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

September 20, 2022
Divertimento No. 15, Scotch Symphony, La Sonnambula

October 1, 2022 afternoon
Symphony in C, Play Time (world premiere), Solo (stage premiere), Love Letter (on shuffle) (world premiere)

October 6, 2022
Apollo, The Cage, Concertino, Symphony in Three Movements

October 7, 2022
Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Concerto DSCH, Everywhere We Go

October 13, 2022 (evening)
Episodes, Vienna Waltzes

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet began its Fall 2022 Season on September 20, and will shortly finish it (on October 16). I saw five of the six programs. I don’t like bunching so much within one review, but that seemed the best way to report on this relatively brief season.

Opening night included three dances created by George Balanchine. No surprise there – Balanchine built NYCB, and his dances are not only the company’s heritage, but its core. During its second week, in addition to a Balanchine classic, it presented two world premieres, Play Time and Love Letter (on shuffle), and another, Solo, that had only been seen virtually. The other programs featured dances by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alexei Ratmansky, and Justin Peck, most of which have been reviewed relatively recently, so as to those my discussions here will be brief.

Initially, I feel constrained to state that any season opening, and particularly the opening of a Fall-Summer performance year, that does not begin with Serenade (or alternatively Apollo) is at least emotionally deficient. Nothing in NYCB’s repertory comes close to the special relationship among Serenade, the company’s dancers, and NYCB’s home audience. As good as those Balanchine pieces selected for opening night are, none can make a viewer soar to the heights that Serenade does.

A further observation, but one I also feel constrained to make. The opening night program featured three Balanchine classics, but one of them was marred by, at best, highly questionable casting. Whatever the motivation may have been, presenting a program of dances that represents the company well and that audiences can enjoy – or at least appreciate – wasn’t one of them. I’ll return to this subject later in this review.

In general, the season was marked by exemplary ballets and exemplary performances. Joseph Gordon, Anthony Huxley, and Taylor Stanley particularly excelled, as did Megan Fairchild, who continues to be an ageless and somewhat miraculous stage presence; new (and relatively new; and soon to be) soloists continue to shine, including but not limited to Isabella LaFreniere, Alexa Maxwell, Ashley Laracey, Ashley Hod, Olivia Boisson, Jonathan Fahoury, Gilbert Bolden III, and Emma Von Enck (if you haven’t seen her in a featured role yet, jump at the opportunity); and the season ended, at least for me, with a magical performance of Vienna Waltzes that featured Sterling Hyltin (outstanding, as usual, in everything that I saw her dance this season) partnered by Guest Artist and former NYCB Principal Robbie Fairchild.

I’ll address the three new dances and the other piece on that program first, then consider the others in rough performance order, reserving opening night for penultimate comments, and concluding on a positive note with last night’s program.

The October 1st afternoon Program

After initially intensely disliking Kyle Abraham’s first choreographic creation for NYCB, The Runaway, it eventually clicked. By the time it concluded, and after several subsequent exposures to it, I consider it one of the seminal twenty-first century ballets. His shorter pieces, initially presented on film during the pandemic – Ces noms que nous portons and When We Fell – were more targeted, but quite well done. And the piece he created for Fall for Dance 2021 – Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song – which was performed by members of A.I.M (his own company), is a masterwork.

He’s done it again.

Like my initial visceral reaction to The Runaway, I disliked Love Letter (on shuffle) at first because I couldn’t determine where Abraham was going with it. But it too eventually clicked.

To a curated assortment of unidentified music by London-born singer, songwriter and producer James Blake, one initially sees a male dancer midstage left (Jonathan Fahoury) moving in corkscrew-like contortions. He looks both anguished and tormented. He’s soon joined by several other dancers, but they keep their distance. In light of the multi-faceted but relatively subdued costumes by Giles Deacon (who also designed the outrageously wonderful costumes for The Runaway), Fahoury’s agony, and the lack of connection between him and the other dancers, I deduced that the dance was a reflection on urban life, the inability to connect, and anomie.

