Last Week at New York City Ballet

Last week I went to two performances of NYCB – opening night and Thursday night’s “See the Music” program – and to two of the free all-day Balanchine events on Saturday. First, I’ll talk about the last two since I found them so informative. The free studio talk on Saturday afternoon – Balanchine’s birthday – was moderated by Sean Lavery (former NYCB principal dancer, now ballet master), and included Sterling Hyltin (in Paul Kolnik photo above with Robert Fairchild), Chase Finlay, and Jenifer Ringer. Lavery asked the dancers to talk about their first Balanchine ballets, their favorites, and what drew them to NYCB. Hyltin named as her favorite Duo Concertant (pictured above) which I’d just seen her dance on opening night. She said she liked the syncopated movement, the he goes and I go kind of back and forth movement conversation with her partner, and with the musicians. I really liked it too. The violinist and pianist are onstage (the music is Stravinsky), and I like the interaction between the dancers and the musicians, and between the two dancers, and I like the sharp, angular movement. She seemed particularly animated when I saw it. I love Robert Fairchild and think he’s such a sharp, masculine mover with a presence that commands your attention without meaning to – he kind of reminds me of a less cocky Ethan Stiefel – but she seemed so happy to be dancing this piece that she stood out to me more. It was nice to hear her talk about it.

But what I really loved was the School of American Ballet class taught by Peter Martins. He interacted cutely with the students, particularly “Cyrus,” (at least I think that was his name…) a tall, long-limbed young man who I think will soon be in the company. Cyrus didn’t always do everything perfectly (at least in Martins’s eyes) but he had a charming presence and a great leading-man physique and you can tell he works hard.

Martins had the class demonstrate ballet basics – beginning with the five positions, and they showed us a perfect fifth position (with the toes of the front foot touching the heel of the other and vice versa). More interestingly, he had the class show us the difference between a Balanchine hand and a classical ballet hand. I’d always noticed there was a difference but couldn’t figure it out exactly. God gave us five fingers, Balanchine had said, so we shouldn’t hide two of them. The Balanchine hand shows all five fingers, the classical ballet one only three (with the ring finger and pinky held so that they are hidden from view behind the middle finger).

Martins also had the students show us how Balanchine’s fourth position differed from others’. In Balanchine’s the back leg is straight; in all others’ the back leg is bent. Martins didn’t go into any functional explanation for this – just said “here, we think it looks better.” But I thought about it and thought, wow, it must be hard to take off in a jump for example with the back leg straight. And then I realized that’s partly why Balanchine’s choreography always looks so fluid, like one step leading right into another, without a lot of stopping to build up to a big athletic feat – a big jump or series of turns. Other companies – like the Russians, like the Bolshoi – are all about preparing so that you can do something astounding. So they’re all about the building up.

This was mentioned in the studio talk as well. Lavery also talked about how fluid Balanchine’s movement was, and how, for example, in a lift, a guy would pick up a girl, then take two steps, and put her down rather than walk all over stage with her hoisted above his head. Balanchine wanted her to come up, then down right again, because that was more fluid, rather than have her head bobbing around up there while the guy was running all around with her.

Martins also demonstrated the bows. At City Ballet, he said, we just do them as such, and the girls did a little curtsy with the back leg slightly bent, without going down on one knee. Making fun of the dramatic Swan Lake bows, Martins went all the way down on one knee, exclaiming, “Yes, yes, I know I’m good!!!” while putting his head down, forehead nearly touching the floor, and raising his arms up in back of him like wings, fingers pointed toward the ceiling. It was hilarious.

Anyway, here are a couple more photos of opening night:

Above: Ashley Bouder in Valse-Fantaisie, and below, the cast, including Andrew Veyette, in the same (all photos by Paul Kolnik)

I liked Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie (Veyette replaced Joaquin DeLuz – but don’t know why because DeLuz danced Concerto DSCH two nights later) but I really loved the first of the evening, Walpurgisnacht Ballet. I’d never seen Walpurgisnacht before and it’s funny but I always seem to love the Balanchine ballets that are the least often performed. This was really beautiful. It’s from Gounod’s Faust, and features a group of women (and only one man – here Charles Askegard) in deep red dresses, their hair down in the second half as the music increases in tempo so that there’s almost kind of a hedonistic madness in the mood – and the footwork is so intensely complicated and fast fast fast. Wendy Whelan even made a tiny little flub, which I’ve never seen her do before. Crazy! And breathtaking!

And the evening ended with The Four Temperaments. I’ve said before and I’ll complain again that I still don’t understand why everyone goes on about how brilliant this one is. To me, there are supposed to be four temperaments, and the ballet is divided accordingly into four variations after the theme: melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric. But they all seem to be the same to me. The dance seems one-note throughout so that after the first variation, I’m waiting for it to end. I’ll keep seeing it though, perhaps performed by a variety of companies if I have the chance, and will keep looking for the nuances…

“See the Music” night opened with Faycal Karoui’s discussion of Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky’s homage to / riff on Mozart, which made me appreciate Tchaikovsky even more. Then that piece was danced – by Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht, and Tyler Angle. Tyler stood out to me. As always, he dances with so much meaning, so much intention, and so much expansiveness. He’s a really beautiful dancer.

