Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan performing the “Black Swan Pas de Deux.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Entrances and Exits

New York City Ballet's Swan Lake II program

Performance
New York City Ballet: Swan Lake II
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 15, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

This was supposed to be the week New York City Ballet was to dance Peter Martins’s full-length version of “Swan Lake.” Because the rapid spread of Omicron forced the company to shorten its rehearsal period, that production was replaced with George Balanchine’s one-act version, which has been combined with other repertory ballets. No regrets—Martins’ “Swan” is a cold, bleak affair—but some of the resulting programs have been a bit of a grab-bag. Consider the one on February 15th, which included the high-modernist 1946 work “The Four Temperaments,” combined with the breezy pas de deux “Sonatine,” followed by a stand-alone “Black Swan Pas de Deux” (what is this, ABT?), before closing with Balanchine’s icy “Swan Lake.”

What the four ballets had in common was a slew of dancers débuting in various roles. “The Four Temperaments” was a veritable sampler of débuts, of which Emily Kikta, as the blazing soloist in “Choleric,” stood out in particular. (Her entrance felt like a tornado traversing the stage.) The delicate, un-flashy Ashley Laracey danced the lead role in “Sonatine” alongside Taylor Stanley. (Their début had been a few days earlier.) And Mira Nadon was a reckless, teasing Odile in the “Black Swan.” “Swan Lake” was led by Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon, nominally débuting, though both have danced in Martins’s full-length version.

One can safely assume that many in the audience came for “Swan Lake,” and it is equally true that Peck and Gordon delivered a polished performance. Both danced impeccably, Peck with her usual attention to detail—the angle of her cheek toward the light, the cadence of a transition. Gordon was noble and attentive, his few solo moments danced cleanly, with neat fifths at the end of each turning jump and buoyant coupé jetés around the stage. But there was scant chemistry between the two, and, because of the fragmentary nature of the ballet itself,  little sense that the dances were part of a larger human drama.

Emily Kikta in “The Four Temperaments” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The real drama had come earlier in the evening in “The Four Temperaments,” set to a subtly dramatic score by Paul Hindemith. After three introductory “themes,” the ballet is divided into sections loosely based on the medieval idea of the four humors, Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric. This ballet is often used as a place to try out new dancers, as it was on this occasion. Jacqueline Bologna, a corps-member I had not noticed before, was coolly sensual in the opening theme, her long legs curling stylishly around her partner, Jonathan Fahoury. Even more impressively, Ashley Hod and Peter Walker seemed to be daring gravity in the Sanguinic section, leaning boldly off-balance in the section’s many tilts, skating across the stage, extending their long lean lines in clear geometries. Emily Kikta careened onstage, arms and legs like force-fields, in the Choleric section. Kikta, like Hod, was recently promoted to the rank of soloist; with the promotion has come a new confidence.  

How odd it is to see the “Black Swan Pas de Deux,” that flashy staple of ballet galas, danced as a stand-alone piece at New York City Ballet. But a little flash never hurt anyone, particularly when danced with the playfulness and aplomb of Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan. Chan is a recent hire, from Houston Ballet—again and again this season, he has proven his worth. An excellent partner, handsome presence, and unimpeachable technician—the men of NYCB can learn a thing or two from his deep plié and his clean turns and landings—Chan is a strong counterbalance to the blazing and fearless Nadon. Nadon seems willing to try anything; to balance for just a moment longer, or fly through a transition, opting for big, bold movement over caution. This was especially true in the famous fouetté sequence, in which she peppered her 27 fouetté turns with numerous doubles, squeezing in a final double that pushed her perilously off-balance. No matter—the performance was all the more exciting.

Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley in “Sonatine” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The gem of the evening had come just before, in the form of a small, stylish pas de deux by Balanchine. “Sonatine,” set to Ravel’s piano work of the same name, was made for the French dancers Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 1975. It bears the stamp of Verdy’s style: insouciant, sophisticated, playful, mature. The two dancers are real partners, equals, who look each other in the eye and walk side by side, as if sauntering on the boulevard. Often, it is she who offers her hand or leads her partner into a danced conversation. The pianist (Elaine Chelton), onstage, is also part of the ballet’s sophisticated setting. In the third movement there is a moment that is echt-Verdy, in which the ballerina plays a private game, a variation on hop-scotch that shows off her piquant pointework and sense of internal rhythm.

Laracey is very different from Verdy, less forceful, and yet she brings immense poetry to the role, as she does to almost everything she dances. She doesn’t impose herself on the choreography so much as allow it to speak for itself. In “Sonatine,” she seems to glide, leading with her hip, showing off her silhouette, sauntering on pointe with one hand on her hip. The man’s choreography, danced here by Stanley, has a similar exploratory quality, full of small jumps, crossed arms, a hint of folk dance. In the ballet’s small lifts, he conveys her up into the air while appearing to barely touch her.

Stanley and Laracey’s relationship in “Sonatine” is one of infinite politesse: the offering of hands, the crossing of forearms, the circling of one around the other. The pas de deux is a beautiful metaphor for civilized interaction, trust, equanimity. At the end, both dancers jeté off in an arc, as equals. Nothing could be more different from “Black Swan.”