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At New York City Ballet, Balancing the Art of Transition

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Dance is the art of transition. At New York City Ballet, however, it’s remarkable how many kinds of transition are happening simultaneously. The company and its followers must continue to assess the complex legacy of Peter Martins, who resigned as ballet-master-in-chief on Jan. 1. As the company searches for its next artistic director, the interregnum of the interim leadership team has been alarmingly prolonged. A lawsuit, filed in September, charging the company and others with serial instances of condoning the mistreatment of women, continues.

And the company is dancing, dancing, dancing. Its fall season has already delivered many performances that raised the barometer and given cause for congratulations. Into this multilayered situation has arrived the fresh and vital agenda set by Teresa Reichlen’s speech, delivered at the fall fashion gala on Sept. 27.

“We will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass,” she said, with the entire company onstage beside her. “With the world changing — and our beloved institution in the spotlight — we continue to hold ourselves to the high moral standards that were instilled in us when we decided to become professional dancers.”

Her words brought City Ballet back to the tenet that its founder-choreographer George Balanchine once expressed to a ballet mother: “La danse, madame, c’est une question morale.” Dance, madam — that’s a moral issue.

No routine denial will do. True leadership is needed; only with Ms. Reichlen’s affirmation of sheer moral principles has this been established.

The spirit in her words has been made flesh by the whole company in its dancing this season. Three ballerinas — Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Ms. Reichlen, wonderfully unalike — have given peak performances this fall of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” The scintillating, blithely daredevil “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” danced by Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz was a thrill even to those who remember it in Balanchine’s day. It’s been a long while since a dancer threw herself into those fish catches with the headlong abandon that Ms. Peck showed here.

In the “Concerto Barocco” that preceded it, Ms. Reichlen exemplified cool-as-a-mountain stream sweep and purity. Modernism and classicism meet in “Barocco”; Ms. Reichlen makes Balanchine’s choreography count as sculpture, architecture, music and feminism.

The quietly fearless Sterling Hyltin’s interpretation of the title role of “La Sylphide” (a Peter Martins staging) has become a classic account. This is the archetype of Romantic ballets, opening with the image of the title sylph kneeling as she contemplates the Scots farmer James asleep in his armchair. I love the way Ms. Hyltin sways from deep in the waist, as if moved by poignant desire for this man; I’m enchanted by the seamless transitions she later makes between grief and humor in addressing him. It’s touching just to watch her step lightly onto point, as if recapturing pointwork in its early Romantic innocence.

Debuts, especially by junior members of the company, have always been part of the drama of any City Ballet season. Just now, with three male principals recently fired, a fourth retiring on Oct. 14, and a fifth injured last week, the shortage of male dancers is a pressing issue. A fresh supply of male dancers is needed — and has been materializing.

Roman Mejia — now in his second year in the company — is just 18 years old. On Sept. 29, he danced Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” with Ms. Peck as if bringing it fresh from the mint, with terrific brio. Changes of direction and focus were keenly vivid (how well he always uses his eyes and head to open up paths in space); and the élan he showed in jumps and turns was a true thrill. He and Ms. Peck, who have danced together in Vail, could become a superb virtuoso partnership: They even have the same dimples, dark-glinting eyes and a quality of joyous laughter amid sweeping action.

Joseph Gordon is a mysterious Adonis whose classicism is made of air; Sebastián Villarini-Velez is a young Mars, fiery and burning. On Sept. 21, the two men made gorgeous debuts in the first and third movements of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” as did the sparkling Indiana Woodward beside Mr. Villarini-Velez and the valiant Troy Schumacher in the fourth movement — all excellent. Mr. Gordon had already made his debut in “Diamonds,” partnering with the mighty Ms. Mearns. Although theirs isn’t yet a convincing partnership, you could see how both learned from it, he growing in heroism, she tempering her characteristic bravado with newly dulcet strokes.

Unity Phelan, the most elegantly and glamorously poetic of the young generation now ascending to ballerina roles, danced the second ballerina in “Emeralds” for the first time in a dreamy, rapt murmur on Sept. 19. As other “Emeralds” debuts demonstrated — notably Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum in the lead male role — this elusive ballet is being finely guarded. Claire Kretzschmar’s debut as the tall soloist in “Rubies” showed all her audacious glee.

What other artist in ballet charted sublimity as often and as profoundly as Balanchine? More than any other choreographer, he made ballet seem like a form of religion. It’s therefore tempting to adopt a Saint Balanchine approach to ballet history: tempting but unwise. He was no saint when it came to love. And, like many other important artists, he could be both vindictive and unjust.

Nonetheless, his offstage manners were largely exemplary and inspiring; and his choreography remains the richest domain in world ballet. We may forgive his lapses; I hope I understand why some want to forgive Mr. Martins’s lapses too. What we should not do, however, is to say they were of no consequence.

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