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Divas and Devisers

Though the New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala featured two premieres, the real buzz of the season belonged to the revival of Balanchine’s “Tzigane”—now titled the more politically correct “Errante”—after a 30-year absence. It was created for the high priestess of the Balanchine ballerinas, Suzanne Farrell, during the 1975 Ravel Festival. (The original title was not an ethnic slur then, but language, like choreography, is mutable). Farrell owns the rights to “Errante, and she came back to stage it for City Ballet’s 75th anniversary season herself. The uber-muse was estranged from the company for a period while Balanchine was alive (“Errante” was the first role he made for her upon her return) and then again after he passed, but relations have thawed in recent years. She has coached a select few of her signature roles, but this personal staging is a giant leap forward. 

Performance

New York City Ballet

Place

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

Words

Faye Arthurs

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

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I’d only seen this ballet in excerpt before: I grew up watching the steamy clip of Farrell and Peter Martins from the 1996Balanchine Library video series. Farrell has set it eight times for other companies since 1975, with four of those in Europe. The last time was in 2008, for the Royal Ballet. Though I have very much wanted to see the full ballet for a long time, it seemed right that “Errante’s” NYCB restoration waited for the arrival of young principal Mira Nadon, who has been hailed as a second coming. She possesses the same gifts that Farrell was famous for: musicality, daring, and an aloof magnetism. It’s highly likely that she is the reason “Errante” was pulled out of the attic. She has the undeniable charisma of a movie star; she is even compelling in works that aren’t exactly her cup of tea (“Stars and Stripes,” for instance).   

Lucky for everyone, then, that “Errante” opened with a five-minute solo that suited her very well. This passage—which contained saucy walks, knuckle cracking, wild layouts, and luxurious backbends over forced arches—was more of a personality contest than a variation. “Errante” had some tricky moments, but overall, it was not about technique. It is the anti-“Ballo della Regina.” Had “Errante” been in active rep the past three decades, I’m sure every aging ballerina would’ve peacocked their way through it. Nadon, however, is no pretender—despite her youth.  

“Errante” had several potential pitfalls, but Nadon skirted them all. She made the peek-a-boo games witty and not cutesy. She was mysterious and not hammy when she put her finger to her lips to mime “shhh.” And she was utterly natural as she used the audience like a mirror, admiring herself with a Mona Lisa smile. Somehow, Joe Eula’s dress did not look like a Halloween costume on her either, though it was clichéd gypsy chic: a burgundy corset and scarlet raggy skirt with giant hoop earrings. Against all odds, Nadon appeared to be the genuine artifact. Eventually, Aaron Sanz prowled in for some scintillating grips, but his role was basically that of a stud horse. Even draped upside down in his arms like a rag doll, she firmly held the spotlight. When four couples stormed in, they served only to turn up her volume. The focus was always squarely on Nadon, and she was electrifying even when simply sauntering around.  

Mira Nadon and Aarón Sanz in George Balanchine’s “Errante.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Errante” is peculiar in the Balanchine canon because of how heavily it relies on the perfume of its lead. More often in Balanchine-land, the framework is foolproof. The steps are so tightly bound to their scores that as long as dancers stay on time, the ballets will not collapse. There are better and worse interpreters, of course, but even emotional pieces like “Serenade” can withstand a bit of bad casting. “Errante” might be the most star-dependent Balanchine dance I’ve ever seen. Kudos to Nadon for thrillingly pulling off “Errante’s” re-release, and to Farrell for keeping it so close to the vest for so long.  

Fortunately, there has been great casting in ballets that are not such hothouse flowers this season too. On the All Balanchine program, Anthony Huxley was perfection in the short story “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Emily Kikta and KJ Takahashi were terrific as the odd couple in “Bourrée Fantasque.” They landed all their jokes, eliciting big laughs from the audience. Kikta soared in her finale grand jetés as well. And the season’s last performance of “Symphony in C” was wonderful all around. Megan Fairchild and Peter Walker were crystalline in the 1st movement, which also featured strong work from the demi-soloists behind them: Megan Dutton-O’Hara, Olivia MacKinnon, McKenzie Bernardino Soares, and Jules Mabie. Later, Emma von Enck, Roman Mejia, Alston Macgill, and Sanz led the 3rd and 4th movements with explosive energy. And Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle were sublime in the 2nd movement. They managed to be creamy and expansive while remaining musically precise.  

Adrian Danchig-Waring and Unity Phelan in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

On the All Stravinsky program, Unity Phelan made a fabulous debut in “Symphony in Three Movements.” She tore through this marathon challenge without flagging, and she struck the right note in the strange, yogic pas de deux: placid but not empty. She was well-matched with Adrian Danchig-Waring, and both were clear and compelling throughout. “Sym 3” doesn’t fall apart without a diva, but the central female role is tricky to cast. It requires bold athleticism as well as imaginative delicacy.  Phelan is easily the best fit since Janie Taylor.  

Justin Peck’s whimsical “Pulcinella Variations” was also replete with strong debuts and stellar performances. India Bradley and Sara Adams especially stood out in this playful dance, which seems to me like a surrealist spoof of Balanchine’s “Divertimento #15.” Mearns and Gilbert Bolden III were beautiful in the Serenata pas de deux, one of Peck’s best and most overtly musical duets.  

Kicking off the Stravinsky bill were a whopping 64 debuts, as students from the School of American Ballet brought Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet” back to the company stage. This year marks the 25th birthday of “Scènes” (a humbling number, given that I was in the original cast). The students will also dance it at their Workshop performances in June; its inclusion in City Ballet’s season is part of SAB’s 90th anniversary festivities. Sasi Shrobe-Joesph and Stella Tompkins were adorable as the baby ballerina set. Keenan Kiefer and Alexander Perone were most impressive in their leaping duet. And graceful Peyton Gin and Corbin Holloway were spectacular in the central pas de deux. They seized their moment, maximizing every decadent dip and bend. 

Students from the School of American Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

All 64 children performed brilliantly. Just as Olympic records are continually broken, the dancers coming out of SAB seem to get better and better. But I was also dazzled by Wheeldon’s airtight, Balanchinian construction. Gradation is everywhere, from the ascending sizes and ages of the children and teens to the codified lengths of their tutus (by Holly Hynes). The littlest group’s tendus side in syncopated balancés are tethered to Gin’s climactic développé à la seconde. In a transitory group section, the 6 principal couples do a series of partnered arabesque fouettés that begin as drags on the floor, then rise to pointe, then leave the floor in sauté jumps. Wheeldon’s thematic escalations are subtly infused into every section of “Scenes.” 

Adding even more depth, Ian Falconer’s charming scenery references the world’s major ballet academies. The ice cream domes hint at Balanchine’s Russian schooling. The mannerist sylph paintings nod to the Paris Opera Ballet. The tiniest girls’ short chiffon skirts evoke Wheeldon’s own Royal Ballet training. The energy coursing through the children’s fingertips screams SAB. “Scenes” is a deftly layered ode to the history of ballet, using the future of ballet as its medium. Talk about ingenious design! And, after 25 years, “Scenes” has become a monument in the balletic pantheon its own right—a monument just waiting for the next Nadon or Farrell to pass through its halls.     

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

Ed

Welcome back Suzanne Farrell, I hope you are staying for a long time.

Susan Read

I was lucky enough to see Farrell’s repetiteur rehearse Domenika Afasenkov in a run-through of the role. Different, but equally stunning. Can’t wait to see her onstage, although I am not sure the ballet comes back in 2024-2025.

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