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

January 23, 2020: Danses Concertantes, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Stravinsky Violin Concerto

January 29, 2020: Allegro Brillante, La Source, Firebird

January 30, 2020: Polyphonia, Bright, Opus 19/The Dreamer, Voices

February 6, 2020: Haieff Divertimento, Concertino, Episodes, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

February 8, 2020: Belles-Lettres, In Creases, Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet

February 21, 2020: Swan Lake

February 26, 2020: In G Major, Rotunda, DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet’s Winter 2020 season included more than the usual assortment of ballets that are unfamiliar, and fewer of the legacy ballets that NYCB balletgoers have come to expect. As I’ll explain at the conclusion of this review, this is both a good and a bad thing.

I saw all of the season’s programs during this six week season (but not all of the casts for each program), plus the season’s full length ballet, Peter Martins’s version of Swan Lake. To make this review somewhat manageable, I’ll divide it into multiple smaller segments corresponding either to specific ballets, specific performances, or specific programs.

New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Firebird”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The most noteworthy piece this season, but far from the best, was the latest dance choreographed for NYCB by Alexei Ratmansky: Voices. More enjoyable, but perhaps less noteworthy, was Justin Peck’s newest piece: Rotunda. And regardless of the particular dance’s familiarity or lack of it, there were the usual abundance of superior NYCB performances in everything presented, highlighted by the debuts of both Lauren Lovette and Harrison Ball in Swan Lake, Mira Nadon’s debut in Peck’s Smile, and the NYCB debut of guest artist Michael Trusnovec in the role originated by Paul Taylor in George Balanchine’s Episodes. Along the way, we saw the return of Balanchine’s Haeff Variations after 20 years, accompanied by the return of Jerome Robbins’s Concertino, spectacular performances of Peck’s Rodeo, Four Dance Episodes and Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, the return of Peck’s Belle Lettres, and a seismic rendition of Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse to conclude the season.

Swan Lake

This Winter 2020 season included twelve performances of Swan Lake. I’ve discussed the qualities of this version previously, and won’t repeat that now. Suffice it to say that if you can separate your opinion of Per Kirkeby’s sets and costumes, which are undeniably awful (although I admitted in the previous in- detail review that his curtain and backdrops are growing on me, I don’t see that ever happening with the costumes), and focus solely on the basic choreography and execution, you’ll have an enjoyable evening.

Of the six lead casts, there was one set of role debuts as both Odette/Odile and Siegfried in the same program. [Other casts included role debuts as Siegfried – including a rare guest artist appearance – which I was unable to see.] Both Lovette and Ball’s debuts were noteworthy, even though both allow room for growth.

Lovette’s Odette was a surprise. I anticipated that she’d have some difficulty with this role, because being morose seems antithetical to her stage personality. It was. But her Act II proved memorable for different reasons. First, this Odette wasn’t your frequently seen portrayal, where pathos dominates, sometimes to the point of overkill. Although this role is rightly considered one of her best, this is the aspect of past performances by Sara Mearns that gives me most pause. Intentionally or not, Lovette’s Odette, fostered by Martins’s leaner choreography (e.g., there’s no mine – so this Odette is just “there,” ready to meet and fall for her human Prince), translated this in a way that took advantage of not having to show an overabundance of pathos. Hers was more of a wild Swan Queen. There was passion in her eyes — not the passion that comes from the prospect of being freed from her torment; this was a wild swan in love.

Lauren Lovette and Harrison Ball
in Peter Martins’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Consistent with this approach, and as a consequence, her Act IV, following her betrayal, became far more meaningful. I’ve frequently commented, in response to criticism of the abbreviated Act IV in Kevin McKenzie’s version for American Ballet Theatre, that the cutting made sense to avoid being simply more of Act II. In Lovette’s portrayal, Act IV was no Act II redux: Lovette pulled out all the stops. Not pathetic, but certainly emotionally devastated. Her stage tears looked real – and maybe they were.

I anticipated that Lovette’s Black Swan would be convincing, and it was. She doesn’t have to work at being seductive, to her it comes naturally: since she joined the company, her performances have been marked by a combination of innocence and sensuality that is irresistible. Sure enough, her Odile, in a debut, packed more seductive power than many ballerinas can ever attain. I’d like to see her milk that a bit more in future performances, but for now, it was more than enough to be convincing.

