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

April 24 and May 2, 2019:
Hallelujah Junction, Herman Schmerman, The Exchange, Concerto DSCH
Bright (new Peck), Bartok Ballet (new Tanowitz), Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet began its Spring 2019 season with programs representative of what it labels “21st Century Choreographers,” and gradually segued into pieces representative of its legacy choreography by George Balanchine. Programs that merge the old and the new is certainly a laudable, and essential, goal, one that NYCB has encouraged for many decades. Indeed, in their welcoming address prior to Thursday’s Spring Gala, newly-appointed Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford and Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan emphasized that the company will continue to preserve and perform its choreographic heritage while also encouraging new work.

But “old” is a relative term (as I keep reminding myself), so, to me, the “old” designation should include a dance that is older than choreography created in the last decade, or last year, or last week, but is considered 21st Century for programming purposes simply because the choreographer is still living. Regardless, sometimes the contrast between the new and the old, however the term is defined, just highlights how good the old choreography is compared to the new.

Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

During the first week of the season, I saw a program designated 21st Century Choreographers that included Hallelujah Junction, Herman Schmerman, The Exchange, and Concerto DSCH. The only real evidence of “new” choreography, in terms of time of creation, was The Exchange. The battle of the choreographic gods then came to a head Thursday night, with two world premiere pieces: Justin Peck’s Bright and Bartok Ballet by Pam Tanowitz, facing off against George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3.

It was no contest.

I’ll discuss the two premieres first, followed by the piece that was new last year. Since the remaining ballets are familiar, I’ll comment about them less extensively thereafter.

Bright is a lovely little ballet that reinforces Peck’s choreographic range. Despite word of some mouths to the contrary, while his dances may fit into generalized categories, they do not look alike. The only thing predictable about Peck’s body of work to date is its unpredictability – and, in most cases, its craftsmanship. But Bright flared briefly and then ended, like a light bulb that died prematurely.

Although it’s a dance for four couples, Bright is really an embellished pas de deux for Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen.

New York City Ballet
in Justin Peck’s “Bright”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Peck has utilized the piece’s score, The Bright Motion by Mark Dancigers, previously. He created a pas de deux for Sara Mearns and Casey Herd (Het Nationale Ballet) for City Center’s Fall for Dance 2013. I missed that program, but it would not be surprising if Bright was an elaboration on that earlier piece, since even though it’s integrated seamlessly, much of the pas de deux could have been separated from the piece as a whole – and at times during the ballet it physically was. Whether the dance is in fact an elaboration on the earlier pas de deux doesn’t really matter, however, and the fact that the multi-faceted pas de deux here can be easily distinguished from the rest of the it didn’t diminish the ballet’s impact, since there wasn’t much time for Bright to create a significant impact.

When the curtain opens, the four couples are gently gliding across a bare stage, moving liltingly, at first in silence, with soft-colored costumes by the ubiquitous Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung that emphasize the dance’s aura of young love. I thought instantly of Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading, without the leafy cast to the stage or the sense of remembrances of things past. Nothing thereafter disabused me of that: although the choreography and music, when it kicks in, are very different, the ambiance and the sense of a central couple among others is similar.

After gently seguing into parallel male / female lines, Mearns and Janzen separate from the others, and begin one of several dances together during the course of the piece. The music is … well, bright, but softly so, and the choreography matches it. At first, Mearns repeatedly falls into Janzen’s arms, but later, as the relationship apparently matures, the choreography becomes more complex, but to me it illustrated an even stronger bond. On those occasions when the pair reunites with the other couples in the group (Sara Adams, Andrew Scordato, Emilie Gerrity, and Gilbert Bolden III), at times there’s a bit of partner change or a brief dance involving one or the other couple, but Mearns and Janzen return to each other repeatedly. Mearns work is particularly remarkable – Peck’s choreography, at least in the pas de deux segments, looks wickedly complex, and I find Mearns’s performance combining strength and vulnerability, not to mention technical facility even more compelling here than in many of her classical roles.

Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen (center),
with Andrew Scordato (left) and
Emilie Gerrity and Sara Adams (right)
in Justin Peck’s “Bright”
Photo by Erin Baiano

And then, in a flash, it’s over. Mearns and Janzen face each other downstage center, then turn and walk away – separately. They pause to turn back, stretch an arm outward toward each other, and the curtain comes down – and we don’t know whether the last expression was “thanks for the memory” or “till we meet again.”

