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New York x London

On the evening of March 7th, New York City Ballet opened a run of shows at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. This performance, which marked the company’s first appearance in London since 2008, was met with equal parts excitement and nervous anticipation. The troupe has undergone a number of seismic shifts in the last 16 years: in 2017, the longtime artistic director, Peter Martins, resigned in the face of abuse claims; in 2018, a nude photo-sharing scandal erupted, resulting in the firing of three male principal dancers; and in 2020, over a year’s worth of performances were canceled due to the Covid pandemic. Fortunately, none of these upheavals have managed to detract from the particular pleasure that arises from watching NYCB in action. For New Yorkers like myself in the audience, that pleasure was only doubled. 


New York City Ballet: “Rotunda” / “Duo Concertant” / “Gustave le Gray No. 1’” / “Love Letter (on shuffle)”


Sadler's Wells, London, UK, March 7, 2024


Phoebe Roberts

Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

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Part of what makes New York City Ballet so unique among the roster of international ballet companies boils down to the principles imparted by its founder, the Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine. Above all, Balanchine valued speed, musicality, and a go-for-broke dancing style which continues to enthrall forty plus years after his death. In an oft-quoted moment, he once asked some lackluster dancers in his studio: “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” This insistence on giving oneself entirely to the task at hand lends New York City Ballet dancers an urgency not felt elsewhere, and is often missed in their absence—even when watching the brightest stars of another troupe.  

The four ballets presented at Sadler’s Wells gave the Balanchine-trained dancers multiple chances to showcase their unique talents, each to varying degrees of success. “Rotunda,” the first ballet on the evening’s programme, is a work beneath both NYCB and its creator, the company’s choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck. According to Peck, the ballet—which features a commissioned score by Nico Muhly—is meant to reflect the atmosphere of a dance rehearsal. It’s a fair enough premise, and has been the basis for a number of great ballets before it, yet here fails to inspire beyond mere trivialities. The dancers run round in circles, meet in haphazard formations, and seem unsure of their relationship both to each other and to the audience. When the gimmicky finish arrives—a clap, a sudden black out—we are glad. 

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

The next ballet on the programme was “Duo Concertant,” a much-celebrated work created by Balanchine for New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival and featuring music by the same composer. The ballet begins with a couple—here, Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley—standing motionless while an onstage solo pianist, Elaine Chelton, and solo violinist, Kurt Nikkanen, begin to play Stravinsky’s score. The dancers eventually spring into action, carrying out a series of solos and pas de deuxs, but it is this moment of quiet anticipation and reverie which is often the most charming. As they lean against the downstage right piano, Fairchild and Huxley smile at each other, at the floor, and at places beyond reach; casting their eyes downwards, they seem to be laughing at a joke registered somewhere deep within. 

When the dancing does begin, it is no less pleasing. Fairchild and Huxley are both principals at the peak of their craft, and Fairchild’s impish qualities are offset particularly well by Huxley’s calm centeredness. Even when performing steps not typically associated with allegro, Huxley exhibits a remarkable sense of ballon, the appearance of weightlessness and airiness desired by dancers to create the illusion of ease in the eye of the viewer. What is most interesting about Huxley, however, is that his lightness is never trivial; it never veers towards the superficial, nor towards the acrobatic, as can often happen with dancers of smaller statues. Rather, with each move across from the floor, he seems to be simply discarding what is no longer necessary—gravity being chief among that list of non-essentials. 

Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley of New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Pam Tanowitz, arguably among the best two or three choreographers working today, was next up on the bill. Her ballet, “Gustave Le Gray No. 1,”—was both the strangest of the night and the one that I’d most like to see again. The piece is set to music by Caroline Shaw and features four dancers—Mira Nadon, Ruby Lister, Naomi Corti, and Adrian Danchig-Waring—in billowing red gowns by frequent NYCB collaborators Reid and Harriet Design. The costumes, which are somewhere between a cross of The Handmaid's Tale TV series and Christo and Jean-Claude's The Gates, Central Park, 2005, are, like Tanowitz ballets themselves, both beautifully-crafted and knowingly humorous. New work often takes itself too seriously; if evidenced only by these costumes, Tanowitz isn’t afraid to be a little funny. 

The dancers execute a series of repetitive movements in unison, their demeanor cool and their legs sharp. Like members of a castaway tribe, they exist entirely unto themselves, their rules unknown to us but felt through the gravitas of even their simplest gestures. Corti’s legs in particular seem to have a force all of their own: splicing through the air, they carve an arc with the precision of carefully plotted weapons. At other points, the dancers appear to resemble birds; beated temps levés, a step in which the dancer jumps forward on one leg while beating it against the other, are performed with the weight leaning so far forward I momentarily believed I was glimpsing sparrows darting across the stage. Hopefully, NYCB will continue to commission Tanowitz: her ballets reveal new qualities in all who dance them. 

Naomi Corti and Adrian Danchig-Waring of New York City Ballet in Pam Tanowitz’ “Gustave Le Gray No. 1.” Photograph
credit Erin Baiano

The last work on the evening’s program was Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on shuffle),” a work set to a selection of pop stylings by James Blake. A kind of second act to Abraham’s 2018 hugely successful 2018 ballet “The Runaway,” also for NYCB,Love Letter” features a number of similar characteristics and even dancers. Once again at the center of this work is Taylor Stanley, a principal dancer who has trained extensively in Gaga technique and who thrives in everything from the most difficult of Balanchine rep to the more contemporary dance pieces. Here, their sensitivity to different movement styles once again proved invaluable; they were the beating heart of the piece. Quinn Starner, a young corps member, also brought the house down with a solo that consisted of equal parts pirouettes and hip-hop inspired moves. 

Taylor Stanley and Jules Mabie of New York City Ballet in Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (on shuffle).” Photograph by Erin Baiano

All in all, the evening was a delightful treat for Londoners, and the crowded social spaces of Sadler’s Wells were buzzing with an excitement one might almost mistake as American. While some ballets fared better than others, what remained true across the board was the unparalleled athleticism, attack, and artistry of the New York City Ballet dancers and their continued dedication to upholding the principles of Balanchine’s legacy. For those of us far from home, it was like being visited by old friends. 

Phoebe Roberts

Phoebe Roberts is originally from New York where she trained with American Ballet Theatre and Leslie Browne. She danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before studying Russian at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her writing has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Good Press, Glasgow, and Spectra Poets.



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