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America, F**K Yeah

After a week of the well-balanced meal that is “Jewels”—the nutritive, potentially tedious, leafy greens of “Emeralds,” the gamy, carnivorous “Rubies,” and the decadent, shiny white mountains of meringue in “Diamonds”—the New York City Ballet continued its 75th Anniversary All-Balanchine Fall Season with rather more dyspeptic fare. Week two kicked off with the triple hot wing challenge of “Western Symphony,” “Tarantella,” and “Stars and Stripes.” The murky, brief “Unanswered Question” section from “Ivesiana” was tossed in like a Tums tablet. I can’t say the program wasn’t fun, but it was a lot to digest. Real (tambourines), fake (a plastic trumpet), and imaginary (harmonicas, banjos, fiddles) instruments were played. There were three variations on coda fouettés, two dance-off trick competitions, and two calf-busting relevé diagonals. Two finales featured principals resting against the front wings in funny hats. Yes, two.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Western Symphony,” “Tarantella,” “Stars and Stripes,” “Unanswered Question” from “Ivesiana”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 1, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Mira Nadon and Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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The organizing principle was Balanchine’s Americana. The four composers represented—Hershy Kay, Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and John Philip Souza—were American, and here were Balanchine’s tongue-in-cheek takes on the Wild West and West Point. Balanchine was certainly consistent in his portrayals of his adopted homeland. His American dances are brash and slightly tacky, though affectionately so.  I can’t argue with his read, but I can question the merits of putting it all on one bill. Rather than illuminating Balanchine’s visionary breadth, the program exposed some of his structural tics, at least in his crafting of blockbusters. Thankfully, over the course of the brassy evening, some more subtle themes began to emerge.

One through-line was the younger generation’s confident assumption of this technically challenging rep. Olivia MacKinnon and Gilbert Bolden III cutely and capably led the marathon opening movement of “Western,” despite a sluggish tempo that had the whole cast straining hard to jog on the music. Unity Phelan and Roman Mejia felt comfortable enough to play in the “Rondo.” He impishly held onto attitude side ronds de jambe a little too long and wielded his finger guns like an unhinged Yosemite Sam. In contrast to her sharply sexy past takes, Phelan was all undulating, liquid limbs—a floozy octopus. You could sense a cartoonish Southern drawl rolling through her body. If there was a piano in the saloon set, she’d have draped herself across it. Here were two talented dancers in their primes, exploring the sillier side of Balanchine with obvious relish. And it was only 8pm.     

Unity Phelan and Company in George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Soloist Emma Von Enck made a scintillating debut in the feisty “Tarantella” pas de deux. Every jump was maximal, even the head-flicking ones into the wings, which dancers often throw away as they peter out. Sebastian Villarini-Velez, also debuting, radiated joy and whipped out some thrilling pirouettes. He needs to make sure he hits that tambo on time in his next outing, however. Being off the music is a cardinal sin in Balanchine land, and “Tarantella” is one of those roles—like Coffee in “The Nutcracker”—where if you are going to join the band you better get in the groove. Speaking of onstage musicianship, a special shout out to Victor Abreu for absolutely shredding it on the air harmonica in “Western.”

Most exciting of all were the debuts of Mira Nadon and Peter Walker as the Liberty Bell and El Capitan in “Stars and Stripes.” Possibly, this was due to upended expectations. Nadon and Walker are not the sunniest, rah rah of dancers. Nadon tackles even the ebullient Dewdrop solo with an arched brow; Walker comes to life in Kyle Abraham’s moody milieux. When I think of them, I do not immediately think of cheerleaders or soldiers. But in their joint debut, they brought the hooray and the hooah and big smiles to boot. They also displayed excellent, bold dancing, though they had a few minor blunders. 

