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

April 18, 2023 (season opening): Concerto Barocco, Kammermusik No. 2, Raymonda Variations

April 23, 2023: Square Dance, Afternoon of a Faun, Haieff Divertimento, Donizetti Variations

April 25, 2023: La Source, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement

Jerry Hochman

If you perused New York City Ballet’s performance schedule over the past year or two, it wouldn’t be surprising if you had a sense of déjà vu. One season bled into the next, and that into another. More importantly, the recent seasonal schedules lacked the “excitement factor” that would encourage ballet-goers to attend as often as they may have in the past – even those who attend ballet religiously. There were several meritorious new pieces, and most programs, at least those I viewed, included superior, even memorable, performances by individual dancers and the company as a whole even where the ballets themselves were overly familiar. But the schedules just looked ho-hum.

This was the case with the three programs I attended during the first two weeks of NYCB’s Spring, 2023 season. There were memorable performances (there always are), fabulous individual role debuts (including, as I’ll address below, a noteworthy role debut in Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun and an extraordinary role debut by newly-minted Principal Mira Nadon), and continuing evidence of what I’ve previously described as the “New Faces of NYCB” arising from the parade of retirees over the past few years. Nevertheless, the sense that NYCB was marking time remained.

Now we know why.

NYCB’s 2023-24 performance schedule (part 1):

One of the most significant of NYCB recent developments was the company’s early announcement, on the day before Opening Night of its Spring, 2023 season (in what appeared to be an effort to inject some enthusiasm into the company’s outward-facing image) of its schedule and repertoire for the 2023-24 performing year. Next year’s schedule is impressive, and it’s apparent that the company was saving its big guns, including beloved masterworks that would be welcome at any time in any season no matter how many times they’ve been previously seen, but which curiously have been absent recently, for its 75th Anniversary Year.

The strategy worked. NYCB’s 2023-24 Schedule instantly became the talk of much of the ballet world (in New York and beyond).

With a few glaring exceptions that I’ll mention below, and a decision of monumental wrong-headedness that I’ll discuss at the end of this review, most of the ballets NYCB audiences have been waiting for are in next year’s schedule. They include Serenade, Apollo, The Prodigal Son, Orpheus, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony in C, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Theme and Variations, The Four Temperaments, La Sonnambula, Symphony in Three Movements, Tarantella, Agon, Ballo Della Regina, Stars and Stripes, Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Fancy Free, Glass Pieces, Other Dances, and The Concert, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and This Bitter Earth, Justin Peck’s first major success: Year of the Rabbit, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Odessa, among many others, concluding the year with the always joyous (and always welcome) A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The year will also feature a new dance by Ratmansky (recently appointed NYCB’s Artist in Residence), and Tiler Peck’s first piece of choreography for the company.

Those inexplicable scheduling omissions (a/k/a my wish list) – Duo Concertant, which could easily have been included on next year’s schedule instead of more questionable decisions; I’m Old Fashioned (Robbins’s homage to Fred Astaire), which has been absent for an eternity, Dybbuk (or The Dybbuk Variations), and the always welcome masterpiece, The Goldberg Variations; Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse (always an audience favorite), and a beautiful little dance that seems to have gotten lost among the ballet behemoths, The Nightingale and the Rose; Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons (though I suspect he probably wouldn’t want it performed now); Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway (it hasn’t been long absent, but I’d recommend scheduling it as often as possible in case Taylor Stanley decides to join the retiree rush); and the continuing failure to return Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 to the repertoire. Sure there’s its final movement, Theme and Variations, but Theme looks even better as part of the whole. There seems no credible reason for not including the full suite, the one Balanchine created for NYCB, rather than just Theme, which he choreograhed for American Ballet Theatre. I suppose I’ll have to continue to pine for it a bit longer.

Now on to this current season. I’ll first discuss two particularly significant role debuts, and thereafter follow rough program order.

