New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival
Program 1 – May 3; May 7, afternoon, 2022: Scherzo Fantastique, Symphony in Three Movements, Firebird
Program 2 – May 7, evening, 2022: Pulcinella Variations, Scherzo a la Russe, Architects of Time (world premiere), Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Program 3 – May 10, 2022: Apollo, Orpheus, Agon
Program 4 – May 13, 2022: Le Baiser de la Fee, The Cage, Duo Concertant, Rubies
The much anticipated New York City Ballet 50th Anniversary Stravinsky Festival, fourteen performances over the period of two weeks, ended this past Sunday. I attended each of the four programs, one of them twice; a total of 14 ballets.
One of the difficulties of reviewing a series of performances like this, aside from dealing with its length, is not knowing where to begin. While there are a couple of dances that I’d have preferred not to have been included, and a couple I wish had been, overall this series was a highly successful exhibition of, primarily, the Balanchine / Stravinsky collaboration, meriting individual discussion of performances if not each of the ballets themselves.
In small introductory bites: NYCB continues to show its new faces to the world, and clearly has new stars in the making, who will become evident in the course of this review. Symphony in Three Movements was my favorite non-narrative ballet before this festival; it still is. Firebird was one of my least favorite ballets (except for the Chagall sets); it’s now one of my favorites. The eagerly anticipated new piece of choreography during the Festival didn’t live up to expectations, and probably couldn’t have. And I previously thought that the New York City Ballet Orchestra was the best ballet orchestra in the world. I still do,
And that just scratches the surface.
The process of introducing “new” dancers (none are new; most have been with the company for years) to NYCB audiences is a consequence of the many retirements there have been this year (and that are continuing). However, exacerbating that is that Covid protocols resulted in certain dancers being assigned roles they would not have been seen in otherwise, and certain dancers pushed by necessity into more performances than they’d anticipated.
To make this review at least reasonably coherent, I’ll consider the programs in performance order. All music, of course, is by Stravinsky.
Program I: Scherzo Fantastique, Symphony in Three Movements, Firebird
After the NYCB Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Andrew Litton, opened the opening night program with “Fanfare” (the same piece that opened the original Stravinsky Festival in 1972), the company presented the first Festival dance: Justin Peck’s Scherzo Fantastique. This was an unfortunate choice. It’s not a bad ballet by any means, but it’s not one of Peck’s better creations, and certainly not up to those masterpieces created during the original festival. Be that as it may, I hadn’t recalled that I’d seen Scherzo Fantastique previously (it was created in 2016 for the company’s summer season at Saratoga; it’s NYC premiere was during the following Winter 2017 season, which is when I last saw it), and the five-year passage of time enabled me to see it with fresh tired eyes.
The best thing about Scherzo Fantastique is its magnificent rear backdrop, designed by Jules de Balincourt. The set dominates the stage, and its colors are vivid and lush, and somewhat otherworldly. It’s either a vision of a tropical lakeside scene at a particularly spectacular sunset, or a vista from another planet (or both). I’m going with otherworldly.
It seems very clear to me that Peck’s vision here is based on interpreting the word “Fantastique” in the composition’s title as being unusual and strange (not an inappropriate translation). Peck then translates that, visually, into a “visitor from a different tribe, country, or planet” theme that’s reflected in the dance’s set, costumes, and choreography. To think of Scherzo Fantastique as merely abstract movement sequences that happen to take place on some tropical lakeside ignores the fact that the dance has a narrative of sorts.
The costumes for the ten dancers pick up on the set’s exquisitely bold colors, although where the backdrop’s colors are vertical, the costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) are colored in horizontal bands, resulting in a measure of visual discord (unlike, for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s costumes for Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, which also matched that piece’s backdrop). A more egregious problem, at least to me, is that many of the costumes, evenly divided among a subset of men and woman, include a frill appended to the costume’s top around the chest area. This may have been a feeble attempt to simulate a line of feathers, but as presented here they resemble feather dusters. The frills are soft and flexible – and jiggle up and down whenever the chest to which they’re appended moves, resulting in those wearing them looking like escapees from a burlesque show, albeit one from another planet.
