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

May 4 (Spring Gala) and May 16, 2023: From You Within Me (world premiere), Standard Deviation (world premiere), The Times Are Racing

May 6, 2023: La Source, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement

May 10 and May 27 afternoon, 2023: Fancy Free, Agon, Brandenburg

Jerry Hochman

The final weeks of New York City Ballet’s Spring 2023 Season were highlighted by two world premiere ballets, one choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and one by Canadian choreographer Alysa Pires, and one that felt like a premiere because it had been absent for so long. Beyond that, recently-seen ballets were recycled throughout the season, seemingly marking time until the fireworks of legacy and new ballets that herald the company’s 75th Anniversary next year.

During the period covered by this review, I saw the premiere ballets, as well as the “return premiere,” twice to see whether I’d gain additional insights into them on a second viewing or from a different cast. I’ll discuss the two world premieres first, followed by the “return premiere” of Jerome Robbins’s Brandenburg, unquestionably the “event” of the season (maybe several seasons), and continue with the balance of the season’s repertory thereafter.

Wheeldon’s From You Within Me and Pires’s Standard Deviation are very different dances, with each having its own sensibility. Wheeldon’s piece is the superior of the two, but each has merits of its own. Overall, however, I’m decidedly undecided about the staying power of either of them.

From You Within Me

First contact with From You Within Me is an act curtain created by Alaskan-born artist Kylie Manning, who designed the ballet’s scenery (there’s no set per se) and costumes as well. It’s a sensational looking curtain, filled with evocative, Romantic swirls of color and movement that could signify many different things – from a sunrise or sunset, to light filtered through ocean depths, to some otherworldly outpost – creating a sense of wondrous movement as opposed to stasis; of constant but immutable change. Think English Romantic painter JMW Turner crossed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Once that curtain is raised, the backdrop contains similarly colored imagery that, during the course of the ballet, changes color emphasis from one possible abstract sky or ocean view to another depending on the color proportions and the lighting direction and intensity (lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger). It’s an exceptional contemporary artistic accomplishment, and one that fits the ballet like a glove.

Sara Mearns, Aaron Sanz (center),
Indiana Woodward (second from right),
and New York City Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “From You Within Me”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Wheeldon choreographed From You Within Me, his 22nd dance created for NYCB, to Arnold Schoenberg’s memorable Verklärte Nacht (translated: Transfigured Night). The score’s been used before, perhaps most notably by Antony Tudor in Pillar of Fire, but it’s one of those very few compositions that one never tires of hearing. My strongest memory of the power and mercy of that composition arose not from Pillar of Fire, but from Jiri Kylian’s Transfigured Night, where the score is as significant, and comes across as magnificent as the performances (which is saying something, since in my mind I always equate the composition with the unforgettable performance delivered by Sabina Allemann during NDT’s game-changing late-1970s (and/or early 1980s) engagement at New York City Center).

Wheeldon uses the score to frame a transition of a different sort from those two pieces. Although the ballet is abstract and not necessarily intended to mean anything, ignoring the obvious thrust of the dance is to limit it to its nuts and bolts and ignore its heart. Essentially, the piece documents a passage from ocean to sky, from night into day and back, and from one life, or one form of life, to another.

The two performances of From You Within Me that I viewed had the same stellar cast, led by Sara Mearns, Megan Fairchild, Indiana Woodward, Roman Mejia, Aaron Sanz, and Peter Walker. Although the cast all wear the same costumes (from my vantage point, unitards in shades of red, purple, and blue that reflect the colors and flow of movement, as well as the venue ambiguity, in Manning’s paintings) there’s a difference between Mearns, the ballet’s focal point, and the rest of the cast almost from the outset.

New York City Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “From You Within Me”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The cast first appears in a scrum behind the scrim. One by one a head will emerge, then return; eventually they all separate out and go their separate ways, except for Mearns’s character, who ultimately is left alone center-stage, oozing angst – which no one in ballet does better. As the dance continues, the three primary couples are featured in lovely, sequential duets, the curtain lifts, and the colors in the rear scrim change from the underwater sense I had at the outset to something more closely resembling a sky at sunrise.

After Mearns’s initial separation out, the dancing that follows, though quality choreography (especially when featuring the trio of Fairchild, Woodward, and Mejia, or the duets by Fairchild and Walker, and Walker and Sanz), seem relatively insignificant. They fill the score nicely but, except perhaps for the Walker/Sanz duet, are too nebulous to explain as anything more than the nicely-choreographed and well-executed dances that they are. Given my sense of Wheeldon’s intent behind this piece, this may be exactly what he wanted.