Lauren Lovette and Harrison Ball
in Peter Martins’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Where the performance lost momentum was during her solo in the black swan pas de deux: at one point, it looked like she lost a secure balance and had to abandon it. Whatever the reason, it impacted her subsequent fouettes. She did about a dozen, and did them well (not travelling a mile downstage), but then abandoned them for Plan B. It impacted her performance not at all (aside from deflating audience expectations), and with more opportunities, she’ll nail that also. I have no problem with a ballerina not completing the full complement of fouettes: I’ve previously expressed concern with a ballerina assaying Swan Lake who can’t or won’t do them at all.

A bigger surprise was Ball’s Siegfried. After a fairly wooden beginning of Act 1 (which isn’t his fault; it’s built into Martins’s choreography – indeed, in most productions I’ve seen in which a Jester appears rather than a tutor or friend, Siegfried, at least in Act I, comes across as a fifth wheel), he came alive: his acting grew more animated, and as Act 2 evolved, and through to the end, he delivered a superlative performance. He acted with passion, and executed the choreography passionately as well. And his partnering at all times provided whatever support Lovette needed. It was a marvelous debut.

Other superlative performances were provided by members of the supporting cast. Even though I prefer versions that don’t have a Jester at all, Sebastian Villarini-Velez’s execution as Jester was always on the mark. The pas de trois, danced by Sara Adams, Kristen Segin, and Spartak Hoxha was as well. And although I don’t expect much from character dances, Martins’s Spanish Dance is one of the better incarnations, as is his Russian Dance (by Emilie Gerrity and Silas Farley), which uses the music that McKenzie uses for Rothbart’s dance of seduction in Act III. The jaunty Italian Dance (the Russian Dance in ABT’s current version), was delivered by Devin Alberda and a vivacious Emma von Enck, whose vibrant attack was infectious.

One final note about this February 21 performance: Lovette’s curtain calls. Every dancer does them, but Lovette’s here were particularly special. It’s part of a pattern – when she’s not sure how her performance (or her piece of choreography) will be received, knowing it hasn’t been perfect, and finds that the audience is overwhelmingly in her corner, she doesn’t quite know how to handle it except in a thoroughly engaging, unprogrammed way, And when Ball, without her advance knowledge, let her take a front-of-curtain call on her own, she was obviously flummoxed – but in an endearing, Sally Field (“they like me; they really like me”) kind of way. This just feeds into her stage persona in general: there’s something about her that translates into being genuine, and that’s a rare quality indeed.


So … what to make of Voices? On paper, it’s is a series of five solo dances executed by five NYCB ballerinas, choreographed to five prerecorded speaking comments (and a sixth that is the basis for the full cast conclusion) by women of varying audience familiarity. Sounds potentially interesting. It was – but in the way that a puzzle that can’t be solved is interesting.

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

The program indicates that the score is “Selections” from Voices and Piano by Peter Ablinger. That composition, initially presented in 1998, is comprised of pre-recorded expositions by certain people, each with piano accompaniment. The composition is continuing – my understanding is that presently there are some 59 voices, with 80 or so eventually contemplated. The voices are male and female, include persons generally well-known and generally unknown, and the original piano sounds apparently replicate the pitch and tone of the vocal recordings. In the excerpt I found online, the statements could be understood by the listener even though prerecorded and over-composed by the piano music. [It’s similar, at least superficially, to the voices that formed the background for Part 1 of The Day, performed several months ago at the Joyce Theater by bassist Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan, who is currently NYCB’s Associate Artistic Director.]

The first thing that struck me as Sara Mearns began to execute that first solo is that I couldn’t understand more than a word or two of the prerecorded comments; the words were muffled. [The soundtrack is projected against the back-stage scrim digitally as an EKG-like measure of volume (similar to visual measures by voice recording devices that indicates the strength of the sound captured – and whether the device is recording at all), but the image does not address the recording’s quality.] I thought perhaps this was a problem with the first recording, but it continued with those that followed, and if it was accidental it should have been corrected. So apparently this is the effect that Ratmansky wanted. Also, the fact that these voices are only certain of the voices in Ablinger’s piece, and only certain women’s voices, is Ratmansky’s choice as well.

Knowing the cerebral quality of nearly all of Ratmansky’s pieces, it’s apparent to me that there’s a method to this madness – it’s not just creatively assembling combinations and images. To me, Ratmansky is saying that these women, and by extension, all women, have suffered by having their voices, their opinions, muffled and effectively ignored. Fine. That’s a valid observation. But what’s been sacrificed is any opportunity to hear the words themselves, or to connect the statements’ content with the choreographed solos. I suppose a further point is that hearing these voices muffled would make the listener want to hear what these women are saying – but I suspect the reaction was less that than annoyance.

