A Glamorous Evening at New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala

New York City Ballet’s galas are always a glamorous affair, and this year’s, entitled “A La Française,” was no exception, featuring premieres, fashion-inspired costumes, and a glitzy red carpet. Peter Martins’ opening piece, “Mes Oiseaux,” was an enjoyable opportunity to see some of the company’s newest talents (Taylor Stanley, Lauren Lovette, Ashly Issacs, and Claire Kretzschmar), but not much more. The women, who each made a dramatic entrance into a spotlight, had gorgeous lines and admirable attack. They did not yet have assurance of more senior dancers, but this will surely come as they gain experience. There was a beautifully liquid quality to Stanley’s movement in his solo (one of the highlights of the piece) that I wish we had gotten to see more of.

Claire Kretzschmar and Taylor Stanley in Peter Martins' Mes Oiseaux

Claire Kretzschmar and Taylor Stanley in Peter Martins’ Mes Oiseaux
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

Millepied’s new work, “Two Hearts” (excerpt available here) began with Tyler Angle performing a series of playful yet sensitive lateral movements within a circle of light. Millepied skillfully manipulated his corps of twelve dancers, dressed in black-and-white costumes by Rodarte, through a range of geometric patterns, using uneven numbers and ever-changing groupings to great effect. Tiler Peck, as the principal woman, was both soft and dynamic. In one sequence in which she was repeatedly caught and held mid-air by the male corps, you almost believed she could have stayed suspended without assistance. The score, newly commissioned from Nico Muhly, was reminiscent of Philip Glass in its simplicity and repetitiveness, but with touches like echoes of a music box tune complicating its underwater-like quality.

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Benjamin Millepied's Two Hearts

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

The chic-ness of the off-the-shoulder straps of the womens’ costumes was accentuated when Peck removed her skirt for the final pas de deux with Angle. More tender and fluid than their first duet, even simple walks took on emotional significance. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dawn Landes began singing an old English folk song, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” over the score. Rather than providing an interesting contrast to the ultra-modern costumes and music, this song was continually distracting, particularly as one caught snatches of the lyrics (did no one involved feel uncomfortable with the implicit racism of this evil “brown girl” who kills the “fair maiden”?). I couldn’t wait for it to end. Thankfully, what stuck in my mind was the image of the two dancers quietly embracing on the floor, a subtle conclusion to their sensuous pas de deux.

The debut in Symphony in C was the new costumes by Marc Happel, which closed the evening on a glittering note. They were not a major departure from the original Karinska costumes, keeping the same black-and-white color scheme and general look, but with modernized and streamlined shapes. Others have complained that they were too glitzy, but from our perch in the fourth ring, there was just enough sparkle.

Megan Fairchild sparkled in the quick, precise movements of the first movement with partner Jared Angle. Sara Mearns was luscious in the penchées and back bends of the second movement adagio with Jonathan Stafford. The contrast between movements was remarkable as Ashley Bouder bounded onto the stage with partner Joaquin de Luz, injecting life and excitement into the previously languorous atmosphere. Peck was, as she has been all season, breathtakingly crystalline in her delivery in the fourth movement, well-matched by the noble Adrian Danchig-Waring.

While we prize the freshness of new patterns in contemporary works, it is sometimes delightfully refreshing to revel in beautiful lines and symmetry, and this is the opportunity Symphony in C gives us: the pleasure and excitement of perfectly executed arabesques or pirouettes, multiplied by an entire stage of dancers in perfect formation.

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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.

An Embarrassment of Riches: All Wheeldon Program at NYCB

New York City Ballet presented its first-ever All Wheeldon program on Saturday night, opening with the highly anticipated premiere of “Les Carillons.” Wheeldon has described this piece as more classical than his usual work, and this was very much in evidence, primarily due to the Bizet score, which had all the hallmarks of grand 19th ballet music. Due to the at times strange juxtapositions present in the score—from dramatic adagio to echoes of Carmen and back again—the ballet did seem at times disjointed. In their long, strapless dresses in rich jewel tones, the women most often evoked references to classical choreography: seated on the floor in a diagonal line like the corps of a “white tutu” ballet or linking arms in beautifully simple low arabesques. There were of course, continual reminders that this was not the 19th century, beginning with the flex-footed turn that began the men’s section, and the one-armed costumes they wore. The backdrop as well, evoking abstract expressionism with blurry black shapes and lines on a white background, keeping the ballet from sliding too far into classicism.

