Onwards and Upwards (and Occasionally Downwards) With City Ballet

Miriam Miller and Anthony Huxley in Prodigal Son.

Miriam Miller and Anthony Huxley in Prodigal Son. Paul Kolnik

No doubt I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again: New York City Ballet gives and takes away. And we have to keep checking its temperature, because it continues to be so important to so many of us, both personally and culturally. What’s more, we have to go on holding it to the highest standards—its own. Which means the standards of George Balanchine, particularly when applied to Balanchine’s ballets. In recent seasons, the focus has been on the abstract “black and white” works—Agon, Episodes, et al. The first weeks of this season have concentrated on his narrative ballets: his “short stories,” as the company is labeling them. But along the way, we experienced a disastrous “taking away”—a dismaying performance of The Four Temperaments, one of Balanchine’s greatest works.

Not one of the three “themes” with which the ballet opens had the essential force or style, and the final one saw the couple’s famous exit mistimed as well as understated. Then, “Melancholic” was performed by Anthony Huxley, the most talented of the Young Turks, and he danced it with spirit, but it was the wrong kind of spirit: they sent an agile boy to play a depressed man. Was he coached? There was worse to come. Having given us last season the worst performance of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux I’ve ever seen, Ashly Isaacs now gave us the worst “Sanguinic” I’ve ever seen: stiff, dull, lacking all propulsion. What saved things (up to a point) was Tyler Angle, who was heroic in his presence and his partnering in a role that usually goes unnoticed. Ask la Cour was a mild “Phlegmatic” and Ashley Bouder, an experienced “Choleric,” was appropriately fierce. But it was far too late: Four T’s is now on death row.

Wait a moment, though! There’s been a last-minute reprieve, the way in Intolerance and a host of other old movies an innocent man, moments away from The Chair, is saved by a messenger speeding from the governor’s office with news of his pardon! Hours after I’d written the above, I saw a different cast of Four Temperaments that changed everything, or at least changed enough. The three themes were as undercharged as before, but Sean Suozzi, experienced in the role, was a convincing “Melancholic”—not the despairing soul Bart Cook used to give us so powerfully, but a man caught in a miasma of gloom, struggling to break through. And most important: as “Sanguinic,” Sara Mearns brought the ballet to life and kept it alive until the stirring ending. She’s not a dancer I find easy to like, but here her powerful attack, her expansiveness, and her immense assurance prevailed. We can thank her for bringing a masterpiece back from the brink.

Fittingly, it was young Huxley who anchored the most significant revivication of the season: Prodigal Son. I saw three casts. Daniel Ulbricht made a game try at the Son, and was effective in the opening scene, his brio carrying him through the famous jumps, but he lacks the depth of feeling the humiliated Prodigal needs to suggest as he crawls back home. Gonzalo Garcia is just too mature for the part, and his dancing too diminished. Huxley, though, was a revelation. He looks exactly right as the impetuous spoiled youth; he has the abundant juice required in the opening sequence; his infatuation with The Siren is believable in its fumbling and bewildered ardor; and—crucially—he conveys the anguish, the self-disgust of the return. He’s one of the finest Prodigals since the great days of Villella.

This was a major debut, made even more exciting by the debut of Miriam Miller as The Siren. Miller appeared out of nowhere a few seasons ago as a beautiful Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Peter Martins’ most audacious and successful strokes of casting. Now she is the perfect Siren. It’s partly that her physicality is exactly right—tall, elegant, imposing. And gorgeous—a throwback to the Sirens of Diana Adams and Yvonne Mounsey. You can’t take your eyes off her. You see why the Prodigal is hypnotized because you are too. There was a dramatic slip-up at a famous moment in the duet, but she was right back in charge within seconds—a pro as well as a phenomenon. Maria Kowroski is always stunning in this role, Teresa Reichlin is oddly bland despite her extraordinary height and carriage, Mearns gives a full and careful rendering, but she just isn’t the physical type—she can be a sexpot but she’s not a dominatrix. Several years ago, the young Chase Finlay restored Apollo to us. Today, Huxley and Miller have done the trick for Prodigal Son. As I say, Peter Martins takes away but he also gives back.

Swan Lake, the ultimate story ballet, also saw a superb debut. Sterling Hyltin—so slight, so talented—was a fragile and moving Odette; she seemed thoroughly prepared and extraordinarily comfortable in this iconic role. Most moving was how in the final passages she subtly indicated not only her grief at being torn from Prince Siegfried but her struggle to remain human—her arms straining not to turn back into wings—when Von Rotbart is summoning her back to swandom. She has the strength an Odette must have, but, unlike Mearns (who certainly dances it capably), she also has the vulnerability and the pathos. This is her finest role since La Sylphide. And she too had the good fortune of having Tyler Angle as her partner.

Sterlin Hyltin in Swan Lake.

