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A Star is Reborn 

It is not unusual for a New York City Ballet program to consist of two Peck ballets and a Ratmansky. But until last night, there had not been two different Pecks represented in such a scenario. Elite principal dancer Tiler Peck has made her first ballet for her home troupe, “Concerto for Two Pianos,” and it is masterful. In so doing, she has posed a unique problem for dance writers: forevermore we are going to have to use precious article space to explain that Tiler is no relation to Justin Peck, even though she is now also a bona fide choreographer. (We will also have to differentiate them. Honorifics feel bulky to me today, so I’ll use first names for clarity.) Oh dear, audience members are already so confused. I overhear queries about their relationship all the time in the seats. It would be so much more plausible if they were twins, or married, or at least distant cousins. So be it: “Tiler Peck: Choreographer” is clearly here to stay. 

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Rotunda,” “Concerto for Two Pianos,” “Odesa”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 1, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Emma Von Enck and India Bradley in Tiler Peck’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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“Concerto for Two Pianos,” set to music of the same name by Francis Poulenc, is dedicated to Tiler’s father, who died two days before rehearsals for the piece began. But this ballet was not a dirge in any way—in fact, it was technically flashy and dramatic. It did, however, feel infused with love: for music and for classical ballet itself. Tiler is an exceedingly musical dancer, and this, excitingly, was evident in her choreography. “Concerto” began with a fast passage for seven corps couples to match the opening bombast in the score. Soon after, Roman Mejia soared onstage and tossed off pirouettes to trills like beads off a Mardi Gras float, with India Bradly and Emma von Enck as his sprightly sidekicks. Whenever the pianos turned lush, Mira Nadon entered in a merlot-colored Zac Posen gown to glamorize the situation—she was the lone person onstage not sporting a shade of blue or gray. To Poulenc’s castanet passages, Tiler had everyone snapping their fingers, with the women grabbing their skirts and swishing them in flamenco chic. She paired a low piano oscillation with Mejia and Chun Wai Chan circling each other like sharks in their gray unitards. Tiler employed chugs, heel walks, and partnered paddle turns to jollier, more muscular refrains.  

Tiler also flashed her Balanchine credentials in well-plucked quotes from across the repertory. I liked when the corps women bourréed backwards around their partners in a circle before being whisked offstage at the waist, à la the end of the “Stars and Stripes” pas de deux. It was neat to see this step done en masse. She had Mejia flex his fists in triumph, like Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or with braggadocio, as in “Rubies.” Nadon and Chan hit a piqué turn into an arabesque promenade straight out of “The Man I Love” pas de deux from “Who Cares?”—a tricky step that Tiler herself has performed dozens of times. 

Roman Mejia, Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan in Tiler Peck’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

She also nodded to the works of others in the City Ballet pantheon. In a calm, darkly bleuâtre section (Brandon Stirling Baker did the lighting, which was as dramatic as the music), Mejia was comforted by the clustered female corps, giving off Ratmansky “Namouna” vibes. The women formed a line vertically behind Mejia before splitting to perform pretty walks on pointe and swooning développés effacés. He reclined contemplatively downstage, as if he was imagining them—a riff on Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer” that was obvious but not derivative. I also liked a snaking entrance by the male corps that was evocative of Petipa’s famous swans and shades, yet gender flipped. 

This is the third piece of Tiler’s that I’ve seen, if you count “Time Spell”: a tap/jazz/ballet mashup that she co-choreographed with Michelle Dorrance and Jillian Meyers for her “Turn It Out with Tiler Peck and Friends” run at City Center in 2022. That same event saw the premiere of “Thousandth Orange,” a more contemporary ballet with a small cast, set to the music of Caroline Shaw. Come to think of it, I’ve seen oodles of her mini dances on Instagram as well. From this eclectic sample, Tiler’s confidence and savvy as a dancemaker are evident. She capably moves her dancers around in a highly musical way, and she perfectly tailors her creations to the venue and the occasion. She knows how best to showcase Jennifer Garner in her backyard as well as Mejia in a headlining Winter Season premiere. Her entire cast shone in “Concerto for Two Pianos” too, a good sign of her coaching abilities. As far as choreographic debuts go, this was a homerun. 

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s “Rotunda.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The night began with Justin Peck’s “Rotunda,” which was more of a line drive. Like sketches of hands or heads before a large-scale Renaissance painting, this ballet, from 2020, now reads as a study for “Copland Dance Episodes.” Still, it has its moments. I love the syncopated temps de cuisses in a slow solo danced by Daniel Ulbricht (who nicely put his own gentle spin on the role created for a retiring Gonzalo Garcia). It’s poetic enjambment, done with literal jambes. The moment where Adrian Danchig-Waring walks hypnotically offstage on the diagonal while ignoring an amoeba of swirling bodies behind him is also strong. It beautifully echoes his turns as “Orpheus” and the Dark Angel in “Serenade.” He also acts as a grounding point for Justin’s choreographic overflow here, something that “Rotunda” could use more of. 

I found myself watching Victor Abreu a lot. His fluid upper body was expressive and lovely. Miriam Miller also stood out; she is an ideal avatar for Justin’s playful millennial coolness. If this was an audition for “Copland,” you can see why she got the gig. Sara Mearns was replaced at the last-minute by Megan Fairchild, which altered the look of the piece quite a bit. In a central solo, Fairchild’s precision brought out the chimes and pings in Nico Muhly’s score where Mearns’s presence had highlighted the cascading strings, which was interesting.  I missed Mearns’s wildness in the pas de deux, however. This is a subtle dance, and Fairchild looked too secure in Gilbert Bolden III’s arms in the off-balance arabesques and deep lunges. This section needed Mearns’s danger. 

Megan Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Odesa.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Fairchild was a much better fit for “Odesa,” which closed the show. Her maturity and skillful acting brought Ratmansky’s vignettes of Jewish-Ukrainian gangsters (from the stories of Isaac Babel) to vivid life. With the help of Keso Dekker’s Eastern bloc nightclub menswear (you could just imagine gold chains) and Leonid Desyatnikov’s folksy, soap opera score, Ratmansky expertly turns ballet into something akin to prestige TV. It’s like a dance version of “The Sopranos.” His storytelling is complex, yet clear. Gypsy throngs do big sauts de chat and temps levés to what sound like dancehall, player piano tunes. Circus music accompanies processions of men doing broad, silly steps, as if they emerged from a clown car instead of the wings—a merciless depiction of goon life.  

Three conflicted lead couples (Fairchild and Ulbricht, Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley, Unity Phelan and Danchig-Waring—all terrific) do arcing lifts like weeping willows to whining strings in the score. These women are complicated and nervy, they come across as steely yet also trapped by their circumstances. They put the backs of their wrists to their temples in Balanchine’s classic “aspirin” port de bras, but they also slap their partners and nail hard steps. Woodward executed heavy, masculine turn sequences. They went on and on to approximate drudgery, or perhaps someone stuck in a rut. And Ulbricht was convincingly oily, all ingratiating pliés and exaggeratedly proffered hands. He had a great night, on this program he went from pensive gentleman to skeevy sad sack, demonstrating his range. 

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Odesa.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

In the house of Balanchine, it is odd to see a stage full of corps men sitting in fourth position, obviously waiting to turn, as they do in “Odesa.” This breaks a cardinal Balanchine rule. And yet, Ratmansky’s dances feature full-bodied movement and require maximum effort. His choreography is also unfailingly musical. He worships at the same altar, but in a different tongue. I look forward to his first ballet as the company’s official Artist in Residence in two weeks. Between his recent trade and the home-grown talents of the Pecks, City Ballet is on a promising path.       

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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