The piece begins with one dancer (Taylor Stanley) emerging from the stage left wings, slowly scoping his apparently unfamiliar environment. Soon thereafter, the strangely-costumed “natives” run onto the stage and dance, in the process pushing the visitor out of their way. After the stranger returns and connects with one of the natives (Brittany Pollack), they dance together. But when that ends, one of the native tribe’s male dancers interrupts them, pushes them apart – and then dances a solo (that KJ Takahashi on Tuesday, and Anthony Huxley on Saturday afternoon, executed with commendable flair). When the stranger later returns, he again appears unfamiliar with his surroundings, and is seen looking in the distance for something or someone.
Because of their similar micro-themes, in my mind I dubbed the strange planet Pandora, with Stanley as an Avatar, Pollack as Neytiri, and Takahashi / Huxley as Tsu’tey. It fits, sort of – though I concede I didn’t see Blue People.
Although the dance was well executed, much of the piece was unnecessarily repetitious and too remindful of other Peck pieces. That being said, Scherzo Fantastique is certainly colorful to look at, and if while watching it other visions pop into a viewer’s head, so much the better.
Symphony in Three Movements stands shoulder to shoulder, and toe to toe, with any other contemporary non-narrative ballet that Balanchine created for, among other things, its choreographic breadth, its variety of visual forms, and its mastery of space, time, and the composition to which it’s choreographed. It links neo-classical ballet and contemporary ideas seamlessly. And it accomplishes all this through its uncanny visualization of the score, and its challenge to the ballet future. To me, it’s one of ballet’s wonders of the world.
The musical composition was not created for this ballet. Stravinsky composed “Symphony in Three Movements” between 1943 and 1945 (premiering in 1946), in part from music initially intended to be used in Hollywood movies. More significantly, it was highly impacted by World War II (Stravinsky reportedly referred to it as his “war symphony”). Perhaps that’s why so much of it sounds like an attack, a counterattack, and ultimately a challenge. It has pulsing, angular, and atonal qualities similar to certain other Stravinsky pieces, to which he adds drama and a sense of cataclysm – much like he did with “The Rite of Spring.” But there’s also a futuristic aspect to it that’s as applicable to it now as it was in the 1940s, serving notice of the dawning of a new age of multi-faceted conflict – of armies; of ideas; of sounds.
Balanchine merges the apparent contradictions in Stravinsky’s score into a ballet with sharp angles and smooth curves, seemingly inconsistent, into a complementary whole. As I’ve previously described it, Symphony in Three Movements is a Chrysler Building of a ballet, merging disparate elements into a stunning work of ballet architecture.
The lengthy hiatus between this season and the last time Symphony in Three Movements was presented made the hunger for it greater, and I looked forward to seeing it with its current finest interpreter, Sterling Hyltin, as the lead ballerina – the ballerina in red-orange (or salmon), as opposed to the secondary featured ballerinas in pink and red. But as a result of those Covid protocols, Ashley Laracey, scheduled in this role for two of its outings, instead danced this demanding role for each of its four scheduled performances (as well as three performances that same week of Stravinsky Violin Concerto). She executed well on May 3, though obviously, to me, pacing herself for the long haul. Her only error was completing the piece’s circular pique turns too soon – before she fully exited through the stage right wings. At the second “Three Movements” I saw, on May 7 afternoon, she corrected that, but to my eye danced as if her energy level had diminished somewhat over the course of the week’s performances (or that she was herself showing the impact of Covid, which kept her out of the following week’s performances). Beyond that, the two performances I saw of her in this role were executed quite capably and effectively.
The ballerina in pink is the first of the three featured ballerinas to appear on stage, and it’s quite an entrance. On Tuesday, Erica Pereira danced the role very well, including that jarring opening leap / jump onto the stage. But on the 10th, in the same role, Emma Von Enck blasted it out of the park – both that initial jump (as if she’d been shot out from a cannon) and everything she did thereafter. She didn’t just “get” the choreography and execute it well; she embodied it, and seemed to have energy to spare. To me, she’s ready for the lead ballerina role now.
