New York City Ballet
Classic NYCB I: Haieff Divertimento, Concertino, Episodes, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
New York, David H. Koch Theater
7 February 2020
What’s Old is New Again
It was a night for revivals at New York City Ballet. Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento, created in 1947 for one of the company’s precursors, Ballet Society, returned after 25 years out of the company’s repertory. A solo choreographed by Balanchine for the modern dancer Paul Taylor as part of the original Episodes (1959), was restored after over three decades. And Jerome Robbins’ seldom-seen Concertino, choreographed for the 1982 Stravinsky Festival also made its first appearance here since 2006.
Does the unfamiliarity of these ballets explain why the theater looked less full than usual? If so, it’s a shame. The performances made the best possible case for these works. Haieff Divertimento, which I had seen once before in a performance by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, came across as charmingly strange, imbued with a courtliness and ensemble spirit reminiscent of Balanchine’s later Square Dance (1957), but also filled with tricky pointe work and eccentric touches: rocking steps, splayed fingers, fists. The music, by the Russian-born Alexei Haieff, is Stravinksy-lite: neo-classical, slightly jazzy, with moments of dissonance. In the middle, Balanchine conceived a pas de deux in which the woman (Unity Phelan) stretches and twists in her partner’s arms with feline sinuousness. The quality suits Phelan, a lithe dancer who moves as if she were harboring a secret. As did the quietness of the solo that followed, a highly distilled adagio in which she bowed to no-one in particular, then stepped onto pointe, gazing upward with open arms, looking very alone, very bare.
Even more bare is the solo Balanchine originally created for Paul Taylor for the dance Episodes, performed here by Michael Trusnovec, until recently a star of the Taylor company. The solo, which Taylor danced for only two years in the late fifties, has a slender history. Taylor taught it to the City Ballet dancer Peter Frame in the nineties. Frame passed it on to the Miami City Ballet dancer Jovani Furlan, now a soloist at City Ballet. And Furlan taught it to Trusnovec. For decades, Episodes has been performed without it.
It was fascinating to see the contrast between Trusnovec’s way of moving and that of the City Ballet dancers: the rootedness, the lower center of gravity, the elasticity and strength of the spine. I will be curious to watch Furlan’s take on the solo. How different will it look on a ballet-trained body?
To Anton von Webern’s Variations, Opus 30, an atonal piece for strings and woodwinds, the dancer crouches, twists, and flops, as if dejectedly fighting against a crushing weight. The feeling is claustrophobic. According to Taylor’s autobiography, Balanchine told him that he should move like a fly trapped in a glass of milk. But the enemy here is larger, perhaps space itself. Again and again, Trusnovec shielded his eyes, as if wishing he could disappear. And then, with all the energy he could muster, he stood up again, in profile, lifting his arms in an archaic pose, hands limply drooping from the wrist. The pose is immediately reminiscent of moments in Paul Taylor’s own works: hieratic, god-like, but also strange. Did it come from Taylor, or from Balanchine? Trusnovec danced with his characteristic precision and economy of means, shifting from one shape to another with absolute clarity. At almost ten minutes, the solo is a killer. The dancer’s efforts are built into the drama of the piece. It was a miracle he could stand at the end.
Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring gave a luminous reading of Episodes’ closing “Ricercata,” set to Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s “Musical Offering.” As always, this section seemed to sweep away all that had come before, a giant palate cleanser and return to order.
Joined by Jovani Furlan, Reichlen and Danchig-Waring also danced Jerome Robbins’ Concertino, a trio set to witty, syncopated Stravinsky. One of the dance’s charms is the unisex quality of the steps. Each dancer is a completely free agent. They move their hips and whirl their arms. The dance has swing. When they come together, the partnering is playful, on equal terms. As the first section ends, one of the men carries Reichlen off unceremoniously in a horizontal lift, as if she were a steel beam.
The evening closed with Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, one of Justin Peck’s most popular and successful works, set to Aaron Copland’s irresistible ballet score. (Copland composed it for Agnes de Mille in 1942.) Peck’s musicality is extremely intricate, and on this night the connection between his detailed movements and Copland’s phrases was approximate, particularly in the opening section. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time to fine-tune things. Sixteen men and one woman, danced here by Sara Mearns, constitute the cast. The pas de deux Mearns shares with one of the guys (Peter Walker) is amicable, and aimless. Peck has yet to crack the code of how to make a really compelling male-female duet. There is also something off in the costuming here. The woman wears a leotard with a short top that covers her shoulders and arms. Her legs are bare. But with the push and pull of partnering, the leotard keeps riding up. Perhaps tights or a different cut might do the trick?
The four ballets make for a slightly over-long evening (both Episodes and Rodeo are substantial works). But it’s a small price to pay for seeing these rarities back onstage.