Unity Phelan and Taylor Stanley in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Off to the Races

New York City Ballet opens its Winter Season

Performance
New York City Ballet: All Balanchine, winter season
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, January 18, 2023
Words
Faye Arthurs

The New York City Ballet opened its Winter Season with a wonderful all-Balanchine program, which I caught on the second night.  Not only was the lineup of ballets interesting and well-balanced, there were excellent performances in leading roles throughout the show, by dancers in various stages of their careers—including the best principal casting I’ve ever seen in Balanchine’s tiny 1967 masterpiece, “Valse-Fantaisie.”

Tiler Peck in “Donizetti Variations” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The show led off with the evening’s veterans—Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette—in “Donizetti Variations,” from 1960.  But this ballet opens with the corps, and the young group on Wednesday night seemed nervous and error prone. I’m betting they’ll settle into it with more experience. Still, there were promising moments (like the stellar Grape Dance), and Nieve Corrigan and Mary Thomas MacKinnon already appeared polished and relaxed. But every time Peck and Veyette came onstage, one sighed with relief. This is an excellent vehicle for Peck, and though she has lost plasticity in her spine over the years, she is a smart artist who knows that she needs to make up for it elsewhere. The lushness of her port de bras and her playful phrasing are a solid trade-off. The way she emphasized the folk arm positions and dramatically shifted her weight from hip to hip also brought out the extensive vocabulary “Donizetti” shares with “Stravinsky Vioin Concerto,” which closed the show. “Donizetti’s” Slave Dance contains the Slavic, eye-covering elbows of the “Violin” finale too. It was interesting to see these ballets bookending one bill. Though “Donizetti” is campy and peasanty while “Violin” is brooding and geometric, these works have a surprising amount of overlap.

Emilie Gerrity and Russell Janzen in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Violin” was cast against type, which uncovered new aspects of the choreography. Customarily, the Aria I pas de deux is danced by a powerhouse woman and the Aria II is danced by a waif, in the model of the ballet’s 1972 progenitors Karin von Aroldingen and Kay Mazzo.  But on Wednesday night, the slight Unity Phelan danced the Aria I while the muscular Emilie Gerrity danced the Aria II, to great effect. It was especially nice to see Gerrity dance a part not done by the inimitable Sara Mearns, with whom she shares many physical traits and much rep—and which inevitably relegates her to a Mearns-lite category. Furthermore, the casting for the Aria II often pairs an extra-tall man with an extra-small woman, which can give it a creepy, kid-sister feel. Gerrity’s broader frame and height transformed this pas into a relationship of equals instead of a puppet-master scenario. When she and Russell Janzen performed the arm-wrestling sequence while resting their heads upon each other, she didn’t appear to be trapped or helpless. You got the sense of a couple in turmoil; yet choosing to be together.

The odd ending to the Aria II was also completely transformed. In this sequence, the man stands behind the woman and opens his arm out to direct her gaze, then possessively clasps her back to him before palming her forehead and guiding her into a backbend. It frequently reads as if he is trying to dominate her or force her into submission in the final pose, which can be uncomfortable to watch. But Janzen has a pensive and humble stage presence: he is noble, but without an ounce of machismo (which worked beautifully in the pas, though he could be a little more assertive in the opening group number). Instead of playing the Svengali, he appeared to open her eyes to new vistas with the gesture—as if promising her a better life. When he tipped her head back and shielded her eyes, it read as an act of protection rather than coercion. I was thrilled to see a new take on a passage that I often find problematic.

Taylor Stanley, who danced opposite Phelan in the Aria I (and who uses they/them pronouns), is another partner who exudes thoughtfulness. When they carried Phelan slowly along a diagonal, planked upside down and bicycling her legs, their far-off stare was engrossing. They didn’t appear to be just a squire or manipulator, but a three-dimensional person with their own trajectory through the ballet. Stanley and Phelan pair beautifully together, and she continues to blaze her way through the Balanchine classics. Perhaps because of this, the role Phelan frequently dances in “Haieff Concerto,” a Balanchine deep track, went to young corps member Christina Clark in a strong debut. Her endless, hyperextended legs and beveled ankles were enchanting in the numerous partnered corskcrews to B-minus. 

Christina Clark and Peter Walker in “Haieff Divertimento” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

I can see why “Haieff,” from 1947, fell out of use. But I am also glad that it was recently revived. It is a weird ballet, but it is weird in significant ways: primarily as an early draft of Balanchine experimenting with balletic gender roles and his favored, unattainable-muse schema. Peter Walker, who made an elegant debut in the central male role, spends the opening movement as the odd man out. As the four couples around him bow to each other as in so many courtly dances—and in so many Balanchine ballets that came after—he bows melancholically to nobody. He is an ersatz classical prince. His loneliness is not staged as part of a royal hunt or a rite on Mount Parnassus, but in a plainclothes modern gathering. He does eventually connect with someone, but she leaves him. And she is the one with the slow, probing solo. He may have found his ideal muse, but she has her own agenda and controls her own fate—with pronounced deliberation. The corps was very good at their spiky, odd tasks, with Jacqueline Bologna particularly standing out.

But the best performance of the night was by Indiana Woodward and Roman Mejia in “Valse-Fantaisie.” They flew through the choreography with abandon, making the stage seem too small at times (which is impressive since this ballet is a real test of stamina). This 9-minute piece, from 1967, was Balanchine’s fourth stab at this melodramatic Glinka waltz in B minor (the most times he’s ever returned a score). I adore it, it looks like tulle tumbleweeds. There are so many steps and so little time in which to complete them; it’s almost more of a race than a dance. And yet, it has more opportunities for the dancers to luxuriate and swoon in backbends than most pieces—if they can only find the time. The toggle between indulgence and duty is particularly pronounced in this ballet, which is part of what makes it so tantalizing to watch and to dance. After Woodward, Mimi Staker was the best at eking out moments of artistic extravagance. (And it was fun to see “Valse-Fantaisie” next to “Donizetti’s” Grape Dance, which also features a quartet of women facing the same issue. At every second they must choose between precision and travelling—or go for both and risk falling.)

Indiana Woodward and Roman Mejia in “Valse-Fantaisie” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Though there are almost too many steps to fit in, musically, in “Valse-Fantaisie,” there is not much step variation. It was in reference to “Apollo” that Balanchine famously said he learned that he could “dare not use all my ideas, that I too, could eliminate,” but “Valse-Fantaisie” may be a better example of stringent excision. For this is Balanchine in pure Dr. Seuss mode: using the smallest possible vocabulary in one book. This ballet consists almost entirely of sautés, balancés, pas de chats, saut de chats, tour jetés, développés, arabesques, attitudes, and emboîtés. There are just a few pirouettes. The trick, for the leads especially, is to make the same few steps look novel throughout. Woodward was sublime as she waltzed and leapt her way around the stage; it seemed as if she was inventing the choreography on the spot. Even in the passages in which she repeated a sequence three times in a row, she managed to make each iteration uniquely interesting. Her energy also never flagged, even in the lickety-split saut de chat manège that critic Arlene Croce aptly called a “steeplechase.” You don’t see something like that every day; it was a great night at the ballet.