New York City Ballet’s spectacular bill “Balanchine x Vienna” presented during the company’s fall season at David H. Koch Theater in New York comprised three ballets: the effervescent “Divertimento #15,” the astringent and haunting “Episodes,” and the theatrically engrossing “Vienna Waltzes.” This stylistically diverse program revealed various facets of the choreographer’s genius, giving us Balanchine the classicist, the modernist and the showman. As the title suggests, the program also paid homage to Vienna, featuring music of five composers—Mozart, Webern, Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and Richard Strauss—whose life and career had close ties to the city that for centuries has been regarded as the musical capital of the world.
After nearly a five-year hiatus, “Divertimento #15” is back in the NYCB repertory. A ballet of incandescent beauty and unique architectural complexity, it takes its name—and its invigorating pulse—from Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 in B-Flat, K. 287. The piece was created 60 years ago yet it still retains its freshness, brilliance, delicacy, and surprise. I believe this is the most perfect rendering of Mozart’s music in movement; with every measure, the ballet confirms Balanchine as a supreme master of classical idiom.
“Divertimento” is unflashy and small in scale: it features eight leads (five women and three men) and a corps de ballet of eight female dancers; yet despite its unassuming manner and chamber size, the piece boasts some of the wittiest geometric formations in all the Balanchine canon. Here asymmetry reigns supreme as the choreographer demonstrates his ingenious resolution to the gender-imbalance dilemma, juxtaposing five ballerinas with three cavaliers and the corps in a seamless stream of solos, duets and ensembles. Nothing onstage looks formulaic, static or predictable. At every moment, the dancing springs with joyful inevitability from the score—Mozart’s music has never appeared more radiant, engaging and full of life.
It’s a tall order to pull this ballet off; yet the evening’s cast was golden, delivering a technically polished and musically astute performance. Among the leading ballerinas, Megan Fairchild stood out for her effortless authority and eloquence. An expert technician, she is also a force of nature. She seemed to luxuriate in the music and the dancing, gamely skimming through the fiendishly difficult and speedy steps with genuine excitement and brio. The company’s soloist Ashley Laracey was memorable for her expressivity and precision, as well as for her unique ability to reveal in her dancing the multiple lyrical inflections of the music. Indiana Woodward danced with a youthful sparkle and teasing musicality, conquering the vivacious choreography with ease and assurance. Harrison Ball, Chase Finlay and Joseph Gordon made a handsome trio of partners, supporting the ballerinas with gallantry and dashing style. Ball and Gordon showcased their darting footwork in the opening duet of the “Theme and Variation” movement; and the charming Finlay was elegance personified throughout.
“Episodes,” from 1959, is one of Balanchine’s so-called “black-and-white” ballets, with the dancers sporting unadorned practice attire: simple leotards for the women and white T-shirts and black tights for the men. Yet despite its minimalist look, there is nothing simple about this work—a spellbinding collection of miniature dances set to the orchestral works of Anton Webern.
“Episodes” is rich in history. The original work was conceived and premiered in 1959 as a unique collaboration of Balanchine and Martha Graham. In her section, Graham herself took center stage as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots; and the part of the ballet choreographed by Balanchine contained a solo for Paul Taylor, who at the time was a member of Graham’s troupe. The first part (by Graham) and the Taylor solo were subsequently dropped. The remaining four movements (by Balanchine) retained its staying power as a potent example of new classicism in ballet.
With each viewing “Episodes” brings new pleasures and reveals new secrets. The opening “Symphony” features four couples in a gripping display of distortion and flexibility, their feet flexed, wrists curved and bodies twisted. The mystery of the music and the choreography is deepened further in a languid, enigmatic duet (expressively danced by Savannah Lowery and Jared Angle) set to “Five Pieces for Orchestra”—an evanescent encounter between a woman and a man amid an eerie interplay of darkness and light. The “Concerto,” with its convoluted partnering for the main couple (the supple Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee) and intricate formations for the corps, is consistently full of surprises; and the finale, set to Webern’s orchestration of Ricercata in Six Voices from Bach’s Musical Offering, always lifts one’s heart.
Dancing with enthusiasm, focus and a perfect musical timing, the strong cast gave this work a special edge; the final “Ricercata,” however, felt particularly poignant as Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen led, with dramatic aplomb, the ensemble of 14 dancers in what looked like a majestic union of Baroque and Modernism in motion.
The opulent “Vienna Waltzes” concluded the program on a high note. Since its creation in 1977, this dazzling suite of dances has been a perennial crowd-pleaser. It uses Viennese popular music and authentically recreates the ambiance and spirit of a city which made the waltz its own, taking the audience from a dreamlike Viennese forest to a lavish mirrored ballroom filled with waltzing couples, the skits of the gowns rise and fall like stormy waves. (The visual perception of the ballet is greatly enhanced by its rich scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and gorgeous costumes by Karinska.)
The most memorable performance of the evening came from Teresa Reichlen in the ballet’s finale set to waltzes from Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” Suzanne Farrell, who originated this role, described it as “a gorgeous, wistful dance of covered eyes, draped satin, deep backbends, and twirling ruffles.” Reichlen infused the role’s hidden drama with tenderness and cinematic subtlety. With her immaculate technique and innate charisma, she made every moment of her dancing absorbing, capturing the essence of the moment—a young woman “on the precipice of a romantic tragedy.” The attentive and suave Jared Angle was her ever-elusive cavalier.