Then came Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, danced by Wendy Whelan, Ashley Bouder, Joaquin DeLuz, Andrew Veyette (replacing this time Gonzalo Garcia), and Benjamin Millepied. Oh, Natalie Portman was there, albeit late – she came in with a friend after Karoui’s lecture and right before Mozartiana was performed. Then, she left right after Concerto DSCH, after Millepied was done performing, and before the last piece. I thought it was a shame she missed Sara Mearns in the last dance, but a Twitter friend said she had a movie premiere that night, so I guess she needed to leave early for that.

Anyway, as usual, Millepied did not stand out to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking of seeing Tyler Angle in that role before and the way he lunges romantically toward the main girl, making it clear how much he yearns for her. Millepied’s knees nearly touch the ground in his deep steps toward her and it just looks like a dance step, not like anything evoking a specific emotion. As always I loved Bouder and DeLuz in the fast, playfully firtatious three-some part. I missed Garcia – where is he? I hope not injured! – but thought Veyette did a fine job in his stead.

And the evening ended brilliantly with Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard dancing the ballet leads in Balanchine’s Cortege Hongrois, while Rebecca Krohn and Sean Suozzi just as brilliantly danced the folksy Hungarian leads. I really love that dance and it made me all the more eager to see Mearns in Swan Lake!

On both nights, I went with my friend, author Maria Mutsuki Mockett. She writes an author blog but has been attending the ballet much more frequently and is now blogging a lot about ballet as well. She’s an excellent writer, so please check out her blog!


  1. Wendy Whelan has slipped and skidded onstage as often as anyone else, she’s just really good at covering up any little faux pas that might happen.

    In the first week of the NYCB Winter season there was some really incredible dancing; I agree with you about Tyler – both in MOZARTIANA and DSCH he was fantastic. Maybe the highest highlight though was Maria K and Joaquin in PRODIGAL. It was so great to see them taking solo bows at the end.

  2. You know, I’ve always felt that about The Four Temperments. Maybe because it’s hard to portray a complicated psychological state in dance. But I’ve always loved the ending.
    Anyway, re: bowing. I agree with Mr. Martin’s thinking, but I don’t think that’s why the ballerinas at NYCB don’t go to their knees when bowing.
    If you read Alexandra Danilova’s biography, “Choura” (a great read, by the way!) she talks about it. Evidently, in the imperial court of Russia, a ballerina only went to her knee to bow when she was in front of royalty or god. Now what constitutes bowing before god I have no idea. She didn’t get into it.
    But, since Balanchine was a product of the same school and company, he probably carried on the tradition with his own dancers. And, over time, the reasons may have changed, but the tratition stayed the same.
    Danilova wrapped up this little tidbit with a stirring passage how, at her last performance of Swan Lake, she went humbly down on one knee before her audience, her fans, to whom she felt so grateful. It was her statement of reverence. Maybe that’s where the “god” part comes in.
    So, that’s my opinion. Would love to hear what you guys think!

  3. You know, also. If you look at the movie “The Red Shoes”, Moira Shearer’s character, “Victoria Page”, does not go to her knee at the end of the first performance of her triumph in the titular ballet. That tradition must have carried on in Europe as well. It’s really an interesting subject! Who knew?

    • That’s interesting – I saw the Red Shoes but don’t remember the bow. Now that I think of it, I know I’ve seen ballerinas do that but I can’t put my finger on just who … other than Diana Vishneva, who always gives such melodramatic curtain calls in general. I always thought it was a Russian thing, but Natalia Osipova doesn’t do it, nor does Veronika Part. So I guess it’s just a Vishneva thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Julie Kent do that dramatic bow too, but somehow it comes across differently with her. She is so not a diva!

      What Danilova says is hilarious – about God! I mean, if you believe in God, then he’d always be present in the room, so you should always bow like that! Maybe Vishneva strongly believes in God!

      • I mean, the melodramatic curtain calls being a Russian thing, not necessarily the bowing down on one knee. I’m going to have to look specifically for that at ABT over the summer 😀

  4. I was thinking: maybe the “God” part came in when the Russian Orthodox Church had such political power, back in the imperial court days. If a high ranking official from the church was there, you would go down on one knee in deference to them. Now that I remember more of the passage, Danilova did say specifically she went down before God in her last bow, as well as her public. I think it was part of the overwhelming emotion she was experiencing spiritually at the time. But, that’s my interpretation! I think you should talk to some of the dancers at A.B.T. to get more on this subject.

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