Balanchine himself once said that Serenade is “many things to many people.” If it is one thing to City Ballet, it is the single ballet which they are expected to do perfectly every time. This is ironic, funny even, given that Balanchine set the work on students rather than veteran dancers. Mistakes (a girl falling down, another arriving late) were made. Somewhat famously, Balanchine incorporated those flukes into the choreography, brilliantly pivoting the work from a pretty, musical recital piece to something with drama, beauty and tension. Tuesday night’s performance was exceptional, breathtaking even, largely due to a rock solid corps and Tiler Peck.
With primary casting including Megan LeCrone and Sara Mearns – who danced the “falling girl” role – it would be easy to assume Mearns, with her famous thespian tactics, would milk the melodrama and steal the show. She did the former, but not the latter. Peck exhibited more dynamism: her petit allegro was confident and joyful, her sensuality prevalent, and her moments of drama were poignant, applied at the right time and with deep feeling. Mearns’ expression rarely changed, and occasionally looked pained. While the choreography of each role differs, both flicker through different tempos and moods, with Mearns’ tortured approach turning her pique turns into a violent, jagged manèges. Edginess is part of her appeal, but risks bullishly charging through the score.
Peck’s musicality, along with her petite allegro, is among her most visibly appreciable gifts, and she loses no soul by capably shifting gears. Her phrasing is unparalleled and never compromises execution. Peck uses Tchaikovsky’s sweeping score to cast a rapturous spell. Her milky cambres suspend time, and just when you think she could be lost to a moment of indulgence, she comes back, right on time. Often cast in pert, perky roles, Peck would be done a disservice if limited to this typecasting, for her versatility is a rare, precious thing.
The corps are the heartbeat of Serenade, and deserve ample praise. On Tuesday night, their synchronization was on form, their roll-offs and spacing were perfect, and their musicality felt sincere. The two dozen female dancers (there are only two men–male students were scarce in 1930s America) imbue the work with a sense of sisterhood. The iconic opening–a curtain rising on 17 women standing stock still in icy blue tulle skirts, their right arms up to the sky, palms out, as Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” cascades down–garners gasps from the audience 81 years later. When they move their arms up to high fifth in unison, there is a gust of wind, a sense of ritual; Karinksa’s ankle-length skirts, often catching the dancers wrists and spreading into a fan of tulle, add to the high sensory experience. Ballerinas wrap their arms around one another’s waists, hold hands and huddle in circles. Their full-bodied sautés have something of Isadora Duncan’s abandon to them – a rapturous, pagan celebration of pure music. They curl and unfurl and zig and zag across the stage in an ingenious variety of swift changing formations. There are nods to Giselle or Swan Lake, but the cabals of the Wilis or the cygnets are not replicated here; Serenade’s coven answers only to music.
Peter Martins’ Hallelujah Junction is a tricky piece set to one of John Adams’ minimalist scores composed for two dueling pianos (the pianists face each other, performing on a platform upstage). Ulbricht, as usual, was the perfect balance of power and style, spiraling like a top, beaming with every bound. There are a few choreographic references to Serenade, as there are in Duo Concertante later in the program. The entire work is difficult, particularly some of the pas de deux moves, but Hallelujah is not quite as brutal as Martins can be. While the score is somewhat relentless, prickly minimalism, the choreography taps Mr. B’s jazz-inflected aesthetic, and in an unexpected way it can work rather well, but largely adds up to a mix and match of classic City Ballet steps done at high velocity.
Another pulsating work, Duo Concertant, set to Stravinsky’s eponymous score, was danced fantastically by Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, and played equally well by the formidable Nancy McDill (piano) and Arturo Delmoni (violin). A witty, playful duet with an ambiguous ending, Duo requires agile petit allegro skills. Fairchild’s jumps were sharp and tight, and Hyltin danced with her typical fairy lightness, her pas de chats in particular were in fine, staccato form. Hyltin really shines in Duo, her entire being beaming throughout.
Western Symphony, while a crowd pleaser, feels odd on this program. In reality a robust, classical piece, Western Symphony only has the most superficial wild west references, and is a world away from DeMille. Set to familiar American tunes arranged by Hershy Kay, this boisterous hybrid features the men in cowboy outfits and women in burlesque showgirl costumes, adding up to a novelty rather than a weighty work, despite its choreographic challenges.
Tuesday night’s cast was in high spirits, with Teresa Reichlen and Abi Stafford holding court. Brittany Pollack, who arrives onstage as an Act II Wili (arms crossed over her chest, soft bourrees), had the difficult task of jumping through people-made hoops, and eventually exits the stage as she entered, while Jared Angle cracks a whip on a group of four female dancers who bourree offstage like a pack of horses. MFA graduates can debate the women-as-animals in this sequence, but most of the audience just read it as good fun. Reichlen was the queen of the final sequence, titled “Rodeo,” giving her all into a difficult series of relevee arabesques which push deep into a penchee each time, and loving every minute of it. Andrew Veyette was not far behind her, hurtling through barrel turns and over-the-log leaps, he was equally in charge of the rodeo. The finale, a flurry of ruffled skirts and cowboy hats, is, essentially, a mazurka-type ensemble dance: fun, fast and exhausting.