Afternoon of a Faun

By far the most unexpected casting this season (to date) was that of corps dancer Dominika Afenosenko, opposite Christopher Grant, in Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun. I’ve noticed her before, but not in any featured corps roles, and nothing, at least nothing I saw, that indicated exceptional promise beyond the rarity of her apparent height (although stage dimensions can be deceiving) and her very blonde hair. Perhaps I just missed many of the programs in which she was cast.

Obviously someone in a position to know possessed a more thorough evaluation.

Afenosenko’s role debut provided the most excitement so far this season, and perhaps for the entire season. And she delivered a performance that rose to the occasion.

Hers was a very much “by-the-book” performance (as opposed to, for example, the role debut by Lauren Lovette several years ago, which I found enchanting but which some felt included more display of emotion, minimal though it was, than was appropriate), but by-the-book wasn’t unanticipated for one so relatively inexperienced. What was a surprise, at least to me, was her mesmerizing execution of the ballet as most viewers expect it to be – unembellished by personality. She made no mistakes, at least none that I could view; on the contrary, every movement, or absence of it, was as required. But her performance never looked regimented; it looked as spontaneous as it had to. Hers was a solid, and in its own way exceptional, role debut.

Dominika Afanasenkov and Christopher Grant
in Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I expected more from Grant’s Faun, but, in hindsight, that’s unfair. He also delivered a straightforward, perfectly acceptable performance, with nothing extraordinary to gloat (or complain) about, but his primary focus, as it should have been, was on making Afenosenko be, and look, as secure and comfortable in her role as she did.

Audiences will see what happens from here, and Afenosenko is not, at least not yet, a stage presence that one might consider glamourous or vivacious – though those qualities may develop over time. But at a minimum, NYCB may now have a tall and capable blonde to cast in “tall ballerina” roles – such as in Rubies.

Namouna, A Grand Divertissement

And then there’s that tall, vivacious brunette. As a short notice replacement for Megan Fairchild, who is nursing an injury, in Namouna, A Grand Divertissement (so short that there wasn’t sufficient time to print change-of-cast program inserts), Nadon, who was scheduled to debut in the role later during this run, instead made her debut early, on the April 25th program. To say her performance was a smashing success is an understatement.

It’s not what Nadon did, it’s how she did it. The choreography’s the same, but she milked what she was able to milk brilliantly. Ashley Bouder and Fairchild have also done great work with this role previously, but, perhaps because Nadon is a more imposing presence, she took Namouna, A Grand Divertissement (hereafter just Namouna) to a yet higher level.

Taylor Stanley and New York City Ballet
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Namouna is one of Ratmansky’s more frustrating ballets to watch. It’s very long (I’ve been told, without verification, that it’s been trimmed since its 2010 premiere; but even if that’s the case, it could stand further tweaks), bulky, and confusing. And trying to figure out what Ratmansky’s doing here, Namouna’s meaning, is a trap that I fell into (as I often do). But a large component of that frustration is a product of Ratmansky’s intelligence and style. At times the point behind his dances is comprehensible only to one with a Ph.D. – a reason why his dances often take several exposures before they grow on a viewer.

When I first saw Namouna, I wrote that it was a serious misfire from one of this century’s foremost ballet choreographers. I just didn’t get the point – it seemed disjointed, as if Le Corsaire had been cross-pollinated by both Swan Lake and No, No, Nanette and then choreographed by Busby Berkeley on a budget. But the most recent time it was presented, in 2018, after the deciphering fog finally cleared, I got it. It was like searching for that whatchamacallit that’s been in front of your nose all the time.

(l-r) Olivia MacKinnon, Daniel Ulbricht, and Emma Von Enck
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
Photo by Erin Baiano

As I wrote then (and I apologize for quoting myself, but I can’t describe it any better now than I did then), Namouna makes a great deal of sense if one recognizes that it isn’t supposed to make a great deal of sense. Essentially, Ratmansky is using a lovely period score by Edouard Lalo for an obscure 19th Century ballet choreographed by Lucien Petipa (which premiered in 1882 and reportedly lasted for all of 15 performances), which itself was based on a now mercifully obscure European/ Orientalist 1831 poem by equally obscure French poet Alfred de Musset about a slave girl (Namouna) who falls for her owner (Hassan) as a foundation for a sort-of-combination pastiche on, parody of, and homage to silly (and not so silly) 19th Century Romantic ballets. It’s a brilliant hoot that looks like (and maybe samples from) possibly every Romantic ballet you’ve seen (and probably many you haven’t), all in the context of Ratmansky’s dry-as-a-martini choreographic (and visual) wit.

