Chaconne, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and The Magic Flute

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, October 3.

For more than a decade, the New York City Ballet hasn’t performed fall repertory (aside from an opening gala in November before Nutcracker season), which has always been unfortunate for me personally since my mom, who introduced me to ballet, tends to visit in the fall. She and Dad also like to visit in mid-spring, in between the City Ballet’s winter season (January and February) and spring season (May and June). It’s almost as though Dad has been scheming to avoid being subjected to tutus. (Ha! I kid. We would never subject Dad to tutus.)

In any case, I don’t know why City Ballet changed up their schedule, adding a new fall repertory season, but Mom and I were delighted at the opportunity to go to a performance together, and we got lucky: it was a great program, varied but not incoherent, with great music and lovely dancing—and in October! What more could we ask?

I’ll get the weakest element on the program out of the way first: On the way to Lincoln Center, I had been regaling Mom with my curmudgeonliness about dancing children, one of several reasons I don’t make an annual tradition out of The Nutcracker (if they aren’t your kids, watching them hop about the stage gets very dull very quickly), and as if to punish me, the universe soon subjected me to dancing kids in “The Magic Flute,” a silly little story ballet that doesn’t even have the decency to feature music by Mozart. (The predictable romantic comedy is instead set to music by nineteenth-century composer Riccardo Drigo. It has nothing whatsoever to do with queens of the night, Freemasons, or bird-people.) To be fair, choreographer Peter Martins seems to have made a point of having the kids dance alongside actual professionals (i.e., dancers whom people pay to see), so it doesn’t resemble the interminable kid-centric Nutracker party scenes. Also, the gimmick of this “Magic Flute” tale—an instrument that, when played, forces those who hear it to dance against their will—leads to some cutely “clumsy” steps from those playing the story’s antagonists, so that’s fun enough. But overall, it’s a rote, mediocre ballet, no matter who’s dancing.

Much more to my taste was Balanchine’s “Chaconne,” set to music from the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck’s music is sweetly expressive and guileless, and the choreography follows suit, elegant and serene and lovely. Balanchine segments the work—pas de deux, pas de trois, pas de cinq—and the variations keep it moving forward. The prima ballerina, when she appears, barely touches the floor as her cavalier whisks her around the stage, graceful and tender. “Chaconne” is a dream, beauty for the sake of beauty. Similarly stunning is Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” a traditional tour de force. 

It’s easy to love “Chaconne” and the Tschaikovsky, and I did, but to my surprise, I loved the two stark Balanchine/Stravinsky pieces even more. They’re the sort of bare, black-and-white, relentlessly modernist works that can come across as chilly, to say the least, but both have an energy and musicality that make them come alive. “Momentum pro Gesualdo” uses Stravinsky’s orchestral reworkings of madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, the late-Renaissance composer whose dramatically dissonant works put him centuries ahead of his time. Balanchine sets the new-yet-old music with almost magisterial movements, formal and precise but somehow never archaic: the geometries and rigor of the choreography make it feel eerily timeless.

“Movements for Piano and Orchestra” is intimidating from a musical standpoint—not just atonal but twelve-tone, music at its most mathematical—but Balanchine’s choreography mitigates the astringency. The spiky, angular movements articulate the lines and shapes of the music; the sense of it becomes visible, if still alien, and despite (because of?) that alien quality, the work is riveting. It might be one of the most perfect unions of music and choreography I’ve ever seen (the program notes quote Stravinsky saying that watching Balanchine’s “Movements” was like “a tour of a building for which [he] had drawn the plans but never explored the result”), and it’s exactly the sort of work that makes me love repertory programs. Mom and I didn’t see “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” coming; for us, it was an unexpected, marvelous discovery.