Principal dancer Teresa Reichlen bade the New York City Ballet adieu last weekend after 22 years. She had been slated to retire with Peter Martins’s full-length “Swan Lake,” but thanks to the Omicron variant of Covid she had to settle for Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake” instead. At 37 years old, she did not exactly retire young. But physically, her departure seemed premature. The fact that she was planning to dance the full-length “SL” speaks for itself. Most principals exit long past their ability to get through that gauntlet. But Reichlen was always something of an outlier.
At 5’9’’, she was a decidedly tall ballerina, though she had the Tigger-like powers of a much shorter one. Her jumps were explosive and light—a rarity for someone of her stature. And though she towered, she had tiny hands and feet as well as a narrow ribcage and shoulders—which gave her a more delicate quality than other amazons. She was like a smaller person who had been elongated at the thigh and waist. She also possessed the signature Balanchine coolness onstage, but her movement quality was more rounded and fluid than angular or cutting. Nothing felt forced. She drove from her springy feet and especially her powerful haunches; her port de bras floated along organically after her legs and rear made the decisions. She didn’t hold on to the air so much as coast in her hangtime.
She was always good in the grand ballerina parts she graduated to by the end of her career, but she was sensational in the interrupter roles: Choleric, the “Rubies” soloist, the “Agon” soloist, the Lilac Fairy, Hippolyta, Firebird, the jumping girl in “Who Cares?”, and the role Justin Peck created for her in “Everywhere We Go.” She was a lovely Sugarplum Fairy, but she was an unforgettable, one-in-a million Dewdrop. She was great leading the fourth movement of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,” but she was superlative as the soloist in the first movement, blithely outjumping her male entourage every time. I often think it’s a shame that roles are hierarchically ranked and considered as part of a career trajectory, when really, sometimes a dancer and a part just mesh. Not every soprano needs to tackle Wagner. And shouldn’t audiences get to see this kismet meeting of dancer and role for as long as possible? It was tragic when Reichlen finally dropped “Rubies” from her rep. She owned that role with her frosty blonde beauty, her leggy strength, and her winking hauteur.
Amused detachment was one of Reichlen’s best modes. A keen intelligence burned behind her comely iciness, and she nailed the tone in goofier works like “Stars and Stripes.” She took the steps seriously and dove into them, dispatching the difficult passages with ease. But sometimes she would flash a noncommittal smirk, as if to say, “this really is a rather silly ballet.” Her approach evaded the potential traps of camp, and therefore elevated works like “Stars,” the WRENS section of “Union Jack,” and the “Western Symphony” Rondo. She seemed to relish being the drill sergeant of the Goons as the Siren in “Prodigal Son” too. But she could also do romantic drama, as in Martins’s “Barber Violin Concerto.” And one of her best roles was the Élégie of “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3”—in which she coupled her huge sauts de chat with tragic longing.
She reached new heights in this vein in her farewell show. She was tearful starting from the bow after her first pas de deux. It was a gorgeous performance; she and Tyler Angle wove their emotional goodbyes to each other into the framework of “Swan Lake.” Reichlen’s phrasing steadily climbed, as when she dove backwards forcefully into Angle’s arms on the third pass of the partnered port de bras front développé to a dip into fifth position in the pas de deux. Together, they made Balanchine’s austere one-act version more dramatically engrossing than most four-act treatments. And Reichlen gave the saddest “SL” exit I’ve ever seen. As Rothbart summoned her to the wings, art imitated life as she went back repeatedly for one last caress, a final soutenu. Odette and Reichlen both appeared to want to linger. It was a bittersweet ending to a beautiful career.
It was also a reminder that she was a true Swan Queen, one of the few to possess the height, the power, and the lines for the role. City Ballet put on two different “Swan Lake” programs in place of the canceled full-length production, and Balanchine’s one-act “SL” closed both. It was coincidental that this swan streak aligned with the Winter Olympics, because I think “SL” is more of a hybrid between art and sport than any other ballet. It’s a lot like figure skating: you need both the poetry and the triple axels to succeed. I think that’s why people like “SL” so much: it is easy to tell when dancers nail or botch their technical component score, and it is fun to argue about who was the most convincing actress. Reichlen always had the goods, and she tapped into an especially soaring lyricism in her final performance, right from her first soaring leap onto the stage.
