Two Lands, Four Countries

by Leigh Witchel

The first Classic NYCB program at New York City Ballet was a tale of three choreographers and many places: Alexei Ratmansky’s Soviet Union, Justin Peck’s America, and George Balanchine’s Russia – and America.

The opening of “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and its quintets prancing in and out, recalls Balanchine’s New York with its constantly changing parade of humanity, where another hundred people just got off of the train. At the end of one of the opening quintets, Balanchine cadged Paul’s Taylor wide, swinging stride – that he cadged from Graham – to move the corps offstage.

Both the female and male leads contrasted in intriguing ways. Ashley Laracey’s finicky placement of her feet emphasized her delicacy; Sara Mearn’s easy, luxurious movement felt sexy, with overtones of a mid-century blonde bombshell. But black and white isn’t her natural jam; at times that big looseness looked almost blowsy. Taylor Stanley and Joseph Gordon were cool different ways; a soft attack versus a sharp one. Gordon almost melted into a knee bend, then BAM into a flourish.

In the first duet, Stanley’s low-key elegance was a contrast to Mearns’ larger-than-life presence. Funny that Mearns does a head-to-knee penché here, but not in second movement of “Symphony in C.” Mearns’ big backbends, rolling and arcing in a horseshoe, were slow and liquid, but not weird. That is a place where weird is good. Mearns connected more to Hollywood glamour; she gave a little Lauren Bacall side-eye when she suddenly reached her hand out to Stanley after they mimed being trapped. The duet ended with an “Agon” reversal: after Stanley tipped and flipped her up and over his shoulder, she wound up high, while he was on the floor face up.

Casting Gordon and Laracey in the second pas de deux eliminated the height difference in the original casting of Peter Martins and Kay Mazzo. Height difference in Balanchine matters, but Laracey is delicate, which made up for some of it. Unlike Mearns and Stanley, there wasn’t much contrast; Gordon and Laracey paired seamlessly and were simpatico. It was a different reading where Gordon didn’t impose on Laracey, but it clicked close to the end when he put her down on her knees and she looked back at him and – like Mearns to Stanley – reached her hand out: a tender and vulnerable moment. Finally, Gordon took Laracey’s head back very gently, putting a different spin on the ending.

The final movement got a joyous performance led spurred on by Kurt Nikkanen’s violin solos. Stravinsky’s closing Capriccio has folk overtones and Balanchine responded by setting Russian folk dance, including gliding steps from the Georgian Republic. Both the leading men and women played well off one another. Gordon can be dour, but he livened up when he met Stanley. Both Laracey and Mearns busted into smiles.

Taylor Stanley and Sara Mearns in “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” Photo credit © Rosalie O’Connor.

Ratmansky’s Russia half a century later was not Balanchine’s Russia. It was the Soviet Union. When Balanchine heard Russia in his mind, he heard Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Ratmansky hears Shostakovich. Even his fantasy Russia is different: it was the country, not St. Petersburg and the Imperial Theater.

In “Concerto DSCH,” the women played games: kneeling in a line, each woman putting her head in the next one’s hands, then pushing each other off before playing Follow The Leader to exit. Ratmansky’s goofball humor also showed up when the men did a complex combination while Devin Alberda merely jumped in place with flexed feet.

Sterling Hyltin did the main pas de deux with Adrian Danchig-Waring. This was her final performance of the fall season before her retirement, and she went out well, but she had been artfully taking her leave all season.  She was lifted high by Danchig-Waring while the corps formed two circles: men on the inside, women outside. It was a “Spartacus” moment, and Ratmansky made a similar formation in “Of Love and Rage.” It’s part of his tradition.

“Concerto DSCH” was Ratmansky’s sophomore effort for NYCB and one where he was testing the virtuoso limits of the company. Shostakovich’s music is a cascade and Ratmansky’s opening for two men in blue is at crazy top speed. KJ Takahashi went into the part at the beginning of the season; he is compact and built for the pace. Sebastián Villarini-Velez kept up, but wasn’t as clean. Emma von Enck had Ashley Bouder’s role as their compatriot, the whiz-bang girl in blue. How far could Ratmansky push them?

Kenneth MacMillan set his duet to this same concerto in front of a burning orange sunset; Ratmansky set his at twilight. As it often is, his corps is a village: a community reacting to one another in question and comfort. When Hyltin and Danchig-Waring reentered, he touched her on the shoulder twice before she offered her hand. He put his cheek on it. Two corps dancers reclined in a corner to witness.

The duet is a Big Pas de Deux; he carried her around in an à la seconde extension. Finally they embraced and joined the group to walk forward. But they don’t stay together; the two lingered, then the sexes divided and went off separately.

Villarini-Velez and Von Enck came out speeding to start the last movement, then Takahashi. This was Kitchen Sink Ratmanskyness. He used gesture as choreography. He played with time; the folks in blue danced in slow motion, while those in green moved at tempo. Hyltin pretended to be jealous when Danchig-Waring danced with von Enck.