Structurally, the ballet is a little like the last act (or a combination of the penultimate “dream” act and the last act) of a typical Romantic story ballet in which the hero searches for his lost dreamgirl, finds her asleep, imprisoned, or otherwise hidden by mysterious forces, and before the final romantic pas de deux, everything except the kitchen sink (and maybe a little of that) gets thrown in as divertissements regardless of whether they have anything to do with the story or even belong in the same time period. So, here we have a hero searching for his lost love (except he’s not too sure which one she is – the Diva, the sassy 19th century version of the “It” Girl, or the snow white Ballerina Next Door – who’s watched over/ protected/ dominated by a man who’s part Rothbart, part Lankendem, part King without portfolio, part Wizard, part General and part Jester (in a costume that could fit both roles), and part Daddy. All this with a cast of thousands (actually, 26, including a phalanx of women in black Louise Brooks helmets and yellow dresses, another in wavy white flapper wigs, and a corps of men who missed the cut for soldiers/minions of Siegfried or Solor or as background filler for Mel Brooks’s Men in Tights. And in the course of the deceptively fragmented presentation we see fine individual dances by each of the leads, a knockout solo by Wizard/ General/Jester/Daddy and a killer little pas de deux for the hero and his snow maiden, or swan, or sylph, or nymph … dreamgirl.

(l-r) Emilie Gerrity, Unity Phelan, Taylor Stanley, and Mira Nadon
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
Photo by Erin Baiano

And as is often the case, I noticed little gems this time that I’d missed in all of Namouna’s prior performances. That phalanx of women in black helmets or white wigs are frames the way corps dancers are frames in Romantic ballets – except their uniformity is cemented by the wigs and costumes rather than uniform height and identical tutus — while Ratmansky, sotto voce, questions the need for uniformity at all. And at certain times, the corps dancers flutter their hands as if they’re flying birds – and in case one didn’t get the message, the “dreamgirl,” after fluttering her hands, modifies it for one or two beats into swan arms. There are more hysterical references – to Romantic ballets but also to other more contemporary ones (including one of Ratmansky’s own), but I won’t give it all away – and doubt that I found all of it anyway. Suffice it to say that if you look away for a second, you miss half the fun.

Nadon’s wasn’t Namouna’s only role debut. Unity Phelan was a fine dreamgirl for Taylor Stanley to pursue (after he figured out that she was his dreamgirl); and, as hench-women for Daniel Ulbricht’s strange but, as usual, brilliantly executed multi-dimensional man camouflaged in drab khaki brown and black, Olivia MacKinnon and, particularly, Emma Von Enck, with her feather-light, crystalline execution, excelled.

Unity Phelan
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
Photo by Erin Baiano

It also appeared to me that at this performance the audience “got” the comedy much more than prior audiences did, perhaps a consequence of the possibly deleted filler – and it was good to see the audience so frequently, and so appropriately, in stitches.

The April 18th Program:

Kammermusik No. 2, the second dance on this season’s opening night program, is an unusual piece that Balanchine choreographed to unusual-sounding Paul Hindemith music in 1978. It’s not a bad ballet – on the contrary, it’s interesting to see how Balanchine handles the unusual music (which, prior to the piece, NYCB’s Musical Director Andrew Litton and the consistently outstanding NYCB Orchestra examined in some detail in an entertaining and illuminating “See the Music” presentation), putting a contemporary spin on Hindemith’s Baroque/ Classical composition. And, with its more angular movement qualities and male corps of eight, it was the perfect counterpoint to the Balanchine masterpiece, Concerto Barocco, which opened the program. Indeed, the two dances are often paired, thereby emphasizing their similarities and differences.

