In a formidable and diverse program Tuesday night, the New York City Ballet juxtaposed affable athleticism with social and romantic tensions. The former was represented by two Balanchine classics, Square Dance and Tarantella, and Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, reimagined by choreographer Justin Peck. The latter infused Alexei Ratmansky’s disquieting Odessa in its Washington premiere.
Square Dance is Balanchine’s whimsical but demanding 1957 wedding of Old World and New World social dance. Sometimes in couples, sometimes in gendered lines, the dancers approach, entertain, whirl, and lift each other to lilting music by Corelli and Vivaldi. In the original version, a square-dance caller shouted out the moves, but that was wisely cut, for while social dance is timeless, country shouts and Baroque counterpoints can make for an awkward mix.
Principals Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay have fabulous partnering chemistry and beautiful, unshowy technique. Finlay’s andante was dignified, his attention to line matched by the musicality of his phrasing. In simple light-blue costumes complementing Mark Stanley’s morning-glow lighting, the corps excelled in Balanchine’s technical challenges while maintaining the work’s good-natured momentum.
Tarantella is an extended divertimento to Moreau Gottschalk’s score, conducted by Andrew Litton and featuring Susan Walters on piano. In 1964, Balanchine used it to showcase the talents of Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. Costumed in Karinska’s endearing if hokey red, white, and black Gypsy folk outfits, Erica Pereira and Spartak Hoxha upheld that legacy’s standards in vivacious style, Hoxha at one point literally thwacking the zils (those metal jingles) out of his tambourine.
Tarentella’s cute, chaste concluding kiss was quite a contrast with the work that followed, the moody Odessa. To wild, restless music by Leonid Desyatnikov from the score of a gangster film, Ratmansky ushers us into a volatile, somewhat surreal night club milieu where passion spars with fear.
The work’s staging is clever. Sometimes the three featured couples are foregrounded with the corps silhouetted behind them in a crowd tableau. Other times the couples are lifted by that corps, which acts in those moments as a human suspension rig. The effect is that the principals’ motions are amplified. Slightly separated from one another, they slowly ascend or dive, literally riding the crowd’s somewhat sinister energy.
One such sequence evolves into a cluster of men tossing a woman into the air. Dance writer Siobhan Burke, in The New York Times, objects to what she interprets there as a gang rape, which she connects to a legacy of objectifying women in ballet. Times critic Alistair Macaulay also points to “moments of personal violence” in the piece — there are slaps, shoves, and tumbles too — but adds that “here and there, you also glimpse their souls.”
I do not for a moment minimize Burke’s concerns, which were echoed by two women I spoke to Tuesday after the performance. I do wonder, in a work that features treacherous tangos, phantasmagoric high-stepping frenzies, and habitually exaggerated motion and emotion, whether the section Burke singles out could be interpreted less literally. And in her thoughtful essay, she wonders the same: “If I see ‘Odessa’ again, it’s possible I’ll understand it differently.” Or, if her first interpretation is correct, might that not be appropriate to the agitated feel and themes of the piece? As Macaulay puts it: “Must works of art only depict people behaving correctly?”
I don’t have the answers. More to the point, I don’t want the answers. The ambiguity is part of the work’s magic as well as its menace.
No such controversy shadows Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. You can love Agnes de Mille’s original choreography to Copland’s score and still be charmed by Peck’s. Countless advertisements have genericized the iconic music from western to more broadly American. So it’s no huge shock that Peck chucks all equestrian and cowboy motifs and applies the vibrant tunes to a celebration of athleticism, competition, and play, particularly among men as there’s only one woman in the work’s cast of 16.
The men are dressed in rugbyish or generic team-sport looking threads designed by Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck. Starting from stage right with a foot race, the dancers explore and enjoy the sheer potential and vigor of their bodies in motion — sometimes slow motion the way kids reenact ESPN highlights or savor their moments of Little League or Pop Warner glory.
The second movement is slower, more pensive. It includes the group’s lifting individual dancers skyward and counter-pulling them for leverage as they test their reach and the power of their weight. In this sports-obsessed world, ballet, especially for men, often touts its athleticism in a defensive way. Here Peck, with no such chip on his shoulder, confidently uses dance’s inherent and obvious athleticism to extol the creativity and grace of sport, and the beauty of men together discovering joy in their corporeal selves.
