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New York City Ballet's Summer Residency

For the fifty-seventh year of its summer residency in July at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), upstate in Saratoga Springs, the New York City Ballet brought three programs. I was able to see all the programs and five of the six performances. Unlike the programming for the company’s tours, which presents a slice of its profile, its residency offers works that have been significant during recent seasons at Lincoln Center: spring premieres like Justin Peck’s full-length “Copland Dance Episodes”; the 2022 fall fashion gala’s premieres by Gianna Reisen and Kyle Abraham, and the 2022 Stravinsky Festival offerings of Balanchine’s “Firebird” and Peck’s “Scherzo Fantastique.” There is also the chance to see newly promoted principals—Isabella LaFreniere and Roman Mejia this year and Jovani Furlan, Peter Walker, and Chun Wai Chan last year—as well as many promising new dancers. All in all, both a synopsis and a continuation.

The summer setting of SPAC’s music and dance shed, which also hosts the Philadelphia Orchestra in August, bestows its own magic. Matinées take place with daylight entering the open sides, while evening performances begin during the long summer day and darken unnoticed into the evening.


New York City Ballet's Summer Residency


Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY, July 18-22, 2023


Eva S. Chou

New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine's “Swan Lake” at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. Photograph by Erin Miller

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I. The first program, “SPAC Premieres,” aptly opened with a work that SPAC commissioned in 2016 for the residency’s fiftieth anniversary. This is Peck’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” set to Stravinsky’s work of the same name. Brittany Pollack and Anthony Huxley of the original cast were joined by Miriam Miller and Harrison Coll. This 14-minute, mostly rapid scherzo well suits Peck’s typical emphasis on rapidity and on his quickly moving a smallish number of dancers, here 10, around the stage. Near the start, Huxley burst out of a hunched-over cluster and jumped from second position, revolved, and jumped from second again. The dancing took off from there, pausing for a slow section in the middle (the eloquent Pollack and Coll). Dressed in unitards in bands of varying widths and color (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), the dancers offered a sunny, satisfying start to the evening and the week.

New York City Ballet in Gianne Reisen's “Play Time.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Anthony Huxley in Justin Peck's “Scherzo Fantastique.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Taylor Stanley in Kyle Abraham's “Love Letter (on Shuffle).” Photograph by Erin Baiano

For Gianna Reisen’s 16-minute “Play Time” and for the evening’s final dance, Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on Shuffle),” the big story has been the costumes. Both works premiered at last fall’s tenth fashion gala and took to heart the occasion. For “Play Time,” Alejandro Gómez Palomo, of Spain, designed wide-shouldered, narrow-waisted pinstriped suits of various hues for men and some women, with Swarovski crystals delineating single every pinstripe. Some of the men’s suit-pants had wide, jodhpur-like hips, and some women wore box constructions jutting out from their hips. The whole was as impractical as any outré runway but, as models do, the dancers carried off the look. When the curtains parted on a compact pyramid formation that sparkled like a diamond to focus the vast SPAC space, they looked glamorous, not garish, and elicited gasps.

The simultaneous innovations in costume, music (Solange Knowles), and choreography seemed, however, to have had a hampering effect on the whole. The eye-catching costumes were not further deployed beyond the first showstopping look, while steps and notes and phrases tended to match one-to-one. Though the dancers were distinguished by costume color, it was hard to fully appreciate the movement patterns.

The evening’s third work was the 2003 “Liturgy” by Christopher Wheeldon, to Arvo Pärt, with NYCB orchestra’s Kurt Nikkanen as violin soloist. Sara Adams and Jovani Furlan were seamless in the work’s partnering, which was complex yet never seemed merely a manipulation of bodies. Their intent, nearly impersonal attention to each other created a third being, the dance. At the end came a standing ovation.