Ok. So this is a ballet about lifetimes of subjugation, so it deserves to be emphasized, by being muffled, at whatever cost.

Georgina Pazcoguin
in Alexei Ratmansky’s ”Voices”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But there’s a second prong to Voices beyond the women’s solos: the solos are separated by dances by five men who march onto the stage when a solo ends. During these intermezzos between solos, one man breaks away from the pack to perform a brief bravura solo of his own (e.g., one of the men executes grandes jétés around the stage, twice, at top speed before flying into the wings). And there’s more: the men as a group appear to escort each soloist woman who followed Mearns off or onto the stage. And all this (the men’s part) is done with a twinkle and a wink. All join together for the finale.

So what’s the point of this? I suppose that Ratmansky is commenting on how legacy ballet functions, with the men acting as porteurs and handling the bravura dancing without contributing anything beyond athleticism. This prong fits into the “muted voices” prong like parts of a jigsaw puzzle.

Lauren Lovette
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices”
Photo by Erin Baiano

To the extent this advocacy is indeed behind Ratmansky’s choreography for Voices, the sentiments are laudable. But it comes across as a somewhat confusing mess. I’ll reserve final judgment until I see Voices again – the true genius in Ratmansky’s choreography tends to reveal itself with clarity only after multiple exposures to a particular dance – as it eventually did with his beautifully choreographed and executed, but unnecessarily opaque, Serenade After Plato’s Symposium for American Ballet Theatre, which Voices vaguely resembles in its solo structure. But for now, Voices is infuriatingly inscrutable.

The performances, however, are clear as day, even if it’s not apparent why the dancers are doing what they’re doing. The five solos are marvelously intricate and distinctive from each other as to both choreography and emotional atmosphere, and were brilliantly executed by Mearns, Megan Fairchild, Unity Phelan, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Lovette. Though not their equals in the dance’s focus, the five men – Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joseph Gordon, Ask la Cour, Roman Mejia, and Andrew Veyette – performed brilliantly as well.

The January 30 Program (balance)

On the same January 30 program that included the premiere of Voices there were several significant role debuts. It’s unfair to highlight one over the others, but Nadon’s debut in Peck’s Bright, partnered by Peter Walker (also in a role debut) in the roles originated by Mearns and Russell Janzen, was particularly noteworthy.

Mira Nadon
and Peter Walker (foreground)
in Justin Peck’s “Bright”
Photo by Erin Baiano

As I observed in my review following the ballet’s premiere, Bright is all too brief, but what there is lovely, and I thought Mearns delivered a superb performance. In this performance, Nadon made Bright shine brightly also, but in a different, more endearing way. The role looks deceptively simple – but Nadon handled the choreography cleanly and effortlessly, and her portrayal reflected a certain je ne sais qua that has been a hallmark of her performances to date. Of perhaps greater significance, this role wasn’t just technique – it required some emotional communication, which she delivered. Walker did the same, but he’s a soloist; Nadon is still in the corps, and has been a member of the company less than two years. If the only criticism I have of her performance is that she needs to use the right number of bobby pins to keep her hair in place, it’s clear that those aspects of the role that are significant were executed flawlessly.

Lauren Lovette
and Andrew Veyette
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, which opened the program and in which Lovette, then a corps dancer, first appeared in a featured role in what now feels like ancient history, Lovette’s debuted in a more prominent role. Indeed, the entire cast, save one, celebrated role debuts. In addition to Lovette, they were Megan Fairchild, Alston Macgill, Andrew Veyette, Jovani Furlan, Mejia, and Silas Farley. The ballet, which is considered by many to be a sort of homage to Balanchine, has been reviewed several times previously. In her new role, Lovette, who had a wonderful season, performed with the clarity of execution and purpose that have marked all her remarkable role debuts. The cast as a whole presented very well, but I must highlight Veyette’s performance. A senior member of the company, Veyette frequently gives the impression that he’s not going to make it through a performance – but somehow he always not only pulls it out, but performs with panache, as he did here.

