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

January 22 and 26 evening, 2019: Apollo, Orpheus, Agon
January 26 afternoon, 2019: Serenade, Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2

Jerry Hochman

Opening any New York City Ballet season with either Serenade or Apollo is, to me, ideal. Opening a season with both of them is a gift.

NYCB gifted its audiences with both these Balanchine masterpieces to open its Winter 2019 season, with Apollo leading the first program, and Serenade the second. Each of the programs was dedicated to Balanchine’s collaboration, actual and / or spiritual, with, respectively, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. Orpheus and Agon completed the first program, and Mozartiana and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 the second.

But it wasn’t “just” the ballets that headlined these programs: each of the three I saw featured a plethora of role debuts, none of which were disappointing, and several of which were illuminating. Since all six of these ballets are well-known, with one exception I’ll focus here on the performances.

Taylor Stanley in George Balanchine's "Apollo" Photo by Erin Biaino

Taylor Stanley
in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Erin Biaino

Hot off his remarkable 2018 performing year, Taylor Stanley debuted as Apollo on the season’s opening night, and Gonzalo Garcia, who spent much of 2018 recovering from an injury, debuted in the role Saturday afternoon. The portrayals are quite different – although well within acknowledged parameters, and perhaps the differences I saw say more about what I expect to see in the role than what must be there.

To me, the critical components of Apollo, the character, is his recognition that there are qualities he lacks that the muses provide, and his evolution from an immature, youthful god to a mature god fully prepared to assume his place in the pantheon.

Taylor Stanley and (clockwise from left) Brittany Pollack, Indiana Woodward and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine's "Apollo" Photo by Erin Biaino

Taylor Stanley and (clockwise from left)
Brittany Pollack, Indiana Woodward
and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Erin Biaino

Noteworthy for a first effort, Taylor delivered an excellent portrayal. After an initial series of phrases that seemed to add a measure of wildness in his arms to the choreography that I’d not previously seen, his portrayal quickly moderated, and appeared immaculate thereafter. And, just prior to the concluding procession with the muses to the top of Mt. Olympus (more clearly evident in the ballet’s original form), the image he presented of a god who finally gets it together, knows what his function and future would be, and sees his immortal destiny, was among the most powerful that I’ve seen: the light radiated from his eyes. It’s supposed to be that way with every Apollo, but it rarely works quite so well.

My only general criticism is one that Taylor has no control over. Soon after he joined the company and was assigned feature roles, I observed that he frequently seemed to have a sour demeanor, and to lead with his chin. Both those perceived attributes have long passed. But for a still young dancer, his visage is almost that of an ‘old soul’, which to me isn’t compatible with a young god. As one friend suggested, maybe it’s his hairline. But there’s nothing he can do about it, and in other respects it was a superlative debut.

Sterylin Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia  in George Balanchine's "Apollo" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia
in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Garcia’s role debut Saturday evening was equally flawless, and I thought he handled the choreographic arm movements that Taylor had made appear so frenzied much better – although it’s also possible that a different vantage point affected my view of both performances.

But while it started out emotionally appropriate, Garcia’s Apollo became something else, evolving  – until the concluding moments – into a somewhat Dionysian Apollo who thoroughly enjoyed his time with the muses, the education he was receiving, and the fact that he could harness and control them. This Apollo was not so much being educated as having fun during recess.

I don’t think this interpretation, if that’s what it was (again, perhaps my viewing angle may have produced skewed impressions), is necessarily invalid, but it contradicts every other interpretation I can recall. In the end, it didn’t matter – Garcia certainly concluded the piece powerfully as he matured. But though it may not be wrong, it didn’t feel quite right.

Apollo’s muses were danced on Tuesday by Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, and Indiana Woodward as Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, and Calliope respectively; and by Sterling Hyltin, Abi Stafford, and Lauren Lovette on Saturday evening. Pollack’s and Stafford’s performances were role debuts, and each executed admirably in all respects. The other muses excelled as well, with Hyltin’s Terpsichore in particular delivering every facet of the choreography brilliantly, including floating atop Garcia’s shoulder like a weightless, benevolent spirit.

Garcia also debuted in Orpheus on opening night, and here I thought delivered a very strong portrayal, appropriately tormented throughout.

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in George Balanchine's “Orpheus” Photo by Erin Baiano

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia
in George Balanchine’s “Orpheus”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Orpheus is not an easy piece to like – its pacing is similar to Apollo, but it’s longer. The presence of additional characters helps, but not quite enough, especially since the events surrounding Orpheus’s death omit critical details without which his being torn to pieces by the Maenads (Bacchantes) comes across as pointless. Created in 1948, Orpheus also comes across as something of a throwback: a narrative form remindful of Prodigal Son and Apollo, both of which preceded it by some twenty years, without either the narrative pulse of the former or the choreographic purity of the latter. But comparisons are deceptive – Orpheus is sui generis, and no less a landmark than its predecessors.

