Some dance fans believe that New York City Ballet dancers ought to be happy performing nothing but works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for the rest of their lives. And maybe many are. But dancers everywhere respond to learning new choreography the way racehorses at the gate anticipate the run ahead. It helps if the new ballet doesn’t hurt their bodies too much, and it helps if it’s really good. Two of the spring season’s new ballets are really good, and the dancers dig into them with every nerve and muscle on the alert.

Quasi Una Fantasia—set to the first, third, and fourth movements of Henryk Gorecki’s composition of the same name—is Benjamin Millepied’s first work for the company in which he’s a principal dancer. In it, he tackles a larger ensemble than he has yet worked with and maneuvers its members with grace and ingenuity. The opening section is especially intriguing. Three of the work’s eight couples are onstage when the curtain goes up, the women poised in arabesque. As they begin to move, still in profile, you’re hyper-aware of the wheeling patterns made by arms and legs. Two more couples arrive and hang out in a downstage corner, the women standing on the kneeling men’s calves, to watch the entry of one of the two principal pairs, Rebecca Krohn and Sébastien Marcovici. Another couple slips in. Then two couples, with the women sitting on the men’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the patterns are already shifting. And before you know how it happened, the groups coalesce into a unit.

NYCB’s Abi Stafford and Craig Hall in Jirí Bubencík’s "Toccata."
Yi-Paul Kolnik
NYCB’s Abi Stafford and Craig Hall in Jirí Bubencík’s "Toccata."

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New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
212-870-5570
April 28 through June 21

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This sounds pretty ordinary in print, but the way Millepied deploys his troops keeps your eyes busy. Now a clump of them progresses across the back of the stage, with two women sitting high and one being dragged along. As a whole, they look something like an elephant on parade. Suddenly, the corps of 16 assembles in a corner, the first row sitting, the others tiered behind them. Three men lift their partners straight up, facing us, and then—unexpectedly and in canon—tilt them slightly sideways. Gorecki’s mysterious music (expertly conducted by Fayçal Karoui) often layers deep, soft tones over a submerged pulse, but there are few emphatic dance rhythms. So when couples waltz their way into a circle, their feet and bodies create the ¾ rhythm you don’t hear.

Marc Stanley’s lighting is both flattering and discreet in its changes (for one section, a slim, soft-edged red line materializes horizontally on the backdrop), and the dancers look handsome in Marc Happel’s costumes: short, filmy, subtly patched tunics over plain-colored, trunks. All of them perform beautifully. Janie Taylor and Jared Angle are the other principal couple, and there is an intrepid duet for them as well as one for Krohn and Marcovici. But the ballet’s greatest strength lies in how inventively Millepied weaves patterns, repeats motifs, introduces small surprises, changes the stage picture, and provides recuperative pauses—all without strain. Nor does he stuff the phrases with steps, as he has done in the past; there’s a feeling of fresh air blowing around the stage.

Quasi Una Fantasia is less about matters of the heart than it is about companions being alert to one another’s dreams and making formality into an unfolding game with changeable rules.

Like Millepied, the Czech dancer-choreographer Jirí Bubenícek is relatively young. This is the first public showing of his work in the U.S. His Toccata does touch upon relationships, and the word toccata (from the Italian for “to touch”) may refer to more than the music for two pianos, viola, and cello written by his brother, composer Otto Bubenícek. The seven performers might be members of a 1970s commune, so easily and unobtrusively do they replace one another in pairings-up or turn an intimate duet into a trio. There often seems to be a wanderer—a searcher—but no desperation.

The space is featureless, except for Stanley’s lighting. The four musicians sit on high platforms at the back, invisible in the blackness unless they’re playing, when small low-intensity spots pick them out. The dancers wear leotards and tights designed by the choreographer and supervised by Happel. The palette consists mostly of grays, blacks, and variations of purple, except for the bright blue of Craig Hall’s leotard and Abi Stafford’s tights.

Bubenícek establishes from the start that Stafford is the principal wanderer. She falls into the arms of two men, while a third runs around them. They leave, and another man (David Prottas) comes up behind her and begins to partner her. The pianists (Elaine Chelton and Susan Walters) begin striking single, echoing notes. Within seconds, Prottas leaves and Robert Fairchild replaces him with Stafford. There’s a quiet restlessness in all the ballet’s shifting encounters—a quality reflected by the music’s occasional trembling and its long passages of silence.

Several times, a dancer touches another with one hand. A hand to the person’s chest indicates a mild, “Go away.” One to the back says, “Turn around.” The latter is how Stafford incites a duet with Craig Hall, and cellist Fred Zlotkin immediately begins to spin a melody for them. It’s a lovely piece of choreography, its only minor flaw the occasional, purely decorative arm gesture that the choreographer has Hall do while his other arm is holding Stafford. That such a traditional gesture stands out is the fact that the winding together of the partners is otherwise so interesting; their clasped-together hands provide both embraces and snares to be slipped through. Hall seems to want to keep his face close to some part of Stafford, even if he has to lunge deep to place his cheek on her hand. Fairchild doesn’t so much steal her attention as turn their duet into a brief trio before both men leave.

Watching a more mercurial duet for Andrew Scordato and Brittany Pollack, I realize that the way the dancers occasionally skid isn’t an accident, and their slides become more evident when Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin (replacing the injured Meagan Mann) dance together. Fairchild is terrific, too, in a kind of pensive rant of a solo. But the fluid image of replacing and moving on never stops. In the end, three couples are dancing in canon, while Prottas leaps and runs within the loose circle that they form. He’s still going full force when the curtain slowly, slowly descends.

NYCB’s spring season includes another ballet by a young choreographer: Melissa Barak’s A Simple Symphony, which premiered during the winter season. Barak, a former company dancer, is more conventional and less daring than the other two choreographers. The eight women who compose the ensemble, the two demi-soloists (Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller in the cast I saw in February), and Sara Mearns wear pink tutus with pink or gray satin bodices; the three men (Jared Angle, Tyler Angle, and Sean Suozzi) are similarly elegant. Barak set her ballet to Benjamin Britten’s marvelous composition of the same name, but she’s less daring than the composer (although she picks up on an allusion to Celtic folk dance in a engaging, fast-footed passage for the demi-soloist couples).

Sometimes her attraction to hierarchy and inkblot symmetry and is so marked that you’d think she modeled her structure on Balanchine’s forays into Tchaikovsky and Tsarist grandeur. Lower echelon dancers wait politely when Mearns and Jared Angle first appear. However, I don’t mean to imply that Barak isn’t imaginative. I remember with pleasure the moment when Jared Angle breezes around setting the six ensemble women turning; it’s as if he’s fanned them into action. And Barak knows how to display splendid dancers without being showy.

What I admire about the new pieces is that the choreographers know how to stretch and mold the classical vocabulary to give it a fresh, individual look without resorting to the fashionable kinkiness that can be so distracting in works by, for example, Jorma Elo. No grand finish to the company’s May 13 gala program (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, led by a princely athlete, Joaquin De Luz, and a charming but less regal Megan Fairchild), followed by a fancy dinner and dancing into the night for patrons, could be more celebratory than welcoming two fine ballets to the company’s repertory.

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