Springtime for City Ballet: The Company Is Enjoying One of Its Highs

Tiler Peck in 'Who Cares?' (Photo by Paul Kolnik Choreography/© The George Balanchine Trust)

Tiler Peck in ‘Who Cares?’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik Choreography/© The George Balanchine Trust)

City Ballet’s spring season went out with a bang: a week of Balanchine’s miraculous A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a miracle first of all because in a single act it gives us almost the entire Shakespeare play, with its vast cast of characters and vastly complicated story, yet it’s so brilliantly constructed and so briskly yet fully told that it never falters and we never lose track. It’s a definitive lesson in narrative, and of course it’s married to Mendelssohn’s exquisite music.

Here are Oberon and Titania, the proud and feuding fairy king and queen; the two sets of rather dopey lovers (“What fools these mortals be!”); the irrepressible Puck; the Athenian “mechanicals”—Bottom and his pals—who are putting on a play; the Amazon Queen Hippolyta and her lover, Duke Theseus; the butterflies, the bugs, Hippolyta’s hounds, all milling and spilling across the stage. Among the most rapturous moments: Titania’s hilarious and sexy duet with Bottom-as-donkey; Oberon’s fiendishly demanding solo; the magic of the forest at night, with a troop of tiny children sporting wings.

We were given three casts, the first one familiar and time-proven. In the second, Sara Mearns made her debut as Titania, an appealing and persuasive performance; when she’s anchored by having to dance a specific character (she’s at her finest in Swan Lake), she keeps her sometimes indiscriminate exuberance from getting in the way. Her Oberon was Andrew Veyette, always expanding artistically, but as a couple these two are mismatched: from the start, Balanchine envisioned a short Oberon and a tall Titania. (Nancy Reynolds, in Repertory in Review, remarks, “The choice of the small Villella fit in with Balanchine’s conception of the character, which was based on a German source in which Oberon is an elf and Titania very tall.”) When they’re more or less the same size, something basic in their relationship is lost. The third-cast Titania was a lovely Teresa Reichlen, her unusual height and willowy body—and a charming girlishness—immediately convincing. Unfortunately, her Oberon, Antonio Carmena, is not really up to the pyrotechnics required, and he wisely finessed some of them.

There were other first-rate interpretations scattered about the various Dream casts. Sean Suozzi was a vital, amused and amusing Puck—an original and pleasing performance. Lauren Lovette was a standout Butterfly; Lauren King and Abi Stafford were dramatically convincing as Helena and Hermia; Craig Hall was a droll and sympathetic Bottom. But the truly extraordinary performance was that of Tiler Peck in the ballet’s second-act divertissement, coupled with Tyler Angle in what is perhaps Balanchine’s most subtle and refined pas de deux. Her musicality, her subtlety, her charm, her ease—not even the role’s original interpreter, Violette Verdy, was greater. Peck was dancing at the highest level. But this came as no surprise. She had already enjoyed comparable triumphs in the Patricia McBride role in Who Cares? (“The Man I Love,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”) and in Davidsbündlertänze.

There were other gratifications to be found throughout the season. Most important: the company redeemed itself with a mostly new cast in The Four Temperaments after several seasons of generally execrable performances. Sean Suozzi, again confident and imaginative, gave a remarkably resonant and moving interpretation of “Melancholic”—vulnerable and tender in contrast to the famously agonized reading of Bart Cook. Even Ask la Cour improved in his “Phlegmatic” role, and Mearns made a respectable if not commanding impression as “Sanguinic”—she doesn’t as yet totally embody the clean thrust of the role. Ashley Bouder’s “Choleric” remains unrivaled. Welcome back, Four Ts.

The big excitement was the premiere of the new and largest-scale work to date by the very talented and interesting Justin Peck, his sixth for City Ballet in three years. This time around he had the pick of the company to choreograph on: Tiler Peck (no relation), Maria Kowroski, Sterling Hyltin, Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Reichlen, Veyette, all of them at their best for him. As always with Peck, the invention is so clever, so prolific, that you’re constantly on alert lest you miss something. He’s particularly adept at sweeping people on and off the stage and deploying them in groups that merge and separate with what seems organic rightness. He’s expert at identifying and exploiting each dancer’s particular qualities—and why not: as a company soloist, he knows them all inside out.

Both times I saw this piece—which is called Everywhere We Go, for reasons that escape me—I had much real pleasure from it. And yet I have reservations. The first involves the commissioned score by a Peck favorite, Sufjan Stevens, which is not only bombastic at times (think Hollywood of the ’50s) but is too extended and too repetitive. As a result, the ballet sometimes seems both overpacked and overlong. I kept thinking it was over. Peck has learned and internalized a tremendous amount from Balanchine, yet doesn’t imitate him—the odd quote, as from Four Ts, is homage not pastiche. But he has yet to internalize a central principle that Balanchine said he took away from his experience creating Apollo: how the crucial thing is knowing when to leave things out rather than to pile them on. Peck has learned so much so fast that he will inevitably learn this too. Today he’s like a brilliant youngster learning to flex his muscles—not unlike Balanchine’s Apollo himself. New opportunities (and new composers) will unquestionably mature him. They’d better, because if not him, who?

But despite all the pleasures available at City Ballet this season—and the company is enjoying one of its highs—the single most pleasurable Balanchine event of the spring was the performance of Serenade at this year’s School of American Ballet annual workshop. Serenade—Balanchine’s 1934 masterpiece; his first work created in America—is one of his greatest and most frequently performed, a favorite everywhere, with its deep romanticism and tragedy-inflected lyricism. It’s a work for the corps de ballet (famously, it opens with 17 girls standing, posed and poised in a unique formation, gazing up at the sky), but it also has three featured female roles that must stand out, yet be integrated with the corps. Most of all, it demands an absolute consistency of approach in its relentless sweep and swirl of girls across the stage.

This SAB performance, breathtakingly staged by the irreplaceable Suki Schorer, was the finest rendering of Serenade I’ve seen in many years. Far from seeming not-yet-professional, it was a triumph of assuredness and cohesion, so moving and yet so unsentimental. Yes, SAB has months of rehearsal at its disposal, but those months don’t always pay off. I have to hope that the NYCB ballet masters who were present learned the lesson: you can’t take any three principal women who happen to be less busy than their colleagues, drop them in willy-nilly among the corps, and hope to end up with a satisfactory Serenade. Attention must be paid.