New York City Ballet’s spring season featured a new work by Justin Peck as well as Pam Tanowitz’s company debut. Two other recent repertory additions—Matthew Neenan’s “The Exchange” and Gianna Reisen’s “Judah”—were also revived along with company staples and a few rarities. Of the new set I enjoyed Peck’s short, springy “Bright” the most. The stellar coupling of Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen in an airy heaven-scape was fleetingly dreamy. The ballet read as a brief glimpse through the clouds into Elysian fields, and was stunningly god-lit by Brandon Stirling Baker. Mark Dancigers’s score was anthemic yet flowery—with bells and chimes accentuating the religious vibe of the piece. The rippling white costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung were tinged with pastels—floaty and lovely. Peck employed a pretty motif of slow-growing, partnered arabesques, with the ladies reaching skyward to coincide with the apogees of their legs’ trajectories. “Bright” had sweep and feeling and it didn’t overstay it’s welcome.
It was especially refreshing after the tedium of “Bartók Ballet,” Pam Tanowitz’s first commission for City Ballet. After her terrific piece for the Martha Graham Company last month I had high hopes. Alas, this one had interesting ideas but never picked up momentum. A mazurka-based group dance early in the piece had promise, but then the cast rippled out into too many little eddies of fidgety step shards. I didn’t get a sense of development or purpose, and I lost patience with it midway through. Tanowitz is a tinkerer: a choreographer who breaks down and isolates the technical mechanics of steps. She exposes the guts of the clock and then rewinds it. Like with Merce Cunningham, this can be alternately fascinating and boring to me.
There were some promising takeaways, however. First of all, Miriam Miller is a star. In a strapless gold velvet leotard (again by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), she was the most glamorous thing in the world as she performed adagio barre work next to the musicians of the FLUX Quartet in front of the proscenium of the stage. Her leggy beauty proved to be the perfect conduit for Tanowitz’s fragmentation—in the same way that a supermodel is an idealized hanger for designer clothing. Shifty arabesques and single pirouettes to deep croisé back lunges were arresting on her long frame. I enjoyed the section in which she partnered Kennard Henson—who got to wear the most fabulous, YSL-reminiscent plunging bike-tard.
Secondly, as with her Graham ode, Tanowitz demonstrated her chops as a dance historian. She quoted both Balanchine and Robbins in a nod to the home field. I noticed bits of “Moves,” the third theme from “The Four Temperaments,” and the flies from “In Memory Of” among other references. Thirdly, and best of all, Tanowitz’s deconstructivism occasionally illuminated how odd ballet truly is—to comedic effect. In a wry vignette, Indiana Woodward easily executed a difficult turning solo and then stood and made flittering head movements that made her look like a cat tracking a laser. How funny to jostle such a sure spotter. I also liked how Tanowitz had pairs of dancers perform classical ballet poses in an upright way and then with exaggerated Balanchine épaulement. The extra bending looked rather silly, but it was oh so pretty. I appreciated that Tanowitz was investigating the aesthetics of City Ballet’s founding father.
The holdover commissions from last year, “Judah” and “The Exchange,” were uneven but enjoyable. The very young Gianna Reisen demonstrated a sureness in “Judah” that belied her experience. She ably moved her large cast of 18 dancers around the stage and on and off two large staircases in diagonally opposed corners, and I admired how her steps responded to John Adams’s folksy score. There was a nice bit in which a tall trio of women—Christina Clark, Emily Kikta, and Mira Nadon—held arabesques and then relevéd and got whisked off by the men to clicks in the music. (The tall female trio is a delightful trend in new NYCB works these days, but it is underutilized. The dancers appear for a moment in each piece but that’s it.)
“Judah” worked as a thematic whole, with the hoedown feel of the score matched by Alberta Ferretti’s chic gypsy dresses and kerchief headpieces in the uncanny-but-pleasant color combination of white, turquoise, coral, and olive green. There was a communal, tribal bent to the choreography too. The women performed intricate hand sequences that looked like sewing (or sowing?) and Indiana Woodward as the lead was overtly praying with the corps of women.
My problem with the piece was that it was replete with such specific gestures (it resembled sign language) but no clear explanation. Were we supposed to connect this to Judah of the Bible? Woodward and Harrison Ball as the lead couple clearly had a complicated relationship, and finished the ballet staring at each other from the top of either staircase. I didn’t really understand why though. Likewise, the purpose of the many secondary soloists was ultimately impenetrable to me. Why does Megan LeCrone fall to the ground? Was Sara Adams supposed to lose her skirt for a section? What is Lars Nelson doing? Why did a few women enter in front of the curtain before the piece began? Why did the cyclorama go black two-thirds of the way through the ballet? The dancing became overshadowed by narrative confusion. Why not throw in a few program notes to guide the audience? Or else steer clear of such detailed hand-jive minutiae, staging theatrics, and seemingly charged subplots. As Balanchine wisely said, “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet.”
Matthew Neenan’s “The Exchange” also seemed to have more backstory than we in the audience could know, but it employed broader strokes and had a clearer tone. The crowd gasped when the curtain went up on a group of dancers in black and red with red mesh obscuring their faces. They had their backs to us and their palms up as if pushing us away. It was a thrilling inversion of the opening of Balanchine’s “Serenade,” and it was equally powerful. When the lullaby strings of Antonin Dvořák commenced and the group sharply broke at the hip, awkwardly walked backwards, and cupped their chins and stared out at us (their theme step) en masse I thought of Jordan Peele’s horror film Us. It was unnerving and amusing to employ that dulcet music thus.
