As France was mourning the loss of its Nice fellow citizens, the warm tribute which the New York City Ballet paid to French musical heritage with an all-French-composers evening proved heartening. It doesn’t matter that the program was planned long before the attacks happened; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. Performing “Walpurgisnacht,” “Sonatine,” “La Valse” and “Symphony in C,” the NYCB tour in Paris drew to a close with rose petals and Champagne bubbles. It was just what everyone needed at that time.
Although derived from Gounod’s Faust, “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” isn’t exactly what its inspiration implies. It is yet another plotless neo-classical ballet, far from displaying the devil’s orgy that has been lingering in the operatic memory. But as the power of spring filled the violet and pink-robed young girls, one could easily feel like a tormented Faust hearing the cheerful sounds of life outside. The gloomy context of the attacks helped, without doubt, connecting to a dying soul struggling to be brought back to sensorial life. Hence the metaphor Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht” spread out that very night: as the world was going to hell around the globe, the NYCB corps, swirling on Gounod’s heady music, glittered like a beacon in the inky darkness.
Unfortunately, it looks like the company isn’t focused on ethereal emphasis these days. Mass ensembles lacked evanescent poetry in the way they waltzed around the stage. Surely Sara Mearns, a force of nature, powered through the steps with voluptuous authority but she distilled no bewitching mystery as her athletic figure performed a final diagonal of windswept chainés. As down-to-earth as that “Walpurgisnacht” might have been, there was no glimpse of debauchery either. The witches’ sabbath was danced with ladylike reserve, as women with unfastened hair moved in a controlled abandon that was nothing close to a Dionysian picture. Recounted by Balanchine, that Goethean outburst of energy is barely bacchanalian but it builds on a joyful revelry, as enjoyable as a midsummer night’s breeze.
“Sonatine” came as a surprise after “Walpurgisnacht’s” strong phrasing. Ravel’s aquatic music found a refreshing echo in a light-hearted pas de deux. Oddly, it begins with “Duo Concertant’s” features and ends up being a pastiche of Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” with fluent duets capturing the spirit of a nascent love. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz are as flirty and effervescent as a summer crush but they merely convey the neo romanticism of the original ballet. There was almost something mechanical in the way they danced and interacted with each other.
Ravel made the company dance to a tragic tune with a fin de siècle La Valse. Its psychological turmoil moved the audience away from the casualness of the previous pieces and it was immensely appealing. A pink-robed, long-gloved, trio features the incarnation of Destiny—the Moirai—for the doomed heroin dressed in pristine white and black gauze. Hers is a “Sleeping Beauty”-inspired innocence, ready to embrace the same misfortune yet with no chance of being kissed back to life. Fate is lurking below the surface, ready to cast its lethal spell. Sterling Hyltin, a tragic blond protagonist, gave in to a poisonous, draped in black, womanizer (Amar Ramasar) with ghastly melancholy. Redolent of Brahms and Schönberg’s Quartet, “La Valse” hints at the declining grandeur of a long-lost European Empire. However, European nostalgia, a feeling that must have been dear to Balanchine, doesn’t suit American optimism. Emotion proved to be the poor cousin all along, in spite of the gorgeous costumes and sets.
For dessert, the NYCB granted the Théâtre du Chatelet with a classical version of “Symphony in C,” created for the POB better known as “Palais de Cristal.” It meant to embody Versailles’ splendor with plenty of jewel-like sparks and geometric structures potentially influenced by André Le Nôtre’s jardins à la française. Tiler Peck was vividly American with lively and colorful footwork. All the dancers, deeply invested in their parts, obviously had tremendous fun performing on Bizet’s music. But all in all, “Symphony in C” didn’t deliver the expected fireworks of virtuosity. Arms and legs were a bit sharp, thus falling short of the French softness Balanchine alluded to.
It was a long run for the company after a 3-week tour that advertised Balanchine’s rhythmically-acute dancing. After an America-flavored season at the Paris Opera Ballet (a company which was ruled for 18 months by Benjamin Millepied, a former NYCB principal) watching New York dancers perform ballets that are deeply rooted in their DNA proved both interesting and too rich a meal. Obviously, the company that was founded by Balanchine himself is turning over a new page in its history. Long-limbed and ethereal dancers gave way to athletic and vigorous ones. Such transformation impacted Balanchine’s works in positive and negative ways. Ballet constantly finds new means of expression down the centuries and the NYCB is currently taming its own transition, the outcome of which sounds promising.