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Maria Kowroski and Russell Janzen in George Balanchine’s “Chaconne.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

A Last High Kick

Principal dancer Maria Kowroski leaves New York City Ballet after 26 years

Performance
New York City Ballet: Maria Kowroski's Farewell Performance
Place
David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 17, 2021
Words
Ilena Peng

Principal dancer Maria Kowroski’s first entrance of Sunday’s program was just walking slowly toward principal Russell Janzen in George Balanchine’s “Chaconne.” The audience roared until they reached each other at center stage. That scene was repeated over and over Sunday afternoon, the loudest of them as the curtain went up after the end of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

Kowroski’s farewell program opened and closed with Balanchine, the founder of New York City Ballet—fitting for an occasion weighted with meaning for the company. Most of her 26-year career was spent as a principal; Kowroski joined NYCB as an apprentice in 1994 and was promoted to the corps de ballet in 1995. The promotions came quickly—she became a soloist in 1997 and a principal in 1999.

In these years, she danced nearly all of George Balanchine’s ballets and originated roles in at least 20 new works. Kowroski worked closely with Christopher Wheeldon and was a member of his company, Morphoses. She is also the last dancer in the company who worked with Jerome Robbins, the company’s founding choreographer alongside Balanchine. Her farewell program Sunday included every one of these choreographers.

Following “Chaconne,” principal dancers Gonzalo Garcia and Sterling Hyltin performed Jerome Robbins’ “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” set to Sergei Prokofiev’s first violin concerto. The ballet toyed with juxtaposition, as dancers entered the stage with flailing limbs only to end in structured formations. Garcia and Hyltin’s performances mirrored that. Garcia, whose character is searching for his counterpart, was at times wandering and near frantic, while Hyltin’s movement was controlled and tranquil.

Kowroski then returned to the stage with a stunning lift in Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse,” her hips balanced on principal dancer Tyler Angle’s hands as she lifted her chest up and her arms back. The pair, which has often performed together, melded their movements in an intertwining pas de deux set to Michael Nyman’s triumphant music in celebration of the 1993 inauguration of part of France’s high-speed rail system. As Kowroski melts from one beautiful position into the next, the only thing that comes to mind is how Wendy Whelan recently called them “the legs of life.”

Maria Kowroski in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Amaria.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

In an even more introspective performance, Kowroski and principal dancer Amar Ramasar performed Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Amaria,” a pas de deux set to piano sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti and played by Craig Baldwin. The new ballet was choreographed for and named after Kowroski and Ramasar in celebration of their careers (Ramasar will be retiring from NYCB in May 2022).

“Amaria” is the fifth work Bigonzetti has created for NYCB. Kowroski has originated roles in every single one. The ballet’s last moment helps to explain why: Facing just slightly away from the audience, Kowroski is in the most exquisite of second arabesques. Her arm is reaching up with her fingers spread, her feet held barely off the ground by principal dancer Amar Ramasar. It was the first of many standing ovations that afternoon.

Maria Kowroski in George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The show closed on Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” with Kowroski as the Stripper and Angle as the Hoofer. The ballet, which Balanchine choreographed in 1936 for the musical “On Your Toes,” doesn’t take itself too seriously. In one of the most delightfully meta works in ballet repertoire, the dancers play a company that is premiering a new ballet about a strip club. Corps de ballet member Aaron Sanz, playing a hit man hired by a rival dancer to kill the Hoofer, sits in the theater’s first ring. He sets down his prop gun, takes off his hat, and puts on his mask.

The comedic timing and energy is also perfect for Kowroski, who threw herself into every step. She flung herself across Angle’s arm in a deep backbend and kicked her legs up, one after the other—those legs, which have so captivated dancers and audiences for years.

When the plan to kill the Hoofer is foiled, the ballet’s characters spring into a frenzied celebration. But at this point, it seems that NYCB and Kowroski are really the ones who are celebrating—the end of their first season back since the pandemic, the end of a beautiful career and the beginning of something new. Kowroski and her family will be moving to New Jersey, where she will start a new job next month as acting artistic director of New Jersey Ballet.

At the end of the show, her 5-year-old son beelined toward her onstage to complete the pile of flowers onstage, followed by her husband Martin Harvey. With confetti in the air and flowers at her feet, Kowroski spun between the audience and the dancers on stage—all standing and pounding their hands together. And she kicked her leg up once more.

Maria Kowroski’s farewell performance at Lincoln Center. Photograph by Erin Baiano