NYC Ballet’s Fall Opener Mostly Missteps, But Tchaikovsky Truimphs

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in Liam Scarlett's Funérailles, with costumes by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. (Photo courtesy Paul Kolnik)

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in Liam Scarlett’s Funérailles, with costumes by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. (Photo courtesy Paul Kolnik)

The first week of the City Ballet fall season began with a whimper and ended with a bang. The whimper came from me, as the first ballet of the opening night gala droned on and on—Peter Martins’s Morgen, from 2001, which I had assumed had been firmly interred years ago. But no—on this occasion, an evening devoted to fashion, Carolina Herrera’s new costumes were meant to coax it back to the land of the living. They were pretty, but nothing could vivify this endless experiment in extreme partnering. Richard Strauss’ moving songs (weakly sung by Jennifer Zetlan) couldn’t, and the three lead couples couldn’t. The gallant guys flung their ladies over their shoulders, coiled them around their torsos, snaked them between their legs … all, all in vain. It should have been on skates. Someone has to put a stake through its heart.

What followed was better, but how not? First, a duet by Christopher Wheeldon called This Bitter Earth (Dinah Washington in a pumped-up arrangement) for Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle. Whelan is retiring in a few weeks, but she was good to watch: all that experience, all that inner drive, and a totally focused partner, Tyler Angle, saw her through.

And then three premieres.

First, Clearing Dawn, by a corps member, Troy Schumacher, to a sextet by Judd Greenstein. It was a modest, jaunty piece—four women, two men—with pleasing energy and nice structuring, overwhelmed by the Thom Browne costumes: English schoolgirl and schoolboy outfits, nice for those who go in for English cute. The whole thing would have been more effective in simpler clothes, and on a smaller stage. Then, Funérailles by the young English choreographer Liam Scarlett—Liszt piano music, a duet for a bare chest and an insanely elaborate dress by Sarah Burton. Sporting the chest was Robert Fairchild. Inside the dress—when you could see her through the gloom—was Tiler Peck. What a waste.

Finally, a new piece—Belles-Lettres—by Justin Peck, the most talented of the three dance-makers, and here trying something new for him: the high romantic. There are four couples and a lone man—the gifted Anthony Huxley—who darts among the others, often directing their movement. Is he a stand-in for the choreographer presiding over his dancers? As always with Peck, there’s constant invention—fascinating configurations and an exciting flow. The costumes, by Mary Katrantzou, are charming and highly danceable. And yet, something’s off. For me, it’s the music, an extended piece for piano and five stringed instruments by César Franck, which is just a little cheesy. Justin Peck is never cheesy, and I can’t tell whether it’s only me made uneasy by this disparity or whether he feels it too. Belles-Lettres, for all its felicities, just doesn’t gel.

Tiler Peck in Theme and Variations. (Photo courtesy

Tiler Peck in Theme and Variations. (Photo courtesy Paul Kolnik)

Since opening night we’ve had all-Stravinsky and all-Tchaikovsky programs. There were problems with the Stravinsky, mostly because so many of the dancers were adding little touches, little mannerisms, to Balanchine’s text. Apollo, his first indisputable masterpiece, of course needs an effective god at its center, and although Fairchild attacks the role with vigor—sometimes too much vigor—he isn’t really an ideal Apollo: too all-American, too Gene Kellyish, (no surprise, since he’s about to play the Gene Kelly role in a new An American in Paris musical). More of a problem were the three Muses. Tiler Peck, my favorite City Ballet dancer, is miscast as Terpsichore. Her body is wrong for this paragon of classical lyricism, and she lacks Terpsichore’s calm certainty. Lauren Lovette as Calliope and Ashley Bouder as Polyhymnia were both selling. But Apollo, oddly enough, is Apollonian. If it isn’t pure, it’s wrong.

The best-danced work on the program was Duo Concertant, beautifully played by Arturo Delmoni (violin) and Nancy McDill (piano). Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay are more boyish-and-girlish than the more mannish-and-womanish originals, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins, but they make a good case for doing it their way. They were charmingly attentive to the musicians and to each other, and they carried off the somber ending. Even so, Hyltin was embroidering the text with little shrugs and smiles. Where are the ballet masters?

The simplest, and so most appropriate, approach to Balanchine/Stravinsky on this program was Teresa Reichlen’s, in the paired ballets Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Her great height, her gravity of movement, give her an easy command, so she doesn’t need to hype. I only wish that the great moments in Monumentum when she’s thrown from one man to two other men were as breathtaking as they used to be when Farrell, Kirkland, Kistler and others soared out in tremendous arcs. Today, the men practically hand her over, rather than blasting her off into space.

As for Agon, it had its own laxness and cutenessfor instance Andrew Veyette ending the man’s trio with an applause-seeking stabbing gesture towards the audience. But Agon is courtly, not vaudevillian. Rebecca Krohn was miscast in the woman’s trio; she just didn’t know what ballet she was in. And in the central duet, Kowroski, with Ramasar, was somewhat tentative. At least she didn’t mug.

The Tchaikovsky program, on the other hand, was an almost complete triumph. Serenade, that great swirling masterpiece, was in fine shape, the corps—and it’s a corps ballet—never faltering. And we had three ballerinas at the top of their form. I was captured by Sara Mearns’s intensity, focused, for once, rather than unbridled. Piling her hair way up at the back of her head elongates her neck, and the superb Karinska costume happily accommodates her large ribcage. Mearns is at her best when she’s on the move, and Serenade is all about moving—it justifies the fierceness of her attack. Hyltin was a quick, brilliant Russian Girl, not a powerhouse technician like some earlier interpreters but alive and totally invested. And Reichlen’s Dark Angel dominates without sacrificing the essential lyricism. Best of all, Clotilde Otranto’s conducting carried this ravishing score to one of the finest performances of it I’ve ever heard.

I thought Otranto’s Mozartiana sounded a little too heavy for this quicksilver ballet—its Mozart as well as Tchaikovsky. And Kowroski doesn’t have the ultimate musicianship this Farrell role demands. (She was simple and moving, however, in the Preghiera.) Daniel Ulbricht was a washout in the Gigue, and Tyler Angle, though hardworking and honest, lacks the subtleties Balanchine demands. As for Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, there was no honesty in Ashley Bouder’s performance; she just sells, sells, sells, over-punctuating, mouthing, with nothing left of the playful, lyrical qualities that make this piece a charmer, not merely an applause-trap.

Best of all was the finest all-round performance I’ve seen of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. Krohn was stunningly beautiful and romantic in the Élégie; for the first time ever I felt no shadow of kitsch. Abi Stafford and Erica Pereira served the Valse Mélancolique and the Scherzo well, and in the latter, Antonio Carmena was exceptionally strong and exciting. Finally, there was Tiler Peck, now in all her glory, in the final section that we think of as Theme and Variations. Her role is so exposed, so demanding! And she handles it with such apparent ease, the steps cascading from her with such confident joy! Joaquin De Luz has the steps—those often fatal eight consecutive double air-turns—but he’s agile where one might prefer command. And, finally, the entire cast in the great Polonaise was galvanized with energy and exhilaration.

Once again it was the thrilling orchestral account of the score that motored this magnificent performance. Otranto revels in the biggest effects, in the most robust velocities, yet her attention to detail is impeccable. Obviously she loves Tchaikovsky, and the company danced their hearts out for her and for him. Brava!

NYC Ballet’s Fall Opener Mostly Missteps, But Tchaikovsky Truimphs