The ballet is a retelling of the myth of the musician/poet/singer who could charm anything and anyone, does exactly that when he travels to Hades to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, but is undone by inevitable fate. As is the case with most myths and legends, the Orpheus myth can be found with slight variations from one telling to another – for example, whether Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice on his own, or at her insistence. The version in this piece displays the latter, which can be seen as somewhat misogynistic, since Eurydice’s tantalizing passion for Orpheus is clearly visualized as the cause of his undoing, rather than any tragic flaw he may have had (like his passion for, and loyalty to the memory of, Eurydice).

Regardless, one of the piece’s qualities that makes Orpheus as compelling as it is is its distillation of the lead characters. In most versions of the ballet that I’ve seen over the years, Orpheus barely reacts – he just is. This was the interpretation delivered by Ask la Cour on Saturday evening. Though influenced by outside forces, Orpheus’s movement quality seems completely internalized, repressed. Eurydice’s reaction to outside forces, on the contrary, is externalized – everything seems to flow from within; everything is expressed. Seen this way, “Orpheus” is a study in contrasting characterization through choreography – a passionate character who shows no passion, contrasted with a passionate character whose passion is overwhelmingly present and inescapable.

Garcia’s portrayal, however, was the most animated Orpheus I can recall, and perhaps for that reason it’s one of his finest roles. His interpretation may not have been Balanchine’s preference, but this Orpheus was able to connect and clearly communicate his tortured agony, his hope, and his despair beyond the proscenium. More significantly, his character’s passion, expressed even though internalized, more suitably matched Sterling Hyltin’s stunningly executed Eurydice. As much as he resisted her, he clearly wanted to yield to her, and had to force himself not to, succumbing equally to his own passion as to hers.

Ask la Cour and Teresa Reichlen in George Balanchine's "Orpheus" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Ask la Cour and Teresa Reichlen
in George Balanchine’s “Orpheus”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

On Saturday evening, la Cour’s more standard characterization necessarily created more of a distance between himself and the audience. This internalization can come across as bland, and the passion muted, which is unfortunate, but given that – and recognizing that this may be what Balanchine wanted – it was a highly accomplished portrayal. And in her role debut, Teresa Reichlen delivered a siren of a Eurydice, one who the physically and emotionally blindfolded Orpheus eventually could not resist.

Each performance also featured Dark Angel role debuts. Although both dancers handled the role well, I thought Peter Walker’s performance on Tuesday was more compelling than Andrew Scordato’s on Saturday evening, possibly because Walker towered over Garcia, creating a sense of dominion and doom, while Scordato had to stretch to reach la Cour’s shoulders.

Agon, created nearly ten years after Orpheus, is a landmark ballet, emblematic of Balanchine’s elimination of anything that might be considered a detraction from the dancing itself – represented both by the black and white non-costumes and the crystalline plotless choreography. Try as one might to find a message, even emotional gloss, in any of the dances that together comprise this multi-part suite that completed the Greek-themed program, one can’t – not even in the celebrated central pas de deux.

Prior to the season opening performance, principal dancers Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle welcomed the audience, and announced that NYCB had dedicated this entire Winter 2019 season’s performances of Agon to former NYCB principal Arthur Mitchell, who passed away on September 19, 2018. Among a litany of accomplishments, Mitchell originated the lead male role in Agon, and was one of its finest interpreters.

Peter Walker in George Balanchine's "Agon" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s “Agon”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

There were no significant differences between the two Agon performances I saw last week and others I’ve seen over the years (unfortunately, I never saw Mitchell perform this or any other role live). On Wednesday, Kowroski and Angle handled the lead roles with their usual brilliance, accompanied by fine performances from Megan LeCrone, Unity Phelan, Lydia Wellington (in her role debut), Devin Alberda, Daniel Applebaum, and an extraordinary Anthony Huxley. As fine a performance as Angle delivered, however, I missed the electric performances in the role, and the seamless partnering of Kowroski, that Amar Ramasar so skillfully executed in recent years. On Saturday evening, Miriam Miller and Russell Janzen, in a role debut, executed finely-wrought and youthfully energized performances as the lead couple, successfully abetted by Walker (whose portrayal was far different from Huxley’s, but equally successful), and outstanding efforts by Sara Adams and Emilie Gerrity (both in role debuts), and Wellington, Harrison Coll and Scordato.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Serenade" Photo by Paul Kolnik

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

There is no single ballet that can be labelled ‘Balanchine’s Best’. There simply are too many ‘bests’ to highlight just one. But Serenade may well be Balanchine’s most beloved ballet, and at least as iconic as Apollo among audiences, year after year after year. Having seen it dozens of times, I could see it dozens more and never tire of it. For a ballet with no apparent plot, it has a theme (or series of them) that is elusive and mysterious and undefinable, and images from beginning to end that remain permanently etched in a viewer’s mind. And like every great ballet, it reveals new secrets every time one sees it.

