Review: ‘New York City Ballet: Works by Balanchine, Robbins, and Reisen’ at the Kennedy Center

Spring is in the air with not only the blooming cherry blossoms but also the bursting energy of the New York City Ballet’s exciting spring concert at the Kennedy Center.

New York City Ballet in 'Composer's Holiday' by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
New York City Ballet in ‘Composer’s Holiday’ by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Something old and something new was the theme of the evening. One might have thought the company’s selections would have presented its founding ballet masters and choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, first. It didn’t. Ever forward-looking, New York City Ballet opened with Composer’s Holiday, the choreography of a new rising star, 19-year-old Gianna Reisen, the youngest person ever to choreograph a work for the New York City Ballet.

Composer’s Holiday felt perfectly right for a springtime concert with its light, airy, and youthful pulsations and a feeling of excitement and anticipation.

Lukas Foss’s Three American Pieces for violin and piano, performed by Arturo Delmoni and Susan Waters, respectively, was an evocatively moving musical complement that gracefully framed the dancers’ quick, bouncy steps and joyous movements. The female dancers’ sheer white skirted costumes by Virgil Abloh of Off White added a sense of an incredible lightness of being.

Like crocuses pushing through the earth, the dancers push and pull their bodies, literally dragging one another across the floor as if being pulled to new life. They cross arms in front of themselves and raise them high above their heads and then flower out like blooms welcoming the light. Dancers hug or reach out and shake hands as if happy to encounter dear friends they haven’t seen in a while. Partnered dancers connect and engage in beautiful lifts.

The New York City Ballet Company is in fine form and the dancers’ technical excellence and lyrical expressiveness are quite beautiful to behold. Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Emma Von Enck, Kennard Henson, and Roman Mejia are principals in this work. Composer’s Holiday leaves you wanting more as the piece ends with the dancers running in seeming ecstasy from the stage, disappearing suddenly from sight. Just like the cherry blossoms.

The mood shifted dramatically with Kammermusik No. 2 danced to music by Paul Hindemith. Dancers move at the speed of light in formations that are almost militaristic in its emotional impact. Linear and angular, ten male and two female dancers create forms with straight arms or bent elbows at stark right angles with legs in deep plies, and prancing, flexed feet in turned-in first position.

Hindemith’s music is somewhat foreboding and gives this piece an emotionally cool quality as if intentionally forbidding feelings to emerge. Choreography by George Balanchine is clean and spare with a focus on manifesting beauty through structure. The male dancers’ unitards (costuming by Ben Benson) were a dull, steely gray. One female dancer mimics the other with a slight delay. There is a difference in the sharpness of the movements between the two dancers that did not appear intentional, so this part of the piece did not have the same precision.

New York City Ballet in 'Kammermusik No. 2' by George Balanchine. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
New York City Ballet in ‘Kammermusik No. 2’ by George Balanchine. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Abi Stafford, Teresa Reichlin, Joseph Gordon, and Russell Janzen are principals in the work and are outstanding, but Kammermusik No. 2 was the most emotionally distant piece of the evening. Perhaps Balanchine wanted to present the spectrum of passions that dance has the power to evoke.

Jerome Robbins’s Opus 19/The Dreamer, danced to music by Sergei Prokofiev with a violin solo by Kurt Nikkanen, was an ethereal work that presents a male as the principal dancer with a female partner and corps de ballet supporting. It was originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov, requiring a male dancer of great stamina as he is onstage for the entire piece.

Gonzalo Garcia carries Sterling Hyltin into his dreamy sequence of falling asleep and waking to sweet dreams that at times becomes nightmarish. The dancing changes along with the cacophony of sound. Emotional, lyrical with long flowing arms, in Opus 19/The Dreamer much of the dancing is also done en pointe for long periods, so great technical strength is also required by the corps de ballet.

The New York City Ballet continues its outstanding tradition of being one of the best American ballet companies. Fine dancing marked the entire program and there were few missteps other than an occasional false landing after a male grand jeté or synchronization that was not always as crisp as perfect timing would have it.

The final piece of the evening, Symphony in C, was first created for the New York City Ballet in 1948 by George Balanchine, so it was Old World ballet style, complete with white tutus and princely black jackets for the men by Marc Happel.

This work has had a lasting impact on dancers over the years. When Jerome Robbins first saw Symphony in C he immediately wrote to Mr. Balanchine to see if he could get a job working for him in any capacity; it was the first ballet that Suzanne Farrell ever saw. Its beauty made her want to become a ballerina. Farrell became famous for her nose-to-knee penché in the Adagio.

Sara Mearns in 'Symphony in C' by George Balanchine. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Sara Mearns in ‘Symphony in C’ by George Balanchine. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Sara Mearns, dancing that role, was also up to the task, and her penché and trusting backward falls into the arms of her partner Jared Angle were impeccable. Mearns is a dancer of exquisite expressiveness, strength and technical competence that belies the strength required to hold the balances and extensions in Symphony in C.

The entire piece is energetic, playful, lyrical and rapidly paced, filled with intricate steps that seem to build in momentum requiring great stamina. At the close of the fourth movement, the Allegro Vivace, principal dancers and a corps de ballet of some 50 dancers of the captivating New York City Ballet fill the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House with joie de vivre and triumphant grandeur.

Running Time: Three hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

The New York City Ballet plays through April 7, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC, and presents two programs: Balanchine, Robbins, & Reisen (April 2, 3, 7) and New Works & New Productions (April 4, 5, 6). For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.