City Ballet: Still the Best Show in Town

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In a world where little seems stable, where professional sports teams change alliances at the drop of a dollar, and entire neighborhoods such as Soho morph from bohemian artist colony to shopping mall with the wave of a real estate developer’s wand, the New York City Ballet has provided continuity and excellence for the past 50-plus years. Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, choreographic criticisms aside, has taken over Balanchine’s legacy with remarkable aplomb and success.

Balanchine liked to push the envelope: the overly turned-out feet, the striking speed of movement, the anorexically gaunt ballerinas. In fact, our entire notions today of ballet and the ballet dancer can fairly be traced to Balanchine and his extreme aesthetic. Balanchine himself was the first to admit that ballet is an artificial art by nature and that the choreographer took something natural and turned it, as he said, “into something entirely different.” Indeed. So what is the state of affairs today at NYCB?

On Friday, the company presented an all-Balanchine program. “Divertimento No. 15” highlighted NYCB’s strengths—namely impeccable technique, perfectly executed jumps and a flawless presentation. Miranda Weese and Sterling Hyltin (can that really be her name?) were particularly glowing, while the men, led by Philip Neal, provided strong support during some lovely duets. The Divertimento, made popular in 18th-century aristocratic circles, provides the advantage to the choreographer of having a changeable structure (here the second minuet and andante from the sixth movement are omitted) and a light feel that the dancers interpreted to much success.

The sets alone for “Firebird”—colorful, stunning Chagalls with bright reds enlarged to the size of the entire set—would provide enough reason to make the trip to Lincoln Center. This folk ballet, choreographed by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins to a stirring score by Stravinsky, has something for everyone: athleticism and grace, pomp and circumstance, love and pathos. And Mark Stanley’s lighting made the firebird glow incandescent and then slowly disappear on and off until the dancers came on stage.

But nothing prepared me for Ashley Bouder’s masterful lead role. At times elegant and soft, at others stern and menacing, Bouder looked and danced the part so well that you literally felt transported into the story itself. If Bouder weren’t already so well-regarded, you’d want to shout out that a star is born. Charles Askegard was a remarkable Prince Ivan, a perfect foil for Bouder. His role is less exuberant and colorful than hers, but he executed every movement and transition with feeling and precision. When he captures Bouder in his arms and watches her struggle (knowing that he must eventually release her to the freedom that defines her very being) there is so much beauty and sensuality that you just stare from your seat hoping that he never lets go. Rachel Rutherford was also noteworthy as the Prince’s Bride.

“Symphony in C” brings ballet back to a more denuded form. There are no fancy sets or storyline, just Bizet, Balanchine and the entire corps of dancers—women in white, men in black—and athletic, muscular dancing. While the usual NYCB stars (Wendy Whelan, Nilas Martin) performed admirably, it was a young Spanish dancer, Joaquin de Luz, who stole the show. Small and compact in stature, his pirouettes were so high and finely executed that members of the audience gasped out loud. More surprisingly, he executed each jump with a gentle smile that touched the entire theater.

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