Peter Martins, George Balanchine, and Richard Alston Play With Symmetry

In 1990, Peter Martins choreographed Fearful Symmetries, his second ballet to the music of John Adams. The title of this bracing work slid into my mind while I was watching Martins’s Naïve and Sentimental Music, his ninth setting of an Adams composition. There’s so much symmetry in the new work that when—seconds before the curtain came down on the 48-minute piece—all 26 members of the cast rushed into a single long diagonal and struck different poses, I almost fainted.

Martins obviously loves the clamor of Adams’s music, the way melodies thread through richly colored orchestrations and a propulsive beat keeps nudging along underneath. Think of hurrying along, say, Fifth Avenue, aware of the changing colors and shapes, pausing at red lights, overhearing fragments of conversation whose end you can’t predict, and listening to the sound of feet on the pavement, the unexpected ringing of a bell. The brashness, the angularity, the speed are all there in Martins’s choreography, and Naïve and Sentimental Music is crowded with steps. I don’t think he has ever been given enough credit for the ingenious moves he can devise without straying far from the classical lexicon; little quirks of footwork, unexpected twists to a conventional move arrest your eye without stopping the rush-hour passages of dancing.

But Martins doesn’t assert asymmetry and structural layering the way Adams does. The stage picture almost always seems balanced in one way or another, no matter how swift the movements are. Several times in Naïve and Sentimental Music, Martins introduces one person or couple, adds another, then another, and then two more, often drawing them into a triangular formation. He diminishes a full stage by having one pair leave at a time.

The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Naïve and Sentimental Music."
Paul Kolnik
The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Naïve and Sentimental Music."
Amie Brown and Pierre Tappon in Richard Alston’s "Shuffle It Right"
Hugo Glendinning
Amie Brown and Pierre Tappon in Richard Alston’s "Shuffle It Right"


New York City Ballet
David B. Koch Theater
January 5 through February 28

Richard Alston Dance Company
Joyce Theater
January 4 through 10

The first moments of the ballet introduce the accumulation motif charmingly. Yvonne Borree, alone onstage, dances quietly by herself in a circle of light. The music is gentle, melodic, and Borree’s filmy green dress, with its slightly awkward swag hanging from the back, moves softly. Jennifer Ringer enters wearing a darker shade of blue-green (costumes by Liliana Casabal), and Borree watches her unfold one long leg into the air. They come close to each other, side by side, and slowly move in unison. Jennie Somogyi enters, notices them, and fits herself into the harmonious pattern they’re developing. As the pace picks up and they acquire partners (Sébastien Marcovici, Philip Neal, and Adrian Danchig-Waring—all wearing dark brown sleeveless suits), I find myself harking back to this scene and wishing there were more thoughtful ones like it in the ballet, even fast-paced thoughtful ones.

Couples are a given in all of the ballet’s three sections. In the first, as Adams’s music (admirably conducted by Fayçal Karoui) peals and thunders and builds carnivals in the air, four more pairs weave in and out: Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, Abi Stafford and Andrew Veyette, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. Sometime people fly off the stage and return so soon that I think, “Why bother to go? Stick around.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that all 26 dancers are either principals or soloists, and only five of the 30 principals on the company’s roster don’t appear in the ballet. Martins parades them before us at warp speed, making some allowances for senior ballerinas like Darci Kistler, who, partnered by guest artist Stephen Hanna, figures as the centerpiece of the slower, white-costumed second movement, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard shimmer around in the foreground (Kowroski is especially lovely). When Adams introduces rippling repetitions on top of a heavy beat for the third section, Martins displays his most youthful stars, the women dressed in red, to lead the ensemble into that final startling diagonal. But he displays them the way you’d whisk a series of dim sum platters past waiting diners. This is not the occasion to get to know Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia.

To fall in love with Fairchild, Hyltin, and Peck—along with Ana Sophia Scheller—and remember what a marvelous composer George Gershwin was, you need to come back from the intermission and watch George Balanchine’s beguiling 1970 Who Cares?—with Gershwin’s music orchestrated by Hershy Kaye and set swinging by the musicians (including pianist Nancy McDill) and conductor Clotilde Otranto. The sight of sassy squads of women—with their prancing, their jutting hips, flippy kicks, and scissoring legs—yields to deft glimpses of the secondary soloists and the particular charms they bring to the stage in song after song. You worry when Sean Suozzi gets turned down by a couple of women, but, wait, here’s Ashley Laracey ready to strut through “Do, Do, Do” with him. The terrific Fairchild has three beauties to interest him, and the solos and duets that animate the last part of the ballet expand on the light-hearted courtships that have come before. Peck is irresistible as she romps amid the hot, syncopated licks of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”

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