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New York City Ballet returns with Balanchine and Peck masterpieces

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements (photo by Paul Kolnik)

The New York City Ballet is back in town, bringing an Easter feast of modern choreography to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House. The first of their two programs, seen on Tuesday night, brings together works of choreographers representing three eras: George Balanchine, Peter Martins, and Justin Peck.

Chase Finlay in George Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15
(photo by Paul Kolnik)
Two Balanchine jewels bookend the evening, beginning with Divertimento No. 15, from 1956. It is a banquet for the eyes, with costumes by Karinska evoking vaguely military-style dress uniforms for the men and graceful gestures that recall the social and courtly dance of Mozart's gorgeous music. Chase Finlay was a tall, chiseled presence among the three male soloists, gracefully partnering especially with Ashley Laracey in the exquisite "Andante" movement, with its extended cadenza for two violins. The strings of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra struggled, especially the violins in high passages and runs, giving the impression that conductor Daniel Capps had spent the lion's share of rehearsal time on the more complex Stravinsky scores later in the program.

At the end of the evening came Balanchine's striking Symphony in Three Movements, made in 1945 after Stravinsky suggested the title piece to Balanchine as suitable for a ballet. The last company to present it at the Kennedy Center was the Boston Ballet in 2013, and direct from the source, as it were, it was an even more bracing thing to see. The curtain rises to reveal a striking scene, the corps of women in white, belted leotards arranged in a diagonal row, one arm raised. Jagged movements that go with Stravinsky's accented, zig-zagging music were crisply defined, the dancers' hair in long ponytails fanning out at times. The solo pairing of Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring, featured beautifully in the central slow movement, was a highlight.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, New York City Ballet: After the fall (Washington Post, March 28, 2018)

Alastair Macaulay, Kaleidoscopes of Patterns Against Backdrop of Mozart’s Chivalry (New York Times, February 16, 2011)

---, City Ballet’s Greatest-Hit Makers Get Help From Some Old Masters (New York Times, January 5, 2008)

---, The Unstuffy Gala: City Ballet Delivers Youth and Style (New York Times, September 29, 2017)

---, One Week’s Journey Through a Whole Century in Ballet (New York Times, May 6, 2012)

---, Taking Flight: A Season of Revival (New York Times, January 28, 2011)
At the heart of the program is a brand-new choreography by Justin Peck, Pulcinella Variations, premiered by the company just last fall. Peck, whose taste in music has sometimes seemed questionable, chose brilliantly here, with the suite from Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Stravinsky's delightful neoclassical reworking of music by Pergolesi, revived after a long absence by the National Symphony Orchestra a few years ago.

Kooky costumes by Japanese fashion designer Tsumori Chisato, half commedia dell'arte by way of Watteau and half manga fantasy, highlighted the inventive movements of the dancers. Red stripes glinted on one costume with each pirouette, and a flesh-colored strip and tutu of only partial circumference made another costume seem to cover only two-thirds of a dancer's body. Breaking from the otherwise bare stage favored in the Balanchine pieces, billowy gray curtains hung above and in the wings, giving the impression of a department store window or fashion show runway.

Sarah Mearns and Jared Angle were a sensual pairing in the "Serenata" movement, but the most beautiful moments of the ballet came from the extended pas de deux of the "Gavotta" with its two variations, featuring the outstanding Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon. Anthony Huxley proved a dynamo of energy in the "Tarantella," costumed in bright yellow stripes with streamers, reminding Miss Ionarts of an overactive cartoon bee darting among the flowers incorporated into the other costumes.

Two shorter duet pieces filled in the gaps less memorably. Tiler Peck again stood out in Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, made in 1960 to music drawn from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Here partnered with Jared Angle, she showed remarkable poise and calm, frozen into extensions like a statuette, often accompanied by ardent violin solos from concertmaster Oleg Rylatko.

In this superior company, Zakouski, made by Peter Martins in 1992, felt a little like a drab cousin, not least for the uncomfortable overtones recently revealed about the Martins era at NYCB. (In January, Martins was forced to resign from his position leading the company, due to allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse from former dancers; somewhat confusingly, the company announced in February that its two-month investigation did not corroborate any of the allegations.)

Indiana Woodward stepped in on short notice to replace Megan Fairchild and did so with warmth and energy, matched with the somewhat heavy-handed folk dance gestures of the excellent Joaquin de Luz. Violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Susan Walters performed the music, all short pieces by Rachmaninoff (including the famous Vocalise), Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky, admirably from a corner of the pit.

This program will be repeated tonight and Thursday, with a second program, devoted to choreographer Jerome Robbins, performed on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Various casts will dance in these performances in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Anonymous said...

I think you'll find the violin part for the Mozart is just remarkably hard and, when performed with more than player per part, an almost unlimited amount of rehearsal time would be needed to overcome the technical challenges.

Charles T. Downey said...

A very good point. Thank you for the observation.