Sterling Hyltin in Swan Lake. Paul Kolnik

As for La Sonnambula, not one of the three Sleepwalkers I saw conveyed the mystery, the poetry, of this extraordinary creation. Here Hyltin was too involved with the mechanics—the endless chains of bourrées skimming the floor. Young Claire Kretzschmar had the right idea, but not yet the fluency and assurance. And Tiler Peck had, of course, the technical capacity, but even more than the others she completely lacked poetry—as did her partner, Robert Fairchild, playing The Poet. He certainly wasn’t a moonstruck artist searching for and finding his Ideal, and dying for it; he was a nice young man whose interest in a strange young woman goes wrong. But things had gone wrong long before the tragic climax. The first half of the ballet, in which the Coquette and the Poet flirt all too publicly with each other, was staged as if there was a big back-story. They and the Baron—the host and the husband of the Sleepwalker—are presented as if they’re been caught up in a desperate love triangle. The Coquette and the Poet are not Tristan and Isolde, they’re Romeo and Rosaline: Romeo and the Sonnambula are the real thing.

Eric Bruhn, the greatest of Poets, put it this way, as quoted in Nancy Reynolds’ essential book on City Ballet, Repertory in Review: “There is a quiet mannered, realistic ball going on, and suddenly the Poet arrives. The people do not know who he is or why he has come. It would seem quite natural that he could not participate completely in this kind of party. One girl, the Mistress, takes a fancy to him but he quickly discards her. Then he is left alone and meets the Sleepwalker who seems quite ideal. This is his life, this is the dream come true….” But as so often in Balanchine, the dream is unattainable. In the current staging, there is no dream, there is no ideal, there is no moonstruck artist. There is an ethereal, unseeing woman with a candle and a young man who dies of melodrama. Even the ending, when the Sonnambula, still sleepwalking, carries his dead body backwards into the mansion, is blurred: the staging blocks our view and diminishes one of Balanchine’s most amazing coups de théâtre.

Chase Finlay was the most effective of the Poets because he looks so right—handsome, superb carriage, perfect in his dove-gray costume. Fairchild was more Gene Kelly than tragic artist. Zachary Catazaro was not much of anything, except for all that dark hair. What came off best in this staging were the exemplary corps in the ballroom scene and the participants in the brief divertissement the Baron has arranged to amuse his guests. Especially notable were Claire von Enck and Sebastian Villarini-Velez in the little pas de deux.

***

A word about a non-narrative Balanchine work: Allegro Brillante, that bang-bang distillation of classical ballet set to a bang-bang movement from Tchaikovsky’s unfinished third piano concerto. Tiler Peck thrived on its technical demands—nothing fazes her as she plays with the music. Yet for me there was something lacking—it was as if she was gleefully showing us what she can do, rather than embodying Balanchine’s idea of the classical ballerina. This was a Maria Tallchief role, a Melissa Hayden role—they powered through it rather than played their way through it. They commanded it.

Allegro as a whole looked good—the four men and four women of the corps had clearly been rehearsed: this short piece is so demanding for everyone that it can’t just be thrown on. At a second performance, Megan Fairchild—hardly a bravura classicist—was accomplished enough and has worked hard enough to more or less pull it off. Her partner, Amar Ramasar, was elegant and totally committed. And the corps once again came through. Allegro lives!

***

Finally, the two world premieres. One is easily dealt with. The trendy Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg presented us with something called The Shimmering Asphalt. The dismal commissioned score, by David Lang, was paralleled by the dismal costumes, by Rachel Quarmby-Spadaccini. The latter were particularly annoying, the men in little grayish skirtlets and mostly bare chests, the women in short dresses in the same neutral tones. Worst off was Sara Mearns, whose atypical physique needs more help than Quarmby-Spadaccini chose to give it.

The Shimmering Asphalt utilized nine major City Ballet dancers, all but one a principal, and gave none of them anything distinctive to do. (Hyltin, for instance, was lost in the crowd.) The vocabulary was typical European meandering; worse was the absence of any discernible structure or idea—it was as though it were all being improvised, waiting for the dancers to come up with something. And then it stopped. But not soon enough for me.

Chase Finlay and Sara Mearns in The Shimmering Asphalt.

Chase Finlay and Sara Mearns in The Shimmering Asphalt. Paul Kolnik

Infinitely more effective was Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing. He knows what to do with City Ballet dancers, since he is one—and for the first time he used himself in one of his ballets, most tellingly in a brilliant duet (in sneakers) for himself and Robert Fairchild: it’s synchronized tapping. Everyone’s in up-to-the-moment street clothes, hoodies and all; indeed, everything—attitude, protest—is up-to-date, including the music, excerpts from Dan Deacon’s strident album America. As always with Peck there are fascinating groupings, explosions of energy, and City Ballet’s dancers as always love what he gives them to do, though Tiler Peck (no relation) and Amar Ramassar can only do so much with an extended pas de deux that seems more dutiful than inspired.

More here than in his other work, Peck seems to be reflecting Jerome Robbins. We’re in the streets; we’re a bunch of kids today! And we’re using today’s dance language. It’s these times that are racing, and this ballet can be seen as a response to today’s political situation. Why not? There’s all too much to respond to. Peck’s vibrant piece was the perfect antidote to the Lidberg quagmire.

On the program with these two new works was Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries, from 1990, set to John Adams’ pulsating score. Despite its hectic excitements this is not my favorite Martins ballet. But this time it served to introduce a girl named Alston Macgill, of whom I’d never heard, and certainly never noticed in the corps. She was exceptional—not only charming and interesting but remarkably composed. A conspicuous talent, and so another act of giving from Peter Martins and his New York City Ballet.

Justin Peck and Robert Fairchild in The Times Are Racing.

Justin Peck and Robert Fairchild in The Times Are Racing. Paul Kolnik