New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
May 8, 2019: Scotch Symphony, Valse-Fantaisie, Sonatine, Stravinsky Violin Concerto
May 11, 2019, evening: Judah, Dances at a Gathering, Stars and Stripes
May 16, 2019: Principia, Symphony in Three Movements, The Times Are Racing
Following its Gala program during the second week of this Spring 2019 season, which featured premieres by Justin Peck and Pam Tanowitz, New York City Ballet’s programming in the ensuing three weeks of its six week season featured significant role debuts, equally significant performances, and many significant ballets. Since nearly all of the three sets of ballets that I saw during this period are either well known or recently reviewed, I’ll focus primarily, but not exclusively, on performances.
The closing piece on the May 16 program was Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing. Following its January, 2017 premiere, I gushed that it was an anthem for a new generation. Friday’s performance reinforced that. One of Peck’s “sneaker” ballets, The Times Are Racing is virtually non-stop movement followed by more non-stop movement: in a sense, it’s a contemporary, politically aware update of Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz, with a little of Interplay. It would be dizzying, were it not for the fact that the sequences are variable and ceaselessly interesting to watch, and the entirety has a consistency absent from many ballets that include such an abundance of rapid-fire action.
Several performances were particularly noteworthy. Tops was from Brittany Pollack, who moved like lightning through Peck’s most challenging choreography, looking at all times like she was having a blast. Most of her stage time was spent dancing up a storm opposite Peck himself (one forgets how good a dancer he is), but the role provided her with significant solo time as well. She danced electrified, but in a casual, this-is-the-way-it-is-now way. It was by far Pollack’s finest, and most entertaining, performance that I’ve seen to date.
In her role debut, Lauren Lovette had a blast as well, but her role required more finesse than speed. A member of the larger group when the choreography called for it, Lovette, partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring, provided the dance’s central, and most significant pas de deux – a romantic encounter without the usual accoutrements of a romantic encounter – perhaps best describable as “21st Century street romantic” rather than sappy, into which she injected that quality of joy that, where appropriate, marks each of her performances. And as I’ve observed previously, when Lovette is having a great time, the audience knows it – and her enthusiasm is reflected after the performance as well: she has the most engaging curtain calls, particularly where she abandons NYCB form. Here, her exuberance was delightful, and contagious.
The most significant role debut on that same program was by Ashley Laracey, assaying the lead in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.
It’s difficult to believe that this ballet was created almost fifty years ago, during the company’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival. It’s as contemporary-looking now as it must have looked then, and is one of only a few abstract dances with no emotional gloss that I never tire of seeing. Even today, it looks stunningly revolutionary – and at the same time stunningly evolutionary.
New, significant role debuts for Laracey have been difficult to come by in recent seasons, partly a result of a lengthy injury-recover. But suddenly, at least to NYCB audiences, as this season winds to a close she’s been assigned three significant role debuts (one a New York debut) within two weeks. This was the first. She executed well, but carefully, and the deliberation and concentration clearly showed, as did the apprehension – none of which, under the circumstances, should have been surprising. The technique is there, and this is a good role for her – and at this performance being partnered by Taylor Stanley in the ballet’s central pas de deux helped. Additional opportunities will be beneficial.
Evidence that performances improve over time was evident in another performance in this piece. This was not Erica Pereira’s role debut, but the confidence that she’s gained since her role opportunities increased following NYCB’s leadership change has been apparent. Here, especially with her partner Daniel Ulbricht, she lit up the stage. She and Ulbricht are frequently paired, and they play off each very well.
Less significant or stunning were the performances of the third lead couple, Emilie Garrity and Devin Alberda, but that’s not meant as a negative comment. They, as well as the ever-vital NYCB corps, made this piece look as impressive as it always does.