Sebastian Villarini-Velez
in Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on shuffle)”
Photo by Erin Baiano

It turns out that this overused subject, to the extent it’s a component of the piece at all, is just the tip of the iceberg. Abraham’s probing here presents a reverse image of the agonized dancer in The Runaway (Taylor Stanley) trying to come to terms with himself; here, instead of being inwardly focused, its ultimate focus is outward.  That is, Love Letter (on shuffle) addresses a character’s coming to terms not just with himself (that’s a given), but within the society that surrounds him, establishing a loving relationship within that society, and being accepted for who he is. The earlier piece can break your heart; this one can glue it back together.

Abraham accomplishes this by splitting the societal mass he initially creates into pairs and then choreographing the individual relationships they express. Leading them off were Quinn Starner and Cainan Weber in a cute rendering of youthful love. Both acquitted themselves admirably, but Starner’s character (as the choreography required) displayed more complexity. Starner became a member of the company this year but was immediately noticeable for her aggressive execution in The Four Temperaments last winter while still an apprentice. If I didn’t already make it clear last year, she’s one to watch.

Following that, duets were led by Emily Kikta and Peter Walker, Tiler Peck and Sebastian Villerini-Velez, and Fahoury and Harrison Ball. All delivered superb work, as did all the dancers in the large, 16 dancer cast, and Peck’s solo (a component of the duet) was a star turn, and one that Villerini-Velez’s performance matched. [I’ve mentioned before that Villerini-Velez has evolved into a superb dancer. It would not at all be surprising to find him soon promoted to Principal.]  The alternative sets of relationships described in these duets and the choreographic shuffling from one to another and from one displayed emotion to another, without at all being judgmental about any of them, may be what the title refers to as “(on shuffle).”

(l-r) Jonathan Fahoury and Harrison Ball
in Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on shuffle)”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Part of the piece’s success, and an indication of where Abraham was headed, is the curated score. I’m aware of Blake’s reputation, but am unfamiliar with his music. I did some hunting to see if one of the songs that Abraham used was called “Love Letter.” I found none. But I did find a 2019 album titled “Assume Form” that is described by many as a love letter. I suspect certain song verses were culled from songs on that album (particularly since I thought I heard the recognizable voice of Moses Sumney, who is one of the artists with whom Blake collaborated on that album). Regardless, the song snippets, the “shuffle” from one song excerpt to another, may also, or alternatively, account for the parenthetical in the title.

Peter Walker and Emily Kikta
in Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on shuffle)”
Photo by Erin Baiano

As with The Runaway, I don’t know if I’m right in deciphering what Abraham is trying to say, but, at least to me, it makes sense. And Abraham accomplishes this through his idiosyncratic choreography that dances around the subject before that subject becomes crystal clear – like creating a tapestry stitch by stitch. As put together, Love Letter (on shuffle) is a glorious, and – contrary to The Runaway – an uplifting work of art that anyone with a soul can appreciate.

The other world premiere, Gianna Reisen’s Play Time, is another collaboration with a fashion designer, this time with Alejandro Gomez Palomo for Palomo Spain. It’s a visually entertaining piece to watch, primarily because of the strangely beautiful costumes. The piece’s ten dancers are outfitted in different single color genderless costumes, some of which come with oddly-shaped appendages built into them, and each costume is covered in Swarovski crystals, making them dance in the stage lighting even before a step was taken. The audience squealed with delight when the curtain opened.

But that’s about as far as it got.

The music, by Solange Knowles, was also reportedly a source of collaboration. Her composition was commissioned by NYCB but titled differently from the dance (“Villanelle for Times”), which may speak for itself. Be that as it may, and although I anticipated otherwise (all I knew of Solange was that she’s Beyonce’s sister), but clearly I need to get out more often. It’s a solid contemporary composition that’s both complex and quite pleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, Play Time and “Villanelle for Times are like two artistic ships passing in the night.

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

Play Time and its costumes, however, do share a common denominator: silliness – or, to put it more positively, playful silliness. As used in Reisen’s choreography, these costumes look like play toys that move (in a sense remotely similar to the toys in the film “Toy Story”). As the dance progresses, one might envision some invisible child (or children) playing with them: moving them first one way, then another, then back, and back again … you get the idea.

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

At least on first view, and with one exception, there appears to be little choreographic variety here – which makes sense if you’re choreographing something resembling playtime for the newly mobile. That one exception is the choreography for, and execution by, Indiana Woodward. Perhaps there were others that I missed while blinded by the costumes.

