“See the music, hear the dance,” said George Balanchine.
New York City (Ballet) is my Mecca. There's nowhere quite like the Big Apple, and there's nowhere like Lincoln Center if you're into a certain kind of ballet.
What kind, I hear you say? Ballet that makes you feel alive, where risk-laden movement is palpable, and the whole emphasis is on the now.
I was trained in the English style (The Royal Ballet School 1990-1997) so I came to Balanchine late and sadly, only as an observer. But when I did, the impact was clear – this is what I'd been longing for, and imagining was possible. If you're willing to cross the Atlantic to witness it in its birthplace, you won't be disappointed.
I was lucky enough to observe the first two programmes of NYCB's Spring Season (2023) with slight casting variations. The All Balanchine evening, and Masters at Work: Balanchine and Robbins II.
The All Balanchine had some important premieres and moments. It saw Sara Mearns return to the stage after an absence, and debut in the 1st violin role of Concerto Barocco (1941). She was warmly received by her adoring audience at the end, but the dancing felt more subdued than normal, though to be expected perhaps. The Mearns effect will undoubtedly grow, however the infamous (S)arabesque was on full show – she's renowned for having a flexible back and arabesque line that goes on forever. Though it's far more than just leg height – it's a combination of freedom throughout, and energy that literally hums from the heart chakra.
Elsewhere (as with Mearns) one needs to acclimatise to the dancing. Coming from London, things look totally different, and initially almost wrong. But then you realise… it's less about the ‘how', and more about the ‘what'. And basically nothing to do with the (obvious) ‘why'. The dancers are here to dance… to move… not languish in endless positions waiting to be photographed. At New York City Ballet you somehow see less but feel far more – though, that said, I've seen Barocco danced with increased proficiency. Perhaps my expectations after a five-year hiatus were too high? Or maybe this cast needs a little extra time and fine tuning…
Things felt more together on the Saturday matinee with an alternate cast… is it me or them I wondered? Unity Phelan as the 1st Violin was all expressive neck and back, and Tyler Angle's partnering meant she truly soared in all the lifts. Ashley Laracey as the 2nd Violin is absolutely my cup of tea. Her dancing has such clarity, and with it, buckets of vitality and joie de vivre. She doesn't dance like a Soloist – she dances like a ballerina. Promotion anyone?
Tiler Peck also had a premiere in Raymonda Variations (1961) on Thursday evening. Here we see Balanchine working with the epic and lush, exactly how it sounded, Glazunov score with no plot. What a relief. It's always interesting to see NYCB in tutu ballets, and I believe Peck has to work a little harder than normal, which brings even more life to her already vivid dancing. Did it look like a first show? Absolutely not. Did it have the spontaneity of a premiere? Totally. Go figure! Elsewhere she was well supported by an effervescent Joseph Gordon and olympian female soloists and corps de ballet. The corps fizz and travel like there's no tomorrow – all have ballon, and stretch every single underneath foot throughout the allegro work. The five solos are extremely challenging. Where else do you see choreography finishing with 29 hops sur la pointe on the same foot? It's total madness and executed without so much as a blink. During the performance(s) I was constantly made aware of the strength of the pointework. It speaks volumes about the demand of the repertoire, and how the dancers are being prepared for it through their training at the School of American Ballet. The process visibly enabling the product.
The Saturday matinee saw two further debuts in the lead roles: Isabella LaFreniere and Chun Wai Chan. LaFreniere was promoted to Principal this year, and she's clearly a very stylish dancer with a steely technique and determination to match, though she needs a few more runs at Raymonda to properly shine. Wai Chan became the first Asian Principal at NYCB in 2022, arriving at the company as an already established dancer from Houston Ballet. No one can deny his skill set, but it doesn't always feel very Balanchine. Take something as simple as a glissade: at NYCB they should be dynamically tight and cover space like nowhere else, yet this I didn't see.
The middle ballet of the All Balanchine programme was Kammermusik No. 2 (1978) – my first time seeing the work. And what a total blast. Talk about favourite new ballet. I'm told it isn't programmed very often, and the big question is why? The Hindemith score is equally manic and mystical, and the choreography, of course, follows the same trajectory. I recognised so much in this piece from elsewhere. The undeniable mania and sass is very Symphony in Three Movements (1972), with similarly angular, broken port be bras, which communicates a major crustacean feel – balletic lobsters even. I'd also propose that Wheeldon was hugely influenced by this work. Balanchine's poetic, dusk-lit pas de deux positively reek of the Polyphonia (2001) aesthetic with the twilight lighting allowing for the poignant use of silhouette, seen often in the Wheeldon canon, as well as in Robbins (Glass Pieces – 1983).
The ballet was danced very well, and this fact subsequently spoke of NYCB's future. The lead female roles featured another two of the company's newly promoted Principals, Emilile Gerrity and Mira Nadon. I've been a long-time fan of Gerrity's dancing, as she's both refined and brazen, which is perfect for Kammermusik‘s frenzied mysticism. Nadon is a young dancer, and with LaFreniere is clearly going to fill the tall ballerina slots, recently freed up by the retirement of both Teresa Reichlen and Maria Kowrowski. Nadon moves her extremely long limbs with both power and stealth precision, and never misses a beat. Her style not overselling but leaving nothing underdone either. Basically fabulous.
The men. People often talk about Balanchine's women (ahem, see above), but the NYCB men get to dance so much more than the average ballet company male corps. Kammermusik‘s corps is made up exclusively of men, eight of them, and what a total riot their choreography is with bigger being better, as is the more absurd. We've left crustaceans behind and entered the realm of orthopteran insects (think crickets), and the men seem to truly revel in the liberating execution of such unorthodox port de bras, with lines totally broken at the elbows and wrists, and even further exaggerated with splayed fingers. They also serve sideways, crab-style walks on three-quarter pointe with bent knees, and lunges so deep most humans wouldn't recover – ever – yet they just zip down and up with apparent ease. Peter Walker in one of the lead male roles allowed the choreography to do the talking – underplayed and consequently highly effective. Interestingly I saw him post-show exiting the Lincoln Center area on a skateboard and he had the same approach there (disclaimer: I'm not a stalker). The corps men however went in the opposite direction on stage, creating a tangible dance off environment with the agenda ‘who can do the most?'. It was a close call, but Davide Riccardo was the winner. The permanently haughty demeanour helped no end, and a final grand battement (the polite, French way of saying WHACK!) so high and powerful he almost knocked himself out. This moment caused me to gasp and LOL simultaneously – and that my friends, is when you know you're at an NYCB show.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.