Two by Balanchine, Two by Robbins, All by Stravinsky

by Leigh Witchel

The All Stravinsky program at New York City Ballet was a varied mix: two Balanchine works, two by Robbins, some quintessential performances and one farewell to a role.

The nervous chittering of the corps introduced Sterling Hyltin’s last performances of “The Cage” in the home season that she turned into her farewell tour. As she traveled to the side she tensed and fell off balance nervously. That’s who her Novice was. Hair-trigger and dropping to the floor with a thud, she skittered and walked on Jonathan Fahoury awkwardly before she broke his neck. Then she touched him with her foot to make sure he was dead. It wasn’t inhuman, but un-human. As her Queen, Isabella LaFreniere turned up the dial as far as she dared to make the Queen’s movement huge.

Hyltin’s duet with Andrew Veyette was brief; it wasn’t love that brought them together, but nature. He yanked her around in the partnering for effect, but she was secure in his hands, falling into him and letting him bring her around like dead weight. Soon enough they were surrounded by the group and Hyltin’s Novice reverted to her instincts, looking to the Queen for instruction. Then she got on top of Veyette and mated.

Davide Riccardo, Ashley Hod, and Alec Knight in “Concertino.” Photo credit © Paul Kolnik.

“Concertino” was created by Robbins for the other, 1982, Stravinsky Festival as part of a larger piece “Four Chamber Works.” It is now performed as a standalone work. Danced by Alec Knight, Davide Riccardo and Ashley Hod, Hod and Riccardo made their debuts.

In some ways this was how you’d expect Robbins to handle an excursion onto Balanchine’s turf. Instead of black and white the cast wore pale leotards. Everyone turned in, turned out, thrust their hips forward in this quick trio. The men pranced while Hod marched in place, then they skipped to end a phrase. Knight tossed Hod to Riccardo, who slowly rotated her down from his shoulders. He placed her flat like a parcel on Knight’s shoulders, who took her out for delivery to end the movement.

The brief “Three Pieces For Clarinet Solo” functioned as a coda; each dancer got a solo. Knight first, then Riccardo with more fluttery movement. The last, fastest solo went to Hod, filled with quick pointe work and a circuit of turning jumps. The two men rushed in to pose at each side to end on the clarinet’s last note. It’s always good to see an infrequently performed work, but at least this time “Concertino” felt like a stereotype of modern ballet choreography to Stravinsky.

New York City Ballet in “Symphony in Three Movements.” Photo credit © Paul Kolnik.

“Symphony in Three Movements” can also feel like a parody, particularly if you don’t follow Balanchine. But there’s more to it; a huge rumbling structure that moves the female corps around with echoes of Busby Berkeley. Daniel Ulbricht went in to pinch-hit for Christopher Grant in the third couple: Ulbricht’s done this part seemingly forever; he’s also in an Indian Summer in his career, and it’s a pleasure to watch. Both he and Emma von Enck soared; she kicked the back of her head with her toe.

The main pas de deux, danced by Tiler Peck and Adrian Danchig-Waring, can look like a weird echo of Orientalism: the woman poses; the man circles her, arms cocked upwards and torso held back in a stance of awe and surprise. At the end of the duet their fingers curl about until they meet; a move Balanchine had used before and one that reads as exotic. The couple could be temple dancers; she could be a princess or a doll; he could be a servant. But for the central, biggest moment in the duet, Balanchine dropped any exotic overtones for a purely sculptural, incredibly simple effect: Peck and Danchig-Waring, holding their arms flat, circled them in a breaststroking motion as they bent their legs to rise and fall. Balanchine did nothing but create moving lateral planes on the stage. It was pure geometry and deeply effective.

Taylor Stanley in “Apollo.” Photo credit © Erin Baiano.

Taylor Stanley’s coordination is like elegant diction: exquisite and hard to let go of. He always looks so prepared for his solo in “Apollo.” That’s not a perfect conception for a just-born God, but it’s hard not to be impressed. But he has found ways to get variation. As he moved, suddenly his fists and arms whipped around briefly. In his turns to à la seconde extending to the side facing back, he brought his arms up and down wildly, as if futilely trying to stabilize himself. Later he ran past the muses while rolling and paddling his arms. The rough moments made the smooth ones more vivid.

Indiana Woodward turned in a performance of moods as Calliope: she made wide mouthed cries, gasped and then she got up and smiled. Her demeanor changed because it’s in the score. She scrawled a note, Stanley looked at it first, but still turned away.

Emilie Gerrity made a debut as Polyhymnia, but didn’t have a good time of it; she didn’t stick any of her turns. That could just have been first night nerves, but she’d be an excellent Calliope and Woodward would be an excellent Polyhymnia. If the trouble persists, maybe a swap would be in order.

Unity Phelan also made her debut as Terpsichore, and brought out a full range in the character; changeable, feminine. She raced around the group on pointe in a pose where they pistoned their arms like a sewing machine. In her solo, she kept quietly checking on Apollo. Her duet with Stanley went without a hitch, ending with the two braced in a huge back bend.

Phelan continued her move into the center of the repertory, and it’s both from talent and turnover. Maria Kowroski is gone. Phelan, who first got Whelan’s parts, is now getting hers. Suzanne Farrell’s big ballerina roles usually fall to Sara Mearns, who gives completely different performances but of an analogous stage volume. Phelan likely comes closer in effect. She’s risen slowly and now she has a decade at NYCB under her belt. She can fill the roles, project and give a performance.

Gerrity found wit in how she tick-tocked up and down with Woodward in the coda. Phelan reentered and moved with freedom. Stanley posed momentarily before he put his head in the women’s palms. It was a pose too much, but they all made the final image that Balanchine revised to in 1979 striking and sculptural.

Stanley’s Apollo, like those of Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella or Peter Boal, will hopefully become a generational standard for the company, as Hyltin left with defining performances in “The Cage.” What made her Novice quintessential is that she was unafraid to be ugly in a part that called for it. Hopefully Stanley will be able to find the same in “Apollo.”

copyright © 2022 by Leigh Witchel

“Apollo,” “The Cage,” “Concertino,” “Symphony in Three Movements” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 6, 2022

Cover: Sterling Hyltin and company in “The Cage.” Photo credit © Erin Baiano.

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