Unity Phelan and Gonzalo Garcia
in Jerome Robbins’s
“Opus 19/The Dreamer”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Sandwiched between these two piece and Voices was Robbins’s Opus 19 / The Dreamer. What this piece has to do with “New Combinations” (the title of the program) is beyond me – it was choreographed in 1979, and there’s nothing “new” about it. It’s been performed many times of late, and was most recently reviewed last season. In another role debut (perhaps accelerated by Sterling Hyltin’s unavailability), Phelan executed well, but understandably was not as compelling, or as dominating, a dream figure as Hyltin was last season. Gonzalo Garcia was again the dance’s central figure, and his performance here was thoroughly accomplished; a step above last fall.


The Winter 2020 season’s second world premiere, Resident Choreographer Justin Peck’s latest ballet for NYCB, occurred during the season’s final week. To a commissioned score by Nico Muhly that’s considerably more audience-friendly than some of his previous scores used by Martins, Peck here has crafted a ballet that’s pleasant enough to watch, but that doesn’t break new choreographic ground.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s “Rotunda”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Critics will likely conclude dismissively that Peck here is doing what he always does: moving corps dancers around the stage in interesting patterns and sequencing, and often grouping his dancers in a tight circle, from which dancers break off to do their individually or smaller group choreographed things. But I don’t find fault with that. Many of Balanchine’s dances include images that are almost indistinguishable from images he’s presented previously. Aside from being to a large extent derivative of himself, in Rotunda Peck also pokes a little bit of fun at himself for exactly that reason. Rotunda, after all, is “round” (commonly a gathering or “passing through” place that’s round), and here Peck is referring to his circles themselves. In other words, it’s an elaboration on what many criticize him for. It’s an abstract ballet, but to me its subject is circles, and how Peck plays with them.

The piece is divided into eight parts, generally corresponding to the formation of, and breaks from, these circles (which reconstitute upstage center at what appears to be the end of each segment – except for the final circle, which for some reason is off center), but the divisions aren’t that clear-cut. Between the recurring circles the dancers split apart into a variety of patterning that emerges from nowhere (another hallmark of Peck’s choreography) and more focused segments involving subsets of the whole. Central to the dance, aside from the circles, is Gonzalo Garcia, who begins and ends the dance flat on the floor – at first appearing puzzled, and in the end satisfied, apparently having learned societal lessons from what he observed in-between. As with nearly all Peck pieces, there’s enough movement variety to fill several dances, notwithstanding repeated imagery.

The balance of the cast included Brittany Pollack, Andrew Scordato, Miriam Miller, Sara Adams, Claire Kretzschmar, Unity Phelan, Gilbert Bolden III, Daniel Ulbricht, Mearns, Danchig-Waring, and Furlan.

It may not break choreographic ground, but Rotunda is a pleasant respite from dances that require more intellectual involvement.

The February 26 Program (balance)

Bracketing Rotunda on the February 26 program were In G. Major and DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse.

I can’t explain why I’m not a particular fan of Robbins’s In G Major, and I’m aware that I’m in the minority. I don’t dislike it, but, except for one exceptional interaction, it doesn’t move me the way other Robbins pieces do. Maybe it’s because I’m not exactly a beach bunny,

While it’s not exactly a beach ballet, In G Major is bathed in sunlight and ocean waves. It premiered during NYCB’s 1975 Ravel Festival, but when it was subsequently staged by Paris Opera Ballet, it was given a new set and costumes designed by Erte, and a new title: El Sol. NYCB adopted the Erte accoutrements, but left the title alone.

Like Ravel’s score, Robbins’s choreography includes jazz-like movement, primarily for the twelve dancer corps, that doesn’t work nearly as well (and isn’t intended to have the same effect) as Balanchine’s “Rubies” (from Jewels). The rest, to me, is not anything to write to Paris about. But at one point Robbins has the corps move in unison like waves at a beach. Neat. [And this was decades before Ratmansky did the same type of thing.] More significantly, in one series of understated purity that’s part of the dance’s central pas de deux, Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring approach and retreat and repeat, in a beautifully constructed sequence illustrating the initial progressions – the interest and the self-protection – that combine in the early stages of a relationship. Any piece by Robbins is worth seeing, but In G Major is worth seeing for this sequence alone. And even if it’s not particularly intellectually or visually challenging, it’s fun.

New York City Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s
“DGV: Danse à Grand Vitesse”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I’ve seen Wheeldon’s Danse a Grande Vitesse many times, and have previously reviewed it … many times. It’s a 21st Century classic already – and rightly so, and the ovation it always receives at its conclusion is well-deserved. Indeed, because I’ve seen it so many times, I was tempted to leave the performance after Rotunda. I’m glad I didn’t.

