily mean children’s play time, but could be some sort of play time for a small gathering of aliens, or visually abstract play time to accompany non-specific music, there’s still nothing there to latch on to. Ultimately, except for fleeting moments of interest, it’s not playing with a full deck. That’s not a reflection on any of the ten dancers, or on the four musicians who are individually credited.

The evening returned to excellence with the closing piece: Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces.

My initial impression of Glass Pieces following its 1983 premiere was not positive. I thought the music (by Philip Glass) was too repetitious, that the movement wasn’t that interesting, and that the sudden ending happened too suddenly. I was young then, and relatively ignorant of the variants of the contemporary classical musical world. I’m older now. [Lets leave it at that.] Ever since, on each subsequent viewing, I’ve admired more and more what Robbins did, and the dancers’ performances (particularly the magnificent corps), and even Glass’s music. I still dislike the sudden ending, but you can’t have everything. Regardless, I now consider Glass Pieces to be a masterpiece. Not only isn’t it outdated by copycat-looking dances that came later, it’s one of those rare future-facing ballets (created by one of NYCB’s founding choreographers – which is important to remember) that will endure beyond its time.

Ava Sautter and Aarón Sanz in Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The dance is populated by some fifty dancers, give or take, including six featured dancers (some of whom do double-duty in corps roles). It also includes an other-worldly looking pas de deux thrillingly performed by Ava Sautter and Sanz, in a segment titled “Facades,” accompanied by a seemingly endless parade of female dancers, facing backward, moving horizontally upstage from audience-right to left. The dance’s initial segment, titled “Rubric,” introduces the corps (and the six featured corps dancers) as a collection of individuals walking in different directions back and forth across the stage – eventually, like Glass’s music, revealing a pattern. The closing segment, “Akhnaten,” is an excerpt from Glass’s famous composition, and a dramatic change in the dance’s musical and choreographic texture. Put together, it’s all genius.

New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”
Photo by Erin Baiano

When it returns next year, see it, or see it again. I will: I’m still looking for the other glass in Glass Pieces. Sooner or later I’m sure I’ll find it.

The May 28th Program:

The last few times I saw Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, which was choreographed two years after Balanchine choreographed his version of the Shakespeare story (in 1962), I remarked that although I once loved it, over time its choreography became too much stereotypical Ashton (mannered, prissy); even the pas de deux, which I’d once admired, looked less than brilliant. Maybe once having seen it danced by Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, nothing else comes close.

Sara Mearns (center) and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Erin Baiano

It’s been a long time, relatively, since I last saw Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was the first evening-length ballet he choreographed in the U.S., and, generally, it too has lost some of the luster it had earned in my memory. It now comes across as a little too long, a little too expanded (e.g., the dance for Hippolyta and her hounds in Act I), and not nearly as funny as I recalled. Nevertheless, it’s still most enchanting, and nothing compares in sheer wonder and delight to its final series of scenes, including a pas de deux that steals the heart and a final image that is one of the most magical in all of ballet, or, for that matter, in all of theater.

As I’ve observed previously, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream Balanchine provides NYCB audiences with two ballets in one. Act I, following the ingeniously-choreographed introduction to the story’s main characters, consists of the “dream” part of Shakespeare’s story (events on one midsummer night when, according to European folklore, supernatural beings interacted with the real world and the humans in it). Here, Balanchine is reasonably faithful to the story Shakespeare tells. Since that story is common knowledge, or should be, I won’t elaborate on it.

But Act II isn’t so much faithful to Shakespeare’s words as it is to the spirit of the story Shakespeare tells. Presumably the wedding celebration (it’s not identified), Act II is really an excuse for a separate ballet that could be a standalone. But it’s not superfluous: it’s where most of the dancing is, and it’s a gift.

Essentially, Act II presents the human characters and their courtiers in a set of introductory dances and a concluding series of divertissements performed by twelve company dancers. Somewhere at the outset of the divertissements, or presented within the overall divertissements framework, is a pas de deux. Thereafter the divertissements conclude, and the story reverts to the forest and its fairies.

The Act II pas de deux encompasses what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about: the triumph of love. Balanchine summarizes love in one brilliant moment: the pas de deux’s final moving image of the danseur cradling the ballerina in his right arm, and then almost imperceptibly nudging her into a momentarily unsupported “free fall,” only to be again cradled – this time within his welcoming left arm.