Apparently, at least for NYCB ballerinas, there’s nothing like giving birth to add new vigor and depth to their performances. Certainly Ashley Bouder, and even more obviously Maria Kowroski, two whose pregnancies and subsequent return to performing I’m aware of, have delivered performances as memorable, if not more so, than before. Add Megan Fairchild to the list. Since her return to performing, Fairchild has had a remarkable season, dancing better than she ever did (which is not a backhanded compliment – her execution, overall, seems at an even higher level than it did previously). Sonatine, which she danced on the May 8 program (to pianist Elaine Chelton’s flawless rendition of Ravel’s score), and also partnered by Stanley (who has become an indispensable and unique component of the company’s stable of extraordinary dancers), is an example. Sonatine doesn’t quite have the pull of Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, but that’s relative. It’s a beautiful ballet to watch, especially when the pair of dancers execute as brilliantly as Fairchild and Stanley did. I’ve seen the piece previously, but I can’t recall seeing it with the emotional component presented as compellingly as it was here.
Earlier that evening, there was another magnificent role debut, as Sterling Hyltin delivered a spell-binding sylph in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony. Last fall, in connection with a performance of an excerpt from this ballet presented by San Francisco Ballet (and led by Mathilde Froustey) during City Center’s Balanchine Celebration, I mentioned that it had been a long time since NYCB had presented this rarely-performed ballet – Balanchine’s distillation of La Sylphide. So … here it was again, back where it belongs.
Scotch Symphony doesn’t work quite as well as the original of the story – there’s no Madge, no Effie, no betraying friend, no sense of tragedy (or moral cautionary tale), and no wings – but this version still takes flight when the performances make it soar. Hyltin’s did. I’ve never seen her deliver anything less than a fully-realized, technically secure, and somehow original interpretation of a role, and this performance was no exception. She was both captivating and magnetic.
But in this performance, hers was not the only significant role debut. Anthony Huxley looked thoroughly at home in his role debut as the “James” substitute, making Balanchine’s Bournonville-infused choreography look dynamic and effortless. Although Huxley’s commitment to the Sylph was somewhat muted, that’s in keeping with Balanchine’s distillation, which reflects a similarly “muted” reference to the story.
On the other hand, Alston MacGill’s debut leading the opening “Scotch-folkloric” section of the piece was simply sensational. Without a connection to the story beyond its Scottish roots and the Mendelsohn music (movements from his Scotch Symphony), Macgill was a Scottish lassie prima: one could see the Highlands in her sparkling demeanor, and her equally sparkling delivery.
Farichild’s performance in Sonatine was not the only occasion in which her restored radiance showed. At the May 11 performance, she reprised her role as the Girl in Apricot in Robbins’s masterwork, Dances at a Gathering, delivering the sense of youthful joy that that role envisions. Although some criticize Dances at a Gathering for its length, that’s in the same critical league as similar complaints about another Robbins masterpiece, The Goldberg Variations. Both ballets use their scores to profound effect, and Dances incorporates stylistic differences inherent in the various Chopin pieces, as well as stylistically different mini-stories to enhance the differences among the Chopin pieces, to build the overall ballet into an arc of accomplishment. It is always a breath of spring – and especially welcome for this NYC winter that would not die.
At this same performance, Lovette debuted as the Girl in Pink. She executed well, as she always does, but the role of Apricot Girl in which she’s previously appeared suits her naturally effusive stage personality better. Also at this performance, Aaron Sanz, Roman Mejia, and Peter Walker debuted as, respectively, the Boys in Green, Brick, and Blue. Sanz and Mejia excelled, with Mejia, still a relatively new member of the company, dancing as if born to the role. Walker also did fine work, but his role is more limited than the others. Completing this stellar cast were Sara Mearns as the Girl in Mauve (brilliant in this relatively restrained role; I appreciate her in these roles far more than I do when she imbues certain classical roles with overbearing pathos), Kowroski’s Green Girl, Lauren King’s Girl in Blue, Tyler Angle’s Purple Boy, and an ebullient Gonzalo Garcia as the Boy in Brown.
Stravinsky Violin Concerto premiered in 1972 on the same program as Symphony in Three Movements, but, aside from its superb choreography and common composer, and the fact that both are masterpieces, the ballets have very different sensibilities. Where the latter is somewhat more irreverently original-looking, Stravinsky Violin Concerto is almost black-and-white casual-looking – although that “look” camouflages its strictly classically-ordered core. On the May 8 program, role veterans Lovette and Mearns were partnered by, respectively, Joseph Gordon and Aaron Sanz, in their role debuts (Sanz’s was his New York role debut). Both couples (and individuals in their solos with an opposing-gendered corps) provided scintillating performances, but Sanz’s partnering of Mearns merits special praise.
