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Awakenings

The fall season at New York City Ballet, devoted to the works of Balanchine, has been full of débuts. A new generation of dancers, emerging just as the pandemic hit, is now being tested in role after role. Most of these fist attempts have been at least interesting, with the occasional mis-fire. But once in a while something special happens—a big début that surpasses all expectation.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Apollo,” “La Sonnambula,” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 8, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Joseph Gordon and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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Mira Nadon has had at least two of these in the past two weeks, as she stepped into the delicate Violette Verdy role in “Emeralds,” and now into one of the most “sacred” roles in the Balanchine repertory: Terpsichore, muse of dance, in Balanchine’s 1928 ballet “Apollo.” A part danced memorably by Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, and Carla Körbes, among many others. 

Mira Nadon is a rare thing, a serenely confident dancer equally at home in the sylvan shadows of “Emeralds” and the jazzy, urbane atmosphere of “Rubies,” all showgirl kicks and cheeky decisiveness. Every role she steps into bears the stamp of her personality: curious, engaged, unabashed, liberated. The weight of the past doesn’t seem to intimidate her. She is her own dancer, always.

These qualities shone through her Terpsichore as well, part of an evening that featured a host of débuts, including a new Apollo (Chun Wai Chan), two additional new muses (Emily Kikta and Isabella LaFreniere), and a new sleepwalker (Alexa Maxwell) in the second ballet on the program, the theatrical “La Sonnambula.”

Mira Nadon in George Balanchine’s “Apollo.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Nadon’s Terpsichore was both fully formed (thought it will surely continue to grow) and also different from any other I’ve seen. In it, she combined glamour and shyness, boldness and softness, playfulness and the hint of budding romance. As she began Terpsichore’s solo, in which the dancer paws playfully at the floor, she moved with a kind of buoyancy that filled the music rather than followed it, and used her eyes and head to give the impression that she was listening and reacting, reflecting on the steps and on their effect on Apollo, who watched from across the stage. In their pas de deux, she looked squarely into his face, offering her hand, as if inviting him into a new chapter of his life. When he playfully chased after her, she looked back to make sure he was still there, not lagging too far behind. (I had never really noticed this detail before.) Their interaction suggested a sense of discovery, and the possibility of budding romance. This, combined with the voluptuous scale of her movement—the way, for example, she slid down, with glowing ease, into the splits and then came up again—made the ballet feel intensely alive.

Her performance added warmth and luster to Chun Wai Chan’s first Apollo, also a highly individual interpretation of this great and familiar role. Chan does not have the “god-like” length and stretch some have come to associate with it because of interpreters like Peter Martins. His approach is more grounded, perhaps more heroic, more consciously masculine. This quality was especially noticeable in the way he used his arms and hands, stretching out the fingers to create a feeling of electricity, or clenching them into fists, which brought attention to his muscular build. His take different from that of most City Ballet dancers, who perform the role somewhat neutrally, without the aid of facial expression. His was more acted-out. From the start he created a character, a kind of man-boy testing himself through the steps, reaching toward an ideal of masculinity, sometimes failing, but always reaching, taking risks, growing. He modulated the steps as the music grew, starting small, increasing his range of motion and emphasis with each iteration. He did have a little trouble at a couple of moments, for example the scrolling turn that descends down to the floor. But the effort was in itself interesting. (It’s always informative to see how dancers navigate difficult new combinations of steps.) He was analyzing as he negotiated his next move. 

Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan in ”Apollo” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The pas de deux with Nadon was the high point. There, he was able to show off his fluid partnering skills, pulling Nadon onto his upper back in the tricky passage in which Terpsichore perches there, as if swimming through the air. The two were in it together, suspended in time.

