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NYCB opens with tasty hors d’oeuvres—the feast must wait

New York City Ballet Principal Dancers Mira Nadon and Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.
Photo credit: Erin Baiano
New York City Ballet Principal Dancers Mira Nadon and Peter Walker in George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.

The New York City Ballet returned to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday night with tantalizing tastes of the full banquets to come. Principal dancers Adrian Danchig-Waring and Unity Phelan emceed the NYCB On and Off Stage program with intelligence, wit, and a full smorgasbord of ballet commentary on the excerpts the company danced, as well as the full ballets they will stage through Saturday night.

For example, our two guides called attention to arm gestures—port de bras—by having three student dancers demonstrate the arm movements that mark time in Coppélia’s Waltz of the Golden Hours, and then inviting the audience to stand and duplicate them. Armed (so to speak) with that awareness, we could appreciate Isabella LaFreniere’s beautifully supple port de bras in George Balanchine’s classical but swoony Swan Lake pas de deux, as Andrew Veyette lifted her high in a backbend. In almost shocking contrast, Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Alexa Maxwell, and Kristen Segin angled their arms in a most anti-classical fashion, bending their knees and flexing their feet when Victor Abreu lifted each of them in Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet, The Times Are Racing.

Mira Nadon and Joseph Gordon showed how parts of Balanchine’s pas de deux in Diamonds, the Tschaikovsky ballet that concludes the three-part Jewels, use motifs borrowed from Swan Lake, particularly the male dancer’s “catch-and-release” pursuit of the ballerina. Curiously, the pas de troix selected from Emeralds, to Fauré, is one of that gorgeous Romantic work’s least lush sections. In the opening movement of Rubies, to Stravinsky, Emma Von Enck bounded playfully with Anthony Huxley, while Naomi Corti looked masterful and dynamic in the Amazonian soloist’s role, which she had just learned as a late substitute. NYCB will perform Jewels in its complete dazzle Wednesday evening and Thursday afternoon.

Two new ballets offered enticing samples. The opening of Amy Hall Garner’s Underneath, There Is Light used classical steps for two men and two women to create and disrupt patterns and symmetries. In a section of Pam Tanowitz’s Gustave Le Gray No. 1, to a Caroline Shaw piano score, the dancers wore floppy red pajamas, defying the conventional wisdom that ballet bodies must be clearly defined.

The program ended with the finale of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, his charmingly patriotic John Philip Sousa ballet; the full work, complete with Old Glory, appears along with Swan Lake Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

The evening’s one sour note had nothing to do with the glory of NYCB. The On and Off Stage program began in 2021 as a clever way of returning NYCB to SPAC during the pandemic by enlisting a skeleton crew of dancers and musicians for a selection of short works and excerpts. That strategy worked wonderfully when the alternative was no ballet at all.

But now that On and Off Stage has continued for four years, it has run its course and is in danger of becoming a first-night tradition. The company’s SPAC residency in the twenty-first century has shrunk from three weeks, to two, to one, with only seven performances. It seems unfair to dance audiences to turn one of those performances essentially into a lecture-demo, no matter how entertaining, when instead we could be treated to a third evening of Jewels or mixed repertory. Excerpts can educate, but only complete ballets can communicate what this wonderful art is all about, and SPAC needs to trust that audiences, as Yogi Berra once said, “can observe a lot by looking.” New York City Ballet’s opening night at SPAC should return to bringing complete ballets from its superlative repertory—then SPAC will have a better chance of filling the house on opening night.

For complete information on NYCB performances, visit spac.org.

JAY ROGOFF is a poet and dance writer who lives in Saratoga Springs. His new book of literary essays, Becoming Poetry, won the Lewis P. Simpson Award for outstanding criticism. His latest poetry collection is Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, from LSU Press.

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