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A Season of Balanchine

The ballets of George Balanchine are a window into the company he, with the help and support of Lincoln Kirstein, created three quarters of a century ago. The fact that they and the company are still here is a kind of miracle if one thinks of the short afterlife of most ballets. How lucky we are that the two men met, and that Kirstein convinced Balanchine to try his luck in New York.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Concerto Barocco,” “Prodigal Son,” “Symphony in C

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 13, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Unity Phelan, Alec Knight, and company in George Balanchine’s “Symphony
in C.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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The current season, which ends on Oct. 15, has focused our attention on these ballets, how they are being performed today, and what they say about the present and future of the company. In many significant ways, the season has been a success. Performances were well attended, many of the ballets were in better shape than they have been in years, and débuts suggested a wealth of talent and imagination across the company ranks. The company’s musical values, despite the threat of a strike by the New York City Ballet orchestra, remain strong, though they could be even stronger. At all levels, the dancers are fleet, musically responsive, and stylish, and there is a new generation of promising young men rising from the corps. (Much needed, given the departures of several senior dancers in recent years.) Many of the rising soloists and principals–Mira Nadon, Indiana Woodward, Unity Phelan, and Alexa Maxwell among them—have revealed themselves to be exciting and individual interpreters, whom one wants to see again and again as they expand their repertories. There is a sense of forward motion and optimism.

Despite a series of recent retirements, a core group of the company’s upper tier is also holding strong. Sara Mearns gave commanding, intensely in-the-moment performances in “Diamonds” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” Tiler Peck’s dancing has been brilliant and expansive, exhibiting an astonishing control. Megan Fairchild’s ebullience is unmatched, and she has formed a thrilling and playful new partnership with Anthony Huxley. Ashley Laracey’s dancing has acquired a ravishing bloom and confidence. Joseph Gordon, too, has come out of his shell, most notably in classical roles like that of the cavalier in “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto” but also as the moody, searching Orpheus.

Sara Mearns and company in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal
Son.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

For me, the fourth Balanchine program of the season, made up of “Concerto Barocco,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Symphony in C,” encapsulated all of these qualities, as well as a few of the areas that could use more attention. From the soloists, there was incisive dancing throughout. The débuts, particularly Mira Nadon and Gilbert Bolden in “Barocco,” made a strong impression. Both are responsive dancers who give the impression of living through the steps. “Symphony in C” was danced with joy and a bracingly responsive musicality. And in “Prodigal Son,” Sara Mearns attacked the role of the siren with the same hunger and fullness with which she dances every ballet. Overall, it was an evening of exceptional, and exceptionally well-performed dance. 

Still, a few aspects disappointed.  In “Barocco” the ensemble needs more attention. The interplay between the group and the two lead women is one of the key aspects of the ballet. It is what makes “Barocco” feel like a perfect system, a celestial clock. At the performance I saw, and in other ballets with smaller ensembles, like “Emeralds,” the corps was correct but wan, lacking the crispness of attack that creates the sense of interplay or harmonic resonance that we hear in the music. (The large ensemble in “Diamonds,” at the start of the season, also had little energy or focus.)  

Mira Nadon and Gilbert Bolden III in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

And in “Prodigal Son,” Huxley’s performance of the title character—impeccable in every choreographic detail—lacked the assurance and depth it might have acquired from working more intensely on the dramatic side of the role with former interpreters. Without that extra push, Huxley wasn’t able to shed his qualities of nobility and gentlemanliness, so appealing in other ballets but out of place here.

Despite this, the overall impression of the evening was positive. Nadon and Isabelle LaFreniere were a study in contrasts in “Barocco,” with LaFreniere a vigorous, risk-taking powerhouse countered by Nadon’s leisurely, glamorous spaciousness and stretch. Peck showed off every angle of the ballerina role in the first movement of “Symphony in C,” to Bizet, with great clarity, projecting a sense of total mastery and control. Chun Wai Chan’s partnering was model of manners and modesty.  In the slow movement of the same ballet, Unity Phelan glistened in the arms of her cavalier, Alec Knight, stretching her limbs like a cat and swooning, body carving a soft arc through space, again and again into her partner’s arms. (I do dislike how the tutus in this ballet, newly designed in 2012, flop over at the slightest excuse.) 

 

Anthony Huxley in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

The finale of “Symphony in C” is Balanchine at his most ebullient and joyful: arms and legs fill the stage in a high-speed demonstration of Balanchine’s balletic canon. Pointes patter the floor, legs flash out and in, bodies spin. The entire stage is alive and filled with light and movement. In such moments it feels like Balanchine’s spirit is very much alive.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

comments

Andrew Dolkart

Thank you for commenting on the floppy tutus in Symphony in C. They get in the way of a dancers beautiful line, especially in the second movement.

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