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City Ballet, Modern and Contemporary

Joseph Gordon and Unity Phelan performed in Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun, New York City Ballet. Photo: Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week for its expected early summer visit. For the first of two programs, seen on Tuesday night, the company has revisited four short ballets by its celebrated founding choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. A second program features the work of more recent choreographers leading the way into a new era.

A theme emerged over the course of the evening, perhaps intended but perhaps not: reflections in a mirror. In two striking Balanchine works based on Baroque music, Square Dance and Concerto Barocco, ensemble and soloists are balanced, often dancing in symmetrical patterns. Balanchine attempted a cross between American folk dance and classical ballet in Square Dance, from 1957, even using a square dance caller originally, an innovation he wisely removed later. The music, concerto grosso movements by Vivaldi and dance pieces by Corelli, often features twinned melodic lines, which Balanchine interpreted visually in movement, with fine solo work here from Megan Fairchild and Joseph Gordon. The final movement, a spirited Giga by Corelli, even had something like the feel of square dance music.

This later ballet, although seen first, hearkened back to Concerto Barocco, from 1941, redone for NYCB in 1948. The music, Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, was even more explicitly about image and reflection in its twinned lines. Two groups of four women mirrored one another, echoed by two lead soloists, the graceful Isabella LaFreniere and Mira Nadon. In the gorgeous slow movement, a male soloist intruded, the long-armed Russell Janzen, upsetting the perfect symmetry of this world of female friendship and balance. Played without scenery and in stark lighting, designed by Mark Stanley, it was likely the first ballet Balanchine had danced in practice clothes rather than costumes, which became a signature of his updated style. The dancers welcomed violinists Oleg Rylatko and Ko Sugiyama to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call.

Tiler Peck performed in Balanchine's Donizetti Variations, New York City Ballet. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The evening's most striking work was the only choreography by Jerome Robbins on the program, the gorgeous and erotic Afternoon of a Faun, from 1953. Claude Debussy's rapturous score received a marvelous performance from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted for the evening by Andrews Sills, down to the exotic touches of crotales and harps. Robbins devised a meta-updating of the infamous earlier choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky: the faun and nymphs here become a male and female dancer who meet in a ballet studio, indicated by the barre running around its edge.

The oneiric quality of the scene, suggested by the fact that Joseph Gordon is seen asleep on the floor and returns to sleep at the end, implied that the stunning Unity Phelan was a figment of the man's imagination. He (and she, to a degree) spend most of the time staring at the audience as if seeing their reflections in a mirror, even in their most intimate moments. This vain self-regard - two beautiful people watching themselves in the mirror - was sexually charged and, of course, an acknowledgment that this is what dancers spend some of their rehearsal time doing. The awkward kiss Gordon planted on Phelan's cheek, to which she pressed her hand as if it burned, the shock seeming to propel her out of the room, now brought to mind, at least to me, the charges of sexual abuse by female dancers against former NYCB artistic director Peter Martins. At the same time, the effortless surprise lift of Phelan by Gordon, as Debussy's music swept upwards, was strikingly beautiful.

After these three more serious works, it was good to end the evening with some low comedy in Balanchine's Donizetti Variations, a 1960 romp set to ballet music from Donizetti's French grand opera Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal. It's a ballet that is as silly as it is fun, and the pairing of the sassy veteran Tiler Peck with the vivacious Roman Mejia, a rising star, lifted the end of this meaty program with effervescence. The whimsical moment when a corps dancer thinks that a trumpet solo is her cue for an ill-advised leap into the spotlight garnered hearty laughter, and don't leave the theater before you hear the incredible solo turn by the orchestra's glockenspiel player.

Alexei Ratmansky's updated Pictures at an Exhibition, New York City Ballet. Photo: Erin Baiano

The highlight of the B program, featuring City Ballet's new crop of choreographers, was Alexei Ratmansky's surprising, varied Pictures at an Exhibition, last seen at the Kennedy Center in 2015. The piece remains light-hearted yet powerful, with an ensemble of ten dancers moving through the space of an art museum to the strains of Musorgsky's "Promenade" movements (original piano version played somewhat tentatively by Susan Walters). The dancers form smaller solos and ensembles for the intervening movements, representing artworks, their colorful costumes mimicking the bright circles of Kandinsky paintings projected on the screen at the rear of the stage. Ratmansky, who has publicly and strenuously criticized his native Russia's war in Ukraine, has made a significant addition to the final tableau of this ballet, the movement known as "The Great Gate of Kyiv": a large image of the Ukrainian flag, in the style of a Mark Rothko painting.

Justin Peck's first solo ballet, Solo, featured the lovely Naomi Corti making her debut in the role. String players from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the direction of Tara Simoncic, gave an ardent rendition of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, often seeming only tangentially related to Corti's movements. The two most recent works disappointed by their length and repetition: Standard Deviation, choreographed by Alysa Pires to the pulsating, blues-saturated music of Australian composer Jack Frerer, and the robotic Love Letter (on shuffle), choreographed by Kyle Abraham and set to a (long, ear-piercing) prerecorded track by James Blake. Both pieces have some eye-catching moments, with long stretches in between.

New York City Ballet presents both programs in alternation through June 11.

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