The highlight of “La Sonnambula,” set to an arrangement by Vittorio Rieti of melodies from the eponymous Bellini Opera, is a scene in which a dancer appears onstage in a white nightgown, holding a candle, as if walking in her sleep. The male protagonist, called “the poet,” tries to wake her, unsuccessfully, and then partners her in her unresponsive state, spinning her around by one arm, or lightly tapping her so that she floats backward through space on the tips of her toes, as if carried by a breeze. It’s one of those balletic trick moments, like the doll-movement in “Coppélia” or the swan port de bras in “Swan Lake.” Your eyes perceive it as a kind of magic—how does she drift like that without seeming to exert any effort?

But there’s more to the sleepwalker than just a trick. Who is she? What tragedy has put her in this trance? This is the dreamworld that Alexa Maxwell captured in her début. She projected all the pain and sorrow of the character in the perilous tilt of her torso, the urgency of her footsteps, the burning of her open but unseeing eyes. Her body moved of its own volition, driven by a profound need. And as the Bellini’s aria grew in intensity, so did Maxwell’s performance. Wraithlike, she gave herself over completely to the music. Her partner, Anthony Huxley, reached his arms around her and descended to the floor into a backbend, surrendering to her tragic magnetism. It’s the best “Sonnambula” I’ve seen for a long time.

Alexa Maxwell and Anthony Huxley in George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The program closed with an energetic performance of “Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 2,” the ballet known, in its original 1941 iteration, as “Ballet Imperial.” Balanchine created it for the first tour to Latin America by American Ballet Caravan, one of New York City Ballet’s predecessor companies. (It will soon be performed by American Ballet Theater under the original title, in tutus, as it was in 1941.) This was Balanchine’s first foray into channeling Petipa’s style: the grand patterns of movement, formality of behavior, virtuosity of steps, and elevation of the ballerina to her most exalted state, the sun at the center of the balletic solar system. (Unsurprisingly, the ballet contains more than one reference to “Sleeping Beauty.”)

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, and in particular the long first movement, is one of the composer’s most bombastic works, a breathless concatenation of crescendi and cadenzas—so many notes—crashing toward an exuberant finale. The pianist Hanna HyunJung Kim coped well with its challenges, starting off somewhat emphatically but gradually rising to its romantic heights. The orchestral dynamics could have been managed more subtly than they were under the baton of Andrews Sill. 

The choreography is a cornucopia of patterns and classical steps, executed with great vigor and seed: turns that end in arabesques that stop on a dime, skips that take up half the stage with each rebound, super-fast emboîtés. The stage often becomes a kaleidoscope. At one point the ballerina executes a series of fouetté turns while almost hidden in a multitude of dancers; as they move from side to side, she turns, and turns, and turns. An accumulation of motion.

Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Like “Allegro Brillante” and “Theme and Variations” and other ballets in the same vein, it is a mine-field for the leading dancers. Here they were Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon as the main couple and Olivia MacKinnon in the female soloist role. In reality Peck has two partners, Gordon and the pianist; much of her dancing springs from the cadenzas of the piano score, as she pirouettes into arabesque, steps quickly into pin-prick piqués, creates a patter with her pointes, chaînés like the wind, or circles the stage in a manège of jumps. This is natural territory for Peck, who is dancing with more naturalness and freedom than she has in several seasons. She was a whirlwind but also the epitome of the ballerina, in control, brilliant, expansive.

McKinnon made crisp, sprightly work of her supporting soloist role, leading the corps and frolicking with her two male partners, often taking the lead as they did their best to keep up. If she could relax her upper body just a touch it would give her movement a grander scale. 

The ballet’s most poetic moment comes in the second, slow movement, in which the male lead (Joseph Gordon) becomes part of a long chain of women. The dancers, arrayed on either side, extend his thought and movements through space as he dreams, like the prince in “Sleeping Beauty.” Peck enters, advances toward him, and then recedes from view, like Aurora in the Vision Scene. 

It is a rousing ballet, the kind that leaves you humming its danciest melodies and attempting to replicate the footwork on the way home. Balanchine knew what he was doing. Between the euphoria of its finale and the exciting débuts in “Apollo” and “La Sonnamubla,” it was a very good afternoon at New York City Ballet.

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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