New York City Ballet – Divertimento No. 15, Episodes, Vienna Waltzes – New York

Lauren King, Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild, Ana Sophia Scheller and Sterling Hyltin in <I>Divertimento No. 15</I>.<br />© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
Lauren King, Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild, Ana Sophia Schelle and Sterling Hyltin in Divertimento No. 15.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

New York City Ballet
Balanchine x Vienna: Divertimento No. 15, Episodes, Vienna Waltzes

New York, David H. Koch Theater
22, 23 September 2016

Ladies, Let’s Get in Formation

There are Balanchine ballets – like Agon and Serenade – that never leave the repertory for long, and others that the audience only gets to see from time to time. One of these is Divertimento No. 15. For that and other reasons, it feels like a privileged work, one that gets brought out only for special occasions. This fall, it’s back, after an absence of five years. What’s the occasion? Perhaps the company feels that it has enough dancers who can do justice to its eight principal roles. Perhaps, too, in Andrew Litton it now has a conductor who can transmit the music’s subtle moods. Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15, a suite of dances that includes an almost celestial andante and a playful theme and variations, is music that requires a light touch, a lilting sense of rhythm and wit. From the first notes this week it was clear that we were in good hands.

The ballet dates from 1956, when Balanchine made it for a Mozart festival in Stanford Connecticut; he had already used the music once before, for a ballet called Caracole. Balanchine did not make many ballets to Mozart, which is odd, since his sense of balance and order would seem particularly suited to the composer’s music. And in fact his Divertimento feels as if the music had been composed for this very purpose. With each new musical idea, Balanchine introduces a new character: a dancer, or two, or the ensemble of eight. Everyone has his or her place. The gender imbalance – three men for five women – only makes matters more interesting. Balanchine never runs out of ways to re-introduce the dancers, re-combine them, and arrange them on the stage.

The theme and variations, which comes first, is made up of a series of morsel-like solos, each of which begins just as the last one is ending. It’s like a story, of which each dancer recounts just a short segment. The andante, in contrast, feels like one long, drawn-out melody; here, the dancers meet in a succession of pas de deux. The women float from one partner to the next, fluidly, without interruption. There is no hint of romance or coupling, just an atmosphere of infinite politesse. Despite this sense of decorum and Karinska’s beautiful powder-puff tutus in pale yellow and blue, Divertimento is not the least bit saccharine or over-genteel. The women greet each other with little hip bumps, hardly the rage in 1780. Many of the steps are devilishly fast, or taken off-balance; the women often tap the floor sharply with their pointes. The partnering is full of risk. And yet it’s a ballet that wears its difficulty and modernity lightly. It’s there if you look for it, but hardly the point.

Lauren King, Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild, Ana Sophia Scheller and Sterling Hyltin in Divertimento No. 15.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
Lauren King, Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild, Ana Sophia Scheller and Sterling Hyltin in Divertimento No. 15.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

Casting is everything in Divertimento, and yet there is no perfect cast. I saw two performances. Each offered moments of sheer delight; neither fully captured the delicacy of the music. The first, on Sept. 22 included two débuts, Tiler Peck and Andrew Scordato. Peck was musical, as always; her footwork in the theme and variations was blindingly quick; in the allegro molto finale, she skittered across the stage, barely skimming its surface. She had multiple opportunities to show off her super-fast chainé turns, a Peck specialty. And yet, she could allow herself to be softer, a little less virtuosic and more serene. Sterling Hyltin used her shoulders and head to imbue the choreography with charm and three-dimensionality; her light, springy jump is also a joy. Ana Sophia Scheller’s dancing was neat and precise, but slightly tight. Lauren King was buoyant, but a little pallid. And Abi Stafford had a tendency to make the choreography look more cutesy than it is. The men, though all excellent partners and elegant when dancing on their own, made a ragged trio.

The following night’s cast (Sept. 23), which included several more debuts, was more well-rounded, the standouts being Indiana Woodward (a last-minute replacement for Brittany Pollack), Ashley Laracey and Joseph Gordon. Woodward is having a breakout season; everything she dances seems to glow with joy, aided by a deep, juicy plié. Laracey has a poetic quality that is unique in the company; her lines radiate into space, and she uses her head and neck to extend them even further, like the reverberations at the end of a melody. Ashley Isaacs, in another début, is a powerhouse, strong and sharp but a little over-emphatic for this particular ballet.

And yet, Divertimento’s aura still shines; you want to see it again, to figure out its fluid, almost magical transitions. It’s a shame it will only be performed four times this season; it takes more than that for the audience, and the dancers, to really get to know it.

Savannah Lowery in Episodes.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
Savannah Lowery in Episodes.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

The ballet is being performed on a program with two other works with music by Viennese composers: Episodes and Vienna Waltzes. The three pieces are a surprisingly good fit: classicism, high modernism, and Hollywoodesque romance, all in one evening. Episodes, set to various pieces by Anton von Webern, proceeds from astringent, cool modernism toward regal, luminous order in its closing “Ricercata” based on Bach’s Musical Offering. The costumes are plain but chic: black leotards with belts for the women, black tights and white tops for the men. The opening section is a bit dour, and extremely courtly. The deliberate way the men offer their hands to the women is a distillation of all the manners of ballet. The second, performed on a dark stage with spotlights on the dancers, is like a deconstructed ghost story. Two dancers leap, crawl, and climb over each other; on Sept. 22, Claire Kretzschmar was convincingly creepy, almost creature-like. The third section is full of collapsing, origami-like shapes; the partnering, well-handled by Ashly Isaacs and Taylor Stanley on Sept. 22, borders on kinky, with straddle positions and upside-down splits. Balanchine wasn’t a prude. On Sept. 23, Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen brought a sense of majesty and simplicity to the “Ricercata.”

New York City Ballet in Vienna Waltzes.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
New York City Ballet in Vienna Waltzes.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

As a closer, Vienna Waltzes never fails to please. The swoop of the waltz, the opulence of the ballroom embrace the audience in a kind of fog of romance and nostalgia. (Litton really squeezes the juice out of these waltzes, by Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár, and Richard Strauss.) The Sept. 23 performance included the return of Ashley Bouder to the stage after what seems like a very short maternity leave; her performance in Frülingsstimmen revealed a dancer as assured and strong as ever. The final Rosenkavalier waltz is something more, a memorial to a lost world. You can’t help but feel that these waltzing couples, so elegant and oblivious to the world, are all doomed. A woman in a white floor-length gown, back and shoulders exposed, steps into an empty ballroom, and remembers. On Sept. 22, Sara Mearns danced the role of the lonely woman with a sense of drama and loss. On the 23rd, Teresa Reichlen, with her creamy port-de bras and gliding, supple bearing, looked like a woman lost in her own dream. They were both right.

About the author

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a free-lance dance writer and translator in New York. Her dance writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The Nation, Playbill, The Faster Times, DanceView, The Forward, Pointe, and Ballet Review. Her translations, which include Irène Némirovsky’s “The Mirador,” Dino Buzzati’s “Poem Strip,” and Pasolini’s “Stories from the City of God” have been published by FSG, Other Press, and New York Review Books. You can check her updates on Twitter at: @MarinaHarss


  • Thank you for this terrific review. Divertimento No. 15 was the first Balanchine ballet I saw live in the theater and I love it. Just one question: In the photo, is Sterling Hyltin at the far right? I don’t recognize her legs!

    • Hi Marta, Thank you! Lauren King is on the right. Sterling Hyltin is second from the left. Cheers, M

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