(l-r) Mira Nadon and Emilie Gerrity
in George Balanchine’s “Kammermusik No. 2”
Photo by Erin Baiano

While Concerto Barocco is a recognized masterpiece, Kammermusic No. 2 is generally not considered in the same league. That’s not the way I first saw it, and not the way I see it now. Viewing how Balanchine visually translates Bach’s score in Concerto Barocco is more fascinating and exhilarating to be sure, and more visually striking, but it’s also more frequently presented, often with performances that don’t measure up to those by many others I’ve seen in the same roles. That’s not a problem with the rarely-performed Kammermusik No. 2. Not only is its choreography as contemporary-looking today as it must have been in 1978, it masterfully integrates relatively novel (for the time) ballet movement qualities – flexed hands and feet; backward thrusts for the women, for example— and adds both dynamism, texture, and an inherent sense of excitement along with the jazzy overlay in the music that Balanchine translates visually.

New York City Ballet in a prior performance
of George Balanchine’s “Kammermusik No. 2”
Photo Paul Kolnik

The performance on this program reflected this. Kammermusik No. 2 was anchored with stylistic flair by Emilie Gerrity and, in another role debut, Nadon, the lead women who dance in counterpoint to each other and to the male corps – here Devin Alberda, Grant, Spartak Hoxha, Alec Knight, Jules Mabie, Lars Nelson, Davide Riccardo (a particular standout), and Andres Zuniga. Also in role debuts were the ballerinas’ able partners, Harrison Coll and Aaron Sanz, both of whom performed with unusual elan.

The performance of Concerto Barocco that preceded Kammermusik No. 2 did not suffer the same fate as some other recent performances I’ve seen. On the contrary, both Ashley Laracey and Phelan (in another role debut) executed their lead roles with appropriate attack and finesse. They and the accompanying corps (Olivia Boisson, Jacqueline Bologna, Lauren Collet, Nieve Corrigan, Gabriella Domini, Jenelle Manzi, Ava Sautter, and Mimi Staker), as well as Tyler Angle, who partnered the two lead ballerinas, looked in mid-season form.

Unity Phelan and Tyler Angle (center) and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The evening concluded with Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations, one of several dances that he choreographed to Glazounov’s score for the ballet Raymonda. Here Balanchine excised parts of the score (some of which he’d previously used in other Raymonda-based pieces) and created a non-narrative dance that showcases each lead and featured dancer in its cast in a set of ten variations. Fairchild and Huxley nailed their roles, with Huxley turning his variations into showpieces. But the other featured dancers made strong impressions as well: Claire Von Enck in Variation I, Kristen Segin in Variation II, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara in Variation V, Lauren Collett (as I’ve previously observed, a ballerina to watch) in Variation VI, and Emily Kikta with a particularly strong Variation VII.  Von Enck, Collett, and Kikta’s performances here were role debuts.

The April 23rd Program:

But for Afternoon of a Faun and some unexpectedly promising performances, Sunday’s program was not on the same level.

The performance opened with the infrequently seen Square Dance, which premiered in 1957. I saw the piece in the early-mid 1970s, and recall enjoying it a great deal. But it’s been changed, and to me it’s a rare example of Balanchine’s tinkering and eliminating accoutrements that he considered superfluous, and in the process undermining the dance’s character.

When originally presented, Square Dance included musicians on the stage and a square dance “caller” describing (and supposedly directing) the stage movement. It was great fun. But the onstage musicians and the caller were eliminated in 1976 and a new male solo was added. Without the deletions the dance now has no character of its own: with the Baroque music (unidentified) by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, it looks like a variation on any number of other abstract classical ballets. Every once in awhile there are nods to what one might consider square-dance characteristics – moving into and out from a circular perimeter or head movement that look strange in a classical dance – but these instances are minimal at most.

New York City Ballet in a prior performance of
George Balanchine’s “Square Dance”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The performance was not helped by the leads. Each executed well enough, but each looked somewhat uncomfortable in their roles and lacked any semblance of magnetism toward each other or the audience.

