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Review: At New York City Ballet, an Intriguing Glimpse of the Future

You don’t need many fingers to count the female New York City Ballet members who have choreographed during their tenure as dancers. The sad number is five, one hand: Ruthanna Boris, Miriam Mahdaviani, Barbara Milberg, Melissa Barak and Lauren Lovette.

Still, that’s better than it was when Edwaard Liang joined City Ballet in 1993; then, the number was three. What was striking about his return to the company — this time as a choreographer for its annual Fall Fashion Gala program — was the realization of how much the landscape and culture of ballet has changed.

His work, “Lineage,” carried a strong dose of nostalgia. With Anna Sui’s folk-inspired costumes and Mr. Liang’s acrobatic partnering — at one point, a male dancer spun his female counterpart by hooking an arm under her bent back knee — it felt like we were back in the ’90s. Mr. Liang spoke about his inspirations on “City Ballet the Podcast,” and one was clear in performance: The dancers’ gazes were continually drawn to a corner of the stage, as if seeking the spot where the revered choreographer George Balanchine, a founder of City Ballet, watched performances from the wing. (It wasn’t the correct side of the stage, but the sentiment was there.)

Ms. Lovette, a principal with the company, took a radically different approach in “The Shaded Line,” the other premiere on the program. Her dance wasn’t about homage, but about the future of the art form: how ballet might a find a way to sit within the larger world, where gender norms are unraveling, where women can become ballet choreographers and where all dancers can express their strength and fear.

Her most ambitious work for City Ballet, “The Shaded Line,” set to cacophonous music by Tan Dun, features an androgynous heroine. And however flawed this ballet is — its inherent drama is both its blessing and its trap — Ms. Lovette doesn’t take the easy way out.

The star is Georgina Pazcoguin, wearing a white shirt, black jeans and a pair of black point shoes, gamine wig pasted to her skull. In an odd way, her go-for-broke presence carries a hint of Gwen Verdon. (Maybe it’s not so strange: The versatile Ms. Pazcoguin appeared on the television show “Fosse/Verdon.”) She’s a modern woman trapped in a world (ballet) that hasn’t quite caught up with her.

Ms. Pazcoguin is confronted with three dancers that seem like aspects of herself: the combative Mary Thomas MacKinnon; the more benevolent, vulnerable Unity Phelan; and the sensitive but stoic Taylor Stanley. All the while, she shifts between the masculine and feminine and learns, in the end, that she can be both. Ms. Lovette has played with gender issues in ballet before; her last work for City Ballet featured a lush male duet. Here, with Ms. Pazcoguin as her muse, she seems to be pouring out her own experience as well as highlighting the battle between self-doubt and resilience within ballet dancers.

Ms. Lovette collaborated with the designer Zac Posen, who has created, for the women, an array of deconstructed tutus in faint peach tones. They stick up in the back, and while the effect is not always flattering — sometimes they look like swans who have been through the carwash — the design mirrors the theme: exposing a dancer’s interior life. When members of the corps de ballet peel around the edges of the stage, they give off the effect of swirling fog; in other moments, they pile onto the floor like a tangle of leaves and trees in an overgrown forest.

But this ritualistic ballet is rarely idle. As the dancers form distinct lines and patterns that pulsate around Ms. Pazcoguin, they take on a ghostly presence as if relics from another time. It’s almost as if she were in color, and they were in black and white.

Ms. Pazcoguin is a force throughout as she moves in spurts, exploring the air with luxurious arms and dashing around the stage in bare feet while partnering a glamorous Ms. Phelan and later Mr. Stanley. Here, Ms. Lovette’s brand of partnering hints at Ms. Pazcoguin’s ability to move between genders. It also shows a rarity: women partnering women in ballet.

Ms. Lovette experiments with flexed feet, extreme pliés and tilts that throw dancers off balance. Through work and strain comes resolution, as Ms. Pazcoguin, after moving in tandem with her three alter egos, makes her way to the front of the stage and finds solid ground. Her final pose? A high fifth position on point as the curtain lowers.

Yes, “The Shaded Line” is overwrought and probably too specific to our current time to have much of an afterlife, but there’s urgency to Ms. Lovette’s desire to turn ballet inside out. In essence, she has crossed a line from prettiness to power.

Mr. Liang’s “Lineage,” set to music by Oliver Davis, has a more traditional structure, in which he loosely incorporates folk dancing — he was inspired, in part, by Balanchine’s Georgian roots — to fill in the blanks among an array of pas de deux, including the joyful appearance of the blissfully fleet-footed Indiana Woodward and Roman Mejia, two dancers who hold nothing back. (Mr. Mejia has that swashbuckling thing down.)

Ms. Sui’s costumes — including metallic skirts for the women, which were removed, mercifully, for the pas de deux — were burdened with so many folk dance details that they looked old-fashioned in the worst way. But really, this ballet was an excuse for pairings, the most poignant meeting being between Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle. While the spiraling contortions of Mr. Liang’s partnering lost its sparkle after a while, he knows how to highlight Ms. Kowroski’s line and extension. With Mr. Angle, she was breathtaking — dancing with remarkable sweep and abandon in a way that allowed Mr. Liang’s lifts and spins to both accelerate and relax into a silken flow.

Ashley Bouder and Peter Walker were brash and fiery; Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen moved toward the corner of the stage with a seamless momentum that culminated in a high lift and lowering of Ms. Mearns who then turned for an embrace as she wrapped her legs around his waist. In the final moments, the group converged in a lively flourish of syncopated folk-inflected choreography — a polite nod to the theme — and then clustered together. As they stared into the corner, a spotlight bathed their upturned faces. The image conveniently summed up this dance: competent, sentimental and fairly bland.

Mark Stanley’s lighting didn’t help either premiere. Watching it was like looking through the wrong filter on an Instagram post.

How could it be that the ballet that felt most truly alive — though it was choreographed in 1947 — was Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”?

With its breathtaking four movements, led by the scintillating Megan Fairchild and Joseph Gordon in the first, the ballet was bracing, full of vitality and vibrating with rhythms as it covered an array of dance imagery: joy, solemnity, mystery. In the second movement adagio, Teresa Reichlen, opposite Jared Angle, was more stirring and transparent than she’s ever been. She made me think about how a ballet doesn’t have to be about a feeling to make you feel. No filter required.

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