Between these two premieres was Solo, a piece choreographed by Justin Peck, performed by Huxley, and presented online in May, 2021. Like the other dances on this program, this one also featured a designer costume, by Raf Simons. [All three of these pieces premiered three nights earlier at NYCB’s annual Fall Fashion Gala.] I’m told by some who saw the dance virtually that the original costume made more sense, but its strangeness didn’t bother me. It still looks country-ish and village-y, though from a country and village I’m not familiar with.

Anthony Huxley in Justin Peck’s “Solo”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Any intended meaning to Peck’s choreography (to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio”) isn’t entirely clear, but this solo was beautifully constructed and equally well-executed, so any lack of clarity doesn’t really matter.

To my eye, the solo displays a young man, alone in the countryside (which may be the hills and valleys of his mind), in conflict with some inner demons that he must find a way to overcome. It’s a highly introspective dance, as many solos are, but this one is better than most. And Huxley, after finally learning how to smile last year, has mellowed into a wonderful dancer / performer. Solo doesn’t include any smiles, gratuitous or otherwise, which would have been inappropriate. But creating a character out of nothing (beyond a strange-looking costume) is a noteworthy achievement.

I understand that Solo was be performed by Sara Mearns in certain programs before the season ended. I was unable to see it, but if/when Solo returns it will be interesting to see the stamp she puts on Peck’s choreography.

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

The afternoon’s program opened with Balanchine’s masterpiece Symphony in C.

I reviewed Symphony in C almost exactly a year ago, with two of the four couples being identical to those on this program: Megan Fairchild and Gordon in the First Movement Allegro Vivo, and Mearns and Tyler Angle in the Second Movement Adagio. Both couples matched their stellar performances a year ago (and Fairchild’s outing further demonstrates that her performances are a continuing gift).

At this performance Hod and Villarini-Velez led the Third Movement Allegro Vivace brilliantly, and Gerrity and Chun Wai Chan did the same for the Fourth Movement. As always, the performance earned a typical NYCB sitting ovation.

Emilie Gerrity, Chun Wai Chan and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The October 6th Program 

Apollo, which began the October 6 program, needs little further comment from me. Stanley continues to improve since his role debut, and he now dances the role as well as anyone. And his demeanor just prior to the piece’s conclusion, as he looks into the distance and sees his mission and his future, is breathtaking. Adams here reprised her role as Calliope, and role debuts by Unity Phelan as Terpsichore and Gerrity as Polyhymnia are already accomplished.

Taylor Stanley
in a prior performance of George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Erin Biaino

At this point in her career, Hyltin can be recognized in a role before one sees her face. In Robbins’s The Cage, until The Novice emerges from her birth web (cocoon), one doesn’t see her face; but one knows it’s Hyltin just from seeing her legs and the way she moves them. The rest of her performance was sensational, equaled only by LaFreniere’s gasp-inducing Queen (if NYCB ever presents Giselle, she’s Myrta).  And Andrew Veyette as the primary Intruder is further evidence that he’s not quite ready to retire yet.

Sterling Hyltin (center) and New York City Ballet
in Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I discussed Robbins’s rarely-performed Concertino shortly before the pandemic shut down NYCB and most of the rest of the performing arts world. At the time, in contrast to the equally rarely-performed Haieff Divertimento, it looked superior to Balanchine’s more academic-looking piece. However, without Haieff Divertimento to set it off, Concertino, which is essentially a pas de trois, now appears less substantial. But this performance was enhanced by a glowing role debut by Hod, as well as by accomplished accompaniment from Alec Knight and, in another role debut, Davide Riccardo.

Ashley Hod (center) and New York City Ballet
in Jerome Robbins’s “Concertino”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

And then there was Symphony in Three Movements. I’ve mentioned many times previously that this magnificent Chrysler Building of a ballet is one of my favorite non-narrative dances. I discussed this Balanchine masterpiece in detail in my review of last spring’s 50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival and won’t repeat those comments now.