Following Afternoon of a Faun, there was a repeat performance of last season’s rarely-performed piece, Haieff Divertimento (which now is no longer rarely-performed). While Indiana Woodward and Harrison Ball delivered their usual high-caliber performances (and, for Ball, one of his final performances before his retirement on May 7, which regrettably I will be unable to see), and the four-partnered corps excelled as well – Bologna and Canaan Weber, Baily Jones and Zuniga, Alston Macgill and Maxwell Read, and Alexa Maxwell (as predicted, a newly-minted Soloist) and Victor Abreu).

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

With respect to the corps, when my eyes weren’t glued to the leads I found myself focusing mostly on one dancer I didn’t immediately recognize and thought was misidentified in the cast list (perhaps, I thought, one of those corps replacements that the company sees no need to communicate to the audience). It wasn’t that. I subsequently checked company photos, and determined that it really was Macgill that I was focusing on. I don’t recall seeing her listed in any performances I’d seen in quite some time. Judged by her obvious and endearing bit of jubilation during the post-performance bows, I suspect she’s recovered from an injury, and seemingly couldn’t contain her joy upon returning to the stage and performing well. Little observations like this, which have nothing to do with the ballet itself, sometimes are what make attending ballet on a regular basis as rewarding as it is.

And, perhaps, lightning struck again with the next piece. Donizetti Variations was ported from last season’s programming, and it remains a delightful, Bournonville-like dance. Here however, Woodward substituted for the injured Fairchild, with Huxley again being the male lead.

I once described Woodward, following the first few performances of hers that I’d saw, as in the mold of former NYCB Principal Nichol Hlinka – not so much physically as in her unexpectedly strong attack. I can’t use that description anymore – Woodward long ago came into her own, and now brings to mind no one else. Here, she danced commendably, but without the sense of airiness that Fairchild brings to the role. I suppose that will come over time. Huxley on the other hand, once again, was an effective partner (his changed stage attitude that I’ve documented over the past few years has been transformative), and once again knocked his solos out of the park.

Anthony Huxley, here with Megan Fairchild,
in a prior performance
of George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations”
Photo by.Erin Baiano

That lightning? In Donizetti the lead pair is supplemented by a nine-dancer corps – six women and three men – with the women having more complex work to do than do members of the corps in other pieces: it’s not usually for newbies. During the corps-populated sequences in this performance, my eyes focused on one very young dancer whom I didn’t recall previously seeing, fully delivering the difficult combinations that were required, hitting every mark, all with a discernable air of determination. Beyond that, this one displayed a quality of elegance that showed through despite the obvious determination to get everything right, coupled with, maybe, a little Suzanne. I subsequently checked the internet and determined that this very young dancer (she looks no older than 17 or 18) is an Apprentice (the only Apprentice among the six corps women cast in Donizetti) named Allegra Inch. It’s way too soon to make any predictions – she hasn’t earned a place in the company yet much less appeared in a representative variety of roles, and lots can happen along the way (including landing elsewhere), but her progress bears future monitoring.

The April 25th Program:

The opening piece on the April 25 program, the one that concluded with Namouna, was La Source, which I last (and, to my recollection, first) saw in the Winter, 2020 season. I was dismissive of it then, primarily because I found the lead ballerina too distant; too much into herself. At this performance, the lead ballerina role was danced by Woodward, and Joseph Gordon repeated as the lead danseur, and to my eye the piece looked considerably better, though not on the same level of Balanchine classics.

The score for La Source is music composed by Leo Delibes from the ballet La Source choreographed by Arthur St. Leon in 1866, which included music composed part by Delibes and part by Ludwig Minkus (who also composed Don Quixote and La Bayadere). [This was the first music that Delibes composed specifically for ballet. He later became famous for his choreography for Coppelia and Sylvia.]

