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

January 17, 2023 (season opening): Donizetti Variations, Haieff Divertimento, Valse-Fantaisie, Stravinsky Violin Concerto

January 24, 2023: Allegro Brillante, Liturgy, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Firebird

Jerry Hochman

Back in the day – that is, all the way back to when George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins ruled the New York City Ballet roost, season openings were a big deal. Granted, there were only two of them (the Fall Season was added later), but the offerings were designed to make the greatest impression on the greatest number of potential audience members. Now, one season blends into another, and there appears to be little for a potential audience to get excited about.

Then again, sometimes the appearance of unexciting familiarity is an illusion, as it was with the first two programs of NYCB’s Winter 2023 season. In part because of the pandemic-imposed season cancellations, performance history is conflated in the memory. In fact, only the overly exposed Stravinsky Violin Concerto was performed during NYCB’s previous season, and Allegro Brillante almost as recently. [Firebird is another, but that ballet is sui generis.] Others on the two programs have somewhat longer periods of dormancy. Be that as it may, if you go frequently enough or just get lucky, there’s always something to get excited about regardless of a program’s seeming familiarity, either by seeing something not previously seen in the choreography, or by witnessing stellar performances.

So it was with these first two programs.

A total of eight dances were presented during the season’s first two weeks. Since most of them are familiar to those likely to read this, I won’t dwell on the choreography unless I discover something new in the piece, or see it differently. [I’m aware that Justin Peck’s extensively hyped world premiere was scheduled for January 26, but I was unable to attend, and will consider it in a subsequent review.]

First, and possibly most significantly, was a performance in that overly-exposed final ballet on the opening night program, Stravinsky Violin Concerto. In her debut as a late-scheduled replacement for the originally-cast Sara Mearns (who I understand has taken a leave of absence from NYCB this season), Mira Nadon blasted her role in the Aria I pas de deux into ballet stratosphere.

Expertly partnered by Principal Adrian Danchig-Waring, who has a significant level of performance familiarity with his role, Nadon didn’t deviate from the way other NYCB ballerinas who have successfully assayed this role execute it, including Mearns. The choreography is the same, and Nadon didn’t in any way embellish it.

Except she did – not in the steps, but in the inner ferocity of her execution. As a consequence, her performance revealed the choreography in ways that I’d not previously seen.

Mira Nadon and Adrian Danchig-Waring
in George Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Since the first time she appeared with NYCB, Nadon, currently a soloist, has always impressed with the power of her execution, so delivering a powerful performance in anything is no surprise. But this was different. It was the kind of internal intensity and authority that’s both breathtaking and fire-breathing, and that can be seen and felt by osmosis if nothing else. And I wasn’t the only one who responded that way: the house created its own internal yet palpable energy to match Nadon’s. When Aria I ended and the pair exited audience right and returned to take their programmed celebratory bows before again exiting and allowing Aria II to begin, the audience roared, and then roared some more – so much so that after the pair exited audience right following the prescribed initial recognition, the audience continued to roar and wouldn’t let the next Aria begin without another curtain call. They stopped the show.

I felt sorry for the next couple in Aria II who had to follow that, but Ashley Laracey and Joseph Gordon acquitted themselves admirably, contributing to the superb overall performance by the corps of sixteen and the four-dancer featured cast.

Ashley Laracey and Joseph Gordon
in George Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The opening night program began with Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, a 1960 piece that Balanchine created to celebrate the 100th year of Italy’s unification. The bright and effervescent dance leaves no lasting memory, but it’s great fun to watch. And here it was enhanced by stellar performances from Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley.

Fairchild is achieving the impossible – she manages to execute dances with the youthful intensity of fresh-faced ingénue combined with the skills honed over time of a seasoned ballerina in every role she assays where the former quality is appropriate, somehow improves at both with each passing season, and seems to relish roles that other long-established principal ballerinas might consider beneath them. [Fairchild is one of the two longest-serving Principal Ballerinas presently with the company, having been a principal since 2005.]

Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley
in George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Huxley’s technical abilities have never been in doubt. But as I’ve noted previously, Huxley’s stage persona has changed dramatically for the better since, seemingly overnight, he changed his constantly dour and steely expression to natural-looking smiles where doing so is appropriate. His performances have been a pleasure to watch since then.

The music, from Gaetano Donizetti’s 1843 opera Dom Sébastien de Portugal, appears to have little to do with the rather morbid libretto of the opera’s story, and its only connection with Italy is its sunny vitality, which overwhelms the stage and breathes welcome warmth into a cold winter night. The allegro movement rarely slows, and Fairchild and Huxley, as well as the very fine supporting nine-dancer corps, raced through it with seeming abandon but in total control, making the complexity of Balanchine’s choreography look like a day at the beach. Far more than Italy (or 16th Century Portugal, or Morocco – the settings for the opera), the dance bears more of a resemblance to Denmark, with light, airy, buoyant movement that seems derived from Bournonville. The piece, particularly with this cast, is a pleasure to watch.

The other two dances on the opening night program aren’t quite at that level. Choreographed in 1947 to Siberian-born American pianist and composer Alexei Haieff’s “Divertimento for Small Orchestra” (composed in 1944), Haieff Divertimento is a little bluesy, a little brassy, a little jazzy, a little slinky, and a lot strange. I saw it for the first time in February, 2020, at one of the last NYCB performances before the pandemic, when it was being revived for the first time in 20 years. I wrote in the subsequent review that it’s not a bad dance, just not a particularly memorable one. Though it was performed by a different cast at this performance, that evaluation still holds. There’s a reason why long dormant ballets are long dormant.

The composition sounds like a study in contemporary musical idioms. It displays them well, but with no inner drive beyond that; more like an expanded study. The ballet is a step above that, but it doesn’t so much amplify the score as reflect it. It has no low points, but also no high points, and unlike most other Balanchine black and white ballets, it has no drama, either choreographic or emotional.

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

The dance’s central pas de deux, here danced by Indiana Woodward (in her role debut) and Harrison Ball, while pristine-looking, came across to me, as it did last time, as simply dull.

Valse-Fantaisie, a frothy little piece that Balanchine choreographed (in its current form) in 1967 to “Valse-Fantaisie in B Minor” by Mikhail Glinka, is fun to watch, but is also easily forgettable after one leaves the theater. I’ve seen it previously – but as performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem and ABT. The ballet celebrates speed and constant movement, but doesn’t have the charm of Donizetti Variations. That being said, it was treated to exceptionally lively, full-throttle performances in leading roles by Erica Pereira (in one of the best of her recent fine outings) and Daniel Ulbricht, who can still fly.

Erica Pereira in George Balanchine’s “Valse-Fantaisie”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The second program, which I viewed with Tuesday’s cast, fared similarly to the first. A few extraordinary performances and a couple of very fine pieces.

Allegro Brillante, which Balanchine choreographed in 1956, is a pure dance ballet of non-stop movement that is a hallmark of Balanchine’s neo-classic style, although it’s camouflaged to some extent by being presented in the context of the joyously romantic ambiance encouraged by Tchaikovsky’s score (“Piano Concerto No. 3”). Although it comes across as a concentrated study in classical vocabulary and development, it never becomes merely academic. It’s alive. It’s the first ballet that NYCB performed on its first program at the then New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, and one that has rarely been out of its repertory since. And it’s one of many examples of a ballet by Balanchine to Tchaikovsky that demonstrates the particular inspirational partnership between the choreographer and the composer.

Tyler Angle (center) and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Comparisons between Fairchild’s performance in the lead role and that of Tiler Peck, who I’ve seen dance the role many times before, aren’t helpful. Suffice it to say that they both perform this piece extraordinarily well albeit in different ways. Fairchild lit up Tuesday’s light-as-a-feather performance as she did with the season opener discussed above. Tyler Angle, who seemed a little off compared to other times I’ve seen him in this role, nevertheless danced sufficiently well to showcase Fairchild flawlessly. And the supporting eight-dancer corps performed extraordinarily well also – as has been the case throughout the season to date. Hanna Hyunjung Kim delivered the piano solo in fine fashion.