What followed was a sly mashup of courtly pageantry and S&M bondage. The dramatic costumes by Gareth Pugh really made the ballet. The group of sleek, veiled dancers faced off against—and eventually exchanged some steps with—another group in shorter, parachute-dresses and straps in the same devilish palette. Eventually the slinkier group lost their beekeeper netting. Were their defenses now down, or were they expanding their worldview? This piece also had a communal air, with no distinct set breaks for pas de deux or new groupings. I liked it. There wasn’t much depth to it past its witty subversions, but that was fine. It was a nice vehicle for Rachel Hutsell, Anthony Huxley, Unity Phelan, and especially Teresa Reichlen. It was also the best I’ve ever seen Erica Pereira dance. I didn’t even recognize her at first. Happily, she has come out of her shell this season; now she needs to let her hair down.
On another evening, Periera and Daniel Ulbricht led a competent run-through of Balanchine’s “Valse-Fantaisie” without getting swept up in the melancholy lilt of Glinka’s music. Only Alston Macgill in the corps luxuriated in her waltzing. I was excited to see this rarely-performed gem since I have such fond memories of dancing it. It really is a perfect opener along the lines of “Concerto Barocco” or “Allegro Brillante.” I love when Balanchine has the lead couple soaring in high lifts to the melody line while the corps stamps out the pulsing triple meter in digging waltzes behind them. But I wished I could see the currently-injured Tiler Peck do it, with her Dr. Strange ability to play with time.
Fortunately, later that night another dancer proved to possess her superpower: Roman Mejia in the Rondo of Balanchine’s 1954 romp “Western Symphony.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that role done better! He and Tess Reichlen brought the house down; people were laughing with glee at how great they were. Mejia and Reichlen relished the goofiness of the ballet while acing its many obstacles.
In the same performance I was also wowed by Megan Fairchild’s return to the stage after maternity leave. She nailed the ironic ballerina role in the Adagio section, infusing it with new life and humor. As the dream girl who bourrées her way into the Rhinestone Cowboy’s imagination, she comically pancaked backwards into Jared Angle’s arms like Nosferatu planking into his coffin. She nodded emphatically at each proffered hand as she assumed the position for a finger turn. She took huge, daft preparations for each passage in the Adagio finale that reminded me of her early buffa turn in Susan Stroman’s “The Blue Necklace.” She and Angle, like Reichlen and Mejia, were having fun and dancing large. It was fantastic and the audience strode out into the night on a high.
Theatergoers also left elated after Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH,” which closed the other program I saw. “DSCH,” from 2008, ranks among his best works, largely due to the sublime 2nd movement pas de deux. But the rambunctious 1st and 3rd movements are masterful as well. Ashley Bouder anchored these surrounding sections, and when she is well cast—as she is here—she is awesome. I often can’t help smiling while watching her. Sometimes her choices can be odd, but she never delivers the same performance twice. She is completely in-the-moment and blissfully reckless. She can pull off wonders, or fall flat on her face. To see either outcome is a treat. She was flanked in her hijinks by the excellent duo Harrison Ball and Anthony Huxley.
But as usual it was the middle, adagio movement that haunted me for days afterwards. Shostakovich’s andante is incredibly moving on its own: the strings, piano, and horn form a soundscape of weeping nostalgia. Ratmansky’s interpretation of this beautiful music is exceptional. Led by an incandescent Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle (I’d love to see the noble Tyler in Robbins’s “A Suite of Dances” sometime), the choreography explores love and regret, roads not taken. And though the focus is on this main couple, the supporting corps of six dancers in the background carve out a rich, fully dimensional world around them. To use a literary analogy, if Sara and Tyler are Anna and Vronsky, Ratmanksy makes you believe that Kitty and Levin and Oblonsky and Dolly and Karenin are concurrently swirling about in the universe on their own paths. Every dancer in the piece comes across as a wholly realized person. It is a marvelous effect, and a completely different animal from Balanchine. Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” is a nearer forebear, but the comparison is inexact. Instead of choreographers, to me Ratmansky evokes Tolstoy.
Conversely, Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction,” which opened that same program, felt hollow. Despite a great title (after its propulsive John Adams music), cool dueling pianos, and sleek black and white costumes costumes by Kirsten Lund Nielsen, the piece amounts to little more than pseudo-sexy aerobics. The ginchy pointework and awkward swivel turns are performed with erotic thrust, but why? Why does poor Daniel Ulbricht keep barreling through the lead couple in mock attacks? His is a jester role, but not in the Shakespearean mold of the wise fool. Every so often Sterling Hyltin would slow down and drape backwards over Taylor Stanley’s shoulder or knee, only to provoke another cannonball pass from Ulbricht—it was laughable. Active quartets would materialize periodically around one of the ballet’s principals for group skips and chugs, resembling a menacing Zumba class. The dancers in “Hallelujah Junction” looked clipped, rushed, and dour—with the exception of a smiling and musical Kristen Segin.
“Hallelujah Junction”—unlike, say, “Valse-Fantaisie”—has been a perennial in City Ballet’s rep, on tour and at Lincoln Center. Peter Martins made some good ballets that should certainly survive despite his hasty and controversial departure from the company, but this isn’t one of them. History is written by the victors, in ballet as much as anything else. In coming seasons new co-directors Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan have the opportunity to make rewrites. At the very least I hope they add some footnotes.