Ultimately the rear scrim morphs into what appears to be a sunset sky, the stage appreciably darkens, there’s a repeat of the initial scrum, and Mearns eventually emerges – this time is a differently colored costume from the others, still flowing, but primarily grey with muted shades of blue and purple. As others leave, she stands apart, seemingly transformed.

New York City Ballet
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “From You Within Me”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Compared to everything else, Mearns’s dances, her own or together with Sanz, reflect the music’s heart, and the ballet’s soul. Given the anguish Mearns and the choreography for her radiates, I can’t avoid the conclusion that From You Within Me is a tribute, and perhaps the choreographer’s advance fond farewell, to the dancer who is the ballet’s focal point.

Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation is a different matter. It’s a competent piece of choreography, but my first take on it was that it wasn’t much beyond that. A second view, either as a product of a cast difference or another exposure to it, convinced me that there’s more to recommend it than simple competence.

In woodworking (as, I suppose, in any endeavor requiring mathematical calculations), “standard deviation” means a measurable (or visible) difference from the optimum that a particular project can tolerate without the whole thing falling apart. I suppose the term might apply to choreography/ execution as well, but I have a hard time envisioning it. Be that as it may, I saw no evidence of anything relating to “standard deviation” in the piece aside from the fact that it’s abstract and that dancers’ movements, choreographed as such or not, aren’t always precise. Beyond that, it’s just a catchy title.

Mira Nadon (center) and New York City Ballet
in Alysa Pires’s “Standard Deviation”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But as a purely abstract ballet (to a commissioned score created by Australian composer Jack Frerer), an essential component is movement that maintains interest, and based on the second view, watching the architectural component of it – the movement of dancers (primarily the corps) around the stage – Standard Deviation certainly is interesting. It doesn’t have the invention and audacity (and score) of, say, Agon (and shouldn’t be expected to), and it doesn’t touch the heart, but it’s a credible first NYCB effort.

The score is somewhat strange and difficult to characterize. It starts out with a loud crashing sound (as in “pay attention!”), and then quickly moderates to a pace that’s at times jazzy (with an outstanding contribution from guest saxophonist Chris Hemingway), but mostly unexceptional. That’s a good thing – it doesn’t interfere with the choreography.

(l-r) Olivia Bell, David Gabriel, Mary Thomas MacKinnon,
and Victor Abreu in Alyssa Pires’s “Standard Deviation”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Although the dance focuses on the three principals (Mira Nadon, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Tiler Peck at its Spring Gala premiere, and Nadon, Gilbert Bolden III, and Emma Von Enck on the 16th), the best work here is for the corps. Pires’s movement patterning (minimal, but still interesting) and use of stage space is commendable, and conceived and executed with geometric precision (within whatever “standard deviation” may have been applicable). [It’s unfortunate that Standard Deviation includes similar scrums to what I’ve described in From You Within Me, but in Pires’s piece they’re shaped more like a dense circle.] On the other hand, there isn’t anything particularly special about the choreography for the leads. Indeed, the leads appeared almost (gasp) superfluous. That being said, Nadon did her usual stunning work (I preferred her performance at the gala premiere than on the 16th – she looked a bit understandably tired at the latter performance), and, perhaps as a result, her pas de deux with Danchig-Waring looked more polished than it did on the 16th).

But the greatest difference was between T. Peck and Von Enck. Peck was assigned lots of what she usually does so well, and she danced well here also. But at a certain point, the excellence becomes not only expected, but routine, which was the way it impressed me at the gala. [I understand that Peck is, at the time of this writing, recovering from an injury, so it’s possible she danced with that nascent injury at this performance, affecting her demeanor.] On the other hand, Von Enck’s performance (she’d debuted in the role a few days earlier in the week), while less accomplished, was far more interesting to watch. She isn’t as strong as Peck (yet), so for her the choreography might have been something of a stretch – although she got through the fouettes, for example, there was considerable traveling. But there’s a spirit, a sparkle, that she conveys in her performances that’s refreshing. I didn’t recall seeing Standard Deviation’s closing image at the gala – it went right by me. When Von Enck performed it, it was feather-light – something like a twirling ballerina in a music box – and it left an indelible impression.


And then there’s the best “new” ballet of the three: Robbins’s Brandenburg.