I can’t recall previously seeing a performance of it as scintillating as this February 26 performance was. Everything and everyone in the large cast of eight featured dancers and sixteen dancer corps was “on.” The featured dancers (Teresa Reichlen and Taylor Stanley, Megan Fairchild and Garcia, Lovette and Veyette, and Brittany Pollack and Walker) danced with exceptional commitment, and Lovette and Veyette in particular, assigned the ballet’s central pas de deux, were most remarkable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lovette with such confidence and abandon, and Veyette keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat (see Polyphonia, above). What an extraordinary performance!

The February 6 program

The best overall of the repertory programs I saw this season was February 6. That’s not to say that everything that night was memorable, but at the very least they were interesting.

The evening’s novelties were the return of Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento after an absence of 20 years, and Robbins’s Concertino.

When dances are absent from NYCB’s, or any company’s, repertory for a lengthy period of time, there’s a reason beyond simple neglect or oversight. The usual reason is that it’s either an insignificant piece, or one that doesn’t measure up to others. That’s the case with Haieff Divertimento, created in 1947 for NYCB’s predecessor company, Ballet Society, to Alexei Haieff’s 1944 composition, Divertimento for Small Orchestra. Admittedly any dance choreographed by Balanchine is worth seeing for curiosity value, but aside from being created by him, that’s all there is.

Haieff Divertimento is not a bad dance; it’s just not a particularly memorable one. The composition is the same. To my admittedly uneducated musical ear, it sounds like a study in contemporary musical idioms that displays them well, but with no inner drive beyond that; more like an expanded study. The ballet is a step above a study, but it doesn’t so much amplify the score as reflect it. It has no low points, but also no high points, and unlike most other Balanchine black and white ballets, it has no drama, either choreographic or emotional. Even the central pas de deux, here danced by Phelan and Ball, while it can be called pristine and certainly was well-executed, can also be called dull. We go left, just a little slinky; we go right, just a little slinky; we go left again…. You get the idea. For a short span of time, there’s too much repetition of too little of meaning, just to reflect the jazzy, bluesy tones in Haieff’s composition.

Unity Phelan and Harrison Ball
in George Balanchine’s
“Haieff Divertimento”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The dances by the supporting cast of eight (Jacqueline Bologna and Jonathan Fahoury, Jones and Kennard Henson, Alston Macgil and Maxwell Read, and Alexa Maxwell and Victor Abreu) were more free-spirited and more interesting-looking, whether subdivided into smaller groups or pairs, and occasionally looked humorous (though I’m not sure if that was Balanchine’s intent), but they weren’t enough to make Haieff Divertimento more than a diversion.

As I watched Haieff Divertimento, I thought that Robbins might have been able to insert more humanity into a dance to that composition, even if the result didn’t look quite as crystalline. The following piece on the program, Robbins’s Concertino, seemed to confirm that.

Haieff, a Russian (Manchuria)-born American composer who spent the last decades of his life in Italy, was reportedly inspired by a fellow Russian expatriate, Stravinsky. Concertino was choreographed in 1982, part of a then larger dance, Four Chamber Pieces, presented as part of that year’s Stravinsky Festival. Concertino is a section of that larger dance. The pairing with Haieff Divertimento favors them both – it shows off Balanchine’s cut-glass choreography, but it also sets off the Robbins piece as being far more of a dance of personal physical connectivity. While not a “relationship” dance, Concertino, which had not been performed by NYCB since 2006, is an intricate demonstration of executing mutually dependent movement rather than steps. After a relatively static beginning, the choreography for the three dancers (Teresa Reichlen, Danchig-Waring, and Furlan) in what essentially is an extended pas de trois, evolves into an exploration of community, albeit a community of three. There’s not much to the piece, but I found the choreography varied and consequently more interesting, and I enjoyed it more than the more antiseptic Balanchine. À chacun son gout.

Balanchine’s Episodes is also not my cup of ballet: indeed, I once described it as choreographic castor oil. Where Haieff Divertimento is sort of fun, even if I found it not terribly interesting, Episodes comes across to me as relatively academic and ascetic. But for the final segment, choreographed to “Ricercata in six voices from Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’,” which is glorious, in past viewings I’ve found it difficult to stay awake. Not this time.

