Dancers retire, so why can’t dances? The first week of New York City Ballet’s spring season is an odd one, with nary a ballet by George Balanchine or Jerome Robbins, its two essential choreographers, in sight. That would be well and good — even proving that the form had a vibrant future — if the dances on the opening two programs, devoted to 21st-century choreographers, all had something substantial to offer.
But of the seven works City Ballet is showing — by men, all white — only four are of evergreen caliber. It’s not a shocker that the choreographers who are usually on top remain there this week: William Forsythe, Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky (who is represented by two dances). The grim news is that the other ballets have returned to City Ballet’s repertory in the first place.
Peter Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction,” performed on the second program, on Wednesday, used to seem like one of his more palatable ballets, its energy driven by John Adams’s music, which is played by two pianists facing each other dramatically at the back of the stage. But now it just seems stuck in his tired idiom, a brittle mix of thrusting hips and flexed hands.
Mr. Martins retired as the company’s longtime ballet master in chief amid allegations of abuse in January 2018. This means that “Hallelujah Junction” isn’t just another dull contemporary ballet: It’s one that opens the door to the unsavory past.
At the end of City Ballet’s winter season, it seemed that the air was clearing: Wendy Whelan was appointed the company’s associate artistic director, alongside Jonathan Stafford as artistic director. These new positions came after a scandal involving three male principals who were accused of sharing sexually explicit photographs of female dancers; one quit and two were fired.
Just last week, though, only days before the spring season began, the air began to stale again: An arbitrator directed City Ballet to reinstate Zachary Catazaro (who has declined the offer) and Amar Ramasar (who said he would return).
How can the company move on with so many ghosts lurking? The decision to open the spring season with contemporary repertory was Mr. Martins’s; he essentially programmed the two shows before he retired. A company spokeswoman said Mr. Stafford and Justin Peck, the company’s resident choreographer and artistic adviser, have made adjustments along the way.
Apparently, not enough. The second, weaker program included both “Hallelujah Junction” and Matthew Neenan’s bewildering “The Exchange” (2018). None of its elements connect — the sweeping Dvorak score contrasts strangely with Gareth Pugh’s red-and-black costumes that make the dancers look like extras in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And the theme, two disparate groups searching for a connection, is well-trod territory.
Tuesday’s program had a clunker, too. In Mauro Bigonzetti’s derivative retelling of the immigrant experience, “Oltremare,” dancers straggled across the stage with suitcases. Their anguish is shown through clipped and jagged twitches; while the women are resigned to being emotional, the men overpower them even, at one point, dragging them by the ankles.
William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman” and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” (2008) were balms in the second program. Though “Herman” was created in 1992 (its accompanying pas de deux was added the following year), it remains fresh and timeless. The first half, for five performers, shows how Mr. Forsythe is wholly in tune with the way complex ballet steps and reckless shifts of weight can make dancers — most astonishing were Sara Mearns, Devin Alberda and Unity Phelan — playful and brave.
In “Concerto DSCH,” the impeccable Anthony Huxley stole the show, not only for his unsurpassable leaps and turns but for the sheer pleasure he radiated from start to finish. For this reserved principal dancer, taking a risk means to project — and he’s doing just that. On the first program, another work by Mr. Ratmansky, his poetic, endearing “Pictures at an Exhibition” (2014) returned to the repertory.
Named after the 1874 Mussorgsky piano piece, it creates a world with designs inspired by Kandinsky. City Ballet dancers move big, but Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography forces them to push beyond their limits: Georgina Pazcoguin was both more daring and secure than she’s been in ages, just as Sterling Hyltin, partnered with courtly ease by Tyler Angle, let go of her mannerisms to flow inside of the choreography. Indiana Woodward always does that: blazing through steps by giving herself over to them.
Tuesday evening ended on a jubilant note, with Mr. Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” (2015) and Russell Janzen in his debut as the male lead. With a cast of 15 men and one woman, “Rodeo,” set to Aaron Copland, is infectious, the kind of ballet that reimagines a new frontier — not with a cowgirl and cowhands, as Agnes de Mille depicted in her 1942 “Rodeo,” but with contemporary young men full of sensitivity and humor. Mr. Janzen took it further, imbuing the role and the ballet with a haunting air of nobility.
At City Ballet, there are few men as elegant and unaffected as Mr. Janzen, but he’s capable of heat, too: the pas de deux, opposite an electrifying Ms. Mearns, was a soaring expression of pliancy and play.
At one point, as the pair stood onstage with the full cast during the fourth episode, Ms. Mearns smiled at Mr. Janzen and gave him a firm pat on his abdomen. It seemed of-the-moment, endearing and wholly correct: He was a class act, bringing a new spirit to make a good ballet even greater.
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