Balanchine’s La Source was choreographed in two parts: the first in 1968, as a pas de deux for Violette Verdy, the second, in 1969, with additional Delibes music that Balanchine had previously used for ballets he’d choreographed in 1965. This second part added to the initial pas de deux another pas de deux and a segment for a corps of eight and a featured dancer to lead that corps. The program states that Balanchine’s score was taken from Delibes’s La Source, and Naila; I subsequently found that the title for that original ballet was changed to Naïla, die Quellenfee (Naïla, the Waternymph) when it premiered in Vienna in 1878. So they’re the same ballet. But Delibes added additional material to La Source following its 1866 premiere, so perhaps it’s this music that Balanchine used when he added the additional part to La Source in 1969.

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

Regardless of its musical pedigree, the two segments appear glued together, even though they don’t exactly fit – the second part of the La Source score sounds far more intricate and grand, and results in far more complex and interesting-looking choreography.

At this performance, Woodward looked more comfortable than in Donizetti, and shined in that second segment. Whether a result of the changed partner or his own evolution of experience, Gordon looked better than I’d seen three years before, and was a highly effective partner. Jones, who led the corps segment, danced well, but that entire section, at least on this view, came across like the mayonnaise between slices of different bread.

Baily Jones in George Balanchine’s “La Source”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The season continues with additional performance of Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake, Justin Peck’s new piece that premiered last season, Copland Episodes, and two ballets that will premiere this season. I hope to cover these performances in my second season review. In the meantime, stock up on tickets for NYCB’s 2023-24 performance year.

NYCB’s 2023-24 performance schedule (part 2)

Speaking of which – that decision that I mentioned earlier as wrong-headed is to present Tzigane, the piece that Balanchine created for Suzanne Farrell and bequeathed to her upon his death, next year. That’s commendable. But changing the dance’s name to “Errante” isn’t. What prompted this? And regardless of what prompted it, isn’t the “cure” worse than, or at least as bad as, the disease?

I suspect that the reason for the change is that the word “tzigane” is considered by some to be demeaning to Romani (or Roma) people (a/k/a Gypsies, also a term that some consider demeaning). Even accepting arguendo that it is, whether intentionally or not, why is NYCB changing the name of a dance that takes its name from the composition to which it’s choreographed? Or will NYCB simply punt, and say that the dance is based on unidentified music by Ravel? And why stop there? I’ve not seen Tzigane live, but my understanding is that the solo dancer (originally Farrell) is dressed as a Gypsy. Should the costume be changed too? And if so, into what? As for the dance itself, it’s described (both on the NYCB website and on the George Balanchine Trust website, as a “fantasy” interpretation of a Gypsy dance, although I suspect that use of the word “fantasy” is an attempt to get around potential claims of cultural appropriation. Nevertheless, being the devil’s advocate, isn’t what Balanchine choreographed cultural appropriation regardless of the name the ballet is called? And if not, isn’t the choreography (again as the devil’s advocate) not sufficiently “typical” Gypsy, or Romani? If not, should the choreography be changed also?

Yet more unfathomable is the name it’s being changed to: “Errante.”

Although I’ve not done extensive research, based on a significant number of searches I’ve found nothing that connects the word “errante” to Gypsies or Romani. So maybe NYCB is creating a new, original connection. Fine. One meaning of “errante” is “wandering.” With that bare definition the word may fit, but it’s not particular to Romani – certainly not the way “tzigane” (or Gypsy) is.

More importantly, and conceding that I’m not a linguist, is that there’s an additional /supplemental meaning to “errante” that gives the work a recognized negative and pejorative connotation, one that’s far more apparent than that “tzigane” is offensive. The word translates as “wandering.” But this “wandering” is as in going the wrong way or making a mistake (“error” and “errant” appear to have the same Latin root as “errante”: err). One source I came across (among many that concur) gives the following as meanings for “errante”: wandering, errant, stray, itinerant. Does NYCB really want to saddle Romani (keeping in mind that “Tzigane” is being dumped because it’s considered demeaning to Romani) with an arguably more demeaning word?

The only thing beneficial about the name change is that it enables NYCB audiences to see the ballet formerly known as Tzigane finally performed again, on stage, after a 30-year absence.