New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I’ve also previously discussed Tiler Peck in the lead ballerina role. But as fine as Peck still is in this role, Von Enck, whom I first saw dance her role (the ballerina in pink) last spring, stole it. She’s electric on stage, adding voltage to a piece that seemingly couldn’t have any more voltage added to it. And here, as a result of a cast change, she was partnered with Daniel Ulbricht. The combination was a seismic choreographic explosion of energy that could be felt outside Lincoln Center and beyond. Ulbricht has been dancing a long time, and is from a different dance generation, but the two dance on similar adrenaline levels, and complement each other well. I hope they have further opportunities to dance together. Regardless, Ulbricht danced not only like he won’t be ready to retire anytime soon, but that he shouldn’t.

The October 7th program

And then there was more electricity.

The middle piece on the October 7 program, Concerto DSCH, is another masterpiece, this time created by Ratmansky to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102.” I’ve gushed about this fabulous piece many times before, but this time was different because Von Enck was in it. Even with Hyltin dancing and still defining the lead role (partnered by Adrian Danchig-Waring), Von Enck, in a remarkable role debut, lit up the stage like a firecracker. Her fearless leap into her partner’s arms, with her head nearly hitting the stage floor, was only one of many examples of her outstanding stage ownership. She was accompanied by KJ Takahashi and Villarini-Velez, both of whom also celebrated role debuts and delivered superior performances. The piece still looks as fresh and original as it did when I first saw it.

To date, I’ve only seen Von Enck in roles that reflect her velocity and stage spirit; whether she can handle roles with dramatic substance, or that require pin-point and emotionless execution, remains to be seen. But she already makes one impatient for her to re-enter the stage in a piece as thrilling as Concerto DSCH, and may well create the same impact in more substantial roles.

Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley
in George Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Unlike Symphony in Three Movements and Concerto DSCH, Stravinsky Violin Concerto is so familiar that its quality as a Balanchine masterwork is often overlooked. I reviewed it most recently in the context of that Stravinsky Festival last spring, including with Laracey and Gordon handling Aria II as beautifully as they did here (although Laracey appeared far more rested now than she did then, when I dubbed her the Iron Lady of the Festival). In Aria I, Mearns, and particularly Stanley, executed well, but with her French twist/bun pushed too far forward (it looked like a Mohawk) the impression she left wasn’t as fine as her technique.

Sterling Hyltin, AndrewVeyette, and New York City Ballet
in Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The program concluded with Everywhere We Go, an interestingly-crafted, infinitely varied, and undeniably entertaining ballet, here led by Megan Fairchild, Hyltin, Miller, Jovani Furlani, Veyette, Peter Walker, and LaFreniere, accompanied by a cast of thousands (including Olivia Boisson, who this season drew attention in all the pieces in which she participated). Choreographed by Peck to music by Sufjan Stevens, it’s always welcome to watch, and always sends its audience home happy. But as fine and choreographically novel a piece as it is, to me, on this program it suffered by comparison to Concerto DSCH.

The September 20th Program (Opening Night)

If you’re going to overlook Serenade, this season’s opening night program, at least as executed in two of the three dances selected, was exceptional. Divertimento No. 15 was given one of the finest renditions I’ve seen, including superb performances by Gordon and Megan Fairchild. Similarly, La Sonnambula, a classic of Gothic mystery, was presented with great success. The rendering of Scotch Symphony was another matter.

I’ll address the positives first.

Not all of Balanchine’s ballets are visually balanced, which is usually a good thing. But his ballets built around music by Mozart, the most classical of classical composers, certainly are. And his Divertimento No. 15 may be the most classically balanced of them all. Little happens that doesn’t repeat; little happens that doesn’t mirror a previous choreographic phrase.

Maybe for these reasons I initially failed to appreciate its magnificence, and I still have difficulty getting emotionally involved because the music and the choreography invite none. But Balanchine makes the piece neither predictable nor tedious, and if one appreciates obvious musical and choreographic perfection, nothing matches Divertimento No. 15. It’s a Balanchine gem. Another one.