Liturgy is a strangely beautiful pas de deux choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2003. To music by Arlo Part (“FRATRES for Violin, Strings, and Percussion”), the piece is one of many pas de deux created that can be described that way, but here, with the inherent spirituality of Part’s music as its framework and while still maintaining the composition’s sense of prayer and mysticism, it takes it several steps both broader and deeper, combining a vague but somewhat implicit sexuality with a sense of seeking, and earning, absolution.

It’s certainly possible, maybe likely, that I’m considering the piece that way because only a few days earlier I saw Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Pure, performed by Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger. On the surface the two pas de deux couldn’t be more different. But both pieces include a sense of purity, the absence of it, or the desire for it, or all of the above, either obvious as in Cherkaoui’s piece, or as an undercurrent as in Lyturgy. Sure the Wheeldon ballet’s title sets it within some religious framework, and its lighting (by Mark Stanley) supports that, but prayers and seeking forgiveness for sins (or, in the other direction, seeking blessing for acts already done and for those to come) can take place in a different setting, including a home (or a bedroom within it), and can be just as ritualistic-looking, prayerful, fervent, and meaningful.

So what I now see in Liturgy is broader than a stunning visualization of an act of worship, or even a search for meaning within the context of religious expression (which is how I described it after having seen it for the first time and only time before this performance, in 2017). It can be all that, but it also can be far more.

Sara Adams and Jovani Furlan
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Liturgy”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Sara Adams and Jovani Furlan (in a role debut) handled Wheeldon’s choreography masterfully, and Arturo Delmoni’s violin solo was delivered in the same manner.

Walpurgistnacht Ballet is the last of multiple versions of this opening scene of the final act of Gounod’s “Faust” that Balanchine choreographed, and the first to be independently excerpted from the opera as a whole. It premiered with NYCB in 1980, and has been seen sporadically since then. Except for the opportunity in the dance’s final segment to see ballerinas race across the stage with their hair down, I never thought much of it, figuring that it was yet another effort by Balanchine to keep the men in the audience awake.

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring (left)
and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

There’s a lot here, but it’s somewhat buried in schmaltz – in part a consequence of this excerpt from the score. As described in the program, the scene displays Méphistophélès bringing Faust “to watch the traditional celebration on the eve of May Day when the souls of the dead are free to wander at will.” In its description of the opera, Wikipedia describes the scene as: “Faust is transported to a cave of queens and courtesans, and Méphistophélès promises to provide Faust with the love of the greatest and most beautiful women in history. An orgiastic ballet suggests the revelry that continues throughout the night.”

To the extent that this segment of the opera is what Walpurgisnacht Ballet is intended to present, it’s sanitized and as reduced to its essence as it could have been – and if that was Balanchine’s goal, he succeeded. [In all fairness, Walpurgisnacht is an ancient holiday that history appears to have evolved into a combination May Day (and May Day Eve) folk celebration and bacchanal. Balanchine may have intended here to emphasize the folk-celebration aspect of it rather than the wild and crazy aspect of it.]

The dances for the sixteen-dancer corps, plus (as imputed from the dance’s multi-level cast listing) four demi-soloists, two soloists, and three principals, all but one of whom are ballerinas, aren’t particularly interesting until that last scene, and that’s because the tempo of the score, and consequently of the choreography, is ratcheted up – and the ballerinas’ hair is ratcheted down. But there’s nothing beyond that. Danchig-Waring, the lone male dancer has relatively little to do, and is on stage only a relatively short period of time. Overall, I greatly preferred the electrifying but admittedly kitschy version presented in 2016 by the brief-lived Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, choreographed by Leonid Lavrosky in 1974, which clearly anticipated the Wikipedia description.

Emma Von Enck (center) and New York City Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”
Photo by Erin Baiano

That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting about it. The complex solo diagonal, here performed with exquisite command by Unity Phelan, was a highlight. And although she had less to do individually than might have been expected, what Emma Von Enck displayed (in her role debut) was impressively delivered and whistle clean. As she seemingly always does, she sparkled. India Bradley and Mimi Staker, each also in role debuts, accompanied Von Enck with their confident execution through much of the piece.