On that same May 8 program, Indiana Woodward and Harrison Ball, each in a role debut, led Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie. One of many ballets that Balanchine created to and then pared from Glinka’s composition, this incarnation, with its relatively limited stylistic breadth, is not one of my favorite Balanchine pieces. Featuring incomparable NYCB-style speed and attack is commendable, but to me Valse-Fantaisie is too one-note. That being said, almost anything that Balanchine created is superior to whatever else is out there, and Woodward and Ball delivered the performances that the ballet requires: short on dazzle and bereft of emotional gloss, their roles were performed with a rare sense of immediacy.
Principia premiered this past winter, and I reviewed it in detail thereafter. On second view in the May 16 program, I appreciated Principia more, and the repeated appearances of what I described as looking like “smokestacks” (“haystacks” may be a more appropriate descriptive word), though still inscrutable as anything more than a stylistic gimmick, does provide a semblance of unification. And despite its drab-colored costumes and lack of focus, Principia is a gorgeous ballet to watch unfold. Thoughts that it might have some essential meaning should be avoided. Aside from one change in cast (Woodward debuted in the piece the previous week), the Principia cast, led by Claire Kretszchmar, Woodward, Pollack, Daniel Applebaum, Stanley, and Mejia, with featured performances from Emily Kikta, Miriam Miller, and Mira Nadon, was as effective as it was before – maybe more so, since at this point they’ve grown more comfortable with it.
Finally, the dances that bracketed Dances at a Gathering on the May 11 program were less impressive. I enjoyed Giana Reisen’s initial ballet for NYCB (or anywhere else), Composer’s Holliday, for its originality and relative irreverence. It was different, and fun, and short. Judah, which I reviewed in depth following its premiere in October, 2018, is certainly original and relatively irreverent (without any sense of nihilism), but it’s not nearly as much fun to watch – and unlike her earlier piece, it seems to cry out for some meaning, but I found none. A second view has not changed my opinion. Much about Judah (to music by John Adams, one of which is titled “Judah to Ocean”) is interesting, and certainly original-looking. But where the jumble of seemingly contrary images was cute in Composer’s Holliday, here this similar jumble comes across as disconnected and opaque. On first view, I sensed some kinship in Judah to Ashton’s Sylvia in a contemporary, irreverent, and distilled way, but I doubt that this was Reisen’s intent. Not being able to discern what that intent is is annoying. As it is, the ballet isn’t bad; it’s just not in the same league as any of the dances already mentioned.
This same May 11 program concluded with Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. It’s one of my least favorite Balanchine ballets – not for its subject, but because it panders and contains little that pretends to be original or interesting (though, to be fair, it preceded its close analogue and far superior piece, Union Jack, by some 18 years – in its day, Stars and Stripes may well have been considered original).
Choreographed to music by John Philip Sousa (arranged by Hershy Kay), the dance opens with three uninteresting “campaigns” – martial parades on stage representative of different military regiments (though the distinctions aren’t clear), each with a slightly (very slightly) different styles, continues through an interlude disguised as a pas de deux (or vice versa), and ending with a Grand Finale in which all the regiments return to salute the flag. Pereira, Kikta, and Ulbricht led the respective campaigns, with Ulbricht executing with the panache acquired from years of experience in the role, and Bouder (as Liberty Belle) and Harrison Ball (as El Capitan). Bouder’s cheeky role looks strained at this point, but Ball, who’s had a marvelous season, was impressive in his role debut. There’s no denying that there’s a celebratory feel to Stars and Stripes, and that when the orchestra turns to Star Spangled Banner, the presentation becomes akin to a Fourth of July parade, but as anything more than that (and as a salute to his adoptive country), it’s minor Balanchine. There’s no doubt, however, that Stars and Stripes sends its audience home happy.
The season concludes next week with performances of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also sends its audiences home happy – and enthralled.