Serenade, Firebird, & DGV at New York City Ballet

What is there to say about Balanchine’s glorious Serenade that has not been said before? The iconic 1934 ballet was the first piece on New York City Ballet’s program Friday night. There were audible groans when it was announced that Sara Mearns, who was to be making her debut as the “Waltz Girl,” would be replaced by Janie Taylor (Teresa Reichlen replaced her in the first movement of DGV). However, it is the women of the corps who are the star of this ballet, a fact movingly clear from that first heart-stopping moment when the curtain rises on those seventeen dancers clad in wispy pale blue, gazes lifted toward their outstretched arms.

The ballet has been given a number of different interpretations, but on a weekend when I was personally thinking a lot about female friendships, I was moved by the bonds between the women, reflected in their dancing together—always aware of, and in relation to, the other dancers. Friday night, they moved as one without losing their individuality. The grand circle of piqué turns was a particularly striking moment, as the dancers’ perfectly synchronized spotting (whipping of the head) producing a dazzling effect.

I usually find Megan Fairchild to be underwhelming, but was pleasantly surprised by her in this role. She pulled off the quick jumps and multiple turns of the role with a breezy assurance. Teresa Reichlen, in the Dark Angel role, and Adrian Danchig-Waring, as her partner, were lush and entrancing.

Janie Taylor was not as technically assured as Reichlen and Fairchild, but in the final scene, as she is lifted in a standing position and carried upstage between two lines of dancers, the gradual arch of her back was so dramatic it seemed impossible that she did not fall. Her daring is of a different sort—pushing the limits of this fragility rather than the more robust risk-taking of dancers like Mearns.

The main attractions of Firebird are the scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall (though the Stravinsky score doesn’t hurt either). The curtain rises on a fantastical and slightly disturbing drop depicting a bird with a second upside-down head—that of a woman—and holding a bouquet. The subsequent backdrops continue in this magical, colorful vein. The final tableau opens on Prince Ivan (Ask la Cour) and his bride (Gwyneth Muller), who is dressed in an elaborate red gown featuring three enormous roses and a train a few feet long. They stand atop a brightly colored rug and surrounded by their attendants and the strange, motley creatures they were recently fighting. Unfortunately, there is not much dancing of substance to go along with these surrealist scenes, the exception being the Firebird herself. When Maria Kowroski enters, we see numerous echoes of Swan Lake, as her elegant arms flap and tremble. The Firebird however, is wilder and jerkier than Odette, more prone to sudden movements and less elongated lines.

I wrote about DGV in February when the company premiered it during their All Wheeldon program in the winter season. The revelation for me this time around was Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in the third “region.” The last time I saw this ballet, I felt that this section relied too much on contortions and extensions for their own sake. But Whelan and Hall, from the moment they entered, imbued these extreme movements with a sense of purpose, clarity, and exquisite tension. Their chemistry projects all the way to the fourth ring. Their performance also drew my attention to a moment in the choreography reminiscent of Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” in which Hall holds on to her extended leg, as she repeatedly reaches forward and is pulled back. While the other principal couples (Reichlen & R. Fairchild; A. Bouder & J. de Luz, T. Peck & A. Veyette) all had impressive technique and presence, I could not draw my eyes away from these two.

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