New York City Ballet – Symphonic Balanchine

There was definitely a beginning-of-the-season buzz in the air at the NY State Theater on Wednesday night. I heard plenty of snippets of gossip about dancers, and just as many opinions about their dancing. But the mood shifted ever so subtly when Peter Martins came on stage before the performance began. He announced that 25 years ago, to the day, George Balanchine passed away. Martins gave a brief but praiseworthy speech about Mr. Balanchine, who was (and still is) the heart and soul of the company, and explained that even though the majority of the current NYCB dancers never met Mr. B, “they dance as if they knew him”. He then raised a shot of vodka, asked the audience to stand, and we toasted to Mr. Balanchine.

This was a fitting way to begin the evening’s “Symphonic Balanchine” program, which opened with Balanchine’s purely classical Symphony in C, to Bizet’s score of the same title. Four different couples dance in the four distinct movements, along with a large corps, with the women wearing white tutus and the men in shiny black tights and long-sleeved tops. The first section is bright and cheerful, danced with charisma and dynamism by Abi Stafford and Jonathan Stafford (siblings). In spite of the rapid footwork and pirouettes, Abi looked relaxed and utterly happy to be on stage.

Most striking and memorable (for both the dancing and the music) was the slower, more dramatic second movement of the ballet. And luckily, the audience was treated to the gorgeous, lush dancing of Sara Mearns, along with Charles Askegard. Her limbs extended endlessly, filling every ounce of Bizet’s symphony, and her upper body was like liquid as she arched back several times into Askegard’s arms. One of the more exquisite moments of this section was when Askegard pressed his hands against Mearns’ torso, opened his arms quickly and gracefully to the side, and then Mearns slowly fell backward into his arms. The momentum for this phrase of movement clearly started with Askegard’s hands on her torso, and continued seamlessly through her fall.

The third and fourth movements were both allegros that required precise musicality from the dancers, and at this they were successful. The exciting finale included the entire cast on stage, in neat formations, completing a series of pirouettes, jumps, and lifts. This is one of Balanchine’s more technically challenging ballets, but he reminds the audience of the importance of simple classroom exercises when the corps does a series of tendus, extending one leg along the floor to the front, side, or back.

Symphony in Three Movements, which premiered on the first night of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, is a more neoclassical work that captures the complexity and jazziness of Stravinsky’s score. The piece features turned-in legs, pedestrian walking with pumping arms, and flexed feet. Since this is a “leotard” ballet, the corps wore simple white leotards, while the three lead women wore various shades of pink, all with their hair in high ponytails instead of the more classical bun. Sterling Hyltin and Daniel Ulbricht’s turned-in jumps were athletic, powerful, and high! Everyone gasped at Ulbricht’s first big jump. I sensed that he and Hyltin were competing to “outjump” each other. Adrian Danchig-Waring was an excellent, reliable partner for Savannah Lowery (making a role debut), and he danced with his usual striking poise as well as a refreshing confidence and ease. Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans’s pas de deux reflects Balanchine at his quirkiest, with a series of flexed limbs, angular shapes, and contracted lifts. But rather than appearing merely peculiar, this section seemed to be thoughtful and sincere because of the slower tempo and melodic solo for flute. Whelan infused the movement with a combination of athleticism, grace, sharpness, and fluidity – and a youthfulness that I hadn’t noticed when previously seeing her in this role.

Western Symphony was delightful. And fun! It had been at least ten years since I last saw this ballet – a tribute to American folk dancing – and I forgot how enjoyable it is, and how much fun the dancers seem to be having. With Hershy Kay’s orchestrations of classic American folk songs, the dancers moved in square-dance formations, kicked their legs overhead, and promenaded with their partners. Kathryn Morgan debuted in the second movement, partnered by Adam Hendrickson. The two engaged in a playful flirtation, danced together, and then separated at the end as Morgan bourréed off stage the same way that she entered. Morgan’s timing was excellent, allowing her to hold arabesques for just a second longer than I thought possible. The highlight of the piece, however, was Teresa Reichlen and Damian Woetzel in the ballet’s final movement. Their duet is sassy, flirtatious, and showy. Reichlen seemed much more confident in her sassiness and acting abilities than in the past (she performed similar flirty roles last season in Union Jack and “Rubies” from Jewels), while Woetzel, in spite of his noticeably graying hair and upcoming retirement, looked as youthful and flirtatious as ever. There was no lack of energy in their dancing, and Reichlen’s solid fouettes near the end of the ballet wowed the audience.

I only heard positive remarks about the program as I left the theater. Allegra Kent, who I had the pleasure of sitting next to for the performance, was smiling broadly and seemed generally pleased with all of the dancing. NYCB’s spring season is off to a wonderful start.

For another review of the performance, check out Philip’s post.

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