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Jay Rogoff: NYC Ballet Dazzles At SPAC

The New York City Ballet returned Tuesday night to its summer home, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, to begin a much-too-short run of seven performances. Upstate dance fans got their first look at the company under new artistic director Jonathan Stafford and new associate artistic director Wendy Whelan.

In a trio of Tschaikovsky masterpieces by George Balanchine, conducted by Andrew Litton, the company looked relaxed and confident. They demonstrated why Balanchine, NYCB’s co-founder and its ballet master for 35 years, was arguably the greatest 20th century choreographer.

The evening began with Serenade, from 1934, the first work Balanchine made in America. Its iconic opening image is lushly romantic, 17 women arranged in a double diamond pattern under blue moonlight, right arms saluting the sky. In unison, their hands slowly travel to their foreheads, then to their hearts. They round their arms and then, suddenly, all open their feet into first position, step into second, and close into fifth. They have been transformed into dancers.

In Serenade, Balanchine de-emphasized lead dancers to focus on the swirling, continual motion of the corps, inventing for his new American company the first democratic ballet. The final movement enacts a little allegory in which Lauren Lovette, abandoned by love, undergoes a transformation, raised shoulder high to embrace the loving and terrible moonlight. Lovette’s radiantly fluid performance brimmed with astonishingly supple backbends; Megan LeCrone and Erica Pereira also excelled.

Balanchine’s Mozartiana, from 1981, featured outstanding performances from Sara Mearns, Tyler Angle, and Daniel Ulbricht. It uses Tschaikovsky’s fourth orchestral suite, on themes of Mozart, and its first two movements contrast the sacred, with Mearns slowly advancing downstage in prayer, surrounded by four young girls, with the worldly, represented by Ulbricht executing speedy footwork in a gigue.

But Mozartiana offers a richer route to joy in its theme and variations movement for Mearns and Angle. They alternate solos, extending their virtuosity with marvelous turns and leaps. Angle sometimes flashes in entrechats, followed by Mearns turning slowly and seductively. They finally partner up in a legato variation for solo violin, a thrilling feast of turning and interplay that ends with her behind him, leaning backwards over his outstretched arms to look out at us, upside down. If Serenade ends with an image of abandonment and transformation, Mozartiana’s pas de deux offers us a rare thing in ballet, an emblem of satisfied desire.

The evening ended triumphantly with the 1941 Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, with Susan Walters on piano. This sparkling tribute to Russian classicism sparkled all the more thanks to Marc Happel’s new costumes in shades of blue, with Swarovski crystals for the 20 women and shimmering double-breasted vests for the nine men. But tall Teresa Reichlen outdazzled the costumes with her brilliant extension, her majestic warmth, and her crystalline technique.

Her partner, Russell Janzen, achieved the remarkable trick of dancing simultaneously with ten women, their two lines looping around him as in a Hollywood number, reminding us that Balanchine had recently choreographed for the movies. When Janzen hoisted Reichlen to his shoulder in triumph, it was a match made in Balanchine.

The New York City Ballet’s Balanchine/Tschaikovsky program returns to SPAC Thursday at 2 pm. For further information, visit spac.org.

Jay Rogoff has published six collections of poetry and writes about dance for The Hopkins Review and Ballet Review. His next book, Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, will appear from LSU Press next year.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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