Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley in “Scherzo Fantastique” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Symphonic

New York City Ballet's Stravinsky Festival

Performance
New York City Ballet: “Fireworks,” “Scherzo Fantastique,” “Symphony in Three Movements,” “Firebird.”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY April 27 and May 4, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

It has been a few years since New York City Ballet danced Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” so its return as part of the company’s Stravinsky Festival is particularly welcome. Created the same year (1972) as his “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” it represents the pinnacle of Balanchine’s response to Stravinsky’s music. The ballet’s confidence, from start to finish, is monumental.

It begins, famously, with a diagonal of women in white leotards, their hair tied back in pony tails. As they stab the air with their arms and legs, and dig their pointes into the floor, they bend forward and back, hair swishing with each move. And that is before the soloists begin to arrive, wearing variations on rehearsal clothes, to engage in what looks like a jumping contest, accompanied by Stravinsky’s jabbing chords. It is one of the most exciting openings in ballet.

“Symphony in Three” is on the first program of the festival, along with “Firebird,” a short ballet by Justin Peck called “Scherzo Fantastique,” and a musical interlude, “Fireworks,” for the orchestra. The evening I caught it, May 4th, the performance was energetic and at times thrilling, but messy. The spacing in the initial diagonal was uneven, and more generally the lines could have been cleaner. I saw a collision between two dancers in the opening section. It looked like the ballet could have used a few more rehearsals. But the bones were there.

So much of that opening evokes New York City: the fast-moving crowds, like the subway platforms at rush hour; the back-and-forth between groups, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s “Dance at the Gym,” in “West Side Story.” The brashness and competitiveness of the interactions between dancers. It is a celebration of Balanchine’s city, out of which his company was born.

Ashley Laracey and Taylor Stanley in “Symphony in Three Movements” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

That is until it becomes something completely different. The slow second movement, a pas de deux, is mysterious, hesitant, exotic. The dancers approach each other with a sideways glide, one arm undulating, like the tentacle of an amoeba, until their two arms cross and intertwine.  Is this some sort of protozoic love affair? Here, Ashley Laracey, replacing Tiler Peck, danced with Taylor Stanley. Both are dancers of great delicacy—Stanley takes particular care with the way he uses his hands and fingers, which make him look like a baroque porcelain figure. The dancers’ physical interactions are artificial and strange, full of flexed body parts, bent legs, and odd angles. In the end, they cross their arms and touch fingertips, as if taking part in an exotic mating ritual. Laracey and Stanley emanated style, wit, and a kind of serenity.

Just before, ten dancers had performed Justin Peck’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” from 2016. The piece, set to a score that evokes birds in flight, is slight. Perhaps its most memorable element is a bright, Fauve-inspired backdrop by Jules de Balincourt, and matching, color-drenched costumes with fringe by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Like the music, the movement is fluttering and bird-like. It includes two extremely fast, fluttering solos originally created for Anthony Huxley, danced here with great panache by KJ Takahashi. The pas de deux, for Brittany Pollack and Harrison Coll, is unusually rapturous for Peck, who tends to prefer push-and-pull, conversational partnering.

Isabella Lafreniere in “Firebird” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

And after the intermission, “Firebird,” with débuts by Isabella LaFreniere as the bird and Amar Ramasar as Prince Ivan, the hunter who attempts to capture her. (A lithe, expansive Miriam Miller danced the role of the princess Ivan falls in love with.) LaFreniere is an impressive dancer, tall, strong, imposing. She can balance in arabesque forever. She might one day become an interesting firebird, but for now, her delivery is too matter-of-fact to make an impression. LaFreniere gives us the structure and the strength, but not the story. Who is this bird? Why is she there? And, most of all, what does she feel as she struggles in Ivan’s arms, or grooms herself in solitary, melancholy splendor? Her inner life is as important as her sharp, quick-footed steps.

Ramasar was an enthusiastic prince, rushing through the forest, bowing happily to all he encountered there. His is an endearing take, and a familiar one for this dancer, who always gives the impression of being happy to find himself onstage. He retires at the end of the season; perhaps he is relishing these experiences with his fellow dancers all the more.

Isabella Lafreniere and company in “Firebird” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

There is nothing more grand than Stravinsky’s finale in “Firebird,” a sweeping, monarchic flourish that harnesses the orchestra’s full arsenal of colors to inspire awe and deep emotion. In this production, the wall of sound is amplified by Marc Chagall’s elaborate, jewel-colored costumes and backdrop, and by Balanchine’s ritualistic, spare choreography. Ivan and the princess simply stand, and with one hand, gesture to each other, and then to the audience.  On this night, as always, I was swept away.

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