The most anticipated aspect of this performance of it was Lauren Lovette’s debut as the “waltz girl.”

Lauren Lovette and Ask la Cour in George Balanchine's "Serenade" Credit by Paul Kolnik

Lauren Lovette and Ask la Cour
in George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
Credit by Paul Kolnik

It’s a personal quirk, admittedly, but my favorite performances in that role have been delivered by ballerinas who appear sylph-like (e.g., Hyltin; Janie Taylor). Lovette can be a superb sylph-like ballerina (per her performance in La Sylphide, among others), but to me that quality was lacking on Saturday afternoon, particularly impacting the final “apotheosis” image, where to me the essential image wasn’t there – although, as with other observations, this might have been a product of my position in the audience (from the right side), which limited my perception of the imagery as she’s carried aloft from downstage left to upstage right into … wherever. That aside (and, being super nit-picky, overlooking an errant pinky that appeared to have been held too high during the closing sequence following her entrance), it was another super debut, yet another example of Lovette’s ability to enchant.

Also celebrating a super debut, but far more of a pleasant surprise, was Gerrity’s “dark angel.” I don’t recall seeing this role danced in any way sympathetically, but Gerrity delivered the missing link that made the role a joy to watch, as strange as describing a “dark angel” as ‘sympathetic’ or ‘a joy to watch’ may sound. While I’ve sensed an appropriate quality of weight and solemnity previously, to those qualities Gerrity added a sense of ethereality that is no less appropriate for an angel who is (or may be) a messenger of death. Gerrity’s performance in that segment of the piece was significantly abetted by Aaron Sanz’s fine delivery of suffering as the one the dark angel summons. The featured cast was completed by Ashley Bouder and la Cour (in a role debut), but any discussion of “featured” members of the cast that omits NYCB’s corps is deficient – they, collectively, provided a flawless iconic framework for this iconic ballet.

Sterling Hyltin in George Balanchine's "Mozartiana" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin
in George Balanchine’s “Mozartiana”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

When Hyltin debuted in Mozartiana several years ago, I raved that her portrayal finally enabled me to enjoy the ballet, which I’d previously found too elegiac in its first movement, which colored my perception of the rest of it. Unfortunately, either Hyltin has now modified her portrayal in this opening “Preghiera,” or was persuaded to change it: it’s now just as somber as other portrayals I’ve seen. In other respects, however, including a fabulously executed “Theme et Variations” segment with Huxley (the accompanying score is Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4), and a joyous “Gigue” by Troy Schumacher, it was a sensational performance.

The Balanchine / Tchaikovsky program concluded with Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. The piece dates to 1941, when it premiered with Ballet Caravan, and was revived for NYCB in 1964. At the time, the ballet was titled Ballet Imperial (some companies still perform it with that title), and featured sets by Rouben Ter-Arutunian that connected the ballet to its Petipa / Russian Imperial inspiration. As with Apollo, to me the ballet looked better with the sets and a sense of context than it does now on a bare stage (even with new costumes by Marc Happel that feature thousands of Swarovski crystals). That being said, it’s still a superb piece, given exceptional performances by Reichlen and Angle in the leading roles, LeCrone (in a role debut), and Kristen Segin, Sarah Villwock, Jonathan Fahoury, and Spartak Hoxha in featured roles.

Many years ago, NYCB dedicated an entire year to segmenting and exploring three components of its repertory: its entire Fall 2012 program focused on Balanchine / Stravinsky (including one program identical to the Stravinsky program that opened this season), its entire Winter 2013 program on Balanchine / Tchaikovsky, and its entire Spring 2013 program to an American Music Festival. Allowing such in-depth explorations provided a glorious way to compare and contrast, and enjoy. These opening Winter 2019 programs provide a more limited sampling (to be diluted in other programs later in the season), but the ballets are no less illuminating. One can have individual favorites, but these ballets continue to show how remarkably adventurous, exhilarating, and enjoyable Balanchine’s body of work is.

The season continues through March 3.