All ballet galas are unbearable, but they’re unbearable in different ways. In the bad old ABT days, we got a deluge of war-horse pas de deux tackled by war-horse dancers. Then there are the “theme” galas, in which a bunch of disparate ballets, or snatches of ballets, are thrown together under the pretense of making an artistic point. And then there are “celebration” galas, in which a person or an anniversary or an event is the declared focus of interest.
Once in a (rare) while there’s a real point to a City Ballet gala: the opening of the State Theater; the first night of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival; the salute to Lincoln Kirstein. Though let’s remember that the essential point of all galas is to raise money—and to give board members and their pals a chance to doll themselves up and eat bad food.
And once in a blue moon there’s actually something interesting to watch onstage: an only-performance-of-the-season ballet; a bit of special casting; or, best of all, an important premiere.
The gala opening night of the City Ballet season, which took place on Nov. 25, was one of the weirdest I’ve ever been to. It had a theme—all the music was American—but no one mentioned it. It was a celebration of an event (and what an event!): the donation of $100 million by David H. Koch toward the refurbishing of the State Theater, and the renaming of it as—you guessed it!—the David H. Koch Theater. And it was the worst-programmed evening of dance within living memory.
Let’s start with the program. The first half was lugubrious and dreary from the opening Chichester Psalms (2004: Leonard Bernstein–Peter Martins) to the closing excerpt from Martins’ earliest and maybe best ballet, Calcium Light Night (Ives). Chichester Psalms set the tone: It’s religioso, pretentious, repetitious, lacking an interesting dance moment, and sporting some extraordinarily silly costumes (by Catherine Barinas). Those poor boys in their long black skirts and off-one-shoulder black thingys on top! This excruciating work featured the New York City Opera Chorus, ranged around the stage and mouthing a language that I only slowly came to realize was Hebrew, plus a charmless boy soprano. The lead dancers were an underemployed Jared Angle and an over-upholstered Sara Mearns. The audience didn’t even applaud long enough to give them a front-of-the-curtain call.
Calcium Light Night, first seen 30 years ago, is a dynamic piece, but you wouldn’t have known it the other night. In place of the challenging, abrasive Heather Watts, we had Sterling Hyltin—adorable, but neither challenging nor abrasive. All the charge was gone, the fierce competition of a modern couple, and what was left was a limp and pointless exercise. Calcium Light Night needs to be seen intact, and invigorated. Sean Suozzi did what he could, but it wasn’t enough.
In between these two Martins pieces came the second movement of Barber Violin Concerto (more Martins), which hardly perked things up, and two duets from Jerome Robbins’ Ives, Songs, looking lonely and brave up on the big stage.
Also wedged in there was the indisputable masterpiece of the evening, “The Unanswered Question” section of Balanchine’s Ivesiana. (Remember Balanchine?) This ballet, created in 1954, was the oldest piece on the program, and by far the most gripping—and modern. Alas, it was completely undermined by wrongheaded lighting. A young girl is carried in, borne aloft by four men, while another man yearns for her down below. Janie Taylor is the perfect dancer for this mysterious incarnation of the unattainable—but not if you can’t see her. Most of the detail of her choreography was lost to view in near-total darkness, while Daniel Ulbricht, over-lit down on the ground, was clear as day.
The Unanswered Question was meant to be the girl; now she’s the Invisible Question, and the boy is the one who’s Unanswered. I did a reality check with the original enigma, Allegra Kent, who happened to be in the audience, and she confirmed that the lighting always used to illuminate the girl. Now here’s another unanswered question: Why bother to present great Balanchine if you’re going to pervert it? And why not give us all of Ivesiana one of these years, in place of one of the empty “modern” novelties that come and go through the revolving door that City Ballet’s repertory has become?