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New Meanings

And just like that, another spring season has ended at New York City Ballet. There was much to celebrate, in particular the rise of a new generation of dancers. All at once, the company looks renewed. And in particular, the corps de ballet and soloists, individually and as a whole, rose to challenge after challenge, looking technically strong, assured, full of promise, joyful.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” “Swan Lake”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, May 28, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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There are some particularly exciting young dancers in the company, and several of them showed up in the second cast of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” performed on the company’s final program, on May 28 (along with Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake”). Like her sister Olivia, Mary Thomas McKinnon dances with power and expansiveness; these two ladies know how to take up space. But the freedom and attack with which Mary Thomas danced the opening solo in “Pictures” (which Sara Mearns originated) was truly bracing. She moved between opposing positions—high on pointe with arms up, down to the floor in a lunge, and back up into a jump—with utter fearlessness. In a pas de deux later, she overpowered her partner, Daniel Ulbricht, with her sheer physicality. But he had his moments too, leaping higher than anyone else in the cast.

From left: Olivia MacKinnon, Ashley Laracey and Mira Nadon in “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Alexa Maxwell, stepping into the role originated by Wendy Whelan—a mysterious, almost spiritual pas de deux in which she seems to fly through the air like a swallow—added a note of vulnerability and searching to this dream-like passage, set to the fourth piece in Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” beautifully played on the piano by Susan Walters. She is an affecting dancer, with a seemingly huge imagination. Partnered by the adept Tyler Angle, she unfolded herself into the final pose, her feet on his chest, body stretch up and forward, leaning into the light. Rather than perilous, it looked miraculous.

These are just two of the standouts; the whole cast, which included young Andres Zuniga, Christopher Grant, Ruby Lister, and Rommie Tomasini was strong. Everyone looked as if they had been dancing the ballet for years. No hesitation. Unlike some new works, the ballet has grown over time. The final section, set to Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev,” begins with the cast looking up at the night sky, their faces full of doubt. As they process across the stage and the men swing the women up and down—a perfect visual metaphor for the pealing of bells—you can’t help but think that somehow the dance is trying to express the exultation of life after a painful rupture. A dancer touches the floor, as if saying, “we are home.” The war in Ukraine has changed the ballet’s meaning. Somehow, without changing a step, it has become an appeal for peace and the return to life. This meaning is reinforced by a final image, a new projection added to the series of colorful, abstract projections (by Wendall Harrington): the colors of the Ukrainian flag. My heart caught in my throat.

About that one-act “Swan Lake.” It is said that Balanchine was not very keen on creating it back in 1951 when Morton Baum of City Center asked for it. I think it shows. People fill the theater, because it’s called “Swan Lake” but many of the ticket-buyers probably don’t realize ahead of time that they’re only getting part of “Swan Lake.” Sure it’s the “good” parts: the lakeside scenes, with the wonderful music and gorgeous formations of tutu-ed and befeathered dancers.

Unity Phelan in “Swan Lake” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

But what this version leaves out is the story, and with it, much of the tension and drama. Odette, danced here by Unity Phelan, is neither a creature nor a woman in distress, but a ballerina creating exquisite shapes to music. And in this, Phelan delivered. Her arms and neck are long, and she has wonderful, pliant, lush lines. Her swan-like port de bras was pure loveliness. But without a story or an arc, her actions remain suspended in time; this version is like a simulacrum or impression of “Swan Lake.” Perhaps it should be re-named “Variations on a theme from Swan Lake.”

The point of the ballet lies in the gorgeous ensembles for the corps of swans—dressed, unusually, in black— in which Balanchine let loose his geometric and musical imagination. The tempi are brisk and everyone really moves. The swans jet onstage in hyperdrive, pouring across the space, criss-crossing into fluid formations: boxes, diamonds, straight lines, diagonals, small circles, bigger circles. The final scrum is visually stirring.

New York City Ballet in “Swan Lake” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

In the “Valse Bleuette” from Act IV, Olivia McKinnon led her energetic crew in a series of pas-de-chat, glide, jump-and-kick phrases that made the whole stage come alive. Megan LeCrone, authoritative and grand, performed attitude turns with aplomb, and kicked her pointed foot in every direction, arriving with the tinkling of a bell in the orchestration.

But the whole thing lacks a point. I saw members of the swan corps smiling as they danced, as if it were any other ballet. For the leads, Phelan and Joseph Gordon, it is particularly hard, because they have nothing to hold onto but the music. Phelan leaned into the beauty of each phrase. Gordon, with very little to do, played the role of cavalier with all the quiet dignity he could muster. The poor huntsmen, in their plumed hunting caps and short pants, looked as if they had arrived from a costume ball.

I can see why the company decided to include the ballet in the season—the theater was full. But shouldn’t a great company like New York City Ballet have a truly great version of “Swan Lake”? They do exist. And these wonderful dancers, poised for years of exciting dancing, deserve it.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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