Then and There

The New York City Ballet on Tuesday, June 24.

The lyrics to “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line (“Everything was beautiful at the ballet / Graceful men life lovely girls in white …”) make me think of works like Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” Sure, the costume colors tend more toward peaches than cream, but “Quartet” presents exactly the kind of unabashed, innocent sweetness that the song so wistfully celebrates. Charmingly pretty and traditional, it is all pirouettes and arabesques and pink tulle tutus.

It was fun to see that juxtaposed against “Prodigal Son,” a completely different Balanchine ballet in which the dancers tend to creep about with their feet wide apart and the prima ballerina, Siren, spends a great deal of time wrapping a long velvet train between her legs in a suggestive but distinctly unladylike manner. The contrast is striking—in the steps, in the dancers’ physical bearing, in the costume style—but both works are a joy to watch.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same for the ballet that opened the program. “Thou Swell,” a Richard Rodgers medley choreographed by Peter Martins, is facile and uninspired, and it boxes the female dancers into playing either the simpering naif or predatory vamp. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but if the company can’t be bothered to fix the balance between the miked singers, the light-jazz trio, and the orchestra, I can’t be bothered to say anything nice about it.

Musically speaking, though, I admit I wasn’t completely thrilled with “Quartet” either. It uses Schoenberg’s orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ first piano quartet (hence the ballet’s name), and I didn’t care for the orchestration, which often leaves the winds unsupported or transitions too abrupt and incohesive. But the dancing is lovely enough that that doesn’t matter. “Quartet” features the kind of moments—a swooping poisson dive, an elegantly concluded pirouette—that are so simple and beautiful that I’d catch myself sighing happily at the sight.

But it is “Prodigal Son” that really sticks with me. The opening and closing scenes (in which the wayward boy rejects and then returns to his father) are mostly pantomime, however artful, but the middle scene exhibits the lead dancer’s athleticism and expressivity to stunning effect. On Tuesday night, Joaquin de Luz played the title character and delivered a remarkably affecting performance, moving with palpable poetry from the pathetically arrested development of the first scene (the choreography requires him to beat his fists against his thighs, like a child having a tantrum) through his dazzled submission to the Siren and, finally, his hobbling, repentant return home. I wasn’t completely persuaded by the Siren herself (her aggressive, broad stance and snapping manipulation of her cloak often looked weirdly unattractive to me, though I wasn’t sure whether I should fault Balanchine or ballerina Kaitlyn Gilliland or myself for that) but I never doubted the Prodigal’s intoxication with her.

I do question Balanchine’s rendering of the final scene, however. (The libretto, for the record, is by Boris Kochno.) In the ballet, the father must be called out of the house to greet his son, now humiliated and crippled, and the son must literally climb into his arms before the father finally embraces him. It’s a far cry from the biblical parable’s description of magnanimous forgiveness—the father spotting his returning son from a distance, running to meet him, and embracing him immediately—and I missed the extravagant compassion of that familiar telling. That said, when Balanchine’s father does finally wrap his arms around his son and bend his head down in comfort, I couldn’t help but be moved and grateful, however belatedly. It isn’t a pink-tutu dream, but that moment, too, is beautiful.