Unfortunately, it looks like there’ll be another Symphony in Three Movements drought following its four performances during the first week of the Festival, because it’s not currently listed on the ’22-’23 schedule. But things change, and I hope the powers that be return it to the active repertory again sooner rather than later.
That’s also the case for Firebird. I’ve seen the Balanchine/Robbins Firebird many times before, but the two performances I saw this week (again, the same cast for each because of Covid protocols) were the same ballet, but from a different performance galaxy.
I used to tell friends to see Firebird for the Chagall sets, but to ignore everything else. Two aspects of the two performances I saw last week changed that: Isabella LaFreniere’s Firebird, and the NYCB Orchestra.
To put it in simple terms, LaFreniere’s Firebird, on both occasions, was the finest Firebird performance I’ve seen. Ever. [And that’s not intended to be a backhanded compliment. While I was previously unimpressed by the choreography, I usually admired the various performances I saw.]
As I’ve previously written, LaFreniere has some challenges, but none were pertinent here. Her Firebird is a magnificent force of nature, and her emotional as well as physical responses to the story’s various events prove that her performance excellence here was not just a matter of being tall. LaFreniere was commanding when she needed to be, vulnerable and grateful when she needed to be, and regal throughout. Hers was an astonishingly fine performance on all levels – and I think I’ll remember images from it (e.g., her noble back-bending exit after Prince Ivan releases her; her authoritative dispatch of Kastchei and his lackeys) for as long as I can remember. As Humphrey Bogart said about another bird in a different context, LaFreniere’s performance was the stuff that dreams are made of.
Although the rest of the cast at the two performances I saw were perfectly capable – including in particular Amar Ramasar and Miriam Miller on Saturday’s performance, as Prince Ivan and the Prince’s Bride respectively; Gilbert Bolden III’s Kastchei on Tuesday (easily the most powerful I’ve seen), and those “sprites” (a group of Kastchei’s subjects costumed in white, including face coverings) who enliven the stage whenever they were on it. Indeed, the opening appearance of the sprites – with one (unidentifiable because of the costume, but she appeared to be the tiniest) running at full gallop from the stage left wings to straddle Prince Ivan’s body – would have awakened even the most uninterested viewer.
Which brings me to the NYCB Orchestra. I’ve never heard a Firebird performance that sounded better than the two I saw last week. That kind of thing is difficult to quantify, but, for example, that initial entrance of the first sprite mentioned above was accompanied not just by a musical exclamation, but by a seismic thunderclap. Indeed, the entire section that Jerome Robbins choreographed (the battle between Prince Ivan / Firebird and Kastchei and his subjects) looked better than I’d previously seen it, in large part because the orchestra energized it. The ballet’s final image – the deadly dull scene that’s little more than an extended panorama of the new prince and princesses’ accession, and which is as animated as I am when my back pain makes it difficult to move, here came thrillingly alive. And the finale included a percussive crescendo that I don’t recall every hearing played with such crystalline passion. I realized then that this final scene, one that I recall once describing as akin to watching grass grow, was conceived the way it was intentionally – to enable the audience to focus on the glory of the captured panorama of this Russian folktale and to listen to the glorious Stravinsky score without distraction. Just Balanchine being Balanchine: in one scene paring the ballet to its essence.
During the course of Saturday afternoon’s Firebird, I noticed a young girl diagonally across the aisle from me jumping up and down in her seat as the Robbins-choreographed battle built to its climax. When the lights later came up, I saw that this young girl was in fact a thoroughly captivated and engaged 50 or 60-something year old woman. It was that remarkable a performance.
NYCB audiences generally are an unusually knowledgeable group: more often than not, they know a good program, dance, and performance, when they see it. As the ballet ended, at each of the Firebird performances, I saw members of the audience choking back tears… of astonishment, and joy… and maybe a little disbelief (my contribution) that anything that heretofore seemed so mediocre could morph into something so memorable.