In its fluid and passionate lyricism, the dance is most remindful, to me, of another Peck piece that I enjoyed a great deal, Belles-Lettres, which premiered at NYCB’s 2014 Gala. But Bright is contemporary rather than evocative of another era, and the sensitivity is more direct and choreographically dramatic. I just wish there’d been more to it – and maybe eventually Peck will expand this to include more of the gently melodic, but sparkling Dancigers music (Bright is choreographed to the composition’s second movement).

Bright and Bartok Ballet could not be more different. As bright as Bright is, Bartok Ballet is dark. As clever as the choreography for Bright is, Bartok Ballet looks dull, even with (or maybe because of) its extensive stylistic diversity. And as unified as Bright is, even with a distinctly featured couple, Bartok Ballet appears incoherent.

I confess I have no idea what Pam Tanowitz was trying to do here beyond choreographing to an impossible score for a dance (Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 played live by the FLUX Quartet) in a way that amplifies rather than simply reflects the music. That would be a sufficient and admirable pursuit by itself, but here, while trying to bring the diverse components of the composition together, the result makes everything (including the score) appear even more of a stylistic muddle than it sounds.

(l-r) Daniel Applebaum,
Indiana Woodward,
Devon Alberda, Gretchen Smith,
and Jonathan Fahoury
in Pam Tanowitz’s “Bartók Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The appearance of incoherence in Bartok’s piece is not atypical. The music was composed in 1934, a late period in Bartok’s career (he died in New York in 1945, having emigrated from his native Hungary in response to the Nazis). I don’t pretend to be a music scholar, but my understanding is that at this point Bartok was synthesizing different musical influences, from romantic and classical to folk music (which drove most of his life), to then contemporary atonality. For me, the dominant factor in his Fifth String Quartet is dissonance and a degree of “screechiness” that I heard in some of the string playing. Also present, however, are brief interludes of folk music that are mixed with the contemporary sound, and to which he returns at various points in the composition (and that “screechiness” can also be seen as a characteristic of Hungarian / Romani music to accompany folk dance).

If nothing else is clear from Bartok Ballet, it’s that Tanowitz also interwove a sense of folk idiom with “other stuff,” including ballet. [And maybe the accent on “folk” explains the mostly drab, poor village costuming, again by Barthelme and Jung.] This other stuff included soldier-like strutting and something resembling contemporary modern dance movement that seemed to make no visual sense all lumped together.

But I cannot deny that Bartok Ballet is a work of intelligence – just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean that there’s no intelligence behind it. Maybe Tanowitz was trying to do what Bartok did: to reflect the different musical styles in a medley of different dance styles, and in the process create a visualized clash between the folk and the urban, the simple virtues and the complexities of then modern life, the old and the new, with the folk idiom (with which, as I recall, the piece ends) being that which endures.

(l-r) Gretchen Smith
and Indiana Woodward
in Pam Tanowitz’s “Bartók Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I still think that the palette here is confusing and undecipherable, and quite limited despite the variety of steps and styles. Even the folk dance references display limited choreographic development (as I recall, mostly the dancers periodically gather in a circle with hands on hips). However, as much a visual hodgepodge as it appears to be, this may have been Tanowitz’s intent – to reflect both the Bartok composition and the conflicts and culture clashes in Bartok’s world at that time. And there are images here, most apparently pointless, that are visually enduring. Indeed, one scene, apparently minor, was almost a visual throwaway, but it was beautifully done. I didn’t see its genesis (I was looking directly at the stage), but I suddenly noticed Miriam Miller approaching the FLUX quartet in front of the curtain wing downstage left, I suppose drawing inspiration from the music. That’s certainly a cliché at this point, but here it seemed particularly indicative of … again, something significant that I could not get. There’s also no denying that Bartok Ballet was choreographed with a great deal of attention to detail and that what’s there is what Tanowitz intended to be there, even if the result appears inscrutable. So at this point I’ll not be judgmental: I’ll give Bartok Ballet a pass until I see it again. Maybe it’s more coherent than it initially appears, and maybe I’ll eventually understand how its various components interact and why they’re there.

A second look, however, did not improve Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange. Bathed in red, the ballet is stunning to look at (though not at all extravagant) and choreographically consistent, but its apparent theme – the “exchange” of something between one group and another is poorly devised and described. And if it’s a matter of one group of dance advocates “introducing” the pseudo-sophisticated but boring other group to the wonders of movement, which is what The Exchange appears to be about, it’s a long and opaque way to get to a simplistic point.