And the opening night cast, which with one exception was different from the cast I saw last spring, delivered a gem of a performance. After Harrison Coll and Villarini-Velez began the Theme and Variations segment auspiciously, Adams repeated and refined her First Variation performance, and Erica Pereira, did the same with the Second Variation. Phelan was merely superb in the Third Variation. After Gerrity successfully delivered the Fourth Variation, Gordon danced one of the finest Fifth Variations I can recall. Always appearing the perfectionist, Gordon hit this, his first performance of what became a memorable season for him, out of the park – and the knowledgeable audience knew it. Megan Fairchild completed the segment like a colt unleashed.

The concluding Minuet, Andante, and Finale were superbly executed as well. Christina Clark, Lauren Collett, Meagan Dutton-O’Hara, Malorie Lundgren, Maxwell, Olivia MacKinnon, Mary Elizabeth Sell (who continues to excel in whatever role she’s been given), and Claire Von Enck completed the cast, which danced in mid-season form.

In the final piece on that program, Balanchine’s mysterious and not easily forgettable La Somnambula, with Hyltin in the title role, set the tone for the rest of the season. I’ve seen many memorable portrayals of the Sleepwalker, and hers here ranks with the best of them.

The first tune I recall seeing her dance the role, in 2017, I described Hyltin’s Sleepwalker as in league with those, like Wendy Whelan, who somehow imbue their characterizations with intelligence (as opposed to those whose characterizations make the Sleepwalker appear vacant). It reflects Hyltin’s general stage presence, of course, but also that she never gives a vacant portrayal of anything. In this role she’s a mesmerizing, sentient being even if she can’t show it. Stanley, in a role debut as The Poet, also excelled. The Coquette, played by Mearns, was on target, as was The Baron, danced by Veyette in a role debut.

And then there was Scotch Symphony.

I should make one thing clear first: other than the ballerina who I felt should not have been cast in her role, the other dancers in the piece, including Baily Jones and Furlani in featured roles, performed admirably.

Baily Jones and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Scotch Symphony was one of my favorite Balanchine ballets – not for its complexity or novelty, but for the fun of watching it. One reason was knowing that, acknowledged or not, this was Balanchine’s take-off on, and in a sense distillation of, La Sylphide, one of those magical Romantic ballets that will forever endure. Choreographed to the second, third and fourth Movements of Mendelssohn’s “Scotch Symphony,” it was an all too infrequently performed breath of fresh air.

The de facto role of “the sylph,” though not denominated as such and not equipped with wings, is the dance’s linchpin. Even without directly following the plot of La Sylphide, the analogous character in Scotch Symphony must effectively be a reimagining of it. A sense of ethereality, consequently, is key. Recent examples of casting that properly emphasized this were Hyltin’s role debut in 2019, and San Francisco Ballet’s Mathilde Froustey in the same role at City Center’s Balanchine Festival the previous year.

My goal here is not to criticize a particular ballerina, but her casting, so I won’t mention her name although I suspect that that’s easily determined. When the dancer in this role on opening night first appeared, I didn’t recognize who it was. After I did, the revelation was shocking. She executed the steps, but steps aren’t the most important factor in evaluating a performance, especially in a dance as tinged with meaning as Scotch Symphony. Dance is a visual and kinetic art form, and one that’s audience-driven; what a viewer sees and, hopefully, feels is critical. This ballerina’s forced, unnatural smile, her stiffness, and although I won’t go into physical detail, the fact that no one could mistake her for anyone’s manifestation of a sylph destroyed the piece. And I’m told by a trusted friend that during the curtain calls a chorus of boos could be heard from that side of the orchestra. Boos? At NYCB?

I have no objection to any professional dancer being given sufficient time to recover from an injury or for any other reason; my point is that the recovery shouldn’t be in front of an audience. I also recognize that viewers may have different interpretations as to how a character in a recognizable role should look, or if the character should look a certain way or not. But the lead role in a piece like Scotch Symphony isn’t the place for recovery, or for experimentation with the notion that in this day and age anyone can dance any role. I don’t know how this casting happened, and I won’t hypothesize, but the decision was manifestly wrong-headed (or an abdication of responsibility), and was not in the best interest of NYCB, its audience, and even the particular ballerina.

I understand that the casting that was scheduled for future Scotch Symphony performances this season was subsequently modified, and that the role originally assigned to her was given to someone else. I don’t know if that’s true, or, if so, the reason for it. But that shouldn’t happen again – except, maybe, for a valedictory.

