Perhaps it is an unfair criticism of a performance that is meant to showcase the foundations and history of one of the oldest dance companies in America, but when you’re putting together a program where the most recent work was choreographed a full 14 years before a woman could get a credit card in her own name, you’re faced with the question of how to keep a work that has stood the test of time looking fresh. Of course freshness isn’t a worry for everyone, to paraphrase a friend I made in the audience: ‘I’m perfectly happy to go to a museum and see the classics.’ But if New York City Ballet is doing an exhibit of the Balanchine classics at the Kennedy Center it has to be definitive. On Tuesday night, their answer to both fresh and classic seemed to be star power which, coupled with some decidedly odd programming choices and ambitious tempos, sort of worked.
Dazzling, flirtatious, and occasionally comedic, Tiler Peck’s movie star charisma and musicality and Roman Mejia’s mischievous but charming ballet boy swagger were the performative fireworks to which the entire evening had been building.
The first act began with “Square Dance” (1957) and the second act concluded with “Concerto Barocco” (1941). Seen almost back to back, the two felt homogenous. With their nearly indistinguishable white leotards and short skirts for the women, Baroque music, and similar choreographic vocabulary, a first time ballet viewer might mistake them for different acts of the same ballet. Even the ballet literate have to admit that they are remarkably similar, and I felt putting them in the same evening did both works a disservice. Isabella LaFreniere, Mira Nadon, and Russell Janzen, were precise and musical in “Concerto Barocco,” and Megan Fairchild and Joseph Gordon were precise, if a little stiff and reserved, in “Square Dance.” In both ballets, as well as in the evenings closer,”Donizetti Variations” (1960), the corps seemed a little muddy. Individually the dancers were all technically sparkling, but there was a different arm here, and a leg or a head there. Balanchine’s choreography is iconic for the intricacies and musical precision of its unison and counterpointed corps work, but this production felt like it privileged the soloists over the cohesiveness of the group. The corps dancers specifically were also up against a conductor who had had his coffee. In a company known for being on the cutting edge of high-velocity virtuosity, this was a win for velocity.
The evening concluded with a final Balanchine work, “Donizetti Variations.” Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia very quickly blew the audience away in a hurricane of textbook perfect technique and sparkling personality. Peck has an incredible ability to switch the quality of her movement in an instant—going from an effortless stretch into a snappy pose in the perfectly musical blink of an eye. She also brought out the best in her partner Mejia who, like Gordon in “Afternoon of a Faun” and Nadon in “Concerto Barocco,” was making a debut in the role. Dazzling, flirtatious, and occasionally comedic, Peck’s movie star charisma and musicality and Mejia’s mischievous but charming ballet boy swagger were the performative fireworks to which the entire evening had been building. Mejia’s tours and a-la-seconde turns, the most high-velocity moment of the evening, were particularly impressive and made “Donizetti Variations” a fantastic closer for an enjoyable, if occasionally repetitive, evening.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with two intermissions and a brief pause.
Program A: “Founding Choreographers” runs through June 11, 2023 presented by New York City Ballet with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. This program alternates with their more contemporary-focused Program B: “Visionary Voices” which features works by Alexi Ratmansky, Alysa Pires, Justin Peck, and Kyle Abraham. More information and tickets, casting information, and digital programs for both productions are available online.