Robbins choreographed his masterpiece (one of them), The Goldberg Variations, in 1971. I remember the first time I saw it as if it was yesterday: together with its extraordinary choreographic qualities, it introduced me to a young ballerina named Gelsey Kirkland. I have no such memory – or any memory – of Brandenburg, which premiered in 1997, and is the last piece Robbins choreographed before his death. [My understanding is that it has been absent from the NYCB’s active repertory for 15 or more years.] And if I’d seen it, I’d have remembered it.

Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley
in Jerome Robbins’s “Brandenburg”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Like The Goldberg Variations, it’s set to music by J.S. Bach (here excerpts from four of his “Brandenburg” Concertos). Brandenburg draws a bit on the earlier piece, but is far more contemplative, cumulative, and concise. That being said, it’s no less a masterpiece. I don’t know whether Robbins intended it this way, but it’s also a reverence – to Bach, of course, but more than that, to ballet, to ballet dancers, to ballet audiences, and to life. Robbins died the following year.

One of the hallmarks of Robbins’s ballets, as I’ve frequently observed, is the sense of humanity he infuses into them – even those, like Brandenburg, that are non-narrative. There’s something about the relationships he explores and the movement he crafts that take it far beyond academic, and that more often than not touch the heart. Only one contemporary choreographer whose work I’ve seen routinely, and naturally, explores the humanity of the characters with Robbins’s sensitivity: Alexei Ratmansky.

Brandenburg is Goldberg Lite. Where Goldberg’s dancers from one era routinely pause and bow reverentially to their counterparts from an earlier or later era (Baroque to Contemporary), in Brandenburg that relationship is a given. Instead, Robbins injects frequent such reverential bows from one group of dancers to another, from featured dancers to the corps, from featured dancers to each other, and from the ensemble to the audience.

Part of the celebration also is Robbins’s reverence to some of the earlier landmark dances in his career. I saw clear references to Dances at a Gathering, Other Dances, Piano Pieces, a little Interplay, and, of course, Goldberg, but I’m sure there are others that I missed.

New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins’s “Brandenburg”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But Brandenburg is far more than reverence and references. What makes it a masterpiece is the intricate and ingenious way in which Robbins moves his dancers. All good choreographers move dancers around and create patterns. Some, of course, do it better than others. But here Robbins isn’t creating a moving frame around featured dancers, or a ballet that looks like its raison d’etre is to create intricate patterns. Brandenburg is on another level. Patterns merge or divide into other patterns seamlessly, and then do it again, and again; a corps segment segues into a pas de deux which segues into more corps dances and more solos – all without any choreographic effort; another pas de deux will feature all the emotional gloss and choreographed variety that one might expect – except the pair never touch each other until near the segment’s end, and then only tentatively; and yet another segment will begin with a duet, then add another pair, then add another quartet, and before you know it suddenly, where there’d been a pair, there’s now a stage full of dancers. It happens so quickly, and so frequently, and with such dazzling expertise and consistency, that it looks like choreographic magic. And in a sense it is.

Mira Nadon and Aaron Sanz in Jerome Robbins’s “Brandenburg”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But underneath it all is a clever structure and balance. The separation in the second pas de deux contrasts with the playfulness of the first, and the second third and fourth segments can be seen as an extended reprise of the first (which was comprised of three parts) – albeit with a different emphasis. The whole thing is quite mind-boggling.

The two performances of Brandenburg that I saw featured different lead casts, but the results were essentially the same from one to the other. On the 10th, Woodward and Anthony Huxley led the first segment (No. 3; Allegro, Adagio, Allegro); Von Enck and Mejia (a very balanced and youthful pair) did the same on the 27th; Nadon and Sanz on the 10th and Unity Phelan and Danchig-Waring on the 27th danced the “separation” pas de deux (No. 2, Andante), and the corps of sixteen (with little change from one performance to the other), eventually adding the featured dancers, danced the combined final two segments (No. 2, Menuetto; No. 6, Allegro).

The Rest

The remaining dances on these programs will be addressed in performance order, and briefly, since I’ve reviewed each previously.

The third program piece on both the 4th and the 16th was Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing. Following its 2017 premiere, I wrote that it represented an anthem for a new generation. It still packs a jolt, it’s still entertaining, the cast (on both dates) still seem to enjoy dancing it, and it still brings audiences to their feet at its conclusion.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing”
Photo by Erin Baiano

All that being said, there’s something different about The Times Are Racing now compared to when it was presented before the pandemic. Although the energy is still there, the focus is different – it seems to have a diminished sense of urgency that permeated it at its premiere and in the immediate years thereafter – perhaps because, with an ensemble of this magnitude, there’s likely been a significant cast turnover since the piece’s premiere. [Based on my unofficial review, only two members of the original lead cast danced in the piece now: T. Peck (at one of the performances), and Brittany Pollack (in her first appearance with the company, at least that I’ve seen, in a very long time.] And the choreography seems to have lost some of the highpoints that were originally there, maybe for the same reason.