(l-r) Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley
in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In a ballet filled with magical moments, this is the most choreographically magical of them all. Every time I see it, I sense that I’ll never see another executed as meaningfully, and with such muted but obvious passion. So it was with the opening night’s Act II pas de deux, performed by T.Peck and Angle. Neither “acted” with any particular emotion; it was all in the choreography and its peerless execution. Angle performed wearing the standard light blue head covering that all dancers in this role do, but here the effect was to eliminate what I’ve previously referred to as the distraction generated by his naturally bald head. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way – it’s simply a fact that one often has to feel compelled to overlook. Here, that wasn’t an issue. And Peck was her extraordinary time-controlling self. Every movement by the pair seemed not only executed to perfection, but with greater deliberation because the two stretched every second of time to its limits, filling the choreography with emotional intensity and with moving-sculpture beauty almost beyond comprehension.  To say it was a gasp-worthy performance would be an understatement.

Soon after that ended, the children (SAB students) returned. It wasn’t just any return: one girl in white emerged from the audience right wing, positioned herself center stage (a bit downstage), and started to turn (in demi pointe). And turn. And turn. In a tight circle. She was soon joined by other young dancers, who gathered in a circle (or two – I’m not sure) around her – with that lead turner effortlessly finding her way to join the larger group.

Emily Kitka
in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Erin Baiano

And soon after that, the piece returns to blurring the difference between dream and reality: the music returns to its original theme, the forest and Titania and Oberon and their retinues return to their fairy land (with the Act II dancers fading into the wings), followed by Puck, followed by magic, followed by concluding the ballet under the stars on a midsummer night.

There was only one role debut on Opening Night, Emma Von Enck as Butterfly (that role, and that role alone, was scheduled by be danced by other dancers in role debuts in subsequent performances), but there were several performances I’d not previously seen, even though not role debuts. The most surprising was Stanley. I never imagined Stanley as Puck; never having seen him move with the requisite lightness and sparkle. But just because I’d never seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t there – Stanley’s Puck is different, but in a positive way. He’s a Puck with gravitas – and, unless it was the lighting, a shock of white hair. Somehow, he and the role merge; it’s a wonderful portrayal.

On the other hand, Chun Wai Chan’s Titania’s Cavalier seemed a visitor from a different forest. Not that the Cavalier has much to do in this version beyond briefly being Titania’s dancing partner, but it left no impression. On the other hand (that’s three hands, I know), Nadon’s Helena, which I’d not previously seen, was a marvel. [See “Is there nothing this ballerina can’t do, and do convincingly?” above.]

Anthony Huxley
in George Balanchine’s
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

With respect to performances I’ve previously seen, Mearns remains a perfect fit for Titania. Somber at the outset, and smiling broadly as Act I concluded, this is one of her best roles. Huxley has grown into the role of Oberon, now clearly conveying not only competence, but regality. It’s a pleasure to watch him command the stage. And Emily Kikta’s Hippolyta was as strong and dominating as her portrayal always has been. As for the humans, Gerrity’s Hermia, Sanz’s Lysander, and Peter Walker’s Demetrius enlivened their roles appropriately.

Finally, Von Enck’s role debut as Butterfly was as clean and crisp and airy as … a butterfly. It reminded me somewhat of her Marzipan in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” – the role that, after seeing her debut in it, prompted me to predict her promotion to Soloist, which indeed happened shortly thereafter. I can’t claim any similar prognostication with respect to her promotion a few days prior to this performance to Principal, except to look forward to her debuts in Principal roles. And as of this writing, three more promotions were just announced: Alec Knight, David Gabriel, and Jules Mabie, all to Soloist.

Finally, returning to a theme I hinted at the outset, the programs I saw this season clearly highlight the superiority of ballets created by NYCB’s legacy choreographers over those by unproven newer choreographers that appear during the course of a season or two and then disappear. Consequently, it should be manifest that although adding new dances to the repertory is both essential and admirable, it should not be at the expense of presenting and showcasing its legacy ballets – which, in NYCB’s case, may be the most significant legacy in all of post-Petipa classical ballet.

However, I’ve heard through the grapevine that an effort is afoot to limit the appearance of dances created by Balanchine and Robbins in the future even further in favor of more “contemporary” and “relevant” choreographers. Other than any new pieces by Ratmansky, J. Peck and Wheeldon, that would be a mistake. Not only would it convert NYCB into clones of most other major ballet companies west of St. Petersburg, in the long run it would hurt NYCB at the box office as well. People come to see, and expect, quality. Too much of lower quality dances offered in the name of being more contemporary could backfire in the long run – or at least until some intelligent choreographer or artistic administrator rediscovers the NYCB Balanchine/Robbins legacy ballets some 50 years from now.