It felt strangely natural to be back in the David H. Koch Theater. The promenade was full again. Sure, people were wearing masks and had had to show proof of vaccination at the door, a process that slowed things down, but only slightly. The gold curtain was gold as ever. Eighteen months melted away in an instant. The old habits came right back, including the way I always tuck my program under my right leg, just in case I want to peer at it during the performance.
It was the opening performance of New York City Ballet’s fall season, the company’s first since the beginning of the pandemic. The program was well-chosen, starting with Balanchine’s Serenade, the first ballet Balanchine made in America and a work that seems to be about the birth of ballet itself. The closer, Symphony in C, also by Balanchine, is brilliant, sparkling, like a sip of well-chilled champagne. And in the middle, a sentimental pas de deux, Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, performed by two dancers who will depart this season, Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour.
The applause began even before the first note was played and intensified as the curtain rose to reveal the seventeen women in the opening tableau of Serenade, wearing long diaphanous skirts and bathed in blue light. They held out one hand as if shielding themselves from the glow of the moon, then placed their arms in bras bas, and, in unison, pivoted their feet into ballet’s characteristic “turned out” stance. In that moment, ballet returned.
Then the dancers were off, tearing across the stage with the energy and speed City Ballet is known for. The cast, led by Sterling Hyltin, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ashley Bouder, Megan LeCrone, and Aaaron Sanz gave a brisk, windswept performance. A circle of spinning dancers, each a dervish, all part of a larger revolving ring of bodies in motion, was a miraculous blur. But at times I wished the conductor, Andrew Litton, had given the dancers a bit more room to breathe, more dynamic nuance to play with.
The audience caught its breath with After the Rain, set to meditative Arvo Pärt. Where Whelan, for whom the role was made, projected a wiry intelligence, Kowroski’s interpretation is deeply vulnerable, almost mournful. The overwhelming sense at this performing was one of loss. Next to her, La Cour was a quiet, virile presence, protector and partner.
The evening’s fireworks were provided by Symphony in C, a ballet to a youthful symphony by Bizet that seems to radiate light from beginning to end. Sara Mearns, the company’s reigning diva – in the best sense – performed the second movement adagio, set to a sinuous melody for oboe, with searing focus and authority. “She’s like a tiger,” my neighbor whispered after the show. It’s true, Mearns dances with hunger. At this performance, the way she molded each movement, bending her body to catch the push-and-pull of the music, made you hold your breath in amazement.
Her partner, Tyler Angle, supported her with the understated skill for which he is known. The fact that he has shaved his head – presumably in response to thinning hair – was jarring at first, but not for long. It takes courage to embrace one’s frailties.
The entire cast of Symphony sparkled. Megan Fairchild, who gave birth to twin girls in April, ran on like a blast of wind. Her tendus were sharp, her turns perfectly centered. In the third movement, Indiana Woodward and Harrison Ball flew around the stage as if their feet had wings. In the fourth, Lauren King spun and spun, smiling all the while. The whole performance was a joy.
A joy, too, to hear the orchestra play the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker. And a promise of things to come. It has been a long eighteen months, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that the future is uncertain. But boy is it good to be in the presence of dancers and musicians again.