Most notably, Nadon had a huge slip coming out of a dazzling fouetté sequence. It was startling but not surprising, as she employed the go-for-broke approach she brings to every role. It’s the kind of dancing that takes risks and often leads to falls—the kind that Balanchine famously loved. Luckily, she recovered quickly and grinned even bigger. I hope she doubles down on rosin instead of changing her tactics in the future, because it is thrilling to watch someone so wildly free onstage. Clearly the NY audience agrees; she was greeted with entrance applause—uncommon for a Wednesday night youngster debut. But Nadon is truly something special, and her first go at anything feels like a major event. Diamond anniversary notwithstanding, she is making it feel like a momentous time at City Ballet all on her own. Walker matched her every step of the way, and he was crisp and showy in his solo. Although both seemed to flag a bit by the time the actual flag dropped, it was a great inaugural showing. 

Emma Von Enck in George Balanchine’s “Tarantella.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

At the other end of his career, Daniel Ulbricht demonstrated a knowing, polished evolution at his longtime post in command of the Thunder and Gladiator campaign. As a young pup, he hammed up this part in a rebellious way, like Bill Murray in “Stripes.” He bobbed and weaved through his regiment like a prankish Loki; you got the feeling he might desert at any moment.  Now, in his 18th year in the role, he brings a deadpan militance that manages to be even funnier than his former puckishness. He has the air of a stoic, decorated veteran—someone who would no sooner have a toe out of place in fifth position than he would have a stain on his lapel. He buttons up each tour landing and robotically nails each pirouette. His performance exhibits expert craftmanship and devotion to his art. Yet it also drips with irony, because it’s hilarious to take this goofy dance so seriously. He’s a true company man; he’ll die in uniform. But somehow, you understand that he’s still got that Bill Murray irreverence. It’s brilliant, I thank him for his devoted service.

The unattainable muse trope was the one theme that appeared in all four ballets. “Tarantella” and the pas in “Stars” both ended with the man lustily pursuing his partner into the wings. Brittany Pollack breezed in and out of Jovani Furlan’s life in the second movement of “Western.” Was she real or the daydream of a lonely cowpoke? In “The Unanswered Question,” this concept is elevated to a philosophical quest. A man is in awe of a floating figure. Is she a deity? A spark of inspiration? His ideal mate or muse? He writhes and reaches but never possesses her, even when she is briefly in his arms. Though Balanchine was married to Tanaquil LeClerq at the time, they were having issues, and he made this dance of longing for Allegra Kent. It evokes Balanchine’s notoriously complicated romances and his serial conflation of sexual and artistic passion.

Harrison Coll and Sara Adams in George Balanchine’s “The Unanswered Question” from “Ivesiana.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

My colleague Marina Harss wrote last week that the mysterious “Emeralds” was the hardest section of “Jewels” for the company to pull off. The elusive “Unanswered Question” was likewise the trouble spot on this program. Harrison Coll was appropriately befuddled and yearning, but Sara Adams was too acquiescent, more marionette than goddess. The demure sweetness that served her well in the “Emeralds” pas de trois last week failed her here. She looked strapped in for an amusement park ride on the shoulders of her four squires when she should have been the propulsive, enigmatic force behind the whole section. Twice she flicked her hair out of her face, demonstrating a striving to be perfect instead of realizing that she already represented perfection. Balanchine wrote of this role: “I derived the idea of a girl all-knowing like a sphinx to whom a man might turn.” 

There are myriad ways to go about this odd dance, but dutiful compliance isn’t one of them. I’ve seen effective interpreters be spectral, supercilious, or seemingly tapped into another dimension. The role is wondrously open-ended, a literal question mark. And this was a program that needed some soul-searching to cut all the campy, pat bravura. A curious footnote: “The Unanswered Question” premiered just seven days after “Western Symphony” in September of 1954. This was the same year that Balanchine graced the cover of Time magazine and premiered his biggest blockbuster, “The Nutcracker.” He’d conquered the US and recentered the ballet world around it. He was the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the American Dream, but his love life, forever inextricable from his artistry, was fraught. Even on American soil, at the height of his powers, some of Balanchine’s questions remained unanswered.

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.

comments

Cameron Grant

Love Faye’s writing. Loved her dancing when we worked together at City Ballet. So smart.

Nancy Lupton

Faye Arthur’s reviews are most insightful – I enjoy and learn – thanks

Edward J. Petrou

So descriptive of the performance that I closed my eyes and could see the ballet from a seat in the First Ring.

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