The New York City Ballet on Thursday, February 7.
It never fails: When I choose to see a ballet repertory program mainly for one or two works on the bill, those works are never my favorites, and often, the work in which I had no particular interest is the one I most enjoy. Sometimes I wonder whether I should just start picking programs at random.
In the case of the City Ballet’s Inspirations program, I was curious about “The Chairman Dances,” set by Peter Martins to music cut from John Adams’ minimalist opera Nixon in China, and I was eager to see “Rococo Variations,” Christopher Wheeldon’s final work for the company as its resident choreographer. I rolled my eyes at the inclusion of “Stars and Stripes,” George Balanchine’s John Philip Sousa extravaganza, but inevitably, that latter work delighted me in spite of myself, and the former two disappointed. Someday this will stop surprising me.
“The Chairman Dances” felt flat. The strikingly orchestrated music sounded glittery and vibrant despite the constant repetition in Adams’ score (perhaps despite is not the best word there, but I’m always slightly leery of minimalism), yet the choreography didn’t live up to it. The faux-Asian adornments in the costumes and steps were already a bit cringe-worthy, and the movements weren’t interesting enough to warrant returning to again and again. I particularly disliked a recurring arm movement, in which one arm waved seductively across the body while the other was held stiff and frozen, hand near the waist. It just looked awkward.
At least Wheeldon’s work wasn’t awkward. “Rococo Variations” was elegant and unabashed in its eye to the past, featuring music by Tchaikovsky and gorgeous full tutus that, as the woman sitting next to me pointed out in a whisper, recalled the paintings of Edgar Degas. As usual, Wheeldon’s choreography featured stunning, intricate partner work. I appreciated his use of mirroring between the two couples, too. Yet ultimately, he didn’t seem to have enough for the four dancers to do. I found myself wondering whether the choreography would have worked better with a larger ensemble. I usually enjoy Wheeldon’s use of the corps.
That sort of thing was on my mind because the opening work, Balanchine’s “Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée,” made beautiful use of the corps. When I saw the Divertimento a couple of years ago, the unexplained emotional undercurrents bewildered me, but this time, I rather liked the mysterious interplay between the small ensemble and the lead ballerina and her cavalier. Accompanied by Stravinsky’s cool romanticism, beautiful but a degree icy, the shifts in mood made emotional sense even if I didn’t follow the narrative.
But the real corps fun came in the program’s final number, “Stars and Stripes.” I know Sousa’s marches fairly well from years spent listening to my grandfather whistling in his garden, and I couldn’t imagine how the music would translate to ballet. Yet somehow it did, in an unapologetically goofy yet utterly charming way. It was fun seeing ballet, as a medium, step off its “high art” platform for a while, and the use of ballet undercut some of the music’s military-band bombast, allowing it to be spirited and tuneful without becoming jingoistic. Balanchine’s choreography showed off the dancers’ athleticism and precision—the dozen dancers in each of the three “regiments” were perfectly coordinated through all their leaps and spins—and the little details, the quirks of the steps, made the dancing come alive. In the big pas de deux, for example, the male dancer beat his entrechat with sharply flexed feet rather than the classical pointed toes, somehow giving the jump an amusingly hawkish posture.
Somehow “Stars and Stripes” managed to be delightfully corny, even kitschy, without ever seeming to mock. According to the program notes, when asked why he chose to choreograph a ballet to Sousa, Balanchine simply replied, “Because I like his music,” and I believe it. The ballet felt affectionate and gleeful, and despite myself, I found it—the work I’d least wanted to see—impossible to resist. To be honest, I feel sort of sheepish about the whole thing, but as I walked to the subway, I consoled myself with this thought: at least I know I’m keeping an open mind.