At the May 6 performance, I saw a reprise of La Source and Namouna, A Grand Divertissement.

La Source looked better to me the second time around (the division between its two prongs seemed less jarring), with one exception. Von Enck, for whom this performance was her role debut, was supposed to have been partnered by Chun Wai Chan, also in a role debut. But shortly before the performance, Chan became ill, and was replaced by Huxley. There were several issues with his partnering here (mostly, I presume, due to lack of rehearsal time with Von Enck, since he’s evolved into a highly competent partner), including most obviously a botched fish dive (actually, more like a deep dive without the fish). But they both survived.

Emma Von Enck in George Balanchine’s “La Source”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Namouna remains a hoot, with added spice provided by Georgina Pazcoguin as the “cigarette girl.” I didn’t know at the time, but this was one of Pazcoguin’s penultimate performance with the company; she retired soon thereafter, without ceremony but with an abundance of social media tributes from many of her NYCB colleagues. I suspect she won’t be out of sight for too long – based on her body of work, she’s not only a compelling dancer, but is also a first-rate comedian and singer, as her recent appearance at a gala I attended a few months ago (not reviewed) – where she delivered a riotous take on “Whatever Lola Wants” from the Broadway classic, Damn Yankees – demonstrated.

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

The other dances on the same program with Brandenburg were classics: Robbins’s Fancy Free, and Balanchine’s Agon. [This was one of the finest, and most balanced, programs of the season.]

Joseph Gordon in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Like The Times Are Racing, the two casts I saw didn’t quite show the same period quality that I’ve seen in many previous performances of this piece, both with NYCB and American Ballet Theatre (the piece premiered at a performance by ABT’s predecessor, Ballet Theatre, at The Met in 1944). Nevertheless, certain performances, or parts thereof, were quite good. The May 10th cast featured Mejia, Joseph Gordon, and Andrew Veyette as the sailors, which, overall, was superior to the sailors in the May 27 performance: Daniel Ulbricht (whose appearances have been too rare this season), Walker, and Victor Villarini-Velez. Mejia’s leap off the bar was other-worldly, and Gordon reasonably captured the relative innocence of the second sailor. But neither Villarini-Velez nor (to a lesser extent) Veyette captured the sizzle and Latin exaggerated hip motion that made performances in that role by Marcelo Gomes and Jose Manuel Carreño (two examples that come immediately to mind) with ABT. On the other hand, the lead ladies that the sailors pursued, Alexa Maxwell and Mary Thomas MacKinnon on the 10th, and Woodward and Lauren Collett on the 27th, successfully communicated the essence of the period in their roles.

Roman Mejia (center) and Maxwell Reid (left)
in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”
Photo by Erin Baiano

But regardless of the relative accuracy of the roles, it’s good to see Fancy Free performed at all, and without (except in one relatively minor respect) being sanitized. But that issue is a manifesto for another day.

Exemplary of why such pieces as Fancy Free must continue to be performed as choreographed is also raised by Agon, but in reverse. Like Fancy Free, Agon is a masterpiece. But where Fancy Free’s value in part is the infusion of memories  it awakens and the joy it liberally spreads, Agon is a masterpiece on an intellectual and technical level, not something that elicits an emotional response beyond recognition of, and admiration for, the quality of the choreography and/or execution. As I’ve written before, it’s a ballet to be appreciated more than loved. I could survive a few seasons without Agon; losing Fancy Free for more than a few seasons would be catastrophic.

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring
in George Balanchine’s “Agon”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Although here I preferred the performance on the 27th more than the one on the 10th, this was primarily a difference of degree. Phelan and Danchig-Waring handled the central pas de deux very well, as they’ve done previously. But on the 27th, Miriam Miller, partnered by Russell Janzen, delivered an exceptional, off the charts performance, over which the audience went justifiably wild. Miller came as close to Maria Kowroski’s celebrated execution in this role as I’ve seen. The balance of the featured casts on both occasions – Emilie Gerrity, Taylor Stanley, India Bradley (a particular standout), Megan Dutton-O’Hara, Villarini-Velez, and Andres Zuniga on the 10th, and Isabella LaFreniere, Walker, Nieve Corrigan, MacKinnon, Mabie, and Davide Riccardo on the 27th – all handled their assignments well.

On to 2023-24, and NYCB’s celebration of its 75th Anniversary.