Perhaps Walpurgisnacht Ballet would have been more welcome had it not been included in last year’s winter repertory. But if keeping the audience awake was a consideration, the company should bring back Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, which is a far better (though admittedly far different) ballet, and which has been absent from NYCB’s repertory far too long.

The evening concluded with Balanchine’s Firebird.

I used to consider Firebird worth attending if for no other reason than to see Chagall’s magnificent sets and costumes, and to hear the superb NYCB Orchestra deliver Stravinsky’s iconic score. Balanchine’s choreography here is not one of his best, the ballet moves at a relative snail’s pace, and even Jerome Robbins’s choreography for Katchei (the evil wizard) and his subjects, the ballet’s high-point, wasn’t sufficient to make it a must-see.

A year ago, Isabella LaFreniere debuted as the Firebird, and instantly changed my view of Firebird with her magnificent, regal portrayal. On Tuesday, Ashley Hod debuted in the role. She also was a superb Firebird, but in a far different way from LaFreniere. There was no sense here of nobility or regality – but this was in no way a detriment, and wouldn’t have fit Hod the way it did LaFreniere. Instead, Hod delivered “only” perfect execution and demeanor.  She performed the critical choreographic point in the ballet – the pas de deux with Prince Ivan – with crystalline purity; with not a foot or feather out of place, but somehow not at all rigid. And her character’s famous exit audience left after she and her feather helped vanquish Katchei was brilliantly rendered, with an inner fire that reflected the color or her costume, earning immediate vocal recognition from many in the audience. Hers was perhaps the most immaculately executed Firebird that I’ve seen. And I suspect that the way Hod performed her character, not majestically and not emotionally but undeniably memorable, is the way it’s supposed to be.

Ashley Hod and Jared Angle in George Balanchine’s “Firebird”
Photo by Erin Baiano

As for the rest of the piece, what struck immediately was Prince Ivan’s entrance at the beginning of the ballet. I never noticed before, but here, portrayed by Jared Angle (who is retiring next weekend), he looks tiny, almost swallowed whole by the Chagall set. I was on the left side of the house instead of the right, and perhaps that’s the reason for the different image. But it’s not an insignificant observation – seeing it this way creates an instant and irreversible statement about the character’s position in relation to the magnificent folk / fairy tale world that Chagall created. In other respects, Angle, no stranger to this role, was an excellent partner, and in other respects portrayed Ivan as second in importance to the Firebird, which also is the way it’s supposed to be.

Mention of a “fairy tale world” raises a different but related issue. NYCB will conclude this season with two weeks of Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty. In 2019, following the company’s previous run of this ballet, I concluded my review by addressing the casting of Aurora that season. “… one aspect of this two-week series is worrisome. I’ve previously commented that, under the company’s current leadership, casting (as well as scheduling) has been conservative, failing to take the risks necessary to push younger talent, as Martins did when he was Ballet Master in Chief, in favor of those with greater experience, particularly the ballerinas…. It’s certainly understandable for an artistic team in an interim role to conserve resources and make as few waves as possible, but in the long run this can prove damaging.” At that time, I commented that the youthfulness of Aurora is, almost by definition, a critical matter, and observed that of those who were assigned to dance Aurora that year, only two, all other things being equal, could be reassigned to the role without having to “act” youthful. “All other things being equal” did not happen – one of those two is now gone. The only one remaining ballerina with Aurora experience who now fits that description is Woodward.

Although at this point the casting of Aurora for this year’s series has surely already been determined, I must raise that cautionary flag again.

I have no objection to casting senior dancers in the role; some can pull off acting youthfully appropriate quite well. But if they dominate the scheduling as was the case in 2019, NYCB will suffer for it. This year, now by necessity, more young ballerinas will be given opportunities to debut in the role. But even here, being credibly youthful is more important than having to act youthful, and relying strictly on seniority at whatever level is not the best way to cast for reality, and for the future. Two recently-promoted soloists appear ready for this now – anyone reading my reviews knows who they are – their performances are crystalline, and one of them in particular sparkles whenever she appears on stage. Not including them in the casting would be another missed opportunity for the company, and for audiences to watch them grow.