Celebrating Balanchine and Tchaikovsky: City Ballet Is in Fine Form With Nutcracker and More

Tiler Peck dazzled in 'Allegro Brillante'

Lauren King and Robert Fairchild in George Balanchine’s 'The Nutcracker.' (Paul Kolnik)

Lauren King and Robert Fairchild in George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker.’ (Paul Kolnik)

For eight weeks, the only music heard at the Koch Theater has been Tchaikovsky. First, the annual six-week Nutcracker-fest; then, a fortnight of other Tchaikovsky-Balanchine masterpieces, disfigured only by Peter Martins’ Bal de Couture, which is about to make its return appearance after its unfortunate preview at last season’s gala—a glitzy tribute not to Tchaikovsky or Balanchine but to the fashion designer Valentino. It was the company’s dreariest attempt to juice up the box office since Martins’ equally ghastly collaboration with Paul McCartney.

But let us now praise famous men. That miracle of music and dramatic imagination, Nutcracker, was in really good shape when I saw it, twice, toward the end of its run—I had waited for the company’s two newest Sugar Plums. Both gave remarkably appealing performances, though in very different ways. Lauren King, a soft, pretty strawberry blonde, has been an eye-catching demi-soloist for some time now, always musical, always engaging—a charmer but not a dynamo, in a company of dynamos. Lauren Lovette is closer to the City Ballet norm: strong, clear, musical, succeeding through dance power and ballerina-like self-assurance. I’d probably take a small child to see King, who’s a more lovable and enchanting hostess in the Land of the Sweets, and a dance connoisseur to see Lovette sail through the gloriously expansive climactic duet.

Lovette’s Cavalier was Chase Finlay, who is turning himself into a true danseur noble, at least in look and manner; his partnering is getting there. Teresa Reichlen, with her natural big jump, was a pleasing Dewdrop, but in the same role, a newcomer, Mary Elizabeth Sell, was seriously irritating. She has the moves, but she’s selling herself at every moment, punctuating rather than phrasing. Calm down, girl. Claire Von Enck was a musical and pleasing Columbine. And let’s celebrate Robert La Fosse, back where we are always happy to see him as a subtle, compelling Drosselmeier. David Prottas made a good stab at the role, but his stance, his walk and his demeanor are just too young. Even so, one of the important things about Nutcracker is that it gives up-and-comers like him chances at arresting roles while providing audiences and critics with a look at the future. But the greatest thing about Nutcracker is, and will always be, the marriage of the greatest of ballet composers with the greatest of choreographers.

The first week of general repertory brought some surprises. In Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart, Sterling Hyltin made a highly persuasive debut. This was Balanchine’s last creation for Suzanne Farrell, and has been successfully performed by a range of large-scale dancers, including Maria Calegari, Kyra Nichols and Maria Kowroski. Hyltin bears no resemblance to any of them: she’s petite, delicate, quicksilver, with no grandeur about her—that’s why she’s at her least effective in the solemn opening “Preghiera.” But from then on, she danced with a lightness and playful brio that showed the ballet in a new way—perhaps more Mozart than Tchaikovsky. Chase Finlay nimbly traded tricky variations with her.

Teresa Reichlen’s relaxed technique carried her through the ultra-demanding ballerina role in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (née Ballet Imperial). Tall, thin, with exaggeratedly long limbs, she doesn’t seem the type—she’s more willowy than imperial—but it worked. As the second ballerina, Ana Sophia Scheller was her usual efficient, uninteresting self. But nothing can seriously diminish this tremendous masterpiece.

The one disappointment on this opening program was Serenade, the quintessential Balanchine take on Tchaikovsky and perhaps his best-loved work. The corps—crucial to the ballet—was in good condition, if occasionally ragged, but the three ballerinas were ill-matched and subpar. In her first appearance after a long layoff due to injury, Sara Mearns, making her debut in the tragic central role, looked somewhat out of shape. She plunged in, though, as she always does, and no doubt will find her way. Ashley Bouder, that powerhouse, is really too assertive a dancer to fit easily into the high romanticism of Serenade. And Megan LeCrone made no impression at all as the Dark Angel. The three women didn’t seem to belong together on the stage. Surely, with its abundance of superb young women, City Ballet can do better than this.

At the Sunday matinee, everything came together. To begin with, Mearns was at her finest in Swan Lake. Too often she shows us what a wonderful dancer she is without revealing much about the specific role she’s dancing. But there’s a true and deep identification with Odette—her performance is one long concentrated phrase of hope, despair, transcendence. The turbulent Balanchine version exactly suits her turbulence as a dancer. The hunters rush rather than wander on, Odette and the full complement of 30 (black) swans are driven rather than drifting, and the orchestra, under guest conductor Gerry Cornelius, was excitingly propulsive—and sounded resplendent in the improved acoustics. Jared Angle has grown into a mature, responsive Prince. What a glory Balanchine’s Swan Lake is! It shames both ABT’s silly version and Peter Martins’ soulless one.

Then came one of the finest performances I’ve seen in years at City Ballet: Tiler Peck in Allegro Brillante. I was sitting with another old-time, somewhat jaded critic, and we were gasping in delight at Peck’s sublime command—the tossed-off triple pirouettes, the incredible tight corkscrew turns, the musicality so natural, so effortless, so secure that everything in this explosive ballet just flowed easily along with no hitch and no push. Here was Balanchine dancing at its pinnacle. If only he had been there to see it.

Finally, an exemplary presentation of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, with the three prequel movements that Balanchine added in 1970 to his thrilling Theme and Variations (1947). Many of us wouldn’t miss them if they vanished, but on this occasion they held our attention—partly, again, because of the effectiveness of the orchestra. Rebecca Krohn was glamorous and authoritative in the near-kitschy “Élégie,” with its flowing long gowns and flowing long hair. Abi Stafford and Ana Sophia Scheller were capable and bland as ever in, respectively, the “Valse Mélancolique” and “Scherzo.” And Ashley Bouder, back in her native territory of high-stakes technical demand, gleefully nailed Theme without a flicker of hesitation, abetted by Andrew Veyette, who managed the eight consecutive double-air turns with aplomb, landing flawlessly on his knee after the last one. All this, and then the triumphant glittering finale! Who could ask for anything more?

editorial@observer.com