End of rant. It’s not something I relish doing, but under the circumstances it felt an abdication of my responsibility not to emphasize it, and to explain my reasons at some length.

The October 13th Program

On to more positive comments.

Although it was scheduled to continue for four more performances, the final program for this Fall, 2022 season that I saw was, effectively, a special way to end this or any other season.

First, the ballets themselves.

One might have expected Episodes, Balanchine’s 1949 ballet (subsequently modified) to music by Anton von Webern, to be incompatible with Vienna Waltzes, choreographed by Balanchine in 1976 to waltz music composed by Johan Strauss II, Franz Lehar, and Richard Strauss. And it’s undeniable that they’re as different as night and day. But their incompatibility makes them a perfect pairing. In their own way, they’re opposite sides of the same Balanchine coin.

Sara Mearns, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Episodes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Episodes is a difficult ballet to enjoy. On the surface, based on the dancers’ costumes, it’s another of Balanchine’s black and white ballets. But Webern’s music is atonal, sterile-sounding, and frequently a seeming collection of random sounds. Balanchine’s choreography matches it, except instead of seemingly random sounds there’s seemingly random movement. That being said, as difficult as it is to listen to and watch, what Balanchine is doing here is quite remarkable.

First, it must be noted that when the piece premiered it included a section choreographed by Martha Graham for her own company, as well as a section choreographed by Balanchine for NYCB, which included an additional solo he created for Paul Taylor, then a Graham dancer. Two years later, the Graham section was separated out, as was the solo created for Taylor – but the Taylor solo was reinserted twice before in what remained from the Balanchine component, including in 2020 in honor of Taylor (magnificently performed by Michael Trusnovec). Having seen the Taylor solo in context, albeit without Taylor, the piece now looks even more austere without it than it did before.

As presented last night, Episodes now includes four segments choreographed to four Webern compositions: “Symphony, Opus 21”; “Five Pieces, Opus 10”; “Concerto, Opus 24”; and “Ricerdata in six voices from Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’.” As you watch it, and as you listen to the elements of sounds that Webern put together, it’s fascinating how the quality of the sound changes, and how Balanchine’s choreography responds to it.

When viewing the ballet’s first segment, it takes awhile before one (or at least I) can decipher something resembling a music sequence that doesn’t sound completely random, almost inaudible, and definitely not pleasing. To this, Balanchine choreographed the most ascetic of the dance segments, albeit one that was superbly executed by LaFreniere and Chun Wai Chan, abetted by a six-dancer supporting corps. Even so, it was almost painful to watch. The second musical segment, only slightly less austere-sounding, was choreographed as a duet danced by Claire Kretzschmar and Gilbert Bolden III. Here the choreography, though compatible with Webern’s music, is so stunningly presented and executed that it becomes far more important than the score. Kretzschmar and, particularly, Bolden (who is an unusual danseur and one I’ve highlighted previously), handled the duet (on a surface level similar to the central pas de deux in Agon) brilliantly. With the third segment’s score, one begins to hear a sort of natural progression within Webern’s severe sound, almost but not quite a melody, which Balanchine’s choreography, performed by Gerrity, Stanley and a superb supporting four-dancer corps (India Bradley, Jones, Maxwell, and Sell), obviously reflected. The final segment, a minimalist (though not, to my ear, atonal) take on Bach’s composition, is almost classical sounding – and Balanchine’s choreography to it is stripped-down classical. It was beautifully executed by Mearns, Danchig-Waring, and a corps of 14.

Given a little mental effort, and even in its current abbreviated state, Episodes is a small miracle of choreographic accomplishment: Balanchine created elements of movement to match – and enhance – the elements in Webern’s seemingly undanceable score. That being said, it’s still a tough piece to like. As I’ve previously described it, it goes down like castor oil.

New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But in this program, Balanchine also provides the spoonful, or tablespoon, or several cups, of sugar to help the medicine go down. Looked at another way, Vienna Waltzes is pure Viennese schmaltz. [For those suffering from culinary deprivation, schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, but it has assumed many other different meanings over time – some clearly related (anything overly fatty); some not so clearly related (excessive or maudlin sentimentality).]