The rest of the Swan Queen casting was hit or miss. Mira Nadon made a massive debut in the “Black Swan Pas de Deux” excerpted from Martins’s full-length production. She too is a natural born Odette/Odile—tall and strong with a gargantuan arabesque. She is so young, but she is already a polished performer. And most thrilling, she dances every night like it’s her one shot at a year-end recital. She is as committed in the “Serenade” corps as she is in starring roles. She holds nothing back. She put her partner Chun Wai Chan on the defensive for most of their joint debut; at times he could barely contain her. No wonder: she could barely contain herself! She pulled off almost all the tricky choreography and she looked devilishly glamorous while doing so, her raven hair matching her tutu. She flubbed the end of the famous fouetté section with a bold unforced error. Though her riskiness nearly landed her on her butt, it made the show truly suspenseful. She didn’t get a white swan outing this season, but that will surely come. She was like Nathan Chen in the 2018 Olympics; next time she’ll win gold.
Unity Phelan had a similarly bumpy fouetté moment in Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” on Saturday night, but she too charmed with her daring and potential. She and Jovani Furlan gave half of a near-perfect “Tchai Pas” and then they lost steam. They are both juggling hard seasons, I’m guessing they were pooped. She was one of only two women to get both black and white swan turns this season. (Tiler Peck was the other. Why not Reichlen? Or Sara Mearns—for whom Odette/Odile is a calling card?) I missed Phelan’s swan shows, but she is also clearly destined to helm a full-length production someday. And “Tchai Pas” uses music that was composed as an alternate option for the third act principals of “Swan Lake.” So it was fun to see it rotating in for the black swan pas last week as it was meant to. It also worked way better than the Martins’s “Black Swan Pas” did next to Balanchine’s “SL.” It was hilarious to have two different Rothbart incarnations back-to-back on the same bill. I could imagine a New Yorker cartoon in which Martins’s neon-orange pimp and Balanchine’s bird/ram hockey mascot sipped beers at a bar. Caption: “so, what do you do?”
In another debut, Tiler Peck used every tool at her disposal to shape Balanchine’s “SL” to fit her, but to no avail. She is one of the best dancers in the history of the company, but she does not have the wingspan or the lines for the white swan choreography. The cold and cavernous set, by Alain Vaes, dwarfed her. She was a little snowflake drifting below the jutting stalactites. She did everything she could, but “Swan Lake” is not about how carefully you can settle in tendu; it is about how big you can go in your attitude or arabesque and still make it to tendu. She never once attempted a balance in either position. She reminded me of those artists who paint whole scenes on grains of rice. Amazing, but too small-scale for “SL.” Peck is a G.O.A.T., just not in this event. It was like sending Shaun White down the luge chute instead of the halfpipe—or that year Michael Jordan played baseball.
It was a neat experiment, since Peck can bend most works to her will. But as I said, a Swan Queen is a rare bird. However, one need not be a Swan Queen to be a prima ballerina assoluta. And at City Ballet, you don’t even need to be a ballerina to get in on the swan action. In Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments,” it is the men who get to arch their spines and emote while the women are steely and geometric. Gonzalo Garcia was touching as the woeful Melancholic man with the deep swan backbends. He retires this weekend, which made his sorrowful “4T’s” solo akin to a “Dying Swan” farewell. And Emily Kikta made a terrific Choleric debut, a black swan analog if ever there was one. It was odd to see so many “4T’s” debuts all at once (there were several new Theme couples plus Ashley Hod and Peter Walker in Sanguinic, all strong). Complete casting turnovers are always a little surreal; the ballet is the same but not—like Taylor Swift’s note-for-note recreations of her old albums.
The repertory staple in the deepest conversation with “Swan Lake,” however, was “Serenade.” It too is a work of transformation and redemption, set to Tchaikovsky. And though it references several classic ballets—the women could all be sylphs or Willis—the swanny bits stood out this time around. When the four Russian girls assumed the classic swan pose on the ground around Erica Pereira, then linked hands, it was such a four-little-swans moment. It made me wonder again why Balanchine didn’t use that dance for his version. He was so savvy about music and theatrics, and that number is a climax of any “SL” production. Why leave the four little swans off his highlight reel? I don’t have the answer, but he clearly borrowed elements of the dance successfully elsewhere. And in the Elegy section, when Emilie Gerrity suddenly flapped her arms before blindfolding Aaron Sanz and ushering him away from Sterling Hyltin’s crumpled form, it was just like Odile deceiving Prince Siegfried in the ballroom—and dooming Odette to death. The immediate juxtaposition of “SL” with some of Balanchine’s masterpieces was fascinating. And I realized, with some surprise, that although “Swan Lake” is never my favorite ballet to watch, it may be one of my favorites to ponder.