Program 2: Pulcinella Variations, Scherzo a la Russe, Architects of Time (world premiere), Stravinsky Violin Concerto
After the “high” of Program 1, Program 2 was somewhat of a letdown. Like Program I, it opened with a Peck creation that, while not at all bad (it’s one of Peck’s most “classical”-looking works, and quite interesting once one gets used to a “classical” Peck piece), shouldn’t have been the opening piece on the program. It was performed as recently as last season, re-reviewed then, and I won’t repeat my comments. The nine-dancer cast included Sara Adams, Emilie Gerrity, Miller, Tiler Peck, Indiana Woodward, Daniel Applebaum, Preston Chamblee, Chun Wai Chan, and Takahashi.
Scherzo a la Russe is a lightly-choreographed vehicle for NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet students that premiered at the original Festival in 1972. The young dancers (all female, and apparently in the uppermost levels of the school’s student population) looked good, as did the two lead ballerinas in the making (Anna Jacobs and Sahel Pasqual), and it’s certainly clear that NYCB will continue inheriting superb dancers in the future. But, understandably, the dance itself wasn’t particularly challenging. Essentially it consisted of two moving phalanxes of young women, each with its own lead, and basically stayed that way throughout the performance. The folktale-invoking costumes by Karinska, however, were wonderful.
Perhaps the most anticipated dance in the Festival, the world premiere of former NYCB dancer Silas Farley‘s Architects of Time, was disappointing, and came across to me as so amorphous that it’s difficult to coherently describe, and I won’t attempt to. But I don’t think the problem was entirely of Farley’s creation.
In the first instance, awarding this assignment to an untested choreographer may not have been the wisest of decisions. This is his first ballet created for NYCB; I’m not aware of any other choreographic experience he’s had, though I suspect there must have been something before this. But I’ll overlook this, and assume that the NYCB powers that be had good reason to think that Farley would be able to pull this off. And certainly the goal was admirable: according to the program note, Architects of Time (a fabulous title) is intended to be a tribute to Stravinsky and Balanchine’s landmark works.
The larger problem is the score, “Variations on a Theme by George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky,” created by David K. Israel. This isn’t an ordinary musical composition. The program note informs that the music is based on a 1946 musical exchange between Balanchine and Stravinsky – a birthday acrostic poem set to a simple melody was sent from Balanchine to Stravinsky on the composer’s birthday, and Stravinsky responded by harmonizing the same melody. However, the music comes across as what it is – an artificial expansion of the equivalent of musical doodles. However well-intentioned the effort was, based on what I heard at this performance (two days after it had its world premiere at NYCB’s Spring Gala) it wasn’t easily danceable – or, for that matter, listenable.
And then there was the choreography. Farley appears to have tried to include everything that he thought might work. Although there are some potentially interesting choreographic paths set up during the course of the piece, none of them are taken further. The result is a diffuse assortment of images that don’t mesh. Like many nascent choreographers, I’m sure that Farley will learn that sometimes less is more.
One of the components of the piece that I noticed quickly, one that might have been easily remedied if independent eyes had watched the piece develop, is that for a large ballet (a total of sixteen dancers), too often the stage looks unusual bare. I realized as I was watching it that this may have been because so much of the action, including isolated small dance subgroups (duets, trios, etc.) are located upstage rather than downstage. As a result, the dancers look smaller, and the stage space looks larger. There must have been a reason behind this (perhaps visualizing Stravinsky / Balanchine communication that occurred in the background of other events), but it doesn’t work.
About the only aspect of Architects of Time that did work were the utilitarian but classy-looking costumes with a varying red, brown, and purple palette, designed by Cassia Farley, although it’s not clear what the connection is supposed to be, if any, between the costumes and the dance’s subject.
The program concluded with Stravinsky Violin Concerto, another Balanchine masterpiece, but one that’s been presented so frequently that this special ballet no longer looks particularly special.
Stravinsky Violin Concerto premiered in 1972’s Stravinsky Festival, on the same program as Symphony in Three Movements, but, aside from its superb choreography and common composer, and the fact that both are masterpieces, the ballets have very different sensibilities. Where the latter is irreverently original-looking, Stravinsky Violin Concerto is classically-oriented at its core.
