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Ideas of order at the New York City Ballet

Unity Phelan and Jovani Furlan in Glass Pieces
Paul Kolnik
Unity Phelan and Jovani Furlan in Glass Pieces

Ballet presents a world of imaginative order, and Wednesday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the New York City Ballet illuminated three different approaches to order in dance. The Twentieth Century Masters program featured the two choreographers most entwined with NYCB’s history, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The evening’s third genius, modern dance’s Merce Cunningham, created works that challenged ballet’s architecture but inspired Balanchine to have NYCB dance his 1958 Summerspace, which has returned to SPAC after a fifty-five year absence.

Balanchine’s 1976 Chaconne shows two kinds of order. It opens in Romantic style as nine women, their hair flowing, elegantly stride about the stage in graceful arcs and sinuous lines. The music comes from Gluck’s opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, although the dance has no story. Yet the pas de deux immediately following glances at the myth of Orpheus bringing his love back from the underworld. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle face away from each other, and only after tracing wary half-circles do their eyes meet. Their ethereal dance involves Angle’s strong support in lilting lifts, dangerous leans, and noble walking—but walking out of step, each hearing a different rhythm in the music. It ends with Angle carrying Mearns, who repeatedly touches her toe to the ground, tentatively rediscovering the earth.

Then Chaconne’s idea of order changes from Romantic to classical, with intricate symmetries and impeccably structured joy. The second pas de deux for Mearns and Angle, loaded with daring steps, and the finale, with the couple happily leading the cast of twenty-eight, all in dazzling white, grants us a classical vision of heaven.

Cunningham’s Summerspace, for six dancers—NYCB learned it in 1966—runs entirely counter to Balanchine’s ordered universe. The choreography grows not out of Morton Feldman’s twittering, summery musical score, but unfolds with it simultaneously. The dancers wear pointillist leotards designed by painter Robert Rauschenberg, and look almost ready to dissolve into Rauschenberg’s pointillist backdrop. Constructed according to principles of chance, Summerspace doesn’t follow a conventional dance structure; rather, it starts, continues for twenty minutes, and stops.

Moments of order in Summerspace are simply coincidental illusions. When a piano trill accompanies Ashley Laracey’s deep plié, or when a trumpet’s noodling punctuates Emilie Gerrity’s slow bending and sinking to the floor, it’s an accident that looks designed. Adrian Danchig-Waring seasons his muscular performance with deadpan humor, as when he springs across the stage, hopping in he-man arabesques. He and Andrew Veyette cross paths, leaping delightfully in jetés, and he pursues a kind of dance fugue with Laracey and Sara Adams. These five, plus Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, often appear oddly isolated, so when two of them dance at the same time, it looks like simultaneous solos, not a planned duet—merely another coincidence.

Jerome Robbins’s 1983 Glass Pieces, in contrast, set to three works by Philip Glass, embraces order with a vengeance, just like Glass’s music, with its obsessive recursiveness and repeated musical figures. The ballet’s mysterious central section, Façades, sends a silhouetted line of women slowly across the back of the stage, against a dimly lit backdrop of shimmering celestial graph paper. They advance, shuffling, turn to face us, take two sideways steps, and curtsy, then every second woman loops back around to an earlier place in line. The leads, Unity Phelan and Jovani Furlan, making his debut in the role, stand in profile like Egyptian gods, arms rounded at their sides, and embark on a stunning set of lifts, tussles, and embraces. Glass Pieces’ first and third sections, which investigate pedestrian movement and youthful athleticism, follow the music with equal obedience, but Façades, a hieroglyphic of our rage for order, stands as one of Robbins’s greatest achievements.

The Twentieth Century Masters program returns to SPAC Saturday, July 16, at 7:30. 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.

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  • 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.