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A Mixed Bag

Some programs at New York City Ballet feel like a well-balanced meal; others, like a hodgepodge. The “Masters at Work: Balanchine & Robbins 2” program, which I caught last week, fell into the latter category, as if the company had put together a program from bits and pieces left over from other programs.

Performance

New York City Ballet in “Square Dance,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Haieff Divertimento,” and “Donizetti Variations”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, April 27, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

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

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This quadruple bill combined George Balanchine’s “Square Dance,” “Haieff Divertimento,” and “Donizetti Variations” with Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” There was a lot of overlap. “Haieff Divertimento,” a 1947 ballet that returned recently after a long absence, looks like a compendium of steps one has seen in other Balanchine ballets, including one of the other ballets on this very same program, “Square Dance.” “Donizetti Variations” and “Square Dance,” despite their contrasting musical scores, share a similar boisterous sense of play and lightness. Rather than setting off each other’s qualities, the dances simply accumulated.

Of course the issue would be irrelevant if the dancing had been uniformly exciting. But on this night, the dancing lacked a consistent focus. Some performances were vivid (particularly “Haieff”), and others felt rote. In “Square Dance” and “Afternoon of a Faun,” there was little chemistry between the partners. In “Donizetti Variations,” Tiler Peck seemed be dancing on autopilot, as if the ballet no longer held any secrets or surprises for her. The ballet’s clever, happy steps—super fast turns, little kicks in every direction, jumps with the feet curled under—had an over-calculated veneer, as if Peck had pre-planned every effect. And though Andrew Veyette partnered her ably, he looked taxed in his solos.

Earlier in the evening the soloist Erica Pereira, replacing Megan Fairchild in “Square Dance,” lacked sparkle and musical purpose. Why program this luminous ballet and then assign it to only two casts? Why not add a début into the mix, to see what happens and open up new possibilities?

Anthony Huxley in “Square Dance” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Pereira’s lack of sparkle is a nagging issue. She is a dancer of great facility, but often looks disconnected from the rise and fall of the music; her dancing lacks accent or modulation. Her partner, Anthony Huxley, is just the opposite. A beautiful technician of quiet courtliness and deep musical sensitivity, he sustains each phrase beyond the bar line, as if he can hear the musical overtones and were striving to show them to us. Of late, he has come out of his shell. He used to dance with an inward gaze, as if he might have preferred to be alone in a room. Now his eyes and face look outward, exuding warmth and good humor and a desire to share the pleasure of his dancing. But in the pas de deux, this desire to connect found little response from his partner. In contrast, the passage in which he played “Simon Says” with the other men, showing one step after another, was like a civilized game. The men, who included Victor Abreu, KJ Takahashi, and Cainan Weber, were particularly cohesive, similar in timing and attack. (The corps has been in good form this season.)

Unity Phelan in “Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Dropped in the middle of the program was Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” preceded by one of the periodic “See the Music” features, in which the orchestra rises from the pit and the conductor explains some musical details from the ballet that will follow. The conductor this night was Andrews Sill, whose affable manner and excellent timing makes these moments both informative and efficient. He pointed out references to Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Wagner’s Tristan, and one one of Chopin’s piano études in the Debussy score for “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” originally choreographed and danced by Vaslav Nijinsky. Robbins, too, quotes from Nijinsky’s “Faune” in his choreography, in little asides and deep backbends for the male dancer.

Robbins famously translated the action from the forest to a ballet studio in which a male and female soloist share a shy and dream-like encounter. The “fourth wall” of the stage (the audience) becomes the mirror, into which both dancers gaze, communicating through their reflections. Joseph Gordon’s interpretation of the male role–a dancer stretching, day-dreaming, napping—is bathed in loneliness. There is less of the self-fascination one sees in other performances, and more sadness. Unity Phelan, who enters the ballet studio on pointe, while tying the sash on her ballet tunic, is beautifully pliant as the young woman who intrudes on his solitude, but the way she uses the “mirror” implies more that she is looking at herself than at her partner. And without the illusion of connection between the two dancers, this short ballet loses its sizzle.

The best performance of the night was in the least interesting ballet, “Haieff Divertimento.” Made one year after “The Four Temperaments,” it contains various echoes of that ballet, as well as ideas that reappear in “Danses Concertantes,” “Square Dance,” and “Concerto Barocco” (among others). Balanchine himself said that he had used steps from “Haieff” in many other ballets. Even the music, by Alexei Haieff, sounds like recycled Stravinsky.

Nevertheless, the ballet contains an intriguing pas de deux, in which the two dancers stand with their arms on each other’s shoulders, hands held in fists. Locked in by those straight arms, they dance very close together, as if “slow dancing” at a party. At one point she executes a bevy of little pas de chats to the back, as if pawing the floor. Then he partners her as she kick-walks her way across the stage (a bit like the women in “Diamonds” and “Divertimento from Baiser de la fée”). This is followed by an adagio for the woman, a pure exercise in legato technique.

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

What made this particular performance stand out, despite the ballet’s many repetitions, was the casting: tall, lithe, lyrical Christina Clark (a corps member who joined in 2017) and the Australian Alec Knight, also in the corps. Both danced with an alluring freshness. He had charm and élan; she used her long lines to show every detail of the music, completing the phrases with her softly moving arms. And the two were deeply attuned to each other. It made one want to see them in other roles.

It's interesting to see New York City Ballet on an off night like this one. It’s clear that some of the company’s extensive repertoire needs more attention. Having recently seen an excerpt of “Square Dance” performed by Miami City Ballet, it was clear how much more musically exciting this ballet can be. But often, what one misses most is a connection between the lead dancers. The opposite was true in “Haieff,” and it made all the difference.

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.

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