Created in 1931, Stravinsky’s composition sounds “typical” Stravinsky for that period: pulsing and angular, within which there are moments of classical lyricism. Balanchine found the symmetry in the composition that may be difficult for the ordinary non-musicologists like me to hear, pulled it out, and emphasized it in his choreography.
The dance as a whole is structured like a classic pas de deux, except the segments are distributed cast-wide. Essentially, Balanchine has taken a classical form for the dance’s opening (Toccata) and concluding (Capriccio) movements – each with the four featured dancers and the sixteen dancer corps, and between them sandwiched two pas de deux (Aria I and Aria II) of contrasting dynamic character and dramatic color – each danced by different pairs of the featured dancers. Consequently, the piece overall conveys a sense of visual balance and out-of-balance, classic and modern, concurrently – befitting the score.
At the one performance of it that I saw during the Festival, Unity Phelan and Amar Ramasar (Aria I) and Laracey and Joseph Gordon (Aria II) executed brilliantly – especially Ramasar’s superb partnering. And in her sixth of seven performances that week, Laracey not only executed well – she was smiling. She merits special recognition for being the Iron Lady of the Festival, and a promotion for her quality performances.
Program 3: Apollo, Orpheus, Agon
Prefaced by the NYCB Orchestra’s bright rendition of “Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra,” Program 3 was as high-powered as Program 1 – made even more significant than it already was because this Apollo performance was dedicated to the memory of one of NYCB’s undisputed stars and an incomparable dance humanitarian, Jacques D’Amboise.
Next to Serenade (and possibly Concerto Barocco), there’s no dance more identifiable with NYCB and as universally iconic than Apollo. It remains every bit as vital, and as contemporary, as it was when it was created by Balanchine in 1928 for the Ballets Russes (it had its NYCB premiere in 1951).
I’ve reviewed Apollo many times, and its narrative, to the extent there is one, is known world-wide, so I won’t repeat my prior comments now. Suffice it to say that, choreographically, I preferred the version as I initially saw it, with the opening “birth” scene; rather than the existing last Balanchine revision without it. But I concede that there’s a trade-off: the existing final image of Apollo and the Muses in the “Sun God” pose is far more dramatic than the same image positioned on a stairway leading to Mt. Olympus. Maybe a combination would work – the birth scene, with the stairway stored out of the way (or behind a scrim) after, but I suspect that’s an alternative that Balanchine already considered.
Regardless of its specific iteration, 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.
The cast at this performance was a duplicate of the one that opened NYCB’s Winter, 2019 opening night, and my analysis is similar – except Taylor has addressed deficiencies in his role debut that I then noted and that he can control (e.g., what I saw as wild, uncontrolled use of his arms at the outset no longer exists). As a result, as good as that role debut was, this performance was considerably improved – and since my other prior observations relate to matters beyond Taylor’s control, it’s probably optimal.
Most significantly, the image Taylor presented of a god who finally gets it together, knows what his function and future will be, and sees his immortal destiny, which I described following his role debut as among the most powerful that I’ve seen, remains a glorious vision: with light of knowledge and awareness radiating from his eyes. It was a brilliant performance.
The rest of this Apollo performance team – Tiler Peck’s Terpsichore, Pollack’s Polyhymnia, and Woodward’s Calliope – handled their roles admirably. My preference is a more ethereal-looking Terpsichore, but in other respects Peck’s portrayal was beyond reproach.
Orpheus, which I last saw at that same Winter, 2019 opening night performance, is a tougher nut to crack. It also seems somewhat of a throwback. Created by Balanchine for Ballet Society (a predecessor of NYCB) in 1948, and revived for the original Stravinsky Festival, 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.
Especially in comparison to Apollo, Orpheus takes too long to present its story (e.g., as much performance time seems to be taken for Orpheus to get to and return from Hades as it takes Prince Desire to wander through the fairy tale forest to find Aurora in some particularly ponderous versions of The Sleeping Beauty). At the same time, however, it distills too much, and consequently critical parts of the myth make little apparent sense (e.g., the final scene, where the events surrounding Orpheus’s death omit details without which his being torn to pieces by the Bacchantes comes across not just as evil, but as gratuitous).
