New York City Ballet in “Divertimento No. 15” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The Mozart Touch

New York City Ballet's “Divertimento No. 15”

Performance
New York City Ballet: “Divertimento No. 15,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Allegro Brillante,” “The Four Temperaments”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY April 27 and April 30, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” is a ballet one longs to see, but seldom comes out of the theater fully satisfied by. “Arlene Croce quipped that ‘Divertimento No. 15’ is one of those ballets that are famous for not being done well,” Nancy Goldner writes in her essential volume More Balanchine Variations. “My experience with it would prompt me to amend that to ‘not done well enough.’” I tend to agree with the latter assessment. It is an extraordinary ballet, sophisticated, pure, both light and transparent in its construction. But it seldom achieves the kind of transcendence and flow suggested by the music and choreography.

Set to Mozart’s eponymous musical work, “Divertimento” represents an idealized world of manners, a society enhanced by individual perfection. The first section, an allegro, is a greeting. The second, in theme and variations form, contains a series of solos in which each of the dancers offers an idea, a quality of movement. And then, after a pretty minuet for the ensemble, comes an andante set to one of Mozart’s celestial melodies, played in the high register of the violins, that unspools almost as if sustained by a single breath. Here, the dancers emerge from the wings in twos, arranged in different combinations because there are only three men for five women. The pairings are not romantic; they exist on a plane above emotion, radiant but impersonal. Finally, after an almost ceremonial interlude, a gliding scherzo finishes things up in a celebratory mood.

The difficulty lies in the openness of the ballet’s structure. A good lead couple is not enough. All five women are of equal importance. And not only do the soloists need to dance well, but they have to create the illusion of becoming one element in an uninterrupted flow of musical inspiration. As in a long relay, they sustain the long arcs Mozart lays out for them. For this, they must give the impression of living and breathing inside of the music, which means more than being on the music.  It means hearing something in the notes that speaks directly to them and sharing that feeling with the audience.

I saw two performances of “Divertimento” this week, one on April 27, the other on April 30. Neither created a spell, or captured this feeling of entering into a higher dimension, though both had moments of brilliance, and even at times of musical insight. (The messy playing of the orchestra didn’t help.) In both performances, many of the dancers’ upper bodies lacked the bend and twist that would give the movement a more three-dimensional feel. In both, many of the dancers seemed to be dancing for a mirror, looking straight ahead, with pretty smiles on their faces.

Indiana Woodward in “Divertimento No. 15” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

There were exceptions, and at those moments, the ballet soared. Both Unity Phelan—creamy, expansive, quietly absorbed—and Indiana Woodward—ebullient, quick, almost fluttering with excitement—stood out. Woodward’s quick-footed passage in the scherzo was particularly exciting. (This was her début in the ballet.) In the April 27 cast, only Joseph Gordon, of the men, looked completely comfortable in the steps. On April 30, Harrison Coll, Aaron Sanz, and Peter Walker were better. Coll, in particular, seemed to be listening and responding, molding his dancing to its emphases.

But this is a ballet that celebrates the dancing of women. On April 30, Ashley Laracey laced her steps with her characteristic unforced quality and sense of poetry. Ashley Hod’s risk-taking, emphasizing the off-balance moments in the choreography, was marred by a rigidity in the shoulders and neck. The strong, bright dancing of Emily Kikta would benefit, in this ballet, from more nuance, and perhaps a touch less power.  All in all, neither performance transcended.

Sterling Hyltin in “Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

“Divertimento” was the opening ballet on a varied program that also included Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun” and Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” and “The Four Temperaments.” In the Robbins, both casts, an experienced one on April 27 and a newer one on April 30, gave distinctive readings of the situation. Adrian Danchig-Waring (April 27) was self-absorbed, almost preening, a dancer for the Instagram age, pulled into a kind of narcissistic bubble by the appearance of Sterling Hyltin. The two stared intently into Robbins’ imaginary mirror as if their only reality were contained in the image they saw before them. In his début, Christopher Grant (April 30) was more innocent, almost surprised at the nascent erotic feeling inspired by the sudden arrival of this leggy nymph-like beauty, danced radiantly here by Unity Phelan.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia in “Allegro Brillante” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Because of a change in casting, Tiler Peck danced the lead in “Allegro Brillante” both nights, with different partners. With Roman Mejía (April 27), she was at her most dazzling: fast, expansive, luxuriant, and playful. In one lift, she seemed to propel herself onto the exact spot on Mejía’s shoulder without the slightest need for assistance. Mejía matched her, step for step, smile for smile, playing against the accents in the music to create an impression of freedom and mastery. He seems to relish knowing just what to do for his partner, and when to do it; partnering becomes just another facet of his bravura. Angle, in contrast, demonstrated the calm and good humor of experience: impeccable execution, supportive partnering, no razzle-dazzle.

Alexa Maxwell and Aaron Sanz in “The Four Temperaments” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Like “Divertimento No. 15,” “The Four Temperaments” is a ballet that serves as a barometer of the company’s dancing. But unlike that work, it seems to hold up better through ever-evolving casts. The dancers get it; the style is deeply embedded in their bodies from other modernist Balanchine works that return again and again. And “The Four T’s” doesn’t need to create long arc; rather, it sets forth a series of Art Deco portraits. At both performances there were high points, of which the highest was perhaps Emily Kikta’s turn as the soloist woman in “Choleric” (April 27). As she burst from the wings, Kikta was absolutely electric, with legs and arms that flew and sliced through the air like the wings of a marvelous bird. Her gargouillades, a jump in which each lower leg executes a small circle in the air, were so powerful and clear, you could almost hear them, like the pealing of a bell; she performed six of them in a row, each as clear and strong as the last. Adrian Danchig-Waring (April 30) gave a sculptural, searching performance of the “Phlegmatic” solo; Amar Ramasar (April 27), who retires at the end of the season, was softer, more wilting and Pierrot-like.

At the moment, New York City Ballet feels like several companies at once. A new generation of dancers shows great promise. Exciting débuts happen every day. The more mature dancers bring their sense of experience and insight to the stage. But something is missing, a sense of purpose, perhaps. Bravura turns coexist with performances that look as if they needed a thorough re-think. This lack of inspiration is particularly evident in a ballet like “Divertimento No. 15.” There is more to this ballet than we are seeing here.

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