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Having a Ball

On a mild spring night, the New York City Ballet held a similarly temperate Gala performance. The flower arrangements were lovely, the speeches were okay, the two premieres weren’t bad, and the Balanchine excerpt was sturdy. In almost every way, it was an enjoyable—if not overly momentous—night at the ballet.


New York City Ballet's Spring Gala: “Dig the Say” by Justin Peck / “Underneath, there is Light” by Amy Hall Garner / “Rubies” by George Balanchine


David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, May 2, 2024


Faye Arthurs

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejía in Justin Peck’s “Dig the Say.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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Justin Peck’s 24th ballet for the company, “Dig the Say,” was the first premiere of the night. Like Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris before him, he has gotten around to making a sporty dance. Too bad Zendaya couldn’t be roped into this red-carpet event, because Peck’s new piece would have dovetailed nicely with her Challengers press tour. In “Dig the Say,” Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia faced off on a pseudo squash court, which was neatly realized by designer Brandon Stirling Baker. Tiler (I’m using first names to distinguish the Pecks, who are not related) and Mejia were the ideal vessels for this concept: they are ballet GOATs and real-life partners who teamed up after a literal on-court courtship. Do they even have understudies? There is no second cast. Even the clever tennis-inspired costumes, by Humberto Leon, were printed with photographs of the couple’s own practice clothes. Justin likewise tailored his choreography to their unique and prodigious skill sets.

“Dig the Say” opened with Mejia bouncing a bright red ball against the backdrop to the jagged opening of Vijay Iyer’s sharky score for strings, which was played in the pit by the wonderful PUBLIQuartet.  Throughout the first movement (aptly titled “carry the ball”) Tiler and Mejia took turns volleying the ball off the wall and besting each other with tricky feats, until Mejia did a passage so suavely that Peck gently rolled him the ball as if conceding a point—or accepting his advances. Throughout, Justin perfectly depicted how one-upmanship and displays of technical prowess can intersect with romance. The pair’s natural chemistry and competitiveness lent the piece a nice tension, and the risk of the ball not being caught as it ricocheted towards the orchestra pit added suspense.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejía in Justin Peck’s “Dig the Say.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

But there was never any doubt they’d miss a catch; unforced errors are not their way. Like Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was in the gala audience, Mejia is one of the few dancers you can ask to fill long musical phrases with a plain old pirouette. “The next eight counts will be one turn” is generally a choreographic cop-out, but in the context of this ballet it was appropriate. And awesome. To up the difficulty level further, Justin invented a treacherous new fouetté turn for Tiler which incorporated a crazy low arabesque. No sweat, you cannot knock that woman off her leg. She and Mejia could star in a ballet about dreidels.

Though “Dig the Say” was partly a turning contest, Justin and his muses played more interesting games too. Iyer’s score riffed on the lyrics and rhythms of James Brown, hence the hepcat title. And like Brown, Justin, Tiler and Mejia can get funky. Tiler, especially, is capable of bending music and steps in soulful ways, and Justin showcased her phrasing finesse in solo passages. Near the finish line, Mejia hoisted Tiler in a risky torch lift, which was an exciting and humorous choice for this cutesy Olympian battle.   

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejía in Justin Peck’s “Dig the Say.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Amy Hall Garner’s first work for the company, “Underneath, There is Light,” was the opposite. Where Justin Peck nailed his slight premise, Garner aimed for something bigger, but her execution was far less tight. “Underneath” was not a bad ballet, but it suffered from overabundance in almost every way. This is the fourth ballet of hers I’ve reviewed (for four different companies), and patterns have emerged. She favors crowds: as in other pieces, Garner employed a large cast of dancers (19) and composers (5). She also spreads the wealth and likes a molting: every dancer got a turn in the spotlight and a costume change. And she really likes dangling set pieces. “Underneath” featured large hanging shapes that ascended as the dance progressed. As in past works, the stagehands had trouble with them.

Happily, dancers tend to perform beautifully in Garner’s works. She clearly inspires her ensembles and pulls new things out of them; “Underneath’s” full cast looked fantastic.  Miriam Miller was transformed, dancing with lush confidence. Naomi Corti was striking. Gilbert Bolden III, Chun Wai Chan, and Mary Thomas MacKinnon all shone. To me, the title “Underneath, There is Light” applied best to the way the dancers seemed to be lit from within throughout the ballet.

Chun Wai Chan, Mary Thomas MacKinnon, and Gilbert Bolden III in Amy Hall Garner’s “Underneath, There is Light.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Otherwise, I found the title, and the ballet itself, to be a little confusing. For one thing, overhead, there was light almost the whole time. The pendant scenery, by Mark Stanley, resembled glittering ship sails. (Actually, it looked exactly like Ingo Maurer’s Lacrime del Pescatore chandeliers.) But as the sails lifted one by one, there was something increasingly sci-fi about them. The costumes, by Marc Happel, were gorgeous, but also evocative of multiple genres. The men’s black velvet turtlenecks and slacks gave way to bedazzled clay biketards, and the women’s sexy, dark dresses were replaced with even longer, translucent yellow gowns with tiers and crystal accents. The costumes made me think alternately of Star Trek, Las Vegas, Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire. I felt a little lost in time and space. If I had to make one guess as to the setting, I’d say intergalactic dinner cruise.

Garner’s choreography pulled from many different genres as well, particularly the port de bras. The dancers slapped their thighs like folk dancers, pawed at the air like cats, swam, stabbed, and fluttered their hands like birds (to go with actual birdsong in the score of the last movement). Garner utilized flexed feet as well as prim Bournonville jetés croisés; sharp skids as well as classical en face leaps. There were indulgent cambrés and grand overhead lifts as well as broken lines and turned in knees. When the canary gowns—and sounds—appeared, it felt like we’d entered a dream ballet within an already very dreamy ballet. Garner’s dances are always exuberant and wide-ranging, but this was her least cohesive work yet. Though “Underneath” had beautiful components and moments, the thread got away from Garner. Still, I enjoyed it and I’d love to see more from her. It must be hard to flit between so many companies; by her 24th dance for one place I bet she’ll be more streamlined too.  

Mira Nadon in George Balanchine's “Rubies.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Balanchine’s masterful “Rubies,” opened and anchored the show. Veteran principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley were in sync in their jovial, lighthearted approach, glossing over the work’s carnality entirely. This ballet will never be a signature role for either, but they are excellent dancers who appeared to be having a good time. It was as if they were already partying on the promenade. Young Mira Nadon, however, has firmly planted her flag in the “Rubies” soloist role. As Nadon vanquished her four male squires before making her nerve-wracking and exposed penché exit, the corps women pulsed along with Stravinsky’s score in forced-arch poses behind her. The entire crimson-hued stage throbbed like blood. My heart raced watching her, but Nadon must have ice in her veins: she seductively and unflappably dispatched her penchés once again. She alone seemed to insist that gala shows don’t just have to be pleasant opening acts for fancy dinners.   

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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