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NYCB Returns to SPAC with a summer sampler

The New York City Ballet returned in full force to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday night for the first time since 2019, a very different-looking company from three years ago. Seven principal dancers have retired in the past year, bestowing their roles upon exciting young performers. Last year’s pandemic-slimmed programs featured a small cast of dancers in excerpts from a wide range of ballets, mostly with piano accompaniment. This summer the wonderfully versatile New York City Ballet Orchestra has returned under music director Andrew Litton to support the company in two repertory programs of complete one-act works, as well as George Balanchine’s delightful full-length version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened SPAC in 1966.

The 2021 excerpt idea carried over to opening night 2022, however. “NYCB On and Off Stage,” offered a taste of every ballet on this week’s schedule, except for Pam Tanowitz’s new work, Gustave le Gray No. 1, cancelled because of illness. It will be replaced at Thursday’s two performances by Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth. Intelligent commentary from principal dancers Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring filled Tuesday’s ballet lecture-demo with enjoyment and insight.

Roman Mejia, replacing Daniel Ulbricht, soared as Oberon to Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alexa Maxwell led a quintet of Butterflies and twenty-four local ballet students danced up a storm as little butterflies and fairies (kids in Balanchine really get to dance). Mejia has not yet nailed Oberon’s flying backwards exit, but he darts and floats expertly and gives the fairy king precision and majesty.

Two pas de deux by Balanchine, Danchig-Waring noted, contrasted the classicism of the 1976 Chaconne with the radical neoclassicism of the Sanguinic movement from The Four Temperaments, made in 1946, with its radically slouching postures and its off-kilter poses. In fact, despite its luscious Gluck music, the Chaconne pas can look as radical as Sanguinic, especially when Tyler Angle linked arms with Sara Mearns and swung her dangerously off-center, justifying her daring orbit.

Emilie Gerrity and Chun Wai Chan captured the Sanguinic pas de deux’s solemn gaiety, Chan looking crisp with steely right-angle pliés, and Gerrity prancing with high-kicking battements to Hindemith’s score. In two extended series of long lifts, the first spiraling to the center, the second spiraling out, they appeared to circumnavigate the world.

Danchig-Waring shone particular attention on the corps de ballet—literally, as he noted, the “body of the ballet,” who help create a dance’s architecture and a metaphoric foundation for the soloists. In Justin Peck’s 2012 In Creases, to Philip Glass piano music, the eight dancers line up in a column, front to back, and strike varying arm poses, called port de bras, to form intersecting patterns, stabbing and slicing the air. Danchig-Waring called this Peck’s historical “dialogue” with Balanchine’s Sanguinic dance, whose four-woman corps conduct their own slicing and stabbing arm movements.

This season revives modern dance master Merce Cunningham’s 1958 Summerspace, which NYCB undertook in 1966. Cunningham’s choreography unfolds not to, but simultaneously with its Morton Feldman score, which twitters with summery sounds. It therefore runs counter to NYCB’s music-based aesthetic, which aims for audiences to “see the dance.” The two other excerpts on the program, from Jamar Roberts’s new Emanon—In Two Movements, for eight dancers, to a Wayne Shorter composition, and the big, pounding finale of Jerome Robbins’s 1983 Glass Pieces, to three Philip Glass works, could not be more different from Cunningham, firmly grounded in the music’s insistent rhythms.

Tuesday offered enough of NYCB’s infinite variety that it seems churlish to complain about not seeing complete ballets. All this week offers golden opportunities from this golden company.

The New York City Ballet continues at SPAC through Saturday, July 16. For further information, visit spac.org.

JAY ROGOFF is a poet and dance writer who lives in Saratoga Springs. His latest poetry collection is Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, and he is working on a book about watching the ballets of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine. 

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