The past year has been a festival-heavy one for New York City Ballet, and while the fall and winter seasons showcased works with scores by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, the first three weeks of New York City Ballet’s spring season celebrated American music. This isn’t the first time the company has devoted part of a season to American composers; it’s actually the 25th anniversary of the original American Music Festival, which featured a staggering 20 new ballets. Although the current festival didn’t feature nearly as many new works, it covered a lot of ground and showed how infectious, energetic, and appealing American music can be.
The first program I saw included Western Symphony, a 1954 Balanchine piece that pays tribute to American folk dancing with arrangements by Hershy Kay. The genius of Western Symphony lays in its ability to use classical vocabulary while respecting the formations and patterns common in folk dance. There’s some attitude and romance thrown in, for good measure, and although it may seem a bit hokey, it’s great fun. Balanchine loved the West, and this ballet was made with sincerity.
Aside from Rebecca Krohn, who looked stiff and pained throughout the first section, the rest of the dancers were joyful and infused their performances with a touch of sass. Megan Fairchild was sweet but a bit mysterious in the “Adagio” with Jared Angle, and Teresa Reichlen and Andrew Veyette were both daringly cheeky in the “Rondo”. How could Reichlen not have fun in that fantastic hat?
The other two works on the program were by Jerome Robbins, who frequently used music by American composers, partially due to his Broadway roots. Glass Pieces is a 1983 work featuring the minimalist but thrilling sounds of Philip Glass. The ballet seems to be a reflection on the pace and energy of urban life. In the opening section, the stage is flooded with brightly colored pedestrians, briskly walking in different directions on their morning commute. Three couples – in green, yellow, and red unitards – slowly jump through the crowd, landing with a definitiveness that offers a moment of tranquility and order amidst the chaos of the crowd and repetitive rhythms.
In “Facades”, the slower, calmer second section, a line of women – seen in silhouette – bobs up and down rhythmically and repetitively across the back of the stage while two otherworldly creatures – Wendy Whelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring, beautifully paired – float across the stage. Moving to the eerie, delicate melody, their simultaneous breathing was palpable in every lunge, lift, and angular shape. The third section, “Akhnaten”, is a march. A troop of men stomps and jumps to percussion, followed by a line of women jumping and spinning to flutes. The two groups join together into an ecstatic rush of sound and movement zigzagging in every direction at high speed, until it abruptly halts. This piece is gripping and never quite the same. There’s always something new to find in Robbins’ choreography and Glass’s music.
In N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, Robbins chose music by Robert Prince and a theme of teenage angst and vigor. If you strip away the chunky men’s sweaters, ankle-high socks, and colorful sneakers, it’s easy to see how relevant and accessible the movement still feels – fifty-five years after its premiere (In fact, a very enjoyable movie version of the ballet was made in 2010, set in present day). Opus Jazz is timeless.
In the opening scene, the dancers quickly drop to the ground and let a hand hover just inches above it, as if trying to contain their own anguish. In one moment they’re cool and calm, snapping to the jazzy beat while they take turns playfully showing off for the others. Taylor Stanley, a recently promoted soloist, is a standout, swiftly shifting from a feeling of frustration to glee. In the “Passage for Two”, Ashley Laracey and Chase Finlay are sensual and tense throughout their brief encounter. But the star of Opus Jazz is Georgina Pazcoguin, who has a real flair for the explosive, jazzy style of this piece. Her fearless movement quality captures the mood and tone of the music; she’s calm and controlled, then fiery and unstoppable. The energy on stage was relentless, untethered, and all-American.