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The Power of Three

On one of the strongest lineups of the spring season, the New York City Ballet bookended Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece, “Agon,” with the first and last ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins: “Fancy Free” (1944) and “Brandenburg” (1997). “Fancy,” a theatrical Fleet Week farce, is starting to show its age. Though some tonal tweaks have been made, the scene in which the trio of sailors steals a woman’s red purse and playfully yanks her around doesn’t get the laughs it used to. Running concurrently across the plaza at the Met this month, coincidentally, is the powerful new opera “Champion.” It also has a scene involving the theft of a red bag, which devolves into a near-fatal gang beating. It’s horrific, but it is meant to be. The “Fancy” vignette is nowhere as upsetting, but it is no longer the surefire comedic interlude it was intended to be. 

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Agon,” “Fancy Free,” “Brandenburg Concerto”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, May 10, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

India Bradley, Taylor Stanley and Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara in “Agon” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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Roman Mejia in “Fancy Free” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

I’m not generally in favor of banning books or ballets. Our art comprises a crucial historical record, and we either learn from our mistakes or we are destined to repeat them. But books are not offended when you roll your eyes at them or throw them across the room. Live performance is another animal, however, and current and future “Fancy” performers will have to get used to the occasional crickets of the contemporary audience’s response. “Fancy” no longer quite fits the crowd-pleasing comedy slot on the bill; it is moving into time-capsule territory. There may be a time when it is too cringe-worthy to play at all, but that day has not yet come. Far from it. Not with talented youngsters like Roman Mejia stepping into uniform. His energy and commitment anchored the ballet in the present; and his highly musical, pitch-perfect account of the Scrappy Doo sailor should keep people engaged with “Fancy” for some while. At the other end of his career, Andrew Veyette’s comedic chops were more intact than his technique in his longtime rhumba solo—though conductor Clotilde Otranto did not help him out any. She gave the seamen a rather windless sail with her laggy tempi. Joe Gordon, well-cast as the puppy-dog lover boy, rounded out the motley trio.

Trios of a different sort make up the bulk of “Agon.” Where Robbins’s sailors are an unstable triad, with secret alliances and one of the crew always an odd man out, the “Agon” threesomes—one man and two women, one woman and two men, and many more triadic groupings in the opening and finale sections—are covalently bonded. The word agon means contest, but these triumvirates operate more like teams, united in elucidating the mathematical principles behind Stravinsky’s intricate score. It is “Agon’s” central partnership, in contrast, that is the most contentious. This tensile pas de deux is all about pushing and pulling, walking a tightrope between on balance and off. And though this pair is often physically intertwined, they maintain an emotional distance. They make almost no eye contact; the woman looks far off into the audience while the man often focuses on a specific body part of hers—calf, foot, hand. And they completely ignore each other during their mini solos. Conversely, the two men of the second trio stand and politely mime clapping for their leading lady throughout hers.

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Agon” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring were outstanding in the pas de deux—coolly glamorous with just enough wildness. They are physically well matched: both are angular in appearance but elastic when in motion. But the entire cast was excellent, with three exciting debuts in the first pas de trois. India Bradley and Megan Dutton-O’Hara had bold attitude and a nice camaraderie, though they could bend more throughout their duet. (Attitude is great, but it should not preclude épaulement.) And Taylor Stanley was stupendous: sinuous yet edgy. The way Stanley walked forward and bowed on the last notes of their solo was riveting. Most dancers perform this with a winking courtliness. Stanley did the gesture as if they were throwing down a glove to incite a duel.

In a completely different vein, Jerome Robbins’s “Brandenburg” awoke from a fifteen-year slumber to close out the night. This ballet should not hibernate so long. Though the splotchy (and uncredited) backdrop resembles that of a generic school photo, the work is replete with beautiful, full-bodied classical ballet dancing: from the opening wedge of demi-pliés and tendus to the many double pirouettes from fourth position and co-ed chassés and assemblés en tournant. But “Brandenburg” is still clearly a Robbins ballet, with his wry humor evident in the many cookie-cutter poses and endless backwards booty scurries. There are also some children’s games à la the “Nutcracker” party scene: like a “London Bridge is Falling Down” winding sequence as well as a snippet of leapfrog ending in somersaults.

Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley in “Brandenburg” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The lovely baroque score and the numerous, challenging communal dances brought out a joyous, engaged quality from the cast of twenty. Of the corps, Dominika Afanasenkov and Davide Riccardo were stellar leading off the minuet. And Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley were good as the principals for the opening movement, though they could have been more daring in the ducking and weaving partnering. They didn’t flub anything, but Woodward—a naturally effusive dancer—didn’t always look comfortable and free in their pas de deux work.

Mira Nadon and Aaron Sanz in “Brandenburg” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

It is amazing to me that Robbins choreographed the andante section of “Brandenburg” first. This pas de deux about longing and missed connections feels oddly dropped into the middle of an otherwise ebullient, harmonious work. I think that if he had used only the third of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and ended the ballet after the first, “fake” finale, it would have been hailed as a masterpiece. But though the additional three movements are not as tight, they are enjoyable nonetheless. And the melancholy Andante adds emotional complexity to the already musically complex proceedings. Mira Nadon and soloist Aaron Sanz made a strong case for its primacy in the lineup in their joint debuts. Nadon was commanding yet mysterious, as is her way. And Sanz was impossibly elegant as her hands-off squire. He was also cheerful and crisp in the allegro finale. I have never understood why he isn’t a big star—he has the bearing and the technique. He’s sustained some injuries, but others have been promoted for less stage time.

Some of the programs this season have suffered from a sameness of tone. Not this one. The range and variety on display in this triple bill was dazzling. Peak Balanchine, earliest and latest Robbins; Broadway theatrics, abstract neo-classicism, and faux-peasant classicism; Bernstein, Stravinsky, and Bach—holy trinities all.

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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