What was different about it, aside from differences in casting, was the return of the fourth segment, to Webern’s “Variations,” originally choreographed for Paul Taylor and here executed by retired Taylor dancer, Michael Trusnovec.

Michael Trusnovec (Guest Artist)
in George Balanchine’s “Episodes”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I saw Trusnovec’s performance of this solo at the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Gala this past Fall, and commented on how outstanding Trusnovec’s performance was. Here, with NYCB, his performance was all the more remarkable. And in context, the solo at this performance was electric, and illuminated the entire piece.

Balanchine reportedly told Taylor to imagine himself as a fly caught in a glass of milk. That instruction should apply to Trusnovec’s performance as well, and it did, but I suspect it was markedly different from Taylor’s, which I never saw, although I can imagine Taylor’s forceful presence as he tried to escape his confining space. As I reported following the Taylor Gala, Trusnovec replicates that force, but channels it differently than I think Taylor would have. It was crystalline. There’s no diminution of power (on the contrary, I once described Trusnovec as the most powerful of male dancers today; and he still is), but though it remains grounded to the stage floor (or the glass of milk), Trusnovec’s performance also somehow takes flight. Indeed, for a time Trusnovec reminded me of Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture, “Bird in Space.” He received a well-deserved ovation.

In the initial three segments, the highly competent cast was led respectively by Lauren King and Veyette, Claire Kretzchmar and Ask la Cour, and Lovette and Stanley. The final “Ricercata” segment was led with particular brilliance by Reichlen and Danchig-Waring.

When Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” premiered in 2015, I had some reservations – mostly, I think, because it wasn’t Agnes De Mille’s piece, and it seemed to have no narrative nexus. Since then, it’s grown on me. And anything created to Aaron Copland’s glorious score, particularly when played by the equally glorious NYCB Orchestra, shouldn’t be missed.

New York City Ballet
in Justin Peck’s
“Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Coming after Episodes, Peck’s dance looked perhaps even more explosive and intelligent that it might have otherwise, and hit like a lightning bolt. It’s unnecessary to regurgitate a detailed description of the dance – it hasn’t changed – but the cast, led by Mearns, Walker, Anthony Huxley, Daniel Ulbricht, and Cainan Weber, took it to another level. This is one of Mearns’s sweetest roles, and she again did a superb job, this time opposite Walker. And Huxley once again was scintillating. But Ulbricht here pulled out all the stops. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement. I once described an Ulbricht performance as a cross between an eagle in flight and a bowling ball thrown for a strike. That’s an appropriate description for how his performance looked in Peck’s Rodeo.

The February 8th Program

Another good program, but not as interesting as the one I saw two nights earlier, the February 8th program included two Peck pieces, Belle-Lettres and In Creases, and Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.

Since its premiere in 2014, Belles-Lettres has been one of my favorite Peck pieces. It’s not as audacious, or as epic, as others; it won’t beat you over the head with brilliance. But it’s a lovely – and brilliant – dance that, with its score by Cesar Franc (featuring Elaine Shelton on piano), Mark Stanley’s soft lighting, and lacy-looking costumes for the women by fashion designer Mary Katrantzou (it premiered at that year’s Fall “Fashion” Gala) that bring to mind Alphonse Mucha, it has a Belle Époque, turn of the 19th-20th Century ambiance. And with Peck’s soft-edged and circular movement, it’s an Art Nouveau ballet.

While a central circle is this ballet’s movement theme (see Rotunda above), it’s more of a La Ronde–like pathway (there we go with circles again) for relationship followed by relationship. And, reflecting the late 19th Century fascination with things relating to ancient Greece, there’s a subtle, Dionysian flavor to it, as the central force character, played by Huxley, ignites affection, love, and passion in the series of couples who present themselves to him.

But even if none of this meaning was on Peck’s mind, Belles-Lettres works as a beautiful abstract work as well. The cast was a bit different from that at its premiere, and all excelled. Aside from Huxley, they included Pollack and Abreu, Phelan and Bolden, Lovette and Danchig-Waring, and Indiana Woodward and Andrew Scordato.

In Creases, on the other hand, is not one of my preferred Peck pieces. It’s “early Peck” (it premiered in 2012 during the company’s summer season at Saratoga; it’s Peck’s first piece for the company), and it’s a relatively elementary series of intricate but not terribly inventive partnering, and attempts to inject image originality that don’t elevate it to something special, as many of Peck pieces since then do. Here, however, In Creases received glowing performances from Sara Adams, Gerrity, Segin, Smith, Alberda, Applebaum, Stanley, and laJeromeny Brown, and looked considerably better than I recall from previous performances.