The patterns and shifting groupings in this ballet are perhaps the most sophisticated Wheeldon has yet constructed—shifts seem to happen invisibly, without drawing attention. The fluidity of groupings helped avoid an overly structured feeling, shifting mid-pas de deux or corps section. I also enjoyed the extra attention to smaller movements: a recurring theme in which dancers circled their hands on the way down from high 5th reflected the overall feeling of circularity, and rather than seeming affected or busy.

In the first pas de deux with partner Amar Ramasar, Sara Mearns evoked the glamour of mystery of old Hollywood, later to transform into a flamboyant Kitri-type character, who would have been flicking a fan if she had one. Tiler Peck was particularly notable in a solo section, where she danced with a lovely lightness and subtlety. In repeated motif in which she stood en pointe in 4th position and rotated her legs and feet in and then out, she proved exquisite at drawing our attention to the beauty of this tiny detail. In her duet with Ana Sophia Scheller, the two were models of thrilling precision and confidence.

As the curtain rose to the discordant piano music of Ligeti and the dancers’ shadows grew large across the backdrop, I realized that “Polyphonia” was a ballet which would yield surprising pleasures from the Fourth Ring. It is a ballet about shapes, and not patterns, but looking directly down on dancers in their intimate molded pas de deux gave an entirely different impression: it was at times (fascinatingly) difficult to tell what we were looking at when two dancers were intertwined.

During her pas de deux with Gonzalo Garcia, Jennie Somogyi tore her achilles and had to limp offstage, but was later replaced by Tiler Peck. This left Mearns and Sterling Hyltin to dance the next section’s trio as a pair, which proved a fascinating contrast: Hyltin all lines and architecture and Mearns more expansive and blurry. Hyltin’s attack and crisp, clear lines in her pas de deux with Adrian Danchig-Waring made her a natural fit for the ballet’s style (I was surprised to see that this was her debut in the role). Mearns, on the other hand, found space and breath within the ballet’s architecture, particularly in the slow solo section of the sixth movement, where I found myself practically holding my breath as she quietly commanded the stage.

Wendy Whelan’s two pas de deux with Jared Angle were keen reminders of why she is such a treasured artist. Full of extreme positions, Whelan nonetheless moved through them with an understated elegance, offering up the movement to the audience, unadorned.

I had seen “DGV” danced by the Corella Ballet a few years back at City Center, but here, on a bigger stage and the speed and attack of the NYCB dancers, it took on a whole new life. The music, by Michael Nyman, brings to mind Philip Glass with its propulsive repetitions and soaring climaxes. The ballet opens on darkness, gradually revealing a pulsing corps de ballet, then the first principal couple, Theresa Reichlen and Craig Hall, and finally the striking scenery, in which seven vertical panels of marley seem bent up into tarnished sheets of metal, like urban ruins at the back of the stage.

Reichlen and Hall were excellent in the sensuous opening pas de deux, as they found their way into the music and into more extreme movement, perceptibly reacting to each other’s bodies. Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz, while tackling the second movement’s complex choreography admirably, were not as arresting as I normally find them. In Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle’s pas de deux, the choreography veered closest to the over-the-top-ness that the drama of the music tempts toward, the lifts and extreme extensions conveying only flash. In the fourth section, Peck once again stood out for her unbelievable attack, performing chaînées at an incredible pace and matching (if not exceeding) her partner Andrew Veyette in the height and speed of her jumps.

The finale is dramatic: the lighting changes so that we see only the dancers’ shapes, and a bold drum section introduces a section of percussive, synchronized movement for the entire cast. This section seems to me to presage how Wheeldon will handle one of his many new commissions: the closing ceremony of the London Olympics this summer.

Viewing three of Wheeldon’s works in succession, it struck me that he is a choreographer who agrees with Balanchine’s famous phrase, “Ballet is woman.” While “Les Carillons” began with ten men onstage, and featured a very effective male corps de ballet and one or two sequences of men dancing together (and perhaps this is progress we will see more of), it is primarily the women who are given the dancing in his ballets. Reflecting that none of the men really stood out to me tonight, I realized it was because (as others have noted) they served primarily as partners (pedestals?); there to manipulate and assist, but rarely to be present as dancers in their own right. In a sense, this works for City Ballet, where of late it has been the women who shine, but surely Wheeldon can find better ways to use striking dancers like Ramasar and Robert Fairchild.

When Wheeldon came out from the curtain to take a final bow by himself, you could feel a genuine surge of admiration from the audience. I can only hope that we will have the opportunity again soon to enjoy an entire evening of such well-crafted, satisfying ballets.