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City Ballet Review: History, Rarity and an Odd, Fascinating Solo


As the title for a mixed bill at New York City Ballet, “Classic NYCB I” is standard. But the program that debuted on Thursday isn’t standard or classic.

True, the works are by the usual suspects — George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins — along with the company’s current resident choreographer, Justin Peck, whose fresh and wonderful take on Copland’s “Rodeo” score was made in 2015.

But the departed masters Balanchine and Robbins are represented by rarities, and a classic with a missing piece restored. It’s the kind of program that keeps prompting the question, “When did City Ballet last do that?” There’s enough excellence and entertainment in it to please curious first-timers, but really it’s a gift for the faithful, the completists, those who have seen everything and still want more.

The most glamorous entry is “Episodes,” an ultramodernist 1959 work, set to the astringent sounds of Webern, in which Balanchine turned ballet upside down and inside out, innovating in ugly beauty. It’s a repertory staple, but without the solo in it that Balanchine made for the modern dance luminary Paul Taylor (who died last year). Now that solo is back, danced by the former Taylor company star Michael Trusnovec.

There’s a lot of history here. In 1959, Taylor was a member of Martha Graham’s company. “Episodes” was an unprecedented joint venture for Graham and Balanchine, the monarchs of modern dance and ballet. But because the Graham portion and Balanchine’s solo for Taylor fell away — and because the solo was restored, under Taylor’s guidance, only after Balanchine’s death, only to fall away again — there are questions of authenticity and influence.

How much Balanchine are we seeing, how much Taylor? How much of what looks like Taylor came from Balanchine?

In performance, the solo is strange and fascinating. The image that has stuck to it is the one that Taylor said Balanchine gave him: a fly in a glass of milk. That’s both illuminating and obscuring. Some of the contorted poses might suggest insects; the unmarked repetitions impart the sensation of being trapped in a loop, desperation increasing. But other moments (staring at fingers, picking up a foot) flash self-awareness, self-examination, self-bewilderment, self-alienation. This is a man, not a bug.

Compared with City Ballet dancers, though, Mr. Trusnovec is another species. His physicality, timing and dramatic projection are all different — brilliant, extraordinarily clear, but bracingly different. Taylor must have stuck out even more. (The effect will likely be softened when Jovani Furlan, a terrific recruit from Miami City Ballet, takes over the role later this month.)

The solo, restored to “Episodes,” heightens the contrast with the final section, which is a kind of downshifting back into balletic order set to a Webern arrangement of Bach. Yet its inclusion felt to me like the reopening of a wound that long ago healed; the rest of the work seemed to repel the solo’s foreign body. That’s not bad; it’s stimulating — good for the health of a classic.

The program’s other curiosities are lighter. Balanchine’s “Haieff Divertimento,” from 1947, is no missing link. The music, by Alexei Haieff, is decent Coplandesque Americana, and the dance’s loner theme is rather bald. But it’s fun to note the ideas and phrases that Balanchine lifted for later, now more-familiar works. And it’s fun to see oddities he didn’t use again, like an academic circling of the leg awkwardly executed to the rear. Unity Phelan rose to the challenge of its spare lead-ballerina solo, making something out of little without doing too much.

“Concertino,” which Robbins created for the 1982 Stravinsky Festival, is pleasing too, if chamber-sized and oddly shaped. It’s largely Robbins exploring the possibilities of two men and a woman, à la Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballet “Agon,” but in his own playful way, wittily visualizing the character of the music. Adrian Danchig-Waring, Teresa Reichlen and Mr. Furlan caught its loose grace.

Seeing it doesn’t radically alter my idea of Robbins, but even the unsurpassed repertory of City Ballet need not be all masterpieces. Small gifts are still gifts.

Classic NYCB I

Program repeats through Feb. 29 at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; nycballet.com.

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