New Leadership, and Work, at New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet | Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
“The prodigal daughter returns to lead New York City Ballet to a bright future!”
That could have been a March 1, 2019 headline—hyperbolic, if true.
After many months under an interim leadership team of dancers who replaced the ousted Peter Martins, the company announced that Wendy Whelan, who retired from the company in 2014 after 30 years, will be associate artistic director, and ex-principal Jonathan Stafford—who had become the de facto leader—will be artistic director. The decision seems to combine Stafford’s presumed skills—quiet leadership, organizational, teaching, and communicative abilities—with the optimism and luster of Whelan’s peerless career as one of the company’s most beloved principals and a constant source of inspiration. Stafford will also oversee the School of American Ballet and teach company class, among other things, and Whelan will teach on occasion but has no other duties tied to SAB.
Whelan returns several years after leaving NYCB and exploring independent projects that varied in scope and quality, the most prominent being Restless Creature. It comprised four short commissioned works (all by men who partnered her), the tour of which was delayed by a serious injury chronicled in a 2017 documentary by the same name. The search for collaborators for Restless Creature (and other projects) no doubt brought Whelan in contact with many contemporary choreographers who might one day set work on NYCB. The sheer fact that a woman is now a leader at NYCB is a blast of fresh air, after years of personal and artistic egotism under Martins. And despite her international renown, Whelan is down-to-earth, inquisitive, and open to listening to others. Justin Peck, (who was also the subject of a recent documentary, Ballet 422), will retire from the stage, but take on the role of artistic advisor in addition to being the company’s current resident choreographer.
As the oldest ballet in NYCB’s repertory, Balanchine’s Apollo (1928) carries a revered aura. It also represents a badge of honor among Balanchine roles for men—a merit bestowed after years of service, or in some cases, being born with the right look (which has often meant tall and blond). But in the new era of City Ballet, mixed race principal Taylor Stanley debuted in the role, reinvigorating it and stripping some of the air of noblesse oblige that it previously held, with some exceptions, notably Robert Fairchild’s irrepressible enthusiasm. In short time, Stanley has become one of the most versatile and exciting male dancers in a company now starving for them, in light of the #metoo departures of Amar Ramasar and Chase Finlay, and the retirement of Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. (Honestly, the company is so bountiful with talented women, perhaps some of them should begin dancing male roles, to pick up the idea abetted by this NYT article by Madison Mainwaring.)
Stanley dances Apollo as a clear-eyed young man, not a lost youth, as some renderers do. His great gifts include a purity of line, the ability to attack movement while still imbuing it with a plush grace, and an intense gaze that seeks connection and understanding with partners and the audience. A photo from his standout solo in Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway—in which he extends a leg high to the side, his arms and torso twisting and pulling the opposite way—became last year’s best-of list pinup, with good reason. His presence always enlivens the stage without sucking the air from it. (He repeated this role in the winter season, and while still impactful, it lacked the premiere’s element of sheer surprise elicited by the radical vocabulary and music choices made by Abraham, matched with Stanley’s brilliance.)
The Greek-themed Balanchine/Stravinsky program included Orpheus (1948). This oddity stands out for its beautiful props, set, and costumes by Isamu Noguchi; the lyre given to Orpheus by Apollo, the gold mask, the glowing golden orbs and rocks are all unique sculptures. (The women’s costumes, however, could have been destined for the Copacabana.) To the point of distraction, these designs evoke the work of Martha Graham, a frequent collaborator with Noguchi. I half expected to see her forceful, angular modern style instead of Balanchine’s gesture-filled ballet. Gonzalo Garcia danced the title role with his unassuming, if forgettable, everyman grace; Sterling Hyltin portrayed a wispy Eurydice. The one-act ballet lacks the dramatic denouement that, in other interpretations, follows the River Styx crossing and descent, and thus packs little emotional resonance.
As Balanchine’s early work keeps the company grounded in the visionary past, Justin Peck continues to break the path forward. His 2019 premiere, Principia, with music by Sufjan Stevens (orchestration by Timo Andres), contrasts with some of his other recent ballets such as The Times Are Racing (2017), in which Peck presented an evolved iteration of his own contemporary vocabulary—an inspired amalgam of ballet, pedestrian, street, with a whiff of Jerome Robbins’ musical theater style. Principia is a densely knitted blanket of ballet steps, and while there’s nothing revolutionary, the dance for 24 displays Peck’s unmannered fluidity with the idiom, which he deploys in full phrases, and his close kinship with Stevens’ shimmering music (it’s a repeat partnership; previous collaborations include Year of the Rabbit and Everywhere We Go).
The crowd is the first image we see. Amid a cluster of crouched dancers, elbows aloft, one dancer rises with a flourish of arms, and sinks. Then another does. Small pods of dancers, raised arms converging at bunched fingertips, with the touch of a passerby burst open like flowers blooming. Some of the ensemble scenes evoke sea life—darting, swaying, and pulsing fluidly. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s simple, pale blue and mauve tights and tops reinforce the limpid, aquatic feel, and harken back to Balanchine’s basic leotard ballets, the cornerstone of modern ballet.
Leads Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley pair well together, both embodiments of clarity and innate musicality; she spins quickly, unspooling a delicately fluid, precise phrase to a cascading musical line punctuated with bells. Some choreographic elements—two women dance the same phrase symmetrically, as if mirrored—seem so simple as to be obvious, but feel surprisingly fresh. Justin Peck’s balletic movement is organic, seamless, and the dancers look happy doing it. He avoids quirky motifs and contortions, instead shaping the stage space with groupings that morph and shift in lapping waves.
The prominence of the group is an apt metaphor for the state of NYCB itself in the wake of Peter Martins’s ousting after decades of a virtual autocracy. (That said, another recent New York Times article examined ways in which Martins continues to exert influence over the company.) The company has since presented a united front, composed of individual voices and talents, notable in last fall’s gala opener when the company appeared onstage pre-show while Teresa Reichlin spoke of unity and morality. And now, with Stafford and Whelan at the helm, with Justin Peck right behind, it’s time to turn the page with great hope and anticipation.
Susan Yung is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.