“Love Letter (on Shuffle)” (music by James Blake) was, at 38 minutes, the anchor of the evening. Like “Play Time,” its costumes had drawn much attention. By the British Giles Deacon, who also designs for Abraham’s own company, A.I.M., they were eclectic. Most were unitards of dark mottled patterning with ruffle treatments at the necks; there were also exquisitely made tutus in both short and romantic lengths for some women, bloomers for some men, and sweeping spiky headdresses for two men, the last two reminiscent of Deacon’s designs for Abraham’s 2018 “The Runaway,” also for NYCB.

The 16 dancers, listed alphabetically, were clearly enjoying Abraham’s sinuous, nearly boneless and non-balletic movement. Towards the end, though, a passage of nearly pure ballet appears, with the dancers moving in unison through basic classroom exercises of tendu and épaulement, as in signature Balanchine leotard ballets. Earlier, three dancers in tutus trotted across the back of the stage in “Swan Lake’s” famous steps for its cygnet quartet. It will be interesting to see how Abraham further investigates classical ballet.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck's “Copland Dance Episodes.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

II. Justin Peck’s “Copland Dance Episodes,” making up the second program, looked good at SPAC. The semi-outdoors suited the evocation of America’s wide open spaces in Aaron Copland’s ballets “Rodeo” and “Billy the Kid.” (Peck also uses “Appalachian Spring,” for Martha Graham.)

Yet, although Peck preserves the music’s evocation of vast spaces, his work is not a romance of the West. Rather, every feature of the staging aims for today's sense of universality. Peck names his episodes, as Copland does, but his are current American idioms—“Start Your Engines,” “Phone Home,” “Alone Together”—not Copland’s “The Open Prairie” or “Corral Nocturne.” Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting bathes the dancers in an evenly diffused light, using a contemporary minimalist aesthetic to create a sense of space. The stage curtains by Jeffrey Gibson, an artist of Choctaw-Cherokee descent, employ a pattern of shallow triangles that alludes to indigenous art motifs of the southwest, from peoples that at most had walk-on roles in earlier conceptions of the West. Ellen Warner’s costumes pick up the triangles’ colors to give each dancer different solid colors for top and bottom, adding up to an easy American athletic look. 

Peck gives us 76 minutes of continuous dance. The 22 episodes are lightly structured by trios (one of men and one of women) that provide recurring movement motifs, two duos that sketch narratives, and some delicate solos (special praise for Chun Wai Chen in an introspective solo and Russell Janzen in a moody one).

The SPAC audience had the chance to see soloists shine in the duos (Miriam Miller and Alexa Maxwell in outstanding performances with their superb partners, Janzen and Chan, respectively) while in the trio, the corps dancer Cainan Weber held his own with Roman Mejia and Sebastian Villarini-Velez, as did corps member David Gabriel, who took Weber’s place in the second outing. 

Though there are many featured dancers, “Copland Dance Episodes” feels like an ensemble work. Many episodes employ “Full Company,” and featured dancers are interspersed across the middle or back of the stage when not in their trios or pairs. This and other groupings mean the work is full of things to notice and watch for, rewarding repeat viewings. On closing night, the work justifiably brought wave after wave of applause. 

Sara Mearns in George Balanchine's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

III. The third program consisted of three of the company’s earliest works: “Swan Lake,” 1951; “Fancy Free,” 1944; and “Firebird,” 1949. The 5200-seat amphitheater was sold out for the matinée and nearly so for the evening.

Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake” consists only of the lakeside scene and notably features black tutus on the swan corps. The plot is stripped down to Odette and Siegfried’s love and the menace of sorcerer Rothbart. Megan LeCrone and Emma von Enck stood out in the two ensemble dances, Pas de Neuf and Valse Bluette, respectively. But all eyes were on the Swan Queen, Sara Mearns, who had returned in the spring after a winter’s leave. In both performances, she started tentatively. But when the pas de deux with her frequent partner Tyler Angle began, her power and pliancy and, with them, her eloquence returned in full. This dance was everything it needed to be. At intervals, the prince opens his arms to her and as her love grows, she comes in to them. When Rothbart appears and she protects him from the prince, Siegfried lays down his hunting bow and uses love instead, kneeling and, again, opening his arms. She leans on him in the long, deep arabesque that Mearns can make so expressive, but then slowly, reluctantly, she brings that leg down, for she must leave. Near the end, when Rothbart appears again and the prince again kneels and opens his arms, she again comes to him, but this time when she brings down her arabesque leg, she moves backward and is enveloped by Rothbart’s immense wings. The audience could hardly release itself from her grip.