Emily Kikta
in George Balanchine’s
“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, which Balanchine created in 1966, is generally considered a masterwork, but to me it’s not on the same level as his undeniable masterpieces. Regardless, it’s great fun, and very exciting to watch.

Structurally similar to his Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, the four segments (corresponding to the score: Brahms’s First Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg in 1937) are relatively independent, joined by a common classicism, and the final segment seemingly bears no relationship to the earlier three. Again, however, like Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, that doesn’t matter in the least.

The only segment that failed to work was the opening Allegro, in which leads Ashley Bouder and Joseph Gordon didn’t connect, and seemed to be dancing solos. Well executed though each was individually, something was missing. That being said, Emily Kikta, who danced the third featured role, was both powerful and crystalline. She danced as if she controlled the segment, which, in a way, she did.

The second segment, Intermezzo, was lively and free and exciting to watch. Led by Woodward and la Cour, an infrequent and unusual-looking pairing, the segment was a delightful surprise, with Woodward in particular lighting up the stage. Fairchild and Garcia led the third, Andante, segment, While more restrained than the Intermezzo, it received it’s appropriately regal performance.

The final segment, Rondo alla Zingarese, was as different from the others as Theme and Variations is different form the other segments of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. Here the segment had a gypsy-like folk theme, but it worked beautifully, and left the audience cheering. Mearns seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself (she’s so exciting to watch in roles that allow her personality through) as the queen of whatever folk this was supposed to be, and Veyette was – well, he was totally unbelievable as a pirate / gypsy dominating male, but believability didn’t matter at all. As usual this season, he pulled it off.

January 23and January 29

The first two programs that opened the Winter 2020 season were memorable for being relatively unmemorable, even though each included one masterwork. With these exceptions, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Allegro Brillante, the ballets, each of which was choreographed to music by Stravinsky, simply aren’t major Balanchine pieces, and no matter how refreshing it might be to see dances that aren’t frequently seen, not opening the season with a recognized masterpiece is a let-down that infects the season as a whole. The dances included fine performances, but that’s not enough.

Erica Pereira and Harrison Ball
in George Balanchine’s
”Danses Concertantes”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I saw the season’s opening program on January 23, which featured the same casts as the season’s opening night two nights earlier. Balanchine originally created Danses Concertantes for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in 1944; he rechoreographed it for NYCB in 1972, using the original’s sets and costumes by Eugene Berman. It’s exactly as billed: a dance concert.

The piece opens and closes in front of a curtain designed as a stage, perhaps from the early 1900s (maybe Vaudeville-inspired). In between, the curtain opens to reveal a more contemporary looking full stage. Although the lead couple are the headliners and set the tone for the ballet, it’s the group of four pas de trois, each danced by two ballerinas and one danseur, that is the dance’s heart. Erica Perreira and Harrison Ball, both of whom debuted in their roles on opening night, delivered the sense of fun that’s essential to the piece, and executed well (Perreira’s attitude turns were particularly well done), and danced with appropriate sparkle, but there wasn’t enough in these roles to really make a lasting impression, Likewise, the four trios, though fun to watch, were enjoyable but not memorable. Indeed, the best aspect of them was the opportunity given to young (and relatively young) members of the corps to gain featured performing experience.

Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour (foreground)
in George Balanchine’s
“Movements for Piano and Orchestra”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, which have been paired since 1966, were created in 1960 and 1963 respectively. Although they’re very different pieces, almost polar opposites in ambiance, they have structural similarities that enable them to fit together well. And while they don’t measure up to Balanchine masterpieces, they’re undeniable little gems (similar in impact, as I once observed, to Joseph Cornell’s miniature paintings). My preference is the considerably less ascetic Movements, but both were executed brilliantly by leads Reichlen and la Cour, which was the partnering I saw when NYCB presented a similar program in 2016.

On that same 2016 program was the Balanchine masterwork, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and it joined Monumentum/Movements on this program as well. Stravinsky’s composition, created in 1931, sounds typical Stravinsky (although I appreciate that what may be considered “typical” is recognized by many exceptions): pulsing, linear, and angular in tone. Balanchine found the symmetry in the composition that may be difficult for the ordinary non-musicologists to hear; pulled it out; and emphasized it in his choreography. The ballet is a model of balance; in a sense, he benevolently imposes symmetry on music where symmetry doesn’t appear to exist.

