New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
May 8, 2014
“Allegro Brillante”; “Everywhere We Go” (Peck World Premiere)
-- by Jerry Hochman
In each of its three ‘seasons’ in the course of an annual performance year at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet has a Gala performance. The goal of each of these galas, at least for the past few years, has been to amplify a particular season’s overall thematic thrust, to premiere a new piece, or just to honor someone who may or may not have a connection to ballet. Underneath it all is a common purpose – to generate funds from well-heeled patrons. There’s nothing wrong, or particularly unique, about that. It goes with the territory. But although they’re frequently great fun, these galas have often ranged from being artistically insignificant to being artistically brain dead.
But for this year’s Spring Gala, to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary of performances at Lincoln Center’s David H Koch Theater (originally the New York State Theater), NYCB got it right. This gala was classy, and classic, in nearly every way. The theater’s ‘Grand Promenade’ was bedecked in glittering but understated off-white elegance, and packed with tables indicative of a larger than usual turnout of celebratory (i.e., financially prosperous) guests. Champagne flowed – and even the hoi polloi got free high-quality vodka (to toast the past 50 years and the years to come).
And this time, they got the world premiere of a ballet to fit the occasion.
Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go” may not be one of the world’s great ballets. I have some quibbles with it – one of them being that it’s almost too rich a choreographic brew; too much of a good thing, and difficult to digest. Especially when a little tipsy on vodka. But when was the last time one went to a NYCB ballet premiere and complained that maybe it was too much of a good thing?
Consistent with an evening that commemorated the opening of the theater as well as the Company’s first performance there, the first half of the evening was dedicated to saluting the past, and unfolded as if unpacking a time capsule. First, a rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s “Fanfare for a New Theater,” a piece specially composed for Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine (and, according to the program notes, the world’s first 12-tone fanfare) and which proclaimed NYCB’s first performance at the State Theater on April 24, 1964, opened last night’s Gala. The National Anthem, in an arrangement by Stravinsky that was played at the theater’s ‘official opening’ one night earlier, followed that.
A brief film then was shown that chronicled the theater’s opening, with both moving and still images of the construction phases, the opening night speeches and interviews (one that included George Balanchine, who was involved in the theater’s construction, and Jacques D’Amboise, who performed on that opening night), and comments by architectural critics and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins on the glories of the theater. Mr. Martins, whose love for the theater was apparent, observed that architect Philip Johnson was trying to express in the theater was what Balanchine was trying to express in ballet; that the building took classical values and presented them in new ways. He also gushed that every other dance company wants to perform at this theater, which was specifically designed for dance, and at how NYCB was the luckiest company in the world to have a theater like this as its home.
At the film’s conclusion, Mr. Martins appeared on stage, and introduced dancers who had performed with the company during its opening year at the theater: Mr. D’Amboise, Karin von Aroldingen, Jillana, Allegra Kent, Conrad Ludlow, Kay Mazzo, Patricia McBride, Arthur Mitchell, Mimi Paul, Suki Schorer, and Edward Villella.
This was followed by a performance of “If I Loved You” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” in honor of the Music Theater of Lincoln Center, directed by Mr. Rodgers, which was a resident company of the theater from 1964 to 1969 (the program note stated that an excerpt from “Carousel” was performed on the theater’s opening night). It was sung beautifully last night by Kristen Bell (yes, that Kristen Bell – she can sing too, and quite well), and Aaron Lazar, a Broadway veteran – and seeing the stunningly-outfitted Ms. Bell on the red carpet outside the theater prior to the performance, standing in place and looking both elegant and unperturbed for what seemed like hours while being bombarded by a constant barrage of flashing lights from hordes of photographers, provided a smashing pre-show show. But to me it was the only misstep of the evening. First, under the circumstances, the vocal performance, fine as it was, called for some dance accompaniment, even in the background. More importantly, if you’re going to include a salute to the Music Theater of Lincoln Center, it would have been equally appropriate, and magnanimous, to have also included some recognition of the New York City Opera, which for decades shared the State Theater with NYCB (even though City Opera apparently was not involved in the theater’s opening night performance – it did not become a constituent until 1966).
The first half of the evening concluded with the first ballet of the evening. “Allegro Brillante,” choreographed by Balanchine to music by Tchaikovsky (“Piano Concerto No. 3”), was the first ballet that NYCB performed on its first program at the New York State Theater, and it has rarely been out of NYCB’s repertory since. That it’s one of a plethora of Balanchine masterpieces is not surprising. But even more astounding is that “Allegro Brillante,” a concentrated study in classical vocabulary and development, was created in 1956, a year before Balanchine created “Agon,” a very different kind of masterpiece, and within two years, either way, of “Ivesiana,” “The Nutcracker,” “Western Symphony,” and “Square Dance.” The breadth of Balanchine’s creative genius is astounding.