Isabella LaFreniere in George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins's “Firebird.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

In Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free” (29 minutes; music, Bernstein), three sailors are on shore leave. They meet one girl and, later, a second. Later yet, the girls leave. Near the end, a third girl (Malorie Lundgren) enters, only to exit; the sailors run off, one after the other, in pursuit. For this kind of archetypal plot and humor to work, timing, acting, and dancing all need to be perfect, and with this cast they were, whether in the solos, duos, or trios. The cast was the same as in the spring: the unbelievably kinetic Daniel Ulbricht and, a different generation of principal dancers, Joseph Gordon and Jovani Furlan; Mary Thomas MacKinnon as the girl in a yellow dress with pert red purse, and Indiana Woodward, engrossed in a book as she enters from the wings. 

For “Firebird “(47 min; Stravinsky), after the Russian folktale, the company treated us to the works—the four famed Marc Chagall stage curtains of human and fantastical creatures that mark the scenes and Chagall’s detailed costumes for everyone from principals to wizard and monsters. These last, looming comical creatures (with choreography by Robbins) brought looks of delight to the young in the audience, perhaps reminded of their Maurice Sendak picture books. 

The newly promoted principal Isabella LaFreniere danced the Firebird. Her long limbs suit the role, and her poise earns it. I will just mention an instance after she entered to save the prince (Peter Walker) from the wizard’s creatures. As the animals lay defeated on both sides of the stage, she waved at one row, and they crawled off, then the other, who also crawled off. Then with serenity she surveyed the now-quieted world. I found impressive the presence she conveyed through stillness. This untroubled calm presaged the perfection displayed in the ending: a tableau of the marriage of prince and bride, attended by the entire court as well as the freed creatures and local child dancers, all set against a red Chagall backdrop. All raised their hands in farewell to a beneficent Firebird that the audience does not see. One hopes that, like two of her predecessor Firebirds, Maria Kowroski and Teresa Reichlin, LaFreniere will dance many other great roles at SPAC.

NYCB’s 75th anniversary will be celebrated throughout the coming year, which, as the company director Jonathan Stafford observed to the audience, concludes at SPAC next summer. And two years after that, the residency will celebrate its 60th anniversary. So there is much to look forward to upstate.

Eva S. Chou

Eva Shan Chou is a cultural historian of China, currently at work on "Ballet in China: A History." She has published articles on the establishment of the Beijing School of Dance, on China's first Swan Lake, the founding figure Dai Ailian, and China’s cultural policies. For Ballet Review (New York) she wrote on performances by Stuttgart Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Opera Ballet of Rome, as well as companies from China performing in the US. She is professor in the Department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.



I enjoyed the review, especially since I had seen two of these performances, with some cast overlap, in the spring season in NYC. I agree completely with the comment about describing grown women as “girls”. This is definitely an unfortunate tradition that has to go.

J. Parker

Lovely review, thank you, and wonderful pictures —love the side-by-side placement of Anthony and Taylor, different costumes, different ballets, but almost the same cabriole(ish) moment! and love seeing Sara-as-swan, so in the moment, good to have you on the stage again, you lovely artist, and then, oh! that color-snap from the Peck/Copland extravaganza! (My small “huh?” question: any reason why one has to keep using the term “girl” or “girls” when referring to grown women, as happens here with reference to “Fancy Free”? I don’t think we have to adhere to what original program notes may or may not have said…right?)


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