Kretzschmar and Stanley did fine work with Aria I, and Lovette and Gordon danced exceptionally well together in Aria II, Together with the sixteen dancer corps, the piece flowed as smooth as silk. That I can use that phrase in a dance to Stravinsky shows how exceptionally Balanchine’s choreography enhanced it.

Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon
in George Balanchine’s
“Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The January 29th program began well, but, except for certain performances, had little to recommend it. Allegro Brillante is a pure dance ballet of non-stop movement and a hallmark of Balanchine’s neo-classic style that somehow also wears its heart on its sleeve. I’ve seen Tiler Peck in the lead role previously; here she was partnered by Mejia, who did fine work replacing the injured Tyler Angle. It was thrilling to see Peck finally return to the stage after a lengthy period of injury recuperation; under the circumstances, that her performance wasn’t quite at the level of others of hers that I’ve seen in this piece is irrelevant.

Ashley Bouder and Joseph Gordon
in George Balanchine’s
“La Source”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But things went downhill from there. La Source, which Balanchine choreographed in 1968, is a brilliant little piece, but the performances here by Bouder and Gordon, though they showed individual prowess, failed to deliver any sense of the sublime – in large part because their performances were more like two solos pasted together, and Bouder appeared to be dancing for herself. Jones excelled in the third featured role.

The evening concluded with Firebird. There’s nothing wrong with this Balanchine piece (with additional choreography by Robbins), but there’s little that’s special about it either. It’s just not that choreographically interesting. That being said, the performance received excellent performances from Reichlen and la Cour as the Firebird and Prince Ivan, and by Miriam Miller, in a role debut, as the Prince’s Bride. But one doesn’t go to see this ballet to see choreography (or performances for that matter): one goes to see the fabulous Chagall sets. They alone are worth the price of admission.

Seasonal Wrap-Up

Even with a few significant ballets and the inclusion of some ballets that are rarely seen, there was little to anchor this season. To a large extent that’s because of the absence of dances that audiences love to see, no matter how many times. Opening the season with Danses Concertantes isn’t the same as opening a season with Serenade or Apollo, and unlike the 2016 series, there was no Symphony in Three Movements to accompany Monumentum / Movements and Stravinsky Violin Concerto – or anywhere else during the season. And that epitomized the sense of this season as a whole. Masterpieces are masterpieces for a reason, and not including more than a few during this season was a serious miscalculation.

I’ve made this point previously: resuscitating long dormant ballets isn’t a bad idea, but doing it to the extent of eliminating audience favorites is. There was little of that balance this season between the loved and the respected that marked programming in past years. The same can be said about “new” ballets. New choreography is the lifeblood of a company, but to include as many as populated the programs this season, at the expense of recognized masterpieces, is counter-productive.

Which segues into my second point. Since the transition from Martins to Jonathan Stafford et. al., the company has not only been more conservative in scheduling, but also in casting. In the long run, the latter is far more dangerous. During the transition period, I hoped that this was a temporary effort not to rock the boat. But the ship has now sailed, and being stodgy doesn’t fit NYCB very well. There certainly were role debuts during the season, but these were largely in roles that would have been expected to be filled by less seasoned dancers. Except for leading male roles (which is the product of a variety of factors, including a significant number of injuries as well as the absence of Amar Ramasar), it was largely same old same old.

Most critical was the casting for Swan Lake – and I made the same observation a year ago with The Sleeping Beauty. This season there was only one role debut in the role of Odette / Odile: a principal (Lovette) who certainly should have been given that opportunity. Every other cast was led by veteran ballerinas. That’s not necessarily bad, and I’m not evaluating performances I didn’t see, but they’ve all been done before. Where were debuts by senior soloists? Indeed, where were they all season? [It would be a shame if the phrase “soloist purgatory” that I once used to describe American Ballet Theatre’s soloist level now shifts to NYCB.] It’s not a matter of satisfying audiences (for Swan Lake, even this version, most audiences aren’t picky), but providing significant performing opportunities to soloists paves the way for providing significant performing opportunities for promising (or promised a long time ago) corps dancers, which paves the way for the company’s future – as well as increasing the level of audience interest.

I’m concerned that this relatively mediocre scheduling and unadventurous casting will continue into the Spring 2020 season and beyond. I hope that this concern is misplaced, and that NYCB quickly returns to being the most exciting company in New York.