The horses weren’t yet racing when New York City Ballet opened its 51st annual season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center last week. But the times were racing, by which I mean that the slightly-harried looking company gave the upstate New York premiere of Justin Peck’s much-buzzed-about Trump-era ballet – The Times Are Racing.
Since 1966, the company has ventured north each summer to perform at one of the Northeast’s summer playgrounds. The length of the residency has varied, from a peak of four weeks when SPAC opened to a low of one week in 2013 and 2014. This year, the performances stretch from July 5 through 16. Five days later, racing season officially begins at Saratoga Race Course.
Nothing gets a track meet (of any kind) off to a bad start like a dropped baton, and that’s how City Ballet got things started in Stars and Stripes. The company’s opening night fell just one day after July 4, allowing the audience to continue reveling in Old Glory and John Phillip Sousa. But the corps dancers, especially in the first regiment, seemed to still be hung over from Independence Day festivities. This was one out-of-sync bunch of girls in pink, with some serious spacing issues to boot. When the baton came flying at majorette Erica Pereira, she dropped it with a clunk.
As is too often the case with City Ballet, fine performances by the principals offset subpar (under-rehearsed?) showings from the corps. Daniel Ulbricht was firework explosive, leaping with precision and drawing loud squeals and cheers each time. (It turned out that students from the New York State Summer School for the Arts were in the audience, and Ulbricht directs the School of Dance.) Megan Fairchild delivered a more lyrical take then usually in the Liberty Bell role, and Tyler Angle served her well as the gallant El Captain.
Sousa was a composer who specialized in marches, and as a friend in an American military band once quipped, “a really shitty composer of everything else.” This weakness is especially noticeable in the adagio Hershy Kay orchestrated for the pas de deux. Even Balanchine remarked in his notes for the piece that “ever since I came to the United States, I have loved watching parades and listening to Sousa’s marches.” There’s no mention of “everything else.”
Stars and Stripes premiered in 1958, and the Russian emigree demonstrates his affection for the quintessential writer of om-pah music in his adopted country by subverting the common association that marching is all about knee action. The basic movement vocabulary of Stars and Stripes is not up and down, but side to side. There are lots of little sideways jumps, rapid-beating entrechats and grand battlement kicks to the left and right. Even in the ensemble finale, the dancers’ legs are held straight in rhythmic little skips before they line up to work their knees while the principals show off.
All American was the program title, and if ballet master in chief Peter Martins fudged a little by including an immigrant’s salute to the red, white and blue, he fudged a lot by including himself. At least the music for Fearful Symmetries is by John Adams, the quintessential contemporary composer, and at least Fearful Symmetries is one of Martins’ best ballets.
City Ballet’s grueling spring season, followed by a stint at the Kennedy Center, resulted in a slew of injuries, so the Saratoga season finds many members of the corps stepping up in lead roles. There wasn’t a single principal performing in Symmetries, and while the dancers who stepped up weren’t stunning, several of the men were able jumpers. (Full disclosure, I was sitting a bit too far back to distinguish who was who.)
Tiler Peck, the original lead dancer in The Times Are Racing, is not on the disabled list, thankfully, and the students in the audiences were well aware she was another star to squeal for. Her partner here was Daniel Applebaum, and he took care of Tiler like a veteran. Choreographer Justin Peck (no relation) also stepped into his own ballet, which he’s noted is inspired by political chaos. As other critics have noted, this is not a masterpiece, but a well-structured dance that finds the young choreographer branching into other styles. Unfortunately the hip-hop-like section, led by Ashley Issacs, needed more verve more assertive contractions, so these tennis-shoe clad dancers can look ready to take it to the streets.
The costumes (by the high fashion brand Opening Ceremony) continue to be problematic. The “Resist” logos seem like insincere protester knock-offs, and several of the corps members wear overly distracting get-ups: I’m looking at you too often, guy in baggie overalls and girl in the red-and-black skirt! But the focal points of the ballet, especially those that elevate Tiler Peck like a woman trying to make sense of a world gone mad, remain strong. As several young bunheads remarked on their way out, “I love Tiler. I want to be her when I grow up.”
Don’t we all? But the times are racing. For the already-grown adults in the audience, this is no Saratoga summer to spend lounging around, waiting for racing season and clarity on the America to come.