Justin Peck’s “Pulcinella Variations,” an ecstatic circus of the soul, made its sensational D.C. debut Tuesday in an altogether winning evening of mixed repertory by the New York City Ballet.
The Peck is set to an exotic score by Stravinsky inspired by 18th-century commedia dell’arte. In seven sections, it introduces us to a troupe of irrepressible clown creatures in wild costumes by Japanese fashion designer Tsumori Chisato. Those look like something Cocteau and Picasso might have designed for Diaghilev, but with Miro-like squiggles among the eye motifs and diamond patterns, and glowing pop-art colors clawing out from shyer saltimbanque blues and grays. We meet the nine dancers in the full-company sinfonia. Then they tease and provoke, and show off for each other, in a series of breathtaking solos and duets. Anthony Huxley’s fourth-section “Tarantella” was enthralling—his fast-twitch muscles and divine sense of timing somehow managing to situate him everywhere at once.
Peck has perhaps learned a thing or two from the choreography of Peter Martins about extending a graceful phrase, then packing the technical fireworks into a last burst of grounded or aerial turns, leaps, foot beats, or descents to the floor on knee or hip. Such were the pleasures of Martins’s “Zakouski,” an extended duet from 1992 that Tuesday featured Joaquin de Luz and Indiana Woodward, making her superb debut in the role as substitute for Megan Fairchild. Zakouski is the Russian word for hors d’oeuvres, and the folk-influenced compilation’s score draws from tasty morsels by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky, rendered deliciously by violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Susan Walters. Woodward’s brilliant turn sequences reminded me of a recent headline in The Onion: “Spectators Bombarded With Gamma Radiation As Rapidly Spinning Figure Skater Collapses Into Singularity.” If Woodward had spun herself into pure silk, I wouldn’t have been too surprised.
Brisk turn sequences were a distinguishing facet, too, of Tiler Peck’s performance in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux of 1960. Her dramatic leap-catch-dip partnered phrases with Tyler Angle also amazed.
Balanchine’s 1956 “Divertimento No. 15,” to music by Mozart, was a buoyant, stately opener for the program. And his 1972 “Symphony in Three Movements”—to a hyperactive, mischievous score by Stravinsky—was an exhilarating closer.
The audience let out an audible collective gasp when the curtain went up on “Symphony” to reveal the long, brightly lit, precisely aligned diagonal of ponytailed ballerinas in white. There was no set, no dramatic costuming, just the sheer exuberance and confidence of a master choreographer painting boldly on a huge theatrical canvas.
Balanchine then turns his stage into a bustling metropolis in whites and blacks destabilized by three swirling, orbiting sirens in varying shades of pink. The second movement is a fascinating, restless duet, here by Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring, with primitive horizontal arm sequences educing visions of sensuous breeze-swept lakes.
New York City Ballet:
Works by Balanchine, Martins & Peck
closes March 29, 2018
Robbins Centennial Program
March 30 – April 1, 2018
Details and tickets
There were a couple of minor mishaps in the first movement—an off-balance fall to a hand in some partner work and a corruption of the line in one of the corps sequences. To my mind, however, those were reminders of the near perfection we jadedly expect from top companies. The real miracle, given the huge cast of this frenzied piece, is that a half dozen of them didn’t require treatment for concussion.
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of Daniel Capps, was a mite scratchy in the violins early in the “Divertimento” but was otherwise wonderful. It conveyed the bittersweet longing quality of the “Pulcinella” and fueled this memorable night of pure joy in motion.
Peter Martins retired from the New York City Ballet in January after allegations of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse were brought against him—allegations that he denies. An interim artistic team of four is currently in charge. It must be an unsettling time for the dancers and company staff. I hope DC’s enthusiastic reception of them this week reminds them how treasured are their talents and how appreciated their grueling but thrilling work.
New York City Ballet with the New York City Ballet Orchestra
Balanchine, Martins & Peck (Mar. 27–29)
Divertimento No. 15 (Mozart/Balanchine)
Zakouski (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky/Martins)
A Kennedy Center premiere by Justin Peck: Pulcinella Variations (Stravinsky/Peck)
Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Tchaikovsky/Balanchine)
Symphony in Three Movements (Stravinsky/Balanchine)
Robbins Centennial Program: Bernstein, Glass & Verdi (Mar. 30–Apr. 1)
Glass Pieces (Glass/Robbins)
Fancy Free (Bernstein/Robbins)
The Four Seasons (Verdi/Robbins)