Be that as it may, Gordon’s portrayal of Orpheus here was unusually animated, ultimately delivering a very fine portrayal – particularly since his was a role debut. 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, sufficiently expressed even though internalized, more suitably matched Hyltin’s still stunningly executed Eurydice. As much as he resisted her, he clearly wanted to yield to her, and had to force himself not to, ultimately succumbing equally to his own passion as to hers.
The program’s final piece, Agon, is another very frequently seen ballet; one that’s considered a turning point in Balanchine’s choreography. Its ascetic sensibility is perfect for Stravinsky’s score, and for a new generation of ballet dancers and audiences. To me, it’s a ballet to respect and appreciate rather than love, but it’s a masterpiece regardless.
Agon’s structure and style are common ballet-goer knowledge, so I’ll focus here on one (pair) of last Tuesday night’s performances, all of which, generally, were particularly high-caliber.
Ramasar was the veteran in the group of four male danseurs who open and close the ballet, and Phelan, in her role debut, was one of the two newest to the piece (the other being Jovani Furlan, whose role debut was superb). For Ramasar, who is retiring at the end of this season, this was his penultimate Agon (his final would be the following night); for Phelan, obviously, this was her first – in a role long, and most recently, associated with now retired dancers Maria Kowroski and Teresa Reichlen. Their central pas de deux was danced with the knowledge that this was an important milestone for both of them.
Not only did Ramasar and Phelan deliver; their execution was particularly pristine, and particularly memorable. Long ago I once described Ramasar as NYCB’s most underrated male Principal, with superb partnering skills and a stage presence to match. That “underrated” descriptive has long since passed, but not his skill and presence. His role here, beyond the obvious, was to support the “newbie” in that edge-of-the-cliff pas de deux, and one could see his intensity and determination in every second, and in every supporting position, refusing to allow Phelan to move the least bit precariously out of position (at one point hitting the stage floor with a thud as he raced to catch her descending hand).
In all the Agon performances I’ve seen, I’ve never before seen what happened next. After the pas de deux ends, as is the case with those who dance the other featured dances (the two pas de trois), the pair return from the wings for their brief obligatory bows to the audience before the dance resumes. Ramasar and Phelan’s bows, however, stopped the show. They received two additional curtain calls – and there would have been more had dancers waiting in the wings, maybe by instruction, not cut off the audience’s continuing recognition.
Program 4: Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fee, The Cage, Duo Concertant, Rubies
The final Festival program featured significant role debuts, as well as another concluding piece that sent the audience home emotionally spent.
Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fee’, which to my knowledge was last presented in 2018, includes some highly interesting choreography that to me attempts to replicate the “fluidly staccato” movement of flying creatures like fairies (imputed from the movement of bees or hummingbirds). Beyond that, much of “Divertimento” is common to other similarly-themed ballets, including the mortal’s “search” through rows of ballerinas to find his lost love, and a particularly moving closing image of two creatures in love with each other whose worlds can never permanently merge.
The piece has an interesting history. Balanchine created the original version, a full-length ballet, in 1937. For the original Stravinsky Festival, Balanchine completely re-choreographed it to excerpts from Stravinsky’s 1934 concert piece. Two years later, Balanchine added a final movement to the ballet. The original revised version has since been jettisoned, leaving only this added movement. This explains why the piece looks, at least initially, as if part of the ballet is missing.
Nevertheless, “Divertimento” is a pleasant and unassuming ballet, enjoyable even if not particularly memorable.
I’d not previously seen Pereira in the role of the “lead” Fairy; for Huxley, the mortal looking for the Fairy of his dreams, it was a reprise. Both executed well, as did Bailey Jones and Claire Von Enck, each in role debuts, as featured Fairies.
Alexa Maxwell has been a striking presence percolating beneath seeming generations of corps dancers for many years while waiting for an opportunity to fly on her own. This season, with NYCB’s changing faces and upward mobility, she’s had some chances. But her role debut as the Novice in Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, to my knowledge, is her first leading role.
