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New York City Ballet Returns to the Kennedy Center

New York City Ballet performed Suspended Animation, choreography by Sidra Bell (photo: Erin Baiano)

New York City Ballet has been through a disastrous period in the last four years. In 2018, the company's long-time artistic director, Peter Martins, resigned in disgrace, following accusations of sexual abuse. NYCB scrambled to find a stable way forward, naming Jonathan Stafford as its new artistic adviser, but with Wendy Whelan as associate artistic director and Justin Peck as resident choreographer and artistic adviser. As the company founded by George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Jerome Robbins struggled to address its history of sidelining the contributions of women and people of color, the coronavirus shut all of its performances down. NYCB was finally able to present a season over the past year, a selection of which the company brought to Washington for its first appearance at the Kennedy Center since 2019.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, In a terrible week, the much-needed balm of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Washington Post, June 10)

Jason Fraley, New York City Ballet’s first Black female choreographer comes to Kennedy Center (WTOP, June 6)

Gia Kourlas, A Farewell and the Promise of a New Future at City Ballet (New York Times, May 31)

---, City Ballet Gets a Modern Dance Fix (New York Times, February 4)

---, At City Ballet, Giving Voice to the Body, With Sneakers (New York Times, January 28)

Marina Harss, At City Ballet, Jamar Roberts and Dancers Find a Common Language (New York Times, January 27)

Roslyn Sulcas, Justin Peck and Collaborators Combine Gravitational Universes (New York Times, January 25)

Madelyn Sutton, Sculptor Eva LeWitt on Designing the set for Justin Peck's Partita (Playbill, May 2)

Jennifer Homans, Ballet Is Back, but All Is Not As It Was (The New Yorker, November 1, 2021)
The first two performances this week were devoted to three new choreographies, all premiered this season, seen on Tuesday evening. The first two were created by African-American choreographers, beginning with Emanon—in Two Movements by Jamar Roberts, resident choreographer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The work, whose title is "no name" spelled backwards, is set to two pieces by jazz composer Wayne Shorter, “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound.” The choreography was active but in many ways repetitive, aside from a striking solo moment for Jonathan Fahoury. The music from the pit and the dancing on stage did not always seem to line up ideally, although the visuals were beautiful, especially Jermaine Terry’s cool-purple costumes.

With her much more engaging Suspended Animation, Sidra Bell became the first black woman to choreograph a work for New York City Ballet. It opened in a whimsical way with dancers attired in technicolor costumes by the young black fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, something like Dr. Seuss characters strutting on a parody of a 1960s fashion show walkway. The dancing became more visible as the performers lost these extravagant outer layers, like birds molting their feathers. Set to music by Dosia McKay (the string quartet Is Now Not Enough? and Unveiling for strings), Oliver Davis (Solace for strings), and Nicholas Britell (The Middle of the World from his score for the film Moonlight), the piece turned from surreal to serious with an extended solo accompanied only by silence.

NYCB saved the best for last, a dynamic abstract ballet by Justin Peck, inspired by Caroline Shaw's ground-breaking Partita for 8 Voices, heard as accompaniment to the performance in the recording by Roomful of Teeth. Eight dancers, clad in white sneakers and variously colored workout clothes, moved in response to the score's often unconventional sounds. In a noteworthy tie-in, sculptor Eva LeWitt designed the sets for the ballet, hanging backdrops made of brightly colored ropes forming large discs above and behind the dancers. LeWitt is the daughter of minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, whose instructions for anyone executing his work Wall Drawing 305 were quoted extensively in Shaw's piece. Peck, who is one of the more musical choreographers working today, created a compelling work that translated music into motion, somewhat heavy-handed at times but seamless.
Sara Mearns and New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photo: Paul Kolnik)

The last four days of the run at the Kennedy Center are devoted to a recent classic, George Balanchine's innocent, child-centered story ballet based on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, seen on Thursday evening. Premiered in 1962, the work weaves together Mendelssohn's overture and incidental music for the play with other selections by the composer, to make a convincing whole, a first act with most of the action plus a compact second act consisting largely of a divertissement. The Pennsylvania Ballet brought its utterly charming version of this Balanchine ballet to the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and this was a welcome chance to see it in the hands of the company that premiered it. (One thing that NYCB should have imitated from Pennsylvania Ballet was the placement of the singers, women from the local choir Choralis, for the vocal selections in the pit: the piping in of those performers from another location was less than satisfying.)

One of NYCB's best dancers, Sara Mearns, was a warm, almost glowing Titania, easily the stronger of the royal pairing with Daniel Ulbricht's Oberon, all vanity and strength in his tantrums and athletic leaps. Taylor Stanley made an antic, caprine Puck, running with manic exaggeration and even soaring suspended on wires in the striking final tableau. Georgina Pazcoguin displayed her own virtuosic strength as Hippolyta, bounding in impressive leaps as she hunted a pack of dancer-animals. The most gorgeous moment of the night came in the Act II pas de deux, danced with time-stopping grace by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. The swarms of faeries, especially the local children in their delightful insectoid costumes, stole the show during the scenes where they appeared.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through July 12.

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