It’s been a challenging few years for New York City Ballet, the nation’s preeminent ballet company. What with the misconduct and resignation of its ballet master in chief, subsequent misconduct charges and lawsuits regarding misconduct and sexual harassment by some of the company’s top male dancers, and now a recently filed lawsuit concerning the control and licensing of the legacy works of its founder George Balanchine, it was unsurprising that in recent years the company’s dancing was not up to the singular Balanchine standard.
But this week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the company dancers seem refreshed and renewed. The recent announcement of a new leadership team, including artistic director Jonathan Stafford, associate artistic director Wendy Whelan, and artistic advisor – and resident choreographer – Justin Peck, seems to have lifted the spirits of the dancers. They’re dancing considerably better this year than last during the annual company Kennedy Center visit. Under the music direction of Andrew Litton – a former National Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor – overseeing the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, NYCB is most definitely on an upswing.
If any longtime ballet subscribers and audiences were expecting warhorse Balanchine classics and lesser works from former ballet master Peter Martins, the troupe’s second program was filled with surprises in three new works from the 2018 season and a bevy of strong, some peerless performances during Thursday night’s program. The opener, Easy, created a year ago for the company by its resident choreographer Peck, was a bit of a throwaway, bright but vacuous, suiting its title. The six dancers wearing Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s sherbet-colored athleisure shorts, pants and skirts – magenta and bright blue, tangerine and lemony yellow – bop and bounce to Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy “Prelude,” “Fugue” and “Riffs.” Fun and occasionally funny, with Stephen Powers’ arch cartoonish backdrop still a bit of a question mark, especially the statement “Who is the boss in a concerto, the soloist or the conductor?” Easy, with its sneaker-clad dancers, feels like a one-off, not a keeper.
Jerome Robbins’ In the Night was the evening’s jewel. A series of duets for three couples that swoon and waltz to Chopin piano etudes (played lovingly by Nancy McDill), it was exquisitely and movingly danced. A precursor to Robbins’ more well-known Other Dances (made for the great Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976), this 1970 work beautifully ruminates on the mystery of coupling with gorgeously effortless lifts, carries, and dips. Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon painted the stage with sweeping arcs as he whirled her and her lavender gown flowed in her wake. Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen carried themselves with the perfume of the Old Country, with hands on hips and heel-toe steps. Unity Phelan and Jared Angle showed stops and starts, and a fight that #metoo might deem inappropriate, Phelan kicking up her legs in a discourse of a fight before acquiescing. Anthony Dowell’s lush gowns and fitted tunic coats for the men lent the work a sophisticated allure.
The program’s awaited centerpiece, Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway, suggests City Ballet is forging a new road. Abraham is the first African-American choreographer to create a commission for the company in nearly two decades. That he works exclusively in modern and contemporary dance, drawing vocabulary from pop, hip hop, club, and street cultures as well as Cagean ideas of chance and Cunninghamesque clarity of body shapes, and musical inspiration from Bach to Sam Cooke to Prince, makes him a refreshing choice.
For The Runaway, which premiered last year during the company’s annual fashion gala, Abraham, a former company member with both David Dorfman and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, selected a contemporary classical study for piano and violin by Nico Muhly and pop song clips by Kanye West, Jay-Z and James Blake, edited by Abraham. The astonishing opening solo danced by Taylor Stanley mined snake-like body rolls, staccato riffs, and a seemingly rafter-grazing side leg lift that hung in the air for long minutes as he collapsed his upper body in a cantilevered pose. Later his fingers splayed like flowering petals as he arched backward in another tour de force moment of stillness.
A sudden break interrupts this reverie as the soundtrack changes to West, Jay-Z et al. Women, wearing feathered headpieces that look like Pippi Longstocking pigtails for the nightclub set, slip through a series of arabesques and allegro jumps demanding dexterous footwork. The black and white costumes by Giles Deacon resemble smudged Rorschach inkblots on mini bloomers and mini-bustled and ruffled skirts. The men, sometimes boldly barechested, wear feathery or pleated ruffs around their necks. Interestingly, the costumes hint at 17th- and 18th-century court dress, with collars and cuffs, ruffles and flourishes of feathers.
Particularly the spoken word tracks from Kanye West – “today I thought of killing you” and “I’m thinking of killing myself” and “the most beautiful thoughts are always inside” and “I love myself more than I love you” – overshadow or perhaps complicate the choreography, which draws from the classical idiom fused with crisp Cunningham-esque modern vocabulary and more funky hip hop and street moves – a ubiquitous shoulder brushoff, a gun-pointing finger, and some full-body undulations that are completely foreign to the ballet world. The dancers pull off perfect croisé devant poses – the body angled and one foot pointing forward, head, arms and shoulders just so, before collapsing heavily hunched over.
Abraham gamely and astutely finessed setting these highly skilled ballet dancers into motion by not eschewing what they do best, but by enhancing it and allowing them to inhabit a 21st-century mashup or fusion that brings a modern and club or hip-hop sensibility to what is a typically less than adventurous classical form.
I’m still mulling over the title and wonder if it refers to West’s own foray into Romantic and Classical ballet idioms in his 2010 30-minute video album, “Runaway,” which features a tutu-clad corps de ballet dancing to his hip hop compositions. Besides Taylor Stanley, the women who parsed out furiously quick footwork included Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin.
The evening closed with a disappointing tribute to Jerome Robbins, who has been celebrated for a year-plus on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. Something to Dance About drew from Robbins’ incomparable Broadway oeuvre – On the Town, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I and more. Staged as a mini-musical, akin to Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the jukebox-like compilation included singer Leah Horowitz and even a bit of dialogue from some of the dancers. This large-cast work was surely a joy for the dancers, but Warren Carlyle’s staging did not serve Robbins’ innovative and iconic dances. I can’t imagine, as famously irascible as he was, that he would have been pleased by truncated, misappropriated, and poorly staged renderings of his most beloved and recognizable works. The best part was the introductory video, showing the choreographer at work and commenting on his creative output.
The evening’s takeaway? While titled New Works & New Productions, the program is one more tribute to Robbins. Peck’s sneaker-clad opener, Easy, riffs on Robbins’ love of classic jazz and his own forays into the sneaker, particularly his Opus Jazz. Abraham’s melding of popular culture icons with classical form and technique is in itself a tribute to the Robbins aesthetic of fusing old and new, technical and experimental. The only dud, Something to Dance About, serves to remind us of the incredible talent Robbins meted out across genres – he was equally masterful at crafting a beautiful piano ballet like In the Night as he was at choreographing and directing iconic showstoppers.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, with two 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 7) and New Works & New Productions (April 5 & 6). For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.