Dancing With the Real Stars

Balanchine's company shows its versatility in winter season opener

Stars of stage and screen rarely make speeches at New York City Ballet galas, nor are flashy pas de deux the rule. The emphasis is on the choreographers, as George Balanchine would have hoped. This fall, the emphasis is also on the upbeat; the second half of the evening opens with Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet and closes with the finale of his Stars and Stripes.

In this Witch's Sabbath, set to Gounod's music, the wildness comes mostly from the flying hair of the very pretty sorceresses of the corps de ballet as they leap about. And the marvelous Kyra Nichols and her partner, Philip Neal, imbue the pas de deux with sweet nobility. Balanchine's paean to the America of marching bands and flag raisings is rolled along by the corps as well-oiled machine, framing a rambunctiously virtuosic get-together for El Capitan and Liberty Bell. Damian Woetzel is now so at ease in this duet that even his impeccable flexed-footed entrechats come across as tossed-off quips, and Ashley Bouder has fully grasped the potential for mischievous charm in her tricky, preening steps.

How versatile this company has become! Jerome Robbins's 1958 New York Export: Opus Jazz offers a take on urban America rooted in his 1957 West Side Story. Its twelve dancers slouch on and eye us like belligerent teenagers before joining in an athletic take on "cool." Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance) instead evokes a small-town fairground—with performers mimicking merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels while Seth Orza, a talented corps member, courts appealing apprentice Kathryn Morgan. For flash, we get an excerpt from Peter Martins's 2006 Friandises. It's not just Tiler Peck and the super-springy Daniel Ulbricht who excel in the leaps and spins with which everyone crisscrosses the stage.

Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans in a sizzling Middle Duet.
photo: Paul Kolnik
Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans in a sizzling Middle Duet.

Jorma Elo's Slice to Sharp delivers an edgier virtuosity. Since the ballet's smash-hit debut last June, its 12 superb dancers (a democratic mix of principals, soloists, and corps members) have become more at ease, more playful with the choreography's clever, lightning-fast body puzzles and quirks. Back in the 18th century, Vivaldi couldn't have imagined anyone slashing and stabbing like this amid the notes of his double violin concerto (it's almost hard to believe the blend of precision, force, and speed when it's before your eyes). On the dark side, Sébastien Marcovici lugs Janie Taylor around in an excerpt from Martins's 1987 Ecstatic Orange. When Marcovici passes his partner around his body, she seems to be growing onto him, deceptively innocent ivy. Taylor, who looks like a sea nymph with her slim, supple form and long blond hair, was born to be drastic.

The evening's special attraction, Middle Duet, won't be seen again until, possibly, the spring season. This pas de deux, made in 1998 by Alexei Ratmansky, the choreographer of last June's wonderful Russian Seasons, is immediately interesting. Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans face each other in a square of light, she with her back to the audience. Although their manners are mild, courtly even, Evans almost always holds his partner by the hand(s) or grasps her shoulders. As Yury Khanon's music begins its sweetish circling melodies, the two pull apart and together in various ways, Kowroski more active, Evans focused on reeling her carefully in and out. Small-scale surprises punctuate their larger movements: They give their hips a little twist; they snap their heads around to stare at us. Their movements become more expansive when lighting designer Mark Stanley opens new zones on the floor, but close or separated, they give the impression of working together on a challenging task. In the end, they both collapse.

New Yorkers will have to wait until the Nutcracker weeks are over to see any of these ballets. In the meantime, bring on the sugarplums!

 
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