In this era of #MeToo, a review of the New York City Ballet can’t begin without noting the allegations of abuse against now-retired Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins. Late last year, the company faced turmoil as accusations of sexual harassment, physical, and verbal abuse arose against its powerful, long-time artistic director. Martins ultimately resigned. An internal investigation by the company and the school did not corroborate the accusations.
Martins was handpicked by company founder George Balanchine and helmed the nation’s most prominent ballet organization for more than three decades. Questions remain, but the company danced on. At the moment, there is an interim artistic team comprised of former and current dancers – Jonathan Stafford, Craig Hall, Rebecca Krohn, and the troupe’s Resident Choreographer Justin Peck.
Tuesday, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the company danced with finesse, verve, and dynamism that belie the recent turmoil. Change, it seems, is doing the company good. The women in particular, especially the corps de ballet, exhibited polished confidence and strength in numbers, especially during the first and closing works.
The opening night program featured two powerhouse Balanchine pieces, the glamorous “Divertimento No. 15,” with its tutus and tiaras began the evening, and an homage to mid-century-modernism, “Symphony in Three Movements,” closed the show to a roar of applause.
Set to a Mozart score, “Divertimento No. 15” begins with a flashy allegro sequence, and the footwork sparkled as much as the appliqués on the ladies’ buttery yellow tutu bodices. Created in 1956 for a Mozart festival, Balanchine infused the minuet and andante sections of the score, which come after the theme and six interlocking variations, with a courtly air.
One could almost imagine these tutu’d ladies, escorted by their stalwart cavaliers, draped in floor-length hoopskirts, powdered wigs, and heeled dancing shoes, save for the modern forward thrust of the pelvis by the women, often done with a sly smile. Their showgirl kicks, too, provide a winking contrast to the classical arabesques and pirouettes.
Chase Finlay, the company’s golden boy, stands tall, blonde, and muscular as he holds center stage with his regal bearing. Petite Ashley Bouder thrillingly elongates her body in her closing variation, growing a good four inches with her candid confidence. Moving into the finale, the entire ensemble effortlessly attacked the complex phrasing, placement, intertwining lines, and symmetrical formations that Balanchine so loved.
Justin Peck’s startlingly costumed “Pulcinella Variations” premiered during the company’s 2017 trendy Fall Fashion Gala and, it’s new to Washington, DC. Peck, a company dancer turned resident choreographer, crafts work that reflects Balanchinean ideals – form over content, demanding technical passages, brisk solos, and, foremost, musicality. It’s oft been stated that music is the floor on which a Balanchine dancer dances. Peck strives for that ideal.
The Stravinsky score (another homage to Balanchine as Stravinsky was his most frequent collaborator) plays on the beloved comedia del arte characters, but it’s hard to see beyond the brilliantly witty costumes of designer Tsumori Chisato. Chisato channels Picasso and Bakst, Dali and Mondrian, riffing on the vibrant early 20th century Ballets Russes era.
Can Peck’s choreography stand on its own, stripped down to bare leotards and tights, the way Balanchine ushered the form into the 20th century stripping away its accoutrements? Hard to tell. The cheeky half-tutu’d, half bare dancer – the one with an eyeball splashed across her chest or the other with a bouncy jack-in-the-box-like tutu, the summery oversized daisy tutu, and the swirls of colored stripes wrapping legs like candy canes transforming basic turns into a dizzying experience to watch – all that overshadowed Peck’s choreographic material.
“Pulcinella” is about costumes. But with some vibrant color and imagery, even set amid a chic, gray backdrop, the steps? They hardly registered. Sara Mearns minced as an ingénue of sorts, accompanied by her solid partner, Jared Angle. Claire Kretzschmar exhibited a prickle or two, Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon could be the comic foils, and the rest of the dancers in this sunny, fun-to-watch work – Indiana Woodward, Emilie Gerrity, Anthony Huxley, Andrew Scordato -seemed to enjoy playing along.
A showpiece, the “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” was meant to evoke fireworks when it was created in 1960 and first performed by Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow. Tiler Peck, partnered with Tyler Angle, danced a respectable rendition, although Angle appeared flatly distant, making his partnering feel inattentive and his heavy landings weighed his variations down. Peck proved lovely, channeling some of Verdy’s elegance in her poised balances and swift turns.
With Martins out, it was surprising to see his bland and misguided duet, “Zakouski,” on the program. Over his tenure, the majority of Martins’ works were mediocre at best and it would be surprising if many – or even a few – will remain in the repertoire. Now that he no longer leads the company, how long can – and should – his works remain in rotation?
“Zakouski” refers to the Russian word for hors d’oeuvres, and features recognizable motifs from Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tschaikovsky (NYCB’s preferred spelling). A hand slapping a knee, a heel digging into the floor, hands on hips or crossed at the chest are meant to evoke “Russian flair,” and on Tuesday Joaquin de Luz and Indiana Woodward tried for some panache. But like a bad recipe, not much can be done to make dreary choreography palatable.
The evening closed with a bold, brisk performance of “Symphony in Three Movements.” The 1972 work is one of Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” – the master neoclassical choreographer stripped away accoutrements, like tutus and waistcoats, to better display the dancers’ form and technique.
The audience gasped as curtain rose to reveal a long diagonal line of women in sleek, white camisole leotards, their arms poised, bodies perfectly aligned, bathed in Mark Stanley’s hot lights. They’re “glamazons,” super-heroines dancing in stark unison, raising their arms as one, then dropping them before taking off in stage-engulfing prances. Their slim bodies create a regiment of wiry colts, their pony tails bobbing behind them, these dancers interlace and cut swaths in space.
A second band of men and women, in black and white practice gear swoop in. And then, one by one, the principals – Sterlin Hyltin, Megan LeCrone and Erica Pereira — in shades of pink from pale to magenta, lead this pack of modern women, their legs at ear-grazing height, their flexed elbows, wrists, and ankles indicating that they have no need for sequins or tutus. They own their power and elegance as they fill the stage with kinetic energy, pointed feet stabbing the floor, straight arms slashing with dagger-like precision.
It’s a ballet where everyone is all-in. In the rush of organized mobs as white and black and pink clad ballerinas pack the stage, like the “Dance at the Gym” scene from West Side Story, an inimitable American quality pervades. Sure they’re parsing out the standard ballet fair we’ve come to know and love, but, to Stravinsky’s racing, tensile score, there’s an edginess, brashness, and confidence to the steps. And the final moment – after a mad dash, stark stillness feels like a cliffhanger. #MeToo indeed. If New York City Ballet can pull off two big Balanchine ballets with such fearless drive without Peter Martins at the helm, the company’s future looks as bright as its past.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions.
New York City Ballet performs through April 1, 2018, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.