When I first saw Vienna Waltzes, I thought it nice enough to look at, but neither choreographically inventive nor noteworthy: a spectacle akin to other Balanchine spectacles (e.g., Stars and Stripes). But after Episodes, neither inventiveness nor noteworthiness applies. It’s high-quality chicken soup for the soul. [I promise no further food references.]

Vienna Waltzes presents five famously recognizable Viennese waltz compositions and lush choreography to fit. It proceeds slowly (with one exception), like, sorry, fat gradually melting in a pan. The first, to J. Strauss’s “G’Schichten aus dem Wienerwald” (the program titles each of the waltzes in its original German, which I’ll follow here), is venued in a sumptuous Vienna Woods set (by Rouben Ter-Arutunian). Balanchine grafts a vague story onto his choreography, but otherwise it’s pure … schmaltz. Kretzchmar (in a role far different from the one she danced earlier in Episodes) and Aaron Sanz, supported by a 20 dancer supporting corps, made it come to life.

Following removal of most of the forest set, Megan Fairchild and Huxley led the same composer’s “Fruhlingsstimmen,” with an 8 dancer corps. All performed sumptuously. And Huxley, now that he smiles, is a delight to watch – especially when he’s together with the ebullient Fairchild. This segment was followed by Strauss’s “Explosions-Polka,” which provided a break from the prior slow-waltz segments. Danced with jaunty joie de vivre by Adams, Harrison Coll, and six supporting dancers, it was a perfect amuse bouche. [Palate cleanser. My continuing apologies.]

After that, Vienna Waltz gets serious. Fast as you can say George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker (which one can’t say fast), the remainder of the initial set ever so slowly rises up and out of the way like that dance’s Christmas Tree on steroids (Ter-Arutunian designed that set too), setting the stage for Lehar’s “Gold und Silber Walzer.” Led by Miriam Miller and Danchig-Waring, and with a 16 dancer corps, this segment, like the first, provides the semblance of a narrative, and adds an air of, if not mystery, then uncertainty to what heretofore had been (mostly) settled relationships.

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild
in George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Up to this point, all this, on this night, was appetizer that made one hungry for more. [Ok, I lied.] Vienna Waltzes‘ concluding segment, to R. Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier: Erste Walzerfolge,” was the main course. When Hyltin appeared, alone, entering from the stage right wings, the audience cheered enthusiastically. When Robbie Fairchild, looking more debonair than I can ever remember, followed shortly thereafter, the cheers grew to a crescendo. Just seeing the two of them dance together again, and for the last time before Hyltin’s imminent retirement, was more than sufficient. That they danced together both delightedly and delightfully was almost too much to consume in one sitting. And, thanks to Hyltin’s performance (her role debut), for the first time I noticed that Balanchine’s choreography here, in the first portion of this waltz, is vaguely remindful of Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose – although by that time I may have been overly visually intoxicated. Hyltin has a knack for presenting familiar ballets in a way that illuminates them and that makes one feel as if one is seeing them in a new way. She accomplished the same thing in her role debut in Mozartiana.

As this glorious segment continued, eventually waves and waves of dancers were added to the stage, creating a sea of white gowns and black tuxedos in an elegant ocean of continuing circular movement. The ballet’s main course had evolved into desert– and schmaltz aside, one as wonderful as a Sacher Torte.

Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild during curtain call
after George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Overall, Vienna Waltzes is a Balanchine black and white ballet like no other. And although it comes with more than sufficient gestalt of its own, with the added emotional Hyltin / Fairchild component it became the highlight of this season. To say it was memorable is an understatement, and, frankly, I felt privileged to have witnessed it.

But it wasn’t over yet. The emotion-packed curtain calls prompted many in the audience to stand and cheer – something that rarely happens at a NYCB performance. It was like a Farewell without being a Farewell. And as I watched the dancers filling the stage and soaking in the adulation, my eye caught Megan Fairchild standing there and applauding Hyltin and her brother. This was icing on the cake.

Vienna Waltzes may not be a choreographic masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece of inspiration and stagecraft and execution. And with this performance’s added celebratory atmosphere, ballet doesn’t get much better than this.

On to George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” – and its candy canes and sugar plums.