New York City Ballet in
Matthew Neenan’s “The Exchange”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The ballet opens to what appears to be a group of attendees at some function (cocktail party?, dull Christmas party?, at the bar getting drinks at intermission?), the men in red and black; the women in red dresses, all with their faces covered by red gauze-like masks (think fencing masks to protect the face from being gouged by a wayward thrust, only lighter) to make them appear without any individual personality; red visages that cautiously interact with each other. They generally move in slow motion, and what movement there is is mostly posing in place, with others following. There is a texture here, but it’s created by the staging, which includes interesting-looking silhouette images.

These entities are soon joined – maybe invaded would be a better word – by a group of dancers in red, but without masks. Although all the music is by Antonin Dvorak (Waltzes, Op. 54, Nos. 1 and 4; and the first movement of String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 2), the invading group dances to a more rapid, and more colorful beat. To make a long story a little less long, eventually the sophisticates remove their masks and accept that the way the rebels move is more fun.

Sara Mearns in William Forsythe’s
”Herman Schmerman”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The cast is divided into two groups (one initially with, the other without masks), each with a lead couple (masked Maria Kowroski and Janzen, and mask-less Erica Pereira and Joseph Gordon, and each with a six (3/3) dancer supporting set of identically-costumed cohorts.

I’ve admired Neenan’s work in the past (for his own company, Philadelphia’s Ballet X, as well as others), but this one, though vibrant looking and interestingly staged, is itself a mask covering a dearth of novel ideas. I’ll grant, though, that it’s nice to look at.

The remaining dances on the April 24 program have been discussed many times previously. Hallelujah Junction, which premiered seventeen years ago, is an example of Martins’s work being better than he’s been given credit for. And with outstanding performances by the three leads (Sterling Hyltin, Taylor Stanley, and Daniel Ulbricht), the piece was a fine way to open the program.

Harrison Ball
in William Forsythe’s
”Herman Schmerman”
Photo by Erin Baiano

I’ve observed previously that the “Schmerman” portion of Herman Schmerman, with its unexpected sense of humor, is the better of the dance’s independent component parts. But Harrison Ball converted his role in “Herman” into a tour de force, and together with fine work by Brittany Pollack, Unity Phelan, Mearns, and Devin Alberda, made it more interesting than it usually appears. Megan LeCrone and Aaron Sanz were the strange but vibrant fun couple in “Schmerman.”

The evening’s closing piece, Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, was the evening’s highlight. This example of the finest of old/new choreography (it premiered over a decade ago) still looks as fresh, original, and fabulous as it did when I first saw it. To Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Ratmansky amplifies the music, and allows a viewer to see the humor, folksiness, and exuberance in the score. I never tire of seeing it – as, it appeared, the audience felt as well. Mearns (who had quite a night) was particularly outstanding in her role, but the rest of the cast (lead by Ashley Bouder, Tyler Angle, Gonzalo Garcia, and Anthony Huxley) did memorable work as well.

Megan Fairchild
in George Balanchine’s
“Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Spring Gala’s final piece, the oldest on both programs (created for NYCB in 1970, preceded by the final segment, which was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre in 1947), outshone everything else. One of many Balanchine masterpieces, Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 pushes any balletomane’s buttons. From the lush romanticism of its opening allusion to love found and lost (and found and lost and found and lost), through the somewhat mysterious and gothic second segment, to the firecracker penultimate section, and ending with remarkably vibrant classicism, the disparate segments complement each other, creating a ballet that leaves a viewer warm and feisty, and not a little giddy. To me it’s the most noteworthy example of Balanchine’s cultural and intellectual – and emotional – collaboration with Tchaikovsky.

Even more significant for this performance, each of the ballet’s four segments was executed brilliantly, led by a silken Teresa Reichlen and a dramatic Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Elegie”; Ashley Laracey’s superb “Valse Melancolique,” partnered by an ardent Jared Angle; Pereira and Ulbricht leading a scintillating “Scherzo”; and Megan Fairchild and Garcia anchoring “Tema con Variazioni.” It’s hard to believe that Fairchild had given birth just a few short months ago.

So, in NYCB’s early-Spring season battle of the old choreographic gods and the new, the old gods without question won the Koch Theater’s velvet throne. And that’s the last time I make a strained GOT allusion. At least this week.