The big news before the start of New York City Ballet’s winter season was the announcement that the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky would be joining the company as artist in residence (in September) after the conclusion of his contract with American Ballet Theatre (in June). As many will remember, this was the first New York company Ratmansky choreographed for, before being swooped up by ABT. He has made some of his most innovative works here, including “Russian Seasons,” “Concerto DSCH,” and “Voices,” which returns to the repertory this week.
What the announcement did not address is how the company will negotiate having not one but two choreographers in situ, the other one being of course Justin Peck, still choreographer in residence and artistic advisor. Does the new appointment signal an eventual pulling away by Peck, who has already dipped his toe into Hollywood (“West Side Story”) and Broadway (“Carousel”)? Who knows, but for now the two will create side by side, joined periodically by guest choreographers like Kyle Abraham and Keerati Jinakunwiphat, whose new work, “Fortuitous Ash” premieres this week.
Where does this leave the company’s basic repertory—works by its founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins? Peck’s ballets are by now well embedded in its fabric. Half of the winter programs include his ballets, which to a great extent have shaped the identities of the current generation of dancers at the company: bright, precise, quick, clean, and youthful, if at times a tad emotionally opaque. Peck’s style accentuates the image of dancers as young and full of energy but a little lost, a little afraid of commitment and of big statements.
The contrast between this and Balanchine’s more self-possessed image of the dancer could not have been made more plain than it was this week, watching Peck’s new “Copland Dance Episodes” (about which, more later) side by side with Balanchine’s “Episodes” (1959) in back-to back performances. It was bracing to see the dancers’ stage personas in “Episodes,” the final work on the “Classics NYCB II” program, with their knowing sophistication, their almost challenging gaze toward the audience, and their mature—though always sublimated–sexuality, expressed through unapologetic presentations of the body, executed with seraphic coolness.
The Jan. 31 performance of “Episodes” closed a bill that also included Robbins’ “Fancy Free” and “Rondo,” a rarely-seen duet for two women set to Mozart, as well as Peck’s “Solo.” The cast of “Episodes,” made up of a mix of young, up-and-coming dancers and company veterans, was like a microscope focused on the transition happening within the company, between dancers for whom the ballet’s vocabulary is second nature and those who are finding their way into it, in often exciting ways. Megan LeCrone, stylish if at times excessively dry, here extracted wit and knowingness from the exposition of Balanchinean gestures laid out in the first section, set to Anton von Webern’s Opus 21: the elaborate offering of the hand, the exquisitely turned out leg and entwined arms. (Andrew Veyette was her stalwart, barely-there partner.)
Emily Kikta, blithely sexual, stepped over Alec Knight’s shoulder again and again as he sat on the stage, her lower body passing close to his face, and then arching toward the audience, throwing propriety to the winds. Unity Phelan’s eyes glistened as her partner, Harrison Ball, lifted her by her foot, manipulated her limbs (with her permission), and the two of them crawled along the floor, side by side. It all came across as a game, clever and a bit naughty.
Then came the grandeur of the “Ricercata,” set to Webern’s orchestration of Bach. Like the music, the choreography builds a cathedral in the air, step by step, through the dancers’ formations and purposeful, un-adorned gestures, seen as if in a glowing light. Here, Russell Janzen’s understatement and gentle poise stood out with particular clarity in the turn of a wrist and the unforced tilt of the torso—like a line of poetry coming to life. Miriam Miller, a young dancer with an astonishingly long frame (she seems to have been built for ballet), moved across and through space as if in an ecstatic trance. The glow of her face reminded me of a Botticelli Madonna, and paired excitingly with and assuredness of the feet, and the pliant, bending, swaying use of her upper body. The quasi-religious feel of the ending was a thrill.
The evening had begun with a mostly new cast in “Fancy Free,” Robbins’s all-American sailor ballet. The bones were there, but both Jovani Furlan, as the third sailor, and Indiana Woodward as the girl in mauve, who shares a sultry pas de deux with the first sailor, felt over-excited, lacking in the easy-goes-it approach that suits Robbins, and this ballet. Robbins’s “Rondo,” which followed, is a trifle, but a pretty one, in which two dancers, here Isabella LaFreniere and Mira Nadon, dance to Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, played by the pianist Susan Walters onstage. Like so many Robbins piano ballets, it’s all about the relationship between the two dancers, the way they echo and toss around movement ideas, quietly exploring the vocabulary of ballet. The focus in this case is on an expansive use of the upper body, particularly expansive in the case of Nadon, contrasted with neat, perfectly placed fifth positions, to which the dancers always return, as if to home base. And on an almost enlightened rapport, in which the women support and partner each other, with idealized grace and generosity.
“Rondo” was followed by Peck’s “Solo,” made for Anthony Huxley during the pandemic, and set to Samuel Barber’s emotive “Adagio for Strings.” When it first aired, as part of a program curated and filmed by Sofia Coppola, it served to express the dancers’ longing to return to the stage, and their love for their home theater. The dancer gazes out into the depths, as if remembering another time, lunges pensively, lies down, and launches into curlicues of continuous movement, runs, small jumps, turns in which the free leg unfurls as the body girates. The intention is clear, but its translation into movement feels unspecific, busy, filled with steps that go this way and then that way, undecisively and without a clear purpose. Peck’s admiration for Robbins is well-known, but it seems that at the moment, what he could learn most from is the clarity of purpose and economy of means of Balanchine.