Tiler Peck introduces a buoyant female grace in her third-episode pas de deux with Justin Peck (no relation). It’s a lovely section that has a special coming-of-age feel to it as a romantic physicality superimposes itself on the men’s earlier street-game pursuits.
Beyond the simple chutzpah of a Rodeo redo, Peck has a refreshing postmodern sense of humor — a taller dancer confronts a shorter one, playground style, and a turn sequence runs out of gas. Peck’s final wink at us is a lawnmower pull-start intro to the music’s well-known finale, acknowledging, as did the evening’s program as a whole, the tradition as well as the innovation that together characterize this gem of a company.
The New York City Ballet presents two programs at the Kennedy Center:
Balanchine, Peck & Ratmansky (reviewed here)
June 6, 7 & 10 at 7:30 p.m. | June 11 at 1:30 p.m.
Performance Timing: approx. 2 hours 8 minutes
Square Dance (Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli / George Balanchine)
NYCB’s legendary co-founder offers high-spirited fun by joining the traditions of American folk dance with classical ballet.
CASTING: M. Fairchild, Finlay (June 6 & 7); Bouder, Ball (June 10 & 11)
Approx. 25 minutes, intermission following
Tarantella (Louis Moreau Gottschalk, orch. by Hershy Kay / George Balanchine)
This virtuosic, Italian-flavored pas de deux showcases two pyrotechnical dancers in an ever-growing profusion of steps.
CASTING: Pereira, Hoxha (June 6 & 7); Woodward, De Luz (June 10 & 11)
Approx. 8 minutes
Odessa (Leonid Desyatnikov / Alexei Ratmansky) D.C. PREMIERE
Critics have acclaimed Ratmansky’s NYCB works as resounding hits; his latest creation premieres in NYC in May, danced to Desyatnikov’s “Sketches to Sunset.”
CASTING: Mearns, Bouder, Hyltin, T. Angle, Stanley, De Luz (June 6 & 7); Phelan, T. Peck, M. Fairchild, T. Angle, Stanley, Ulbricht (June 10 & 11)
Approx. 24 minutes, intermission following
Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (Aaron Copland / Justin Peck) D.C. PREMIERE
This highly praised 2015 work from NYCB’s Resident Choreographer pairs a lone woman with 15 energetic and charming men performing to Copland’s Americana score.
CASTING: T. Peck, J. Peck, Ulbricht, Garcia, Veyette (June 6 & 7); Mearns, J. Peck, Ulbricht, Garcia, Veyette (June 10 & 11)
Approx. 24 minutes
Balanchine, Peck & Wheeldon
June 8 & 9 at 7:30 p.m. | June 10 at 1:30 p.m.
Performance Timing: approx. 2 hours
American Rhapsody (George Gershwin / Christopher Wheeldon) D.C. PREMIERE
The Tony Award® winner for An American in Paris draws upon his recent Broadway success in his latest NYCB creation, set to Gershwin’s popular Rhapsody in Blue.
CASTING: Lovette, Janzen, Phelan, Stanley (all performances)
Approx. 19 minutes, intermission following
The Four Temperaments (Paul Hindemith / George Balanchine)
NYCB recalls its early years with Balanchine’s classic evocation of the humours of the body.
CASTING: Wellington, Scordato, King, Alberda, Laracey, Sanz, Garcia, Mearns, J. Angle, la Cour, Reichlen (June 8 & 9); Wellington, Scordato, King, Alberda, Laracey, Sanz, Garcia, Scheller, T. Angle, la Cour, Reichlen (June 10)
Approx. 32 minutes, intermission following
The Times Are Racing (Dan Deacon/Justin Peck) D.C. PREMIERE
Dancers perform in street wear and sneakers to rock music from Dan Deacon’s America, capturing a mood of modern protest.
CASTING: T. Peck, Pollack, Lowery, Woodward, Isaacs, Stanley, Applebaum, Suozzi (all performances)
Approx. 24 minutes