Gradually the patterns of the two groups slide out of counterpoint and subtly echo each other. The high point is a duet between Peck and Benjamin Millepied, one of the 17th-century group (Millepied wonderfully reprises his role in the original cast of 11 years ago). The two are very tender. At first, he turns her slowly with his hand on her head as if he’s trying to understand her mind. When the electronic music intrudes, however, he falls on her and rolls her into his world just as the black curtain falls on it. In the end, she reappears onstage just where she was when the ballet began and watches her friends as they twine together.

The New Combinations program also features work by another Royal Ballet alum, Christopher Wheeldon—the pas de deux from his After the Rain, which premiered on Balanchine’s birthday in 2005. Balanchine’s own 1947 Theme and Variations was chosen to represent Russia when Alexey Miroshnichenko’s premiere had to be postponed. An unannounced bonus, the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano by the 19th-century Dane Auguste Bournonville was programmed when footage was discovered of Nureyev making his American debut on the Bell Telephone Hour on January 19, 1962, dancing that duet with NYCB’s Maria Tallchief. Onscreen, the two of them are charismatic, and, as might be expected, Nureyev’s footwork is more pristine than that of young corps member Allen Peiffer, who replaces him minutes later on the stage. But Peiffer and Kathryn Morgan (substituting for Abi Stafford and Gonzalo Garcia) are adept and charming as Bournonville’s shy young lovers. With a little coaching in the dramatic timing the Danes are so good at, they could be splendid.

Sébastien Marcovici partners Wendy Whelan in Wheeldon’s beautiful duet (composed for Whelan and Jock Soto). Marcovici is an extremely poetic dancer, and he works sensitively with the marvelous Whelan in this slow blooming of a couple’s life after a long, dry spell. Wheeldon combines poise and awkwardness in very moving ways. Once when Whelan arches back from Marcovici while he has her in his arms, he sets her carefully down in a backbend and moves away; she slowly straightens her limbs and lies down. At the end, he again places her in this uncomfortable position, but this time he slides under her body, gently pulls her down on top of him, and folds his arms around her.

New York City Ballet in Douglas Lee’s "Lifecasting"
Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in Douglas Lee’s "Lifecasting"

The dancing was not this stunning in the January 22 performance of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (composed for Ballet Theatre and usually seen at NYC as the last section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3). Garcia brings his usual warmth and vigor to the principal male role, but neither he nor Stafford (the two in place of Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild) have the confident grandeur you expect from the obvious king and queen of this world—Balanchine’s homage to his heritage and Marius Petipa’s great 19th-century ballets. More than tiaras and bejeweled tutus need to sparkle in Theme’s splendid patterns. Legs have to flash, and manners must be both elegant and nonchalant. Coming to this performance the night after Miami City Ballet’s opening, I felt a slight lack of spirit in the NYCB corps, compared to the sense of ownership and delight the MCB brings to Balanchine’s steps. When my gaze was caught by the tallest of Theme’s four demi-soloists, I realized that she was one of those few doing what I once heard called “looking out from her face.” That is, she was gazing around her with interest, spirit, and pleasure. What a happy day it would be if everyone in the company projected that onstage!

Coppelia—three-acts long and entitled to its own program during the first week of the company’s winter season—represents one of Balanchine’s few forays into re-envisioning a popular 19th-century, fairy-tale ballet. In 1974, he and Alexandra Danilova blended Petipa’s revision of Arthur St. Léon’s 1870 choreography, which they knew from their school days in St. Petersburg, with some Balanchinian inventions. The E.T.A. Hoffman story that the ballet is based on has its dark aspects, but they’re barely visible onstage. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s set for the NYCB production turns the stage into a candy-box village. Or maybe it’s a toy theater that the stage reminds me of. Balanchine spends little time creating social interactions. When the principal characters dance during the Festival of the Bells (in which many couple get married at once), everyone else retreats to the edges of the stage, sitting or standing in neat lines.

It’s all so beguilingly foolish that we don’t debate the brain power of a boy, Frantz, who mistakes a life-sized mechanical doll (the Coppelia of the title) for a real girl, or wonder how Dr. Coppelius, the inventor of this creature, unlocks the door and enters his atelier seconds after Frantz’s jealous girlfriend, Swanhilda, and her companions have tiptoed in at the end of Act I, yet only discovers them in Act II after they’ve played around with his automatons for a long time. And it hardly matters that Frantz sets his ladder and climbs to Coppelia’s balcony, but enters Act II via another window. What matters are Léo Delibes’s lovely danceable music, the handsome solos and ensemble passages (including one for a couple of dozen children), and the beautiful final pas de deux that Balanchine created to show us that Frantz and Swanhilda have decided to behave like grownups in love.

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