Ratmansky went Soviet when the men put their fists over their hearts like good shock workers. Villarini-Velez was the odd man out in the pair-ups at the finale, but Ratmansky had fun with that: Villarini-Velez wound up on Takahashi’s shoulders at the final pose. For the who-can-give-Sterling-the-sweetest-sendoff competition at the curtain pull, Danchig-Waring had a smaller bouquet for Hyltin than Fairchild did on the previous night but the hug was bigger.

Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Concerto DSCH.” Photo credit © Erin Baiano.

Made in 2014, “Everywhere We Go” sometimes has the feel of a Great American Ballet. And sometimes it feels as if it will just never f%^&ing end. The commissioned score by Sufjan Stevens has the grandeur of orchestration but owes much to pop. A bold backdrop by Karl Jensen used shifting cutouts for a kaleidoscopic effect. The costumes by Janie Taylor are less complex: the simple striped tops, for the women in sailor-ish colors, recall sportswear, and don’t differentiate soloists from the ensemble.

Even with that deliberate choice, the work is led by three couples and a female soloist. It starts, though, with three pairs of men, one man behind another, reaching out and falling back, their arms making semaphores. The women entered and Miriam Miller emerged from them. That felt like a reveal, because everyone was dressed alike. It touched upon America’s myths of egalitarianism, and even the idea that the Joffrey Ballet championed of “all star, no star” ballet. The process went in both directions; Miller vanished back into the ensemble. Hyltin came back for one more ballet, dancing with Andrew Veyette. In balances, he let her just start to fall, then grabbed her. He was taking risks; it was The Last Night.

You could see America in Peck’s rushing ensemble. You could also see when he moved the corps in irregular patterns where Peck was inspired by Ratmansky’s ballets, including “Concerto DSCH.”

Peck started what looked as if it was going to be Another Big Pas de Deux for Peter Walker and Miller, but subverted it. She left Walker to lean on men at the sides, but returned to him. Walker retrieved and spun her. Stevens’ music broadened, big and unforgiving as it rumbled to a crescendo. They’ve all come to look for America.

Jovani Furlan and Megan Fairchild took center stage as he tossed her into multiple turns in a finale like a rushing freeway. Broad-shouldered and flexible, Furlan is an asset in Peck’s work; he did them also when he was dancing with Miami City Ballet. They’re familiar to him.

But that wasn’t the finale. The tempo slowed and a hymn-like vocalise came from the orchestra pit. Hyltin and Veyette led the ensemble coming forward. This must be the finale, but neither of the other lead couples were there. Nope. Not the finale. Instead there was a solo for LaFreniere, where Walker and Miller reentered on the last note.

The lighting, by Brandon Stirling Baker, used a stop-action effect recalling David Parsons’ “Caught.” Walker lifted Miller, the lights went out and came back at the apex of another lift. The two slotted into the corps on the last note, all facing away from us.

Next was another section for Furlan and Fairchild to a slow movement. Peck put in a riff on “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo”: stuttering pointe work for all three couples to a similar brass orchestration.

Dancers fell slowly to the ground, Others came to them to break their fall, soon after, the ensemble burst into soaring partnered jetés as in the finale of “The Four Temperaments.” Furlan and Fairchild continued, then Walker reversed the opening and shadowed Furlan to end.

But again, that wasn’t the end.

Finale #4 began with an allegro for the corps. LaFreniere formed the point of a horizontal wedge that led her into a complicated solo in constant turning motion. Walker and Furlan carried on, then all the principals danced in unison. OK, they were all back onstage for a recapitulation. This must be the actual finale. Please.

Everyone joined for a de rigueur moment in a Peck ballet: The Exalted Diagonal. You know you’re there when the entire cast looks up and out. “Everywhere We Go” had already earned its emotional weight, so the cliché wasn’t necessary.

Peck repeated the assisted crumple to the ground, except the women had to wait for their turn on point. Ow. Furlan helped Fairchild as the last one no longer standing and the ballet finally ended. Not having a bouquet to outdo Danchig-Waring, Veyette faked Hyltin out by pretending to come out for the curtain pull with her, but diving backstage at the last moment, giving her a solo bow.

The program was a travelogue seen through the eyes of three choreographers. Peck’s America isn’t New York, it’s Southern California, where he grew up. It’s an America of suburbs and vehicles: the scale, the traffic, the speed, the egalitarianism. A country suspicious of rank yet craving status, infatuated with the charm of the highway strip. “Everywhere We Go” was resonant, building to an almost epic stature. And like America, it was unwieldy and too big.

copyright © 2022 by Leigh Witchel

“Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” “Concerto DSCH,” “Everywhere We Go” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 14, 2022

Cover: Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette in “Everywhere We Go.” Photo credit © Paul Kolnik.

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