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Classic NYCB?

At the tail end of the New York City Ballet’s winter season, the sixth and final showing of the Classic NYCB program featured thrilling debuts: soloist Emma Von Enck and second-year corps de ballet member David Gabriel assumed the lead roles in Balanchine’s tricky “Ballo della Regina.” I predict many opening nights in their futures. The evening tilted young overall. Only one dancer in the principal rank performed. It was exciting to see the next generation in the driver’s seat for a bill bookended by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. But this was not the strongest lineup, and I quibble with the label “Classic.” It seems like the program’s title was slapped on as a thoughtless catchall. At least, I hope it was. 

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Ballo della Regina” / “The Concert” / “Hallelujah” / “In a Landscape”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 29, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Dominika Afanasenkov and Alec Knight in Albert Evans’s “In a Landscape.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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For starters, Balanchine’s “Ballo” does not cycle through the rep all that often. “The Four Temperaments” and “Symphony in C” are classics; “Ballo” is a delightful curio. It really should run more regularly. Though it is quirky, it is substantial. It was created in 1978 to suit the unique talents of Merril Ashley, who was tall and strong with precise, fast feet as well as a big jump. I’ve never actually seen a tall person dance “Ballo,” but I am happy to add Von Enck to the list of glittering petite interpreters in the company’s recent history. Von Enck effusively bounded through the technical hurdles in the choreography. Impressively, she got airtime in the straight-legged échappé hiccups in her solo. She also sliced through the air and froze for an extra fraction of a second in the quick sequences of piqués turns to arabesque plié. In the mode of Tiler Peck, she found room to breathe in lightning speed walks on pointe. And in the skipping entrance, she flapped her wrists with such ebullience that I couldn’t help but smile in the audience. Gabriel too was excellent: his battu was clear and his pirouettes were smooth. Together, they had a joyful rapport.   

Also promising was the quartet of soloists behind them. India Bradley, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, Baily Jones, and Mary Thomas MacKinnon were wonderful in their fleet waltzing solos. The statuesque MacKinnon hovered in the air in the quick finale pas de chats. Maybe one day she could be the first tall woman in decades to take a stab at the lead? The corps of twelve looked sharp too, energetically attacking the funny hand-spinning and prancing motifs. Their tight unison served as a pleasant reminder to me to try to see more ballets at the ends of their runs, when they’ve gelled. 

Gabriel did unexpected double duty, reappearing at the end of the show as a last-minute replacement in Robbins’s spoof ballet “The Concert.” He capably transformed from hero-mode into a cowering nerd (I always think of Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters). But “The Concert” was more uneven than “Ballo.” The cast did not hold some of the silent comedy bits long enough for all the stages of the jokes to register. Alexa Maxwell was engaging as the goofy ballerina, however, and Mary Elizabeth Sell gave good outrage as her wifely foil. Harrison Coll, as the put-upon husband, looked too young and spry for the geezer bits to really land, but his winsome silliness in the butterfly finale won me over. 

Emma Von Enck in George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina.” Photograph by Erin
Baiano

David Gabriel in George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina.” Photograph by Erin
Baiano

The middle of the program was murky, not just because of the dark lighting and costumes. Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction” is an aughts-era company classic. The best things about “Hallelujah” have always been its great title (after the John Adams composition it uses as its score), its sleek black and white mesh costumes by Kristen Lund Nielsen, and the dramatic arrangement of two pianos facing each other high above the stage. Stephen Gosling and Susan Walters were the excellent musicians towering over the dancers, but they needed to be miked. The music was not loud enough to drown out the performers’ panting. The trio of leads—Lauren Collett, Taylor Stanley, and KJ Takahashi—did not seem to know how to approach this ballet. During Martins’s reign as artistic director, a sort of runway-model vamping was the norm. That vibe is largely missing from the troupe now, for better and for worse. “Hallelujah” was rudderless without it. Stanley and especially Collett were blank, Takahashi skewed grim.  

The corps struck a better note, one of determination. Mackinnon was back and in just as fine form as in “Ballo.” Alston Macgill shone here too. But all eight dancers were so good they deserve to be listed: Jacqueline Bologna, Jules Mabie, Nieve Corrigan, Andres Zuniga, Victor Abreu, and Kennard Henson. It helped that the four corps couples’ pas de deux contain the best choreography in this ballet. Otherwise, “Hallelujah” is mostly swivels and chugs done in various canons. Lots of aerobic counting. Athletic math. This ballet rather reinvents the term “mathlete.” 

Lauren Collett and Taylor Stanley in Peter Martins’ “Hallelujah Junction.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Preceding “Hallelujah” was the first revival of Albert Evans’s “In a Landscape” since its one and only performance at a gala in 2005. So, classic my foot. To put this piece on a bill titled “Classic NYCB” is to try to sweep the casual racism of the Martins era under the rug. Evans, a former principal dancer with the company (he was the second Black person to achieve the rank, after Arthur Mitchell) who died in 2015 at the age of 46, was given just three opportunities to choreograph despite his aptitude. His 2002 choreographic debut, “Haiku,” was critically acclaimed, yet never performed again after a year (though he wished for it to return; he told me he asked for it to run again many times). Six months before making the pièce d’occasion “In a Landscape” in 2005, he made the more substantial pas de deux “Broken Promise.”  

To truly honor Evans, it would have been better to revive either of the other works, but “Landscape” is not bad for one-off gala fare. Like Tiler Peck in her choreographic debut this season, Evans smartly cherry-picked from the ballets he danced most. “Landscape” assimilated elements of Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” “Agon,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia.” Evans also made ingenious use of the” Nutcracker” slide in “Landscape,” though he was the lone male principal who was not cast in the Cavalier role in that ballet.  

Dominika Afanasenkov and Alec Knight in Albert Evans’s “In a Landscape.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Domenika Afanasenkov and Alec Knight were beautiful in “Landscape.” She has exquisitely shaped lower legs like Wendy Whelan, the originator of the role. Knight suavely steered her through the many intricate lifts and promenades—inventiveness in partnering work was a hallmark of all three of Evans’s works. So was Buddhistic calm. I, however, was surprised by the rage I felt while watching this meditative pas de deux. Evans was not given the chance to be a “classic NYCB” choreographer, and the dance world missed out on a unique and interesting voice. We can only imagine what he might have done had his gifts developed. There has been much to laud this 75th anniversary year, but the inclusion of Evans’s choreography on this program called more for reparations than celebration.  

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 P.

Albert Evans was a beautiful dancer and a wonderful person. After retirement he continued to contribute to the company as a Ballet Master. Including his ballet in the program was great.

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