I’ve seen “Allegro Brillante” on several previous occasions, but had never before seen Sara Mearns assay the lead. While I would have preferred more modulated phrasing, that’s nitpicking -- Ms. Mearns, partnered by a supremely attentive Jared Angle, danced the piece delicately and impeccably. More notable is the fact that she danced it without a hint of the pathos that dominates many of her performances. On the contrary, she danced throughout with appropriate celebratory enthusiasm, as did the rest of the cast: Lauren King, Ashley Laracey (a particularly glorious standout), Megan LeCrone, Lydia Wellington, Ralph Ippolito, Austin Laurent, Allen Peiffer, and Andrew Scordato.
“Everywhere We Go” was commissioned by NYCB, as was the accompanying score by Sufjan Stevens, who created the score to which Mr. Peck choreographed “Year of the Rabbit,” his first mega-hit. There are similarities between “Year of the Rabbit” and “Everywhere We Go,” but not enough to call the latter a carbon copy. The similarity is in its style, its audacity, and in Mr. Peck’s singularly brilliant use of his corps dancers as a sort of collective featured dancer with multiple individual parts. Just as they were as important to “Year of the Rabbit” as were the individual featured dancers in that piece, so they are in “Everywhere We Go.”
What Mr. Peck does with his corps dancers is astonishing, and almost indescribable. They come individually, in pairs, in groups; they come from the left, they come from the right; they enter, they leave; they form lines that promptly reform in other forms; they form patterns I cannot recall ever seeing before, their patterns form patterns, and then form new patterns as they change patterns, all moving (most of the time) at Balanchinian/warp speed, with dancers racing to get into position for the next spectacular movement pattern. And Mr. Peck’s skill at presenting signature, indelible images (of which there are many) and repeating them later in the piece, sometimes in a slightly different way but unmistakably echoing the prior image, is breathtaking. For example, in the opening segment (the piece is divided into nine sections, corresponding to the nine movements in Mr. Stevens’s score), which is predominantly male, Mr. Peck has the men repeatedly collapse from perimeter positions into a ‘ring’ at center stage, circle while holding hands, quickly separate into another pattern, and then collapse again (which is repeated almost, but not quite, one too many times), and then at the end of the piece one suddenly sees the same image, but this time with the men and women together. It’s a moving kaleidoscope. Similarly, and exemplary of an identical moving image repeated in a different context, is a particularly vibrant and lyrical and spectacular lift. During a pas de duex between Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette, Mr. Veyette suddenly lifts Ms. Hyltin above him, and turns individually (while holding her) as he travels circularly on the stage from one point to another, gently places her back on the floor, and then repeats the process. I thought of a particular type of firework image, spectacular turns of color within broader turns of color, as I watched. The series of images is repeated again in the final segment of the piece, while the pair is surrounded by other dancers doing other things.
If this sounds a little like a three ring circus – it is, a little. Mr. Peck’s use of stage space – breaking the space up into segments and then dissolving the invisible borders – is as remarkable as his brilliant corps work. But it’s all controlled and coherent and never looks busy, with distinctive components that fit together, disappear, and then reappear. Although they do not resemble each other choreographically in any way, “Everywhere We Go” prompts the same sense of visual and kinetic euphoria that one feels after seeing certain dances by Twyla Tharp.
When any new ballet premieres, particularly a piece as noteworthy as this one, the focus is on the choreography and the concept. But the dancers in "Everywhere We Go," from principal to corps, executed with individual brilliance. In addition to Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Veyette, who to me were the most dynamically spectacular, the leads included Maria Kowroski and Robert Fairchild, Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar, and with sparkling solo work, Teresa Reichlen. The featured soloists were Georgina Pazcoguin, Brittany Pollack, Gretchen Smith, Daniel Applebaum, Mr. Scordato, and Taylor Stanley, and all were complemented by a corps of six women and six men. I should also recognize Michale P. Atkinson, who orchestrated Mr. Stevens’s score (as he did for “Year of the Rabbit”), and who was guest conductor for this occasion.
As I said earlier, I have some minor quibbles. The movements of the composition, which I found every bit as pleasantly inventive as his score to “Year of the Rabbit”) are titled in descriptive terms (e.g., segment 2: ‘Happiness is a Perfume’; segment 4: ‘To Live in the Hearts We Leave Behind; segment 6: ‘Every Flower That Stirs the Elastic Sod’; segment 8: ‘The Gate of Heaven is Love’) that to me bear little relationship to the music or to the choreography to it. But perhaps the thematic connection, if there is one, is too ephemeral to see(or hear) on first viewing. And I have a prejudice against a piece that ends, inexplicably, with dancers lying horizontal on the stage floor. Even though this sequentially staged image that closes the piece is another example of a series of images echoed from an earlier appearance (but his time with both men and women rather than just men), the closing image would have worked better, to me, had it been uplifting, physically as well as emotionally. But it fits the composition’s closing sound framework, so there really was nothing else Mr. Peck could have done.
But in the overall scheme of thing, these minor criticisms don’t matter. “Everywhere We Go” is a hit. And it concluded the Spring Gala with an appropriate vision of one prong of NYCB’s next fifty years (another, perhaps, is the announcement that a new version of “La Sylphide” will be created for its 2015 Spring Season). It will be repeated later this season as well as next year, and should be seen. Too much of a good thing is not at all a bad thing.