George Balanchine was a supreme master of choreographic abstraction, yet when he wanted to tell a story he did so with relish and theatrical flair, shaping his narratives with unique dramatic insight and wit. New York City Ballet’s “Balanchine Short Stories”—a triple bill featuring “La Sonnambula,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Firebird”—offered the audience a fascinating journey into the world of Balanchine’s storytelling.
Romance and murder go hand in hand in a gothic mystery “La Sonnambula.” Set to music by Vittorio Rieti based on themes from Bellini’s operas, this ballet was originally created in 1946 for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with Alexandra Danilova, Nicholas Magallanes, and Maria Tallchief in the leading roles and was first performed by New York City Ballet in 1960. It tells a story of short-lived, tragic love between a young poet and an enigmatic sleepwalker—two strangers who find themselves in the midst of a sumptuous ball held at a nobleman’s mansion.
“La Sonnambula” is soaked in suspense and much of what happens onstage is presumed rather than shown directly. The story is an emotional rollercoaster; yet nothing looks more poignant and puzzling here than the final image of the ballet when the lifeless body of the poet is placed in the hands of the Sleepwalker, who mournfully carries him into the darkness of her tower.
Dressed in white, her long hair streaming down her shoulders, Tiler Peck looked magnetic and spectral in the title role. Clutching a candle, she skimmed about the stage as if in trance, totally oblivious to her surroundings, her feet a blur of shimmering bourrées; her face a mask. The aura of mystery about her was electrifying, the relentlessness with which she dogged the poet’s embraces shocking. Some invisible wind might have powered her sweeping turns and spins.
Robert Fairchild, her Poet and real-life husband, portrayed his character with a potent romantic passion. His enchantment with the elusive sleepwalker was unmistakable; and there was a tinge of humor in their wondrous pas de deux, especially when he was setting her floating about the stage this way and that, or as he tried to embrace her only to find the candle in his way.
Rebecca Krohn was effective as a glamorous and scheming Coquette, whose jealousy ultimately caused the Poet’s tragic demise; and the gentle and sweet Justin Peck played the role of the murderous Baron with exaggerated comic panache of silent cinema, yet, for all his heavy makeup and odd hairdo, he looked anything but a villain.
The divertissements of the traveling entertainers during the ball were nicely done. Claire Von Enck and Sebastian Villarini-Velez dazzled in the pas de deux; and Troy Schumacher as Harlequin danced with superb skill and side-splitting hilarity.
A masterpiece of dramatic storytelling in dance, “The Prodigal Son” is one of the oldest surviving ballets by Balanchine. Set to a commissioned score by Sergei Prokofiev and based on a biblical story, the ballet was made in 1929 for the final season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The story unfolds in three acts. In the opening scene, the Son defies his father and leaves his home only to be crashed by his experience and come back in the final scene. In the middle part, the Son “wastes his substance with riotous living,” spending his time with a rowdy crowd of his drinking companions; he also meets and is seduced by the Siren, a femme fatale with striking looks and a heart of stone, who robs him of his possessions and abandons him at the end. Over the years, the ballet has proved its timelessness. It still remains a striking example of dramatic dance and a gripping piece of theater.
With his compact and muscular physique, Daniel Ulbricht was perfectly suited for the title role. A prodigious jumper, he announced his hero’s dissatisfaction with his domestic life with a series of soaring leaps of defiance, each tantrum unleashed with ferocious force. Watching his sudden outbursts of frustration, one instantly knew that this young man was eager to set himself free, to experience life to its fullest. This Son was genuinely intrigued by the bizarre grotesqueries of his drinking buddies for he took part in their wild cavorting with a special joy; and he projected convincingly his wide-eyed excitement with the Siren, unable (and unwilling) to resist her seductive allure.
Teresa Reichlen was having a wonderful time, reigning onstage as a callous, unsentimental temptress. With her towering presence, looking dazzling in her exotic costume, her long burgundy cape billowing behind her, she was a goddess-like creature—a dominatrix who used her glamour as her weapon, luring the Son into the abyss with the serpentine movements of her dancing.
The ballet’s final image depicts the disillusioned and destitute Son crawling on his knees back home and pulling himself up into a welcoming embrace of his father (played with an appropriate solemn intensity by Aaron Sanz). It’s a shattering moment and a crux of the entire ballet. Alas, the emotional impact and underlying drama of this scene didn’t quite register during Ulbricht’s performance—as I watched the final act of the ballet, I wished his hero’s desperate homecoming was expressed with more poignancy and humility.
A visual spectacle on grand scale, “Firebird,” a ballet based on a Russian fairytale, concluded this terrific program in style, immersing the audience even further into the atmosphere of theatrical splendor of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in a vivid scarlet costume, Ashley Bouder expressed the almighty power of Firebird with assurance and appealing dramatic élan. A force-of-nature allegro dancer, she zoomed across the stage with blaze and attack, covering the space with arrow-like jetés and in a fury of quicksilver steps. Her Firebird was wonderfully assertive and yielding in her pas de deux with Prince Ivan (the admirable Zachary Catazaro), whom she ultimately saved from the evil wizard Kastchei. The spectacular backdrops by Marc Chagall and marvelously crafted costumes by Karinska flooded the stage with vivid color and turned this “Firebird” into a sumptuous feast for the eyes.