At City Ballet, 2 Sparkling Premieres and Many Moments to Remember


For a company to unveil a decent new ballet is a strange and marvelous occurrence. To unveil two in one season? This is fantasy territory. Quality choreography that celebrates classicism, that highlights musicality — that even pushes the form into new realms — isn’t the norm. But at New York City Ballet this season, two premieres were worthy of many more viewings — and in the case of Alexei Ratmansky’s harrowing “Solitude,” set to Mahler, endless ones.

Inspired by a 2022 photo of a Ukrainian father kneeling before the body of his dead son, the ballet filled the stage with bodies expressing the tangible ache of grief and love. The first work Ratmansky has created as the company’s artist in residence, “Solitude” more than lives up to the promise of his appointment; it speaks to the specific union of these dancers and this choreographer — the power, in other words, that they pull out of one another.

This was also true of the season’s other premiere, “Concerto for Two Pianos” by Tiler Peck, an emerging choreographer and longtime City Ballet principal known for the way she dances not only to the music but through it. In her effervescent “Concerto,” set to music by Francis Poulenc, the dancers didn’t noodle through an approximation of balletic steps with earnest arms and wistful eyes; Peck made an honest-to-god ballet — a marriage of classical technique and musicality.

This was a relief after the winter season got off to a sludgy start: There were ballets by the company’s former leader, Peter Martins (blah), and programs that fizzled, particularly those that featured Jerome Robbins but didn’t show him at his best. The new ballets helped to lift the mood, as did the return of George Balanchine’s dazzling “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Ballo della Regina.” Debuts — like Mary Thomas MacKinnon’s, full of force and daring in “Ballo” — made the stage pop. Here are some other moments that caught the eye.

In this Balanchine classic set to Brahms — told in two parts, to Opus 52 and Opus 65 — four couples explore all facets of the waltz, with the women first in dancing heels and then in pointe shoes. Before an injury took her out of the season, Tiler Peck, partnered by the scrupulous Tyler Angle, displayed a sweeping, unselfconscious musicality seemingly driven from deep within.

This sparkling Balanchine ballet was created in 1960, the same year as “Liebeslieder,” of which he said: “In the first act, it is the real people who are dancing. In the second act, it is their souls.” In “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” a nine-minute display of virtuosic delights, the dancers are almost beyond real people: For it to work, they can dance only as themselves. Casts featured a rapturous, sweeping Unity Phelan with Roman Mejia and, in a spectacular end-of-season debut, Indiana Woodward with Anthony Huxley, above, each a vision of elegance and luster.

In Christopher Wheeldon’s 2003 ballet, set to Camille Saint-Saëns with text by John Lithgow, a young boy finds himself trapped at the American Museum of Natural History, where the people from his life — the librarian, the school nurse, his classmates — are transformed into animals. The ballet holds up! Even with an opening-night flub, Terrence Mann brought cheerful warmth as the Narrator; Unity Phelan was a luxurious librarian turned mermaid; and Sara Mearns, as the Swan, brought poignancy to her back, her arms and, as usual, her everything. But little Oliver, performed by Hannon Hatchett, a student from the company-affiliated School of American Ballet, was the ballet’s heart: Acting through dancing and dancing through acting, his presence embodied the spirit of wonder.

The talent of this corps de ballet member has been apparent since he joined the company in May 2022, but it was on full display this winter, from a debut in Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements” — where his clear lines, mannerly power and springy jump showed his growing polish — to a comic role in Robbins’s “The Concert.” He even managed to energize Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction.” The clincher was his debut, opposite the lovely (and soon to be promoted?) Emma Von Enck in a beautifully staged “Ballo della Regina,” above, which cemented more than just his promise. It heralded an auspicious future at City Ballet.

In Melancholic, the first variation of Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” Mabie, another corps member, burst onto the stage with such authority and self-possession that it seemed the part was made on him. Moving with articulate fullness, he stretched beyond his body, using the arch of his back and the reach of his expressive hands to draw himself more deeply into the role. His falls to the floor in daring collapses came out of nowhere. In a way, so did he! With glittering intensity, he took up space.

In the two new ballets, pairs jumped out, grounding the stage with power and a palpable exchange of dancing energies. The lush grandeur of Sara Mearns (in dress), and Mira Nadon (in leotard) in “Solitude” was electric, making each dancer more arresting, more extravagant than ever.

And in “Concerto for Two Pianos,” there was a different kind of sizzle: India Bradley, in lilac, and Emma Von Enck, in a deeper purple, enhanced each other with fleet footwork and bright jumps — a persuasive, playful conversation of syncopation between bodies.

Albert Evans, just the second Black principal dancer at City Ballet, died in 2015. Watching his spooky “In a Landscape” (2005), to piano and violin music by John Cage, was like spending time in Evans’s inner world. There was an earthiness, a sadness stirring up memories and questions — what was behind his generous outlook, his perpetually warm smile? From the start, the ballerina slides across the floor, as if gliding along the surface of water. Both casts, young and accomplished, did well, but Dominika Afanasenkov, above, dancing with Alec Knight, managed to slow down time as she moved like silk: feathery yet grounded, delicate yet grand.

It’s been rough. There are wars. The U.S. presidential election is looming and there is yet another round of Covid. The return of Robbins’s comic ballet was a relief, especially with debuts by Mira Nadon, Alexa Maxwell, Harrison Coll and more. Maxwell, as she showed in debuts all season, likes to go for it physically and dramatically, but the happiest surprise was watching Nadon transform her glamour into something indelibly daffy. She has a way of laughing through steps, which was apparent in “The Concert” — notably in a charmingly awkward duet with Gabriel, above — and in “Stars and Stripes,” opposite a splendid Roman Mejia. He offered her some of his sunny gusto, and she grabbed it. Smart.


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