To those few who may yet be unfamiliar with it, The Cage is a visualization of a colony of spidery insect-like creatures, all female, into which a new member is born (or hatched). Under the watchful eye of the colony’s Queen (LaFreniere, who debuted in the role the previous night), the Novice takes her first steps, and, faster than you can say “Myrta,” is schooled in one of the colony’s notable characteristics – the killing of males who happen to trespass. After being trained and murdering her first victim, however, the Novice meets and falls for a second male intruder. She yields to her impulses and they consummate their relationship; but upon discovering this the Queen (maybe the Novice’s own mother) goes the spidery version of postal, and insists that the Novice do what she’s genetically obligated to do. The Novice reluctantly does, and in the course of murdering her invertebrate lover, finds that she enjoys it. Ta-da, a Spider is born.
Despite the above summary, The Cage is more horror than humor. The score, “Concerto in D for String Orchestra” (1946), has a dangerous, macabre quality to it that inspires and accentuates the insect-like movement, enticing audience-members to see what happens next. The movement quality that Robbins creates is nothing like the insect-like movement I’ve recently described in dances choreographed by European choreographer Marko Goecke, in which dancers often move with a new choreographic language that often makes them resemble insects; here the dancers are supposed to really be insects, but with human characteristics. And like most of Robbins’s ballets, there’s a humanity here beneath the scaly surface. These insects have emotions. It’s this emotional component, as well as its physical component horror setting, that makes The Cage as fine a piece of work as it is.
Maxwell’s Novice was a stretch for her, but she pulled it off admirably, particularly in displaying the emotional component of her character’s character as she redirects herself to do what she’s born to do. It was a marvelous, and perhaps auspicious, debut. LaFreniere brought the same quality of strength and command that she showed in Firebird to her role here, becoming much more animated than other portrayals I’ve seen. Chan, in his role debut, also brought the requisite emotional quality to the role as the second Intruder. Jonathan Fahoury, also in a role debut as the first Intruder, delivered a credible performance, though appropriately on a much smaller scale.
The program concluded with Rubies, from Balanchine’s Jewels. Another very familiar piece, this performance, however, was particularly noteworthy because it was Hyltin’s final performance of Rubies, and her last performance of it with Andrew Veyette.
The last time I saw Hyltin’s Rubies was just this past Winter 2022 season. I described that performance, which included Roman Mejia as Hyltin’s partner and Mira Nadon as the “tall girl,” as the best Rubies I’d seen. This performance, because of its special significance, exceeded it. While Veyette doesn’t have Mejia’s magnetism, he has more than enough experience in the role to make everything he does look right, including selfless and secure partnering. And Nadon did what Nadon has done since she first appeared with the company – she looked not only commanding, but with those legs that, in motion, could do serious damage to anyone or anything getting in their way, stunning.
But this was Hyltin’s show, and she made the most of it. Of course she executed her role perfectly, but her performance here was far more than that. Her every move was appropriately nuanced, she enhanced the piece’s inherent sensuality exponentially, and she was engaged throughout.
Being the Festival’s final piece in this final program, and Hyltin’s final Rubies, at the dance’s conclusion the audience erupted. And as I left the theater lobby several minutes into the curtain calls and walked down the adjacent subway entrance, I could still hear the audience cheering.
Stravinsky celebrations at NYCB happen far more frequently than every fifty years. There was a similar festival in 1982, and there probably have been others. At the very least, they’re difficult to miss – ballets exclusively to Stravinsky compositions are featured programs in most NYCB seasons. That being said, I look forward to seeing revivals of other Stravinsky ballets (by Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, and others), but down the road, the fact that there have been wonderful Stravinsky scores for dances that never made their way to NYCB for one reason or another should be reconsidered. It may be anathema to those who equate NYCB with Balanchine, but a NYCB version of “The Rite of Spring” and/or “Petrushka” (despite its current political incorrectness) might be worth considering.
Stravinsky wasn’t the only celebrated NYCB collaboration. While we await possible newly created Stravinsky pieces, a recognition of the remarkably fruitful “collaboration” between Balanchine and Tchaikovsky should be high on the NYCB scheduling priority list.