Designed by NYCB soloist Craig Hall
The New York State Theater was packed on Friday night, and not just with the typical crowd of New York City Ballet devotees. Young people, too, had flocked to Lincoln Center to see the Dancers’ Choice program, a benefit for the Dancers’ Emergency Fund. Principal dancer Jonathan Stafford and a committee of company members were in charge of choosing the ballets on the program, casting them, arranging rehearsals, and coordinating everything else that goes into a performance – marketing, press releases, and production, among other things. While I’m sure that the dancers were thrilled to be given the freedom to create their own program, planning the evening must have been a daunting task for everyone involved (I cannot imagine what the costume department went through to prepare: twelve ballets performed by more than seventy dancers!). Nevertheless, Mr. Stafford and his planning committee met the challenge, producing a memorable performance filled with a diverse array of ballets.
The program featured excerpts from works by the four main choreographers of the company: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and former resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. It was bookended by two of Balanchine’s best: Rubies and the 4th movement from Symphony in C. The jazzy movement, glittering costumes, and upbeat tempo of the former made for a lively opening to the program, while Symphony in C‘s lightning-speed pirouettes and hops en pointe, along with a stage full of white tutus, were a thrilling close to the performance. There were plenty of highlights in between: Robbins’ colorful Interplay was infused with youthful energy; Abi Stafford and Tyler Angle were spellbinding in an excerpt from Wheeldon’s mysterious, otherworldly Mercurial Manoeuvres; Andrew Veyette was elegant and refined in his solo from Balanchine’s Square Dance, while Teresa Reichlen performed with lyricism and serenity in a solo from Emeralds. An excerpt from Union Jack featuring Savannah Lowery was wildly energetic to the rhythmic drumming of Hershy Kay’s score (adapted from the traditional British music), and reminded me how much I love this ballet. Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes lent a bit of patriotism to the program, with Troy Schumacher making a memorable debut as the vibrant leader of the 3rd Regiment. And the program couldn’t be complete without some Philip Glass music. “Akhnaten” from Robbins’ Glass Pieces was as enthralling as it was when I saw the entire piece last week.
The centerpiece of the evening was Flit of Fury – The Monarch, a world premiere choreographed by soloist Adam Hendrickson, with music composed by corps dancer Aaron Severini. Two pianists, Steven Beck and Stephen Gosling, played the mesmerizing score at the back of the stage, while the four male dancers (Sean Suozzi with Robert Fairchild, David Prottas, and Allen Peiffer) and one female (Gretchen Smith) flitted about in front of them with refreshingly edgy, contemporary movement. The piece made good use of the vast space, but the dancers almost always performed in unison – often in two’s while the others looked on from the side of the stage. I would have liked to see more variation and complexity, particularly in the formations, so that the movement would more closely reflect the depth and intricacy of Mr. Severini’s darkly intense score.
In addition to featuring the respective choreographic and musical gifts of Mr. Hendrickson and Mr. Severini, the evening provided an opportunity for many other dancers to showcase their talents. Soloist Craig Hall designed t-shirts and the artwork (shown in the image above) for the posters and advertisements; corps dancer Kyle Froman created a beautiful souvenir book filled with photographs (which Philip wrote about and posted here) that he took of the dancers in and around the NY State Theater; corps dancer Sophie Flack donated two original works of art to the silent auction that occurred during the intermission; and corps dancer Henry Seth and soloist Ask la Cour composed music for a film clip that showed video footage of several company members dancing as children – in their living rooms, on stage, in the wings, and even in jazz competitions.
Dance samplers and benefit programs are often choppy – with too many excerpts squished into a limited time frame – and more focused on showcasing technical prowess than artistry. Neither was the case for the Dancers’ Choice program. The ballets were wisely chosen, reflecting the choreographic innovation of the company and the range of repertoire. Seeing that so many dancers contributed – both on and off stage – to the successful evening proves how much they care about the company and about ensuring that the Dancers’ Emergency Fund will always be there in times of need. This will surely become an exciting annual event.