NEW YORK — Though the hype surrounding the New York City Ballet’s fall season has lately concerned a new ballet composed by a certain former Beatle, the company has continually impressed with its performances of repertoire by its founding choreographers. Last week, a program of three early Balanchine works – the ballets presented were all choreographed before 1960 – showed just how modern his ballets seem half a century later.
The first of the evening, Episodes, premiered with an opening choreographed by Martha Graham (which portrayed the death of Mary, Queen of Scots) and a solo danced by Paul Taylor: these pieces have long since been pared away, but the four parts that remain (all by Balanchine) are fascinating on their own. Set to four orchestral pieces by Webern, the ballet swerves between spare, strangely impersonal movements and occasional moments of condensed drama. The first and third sections absorb the steely mood of the oppressively gray backdrop. In the first, “Symphony, Opus 21,” the eight dancers (led by Abi Stafford and Tyler Angle), rarely stray from a diamond that their bodies form across the stage; when they do, the ways in which they peel away from the shape and into a more chaotic geometry are so brilliant they feel almost insidious. And in this movement and in the third (“Concerto, Opus 24”) there are movements just this side of silly – deep pliés that are almost squats, upside-down entrechats and splits – that somehow yet make sense in this ballet of mechanized isolations.
The most theatrical movement is easily the second, “Five Pieces, Opus 10.” It is danced in the dark with two spotlights, which follow the two dancers (Ask la Cour and Teresa Reichlen) about the stage. It is an odd piece: it starts and stops as if telling abstracted bits of a story. At one point Reichlen, ghostly in a white leotard, leaps sylphlike around the stage, and la Cour trails behind her like a haunted James, but this Romantic vision doesn’t last long: soon, the two are entwined almost grotesquely, her pale legs jutting at odd angles from behind his head. Throughout “Five Pieces,” the well-matched Reichlen and la Cour bring a very vulnerable sort of grace to their movements, which feel at once transient and solidly (awkwardly) immediate. La Cour, in particular, is adept at this game: all in black, he could easily blend in to the shadows, but he remains insistently present, the soft tilt of his head as Reichlen steps over his shoulders as intriguing as her more lucent form.
Apollo, second on the program, was also in fine form on Tuesday, though the three muses at times stole the show from Robert Fairchild, dancing the title role. Fairchild is new in the role this season, and his interpretation of the iconic character does many things right, though it lacks poetry. From the beginning of the ballet, when he manhandles his lute with precise strength, his Apollo is the sort you can imagine chasing Daphne through brambles, unrefined power clouding his grace.
This power, though, seemed somewhat diminished with the arrival of the muses. The three dancers (Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, and Ana Sophia Scheller) are all petite virtuosos, the sort capable of commanding a stage, and they are remarkable together and on their own. Hyltin’s Terpsichore is wonderful, flirting with the music, but it’s Peck’s variation as Polyhymnia that is particularly striking: in one long diagonal across the stage, she ends each complex turn with a sharp tap of her pointe shoe against the floor, turning her gaze challengingly towards Fairchild as if to egg him on, towards a more godly state.
The Four Temperaments, which seemed to glow brighter with every performance last spring, was looking a bit shabbier on Tuesday night. Ashley Bouder made her New York debut as Choleric with steely-eyed resolve and solid technique. But Savannah Lowery (who frequently danced Choleric last spring), was not as successful in the Sanguinic variation: rather than expressing the free expansiveness and hungry joy that the variation demands, her dancing seemed jittery and rough-edged. Amar Ramasar, as Phlegmatic, is cast against type: he does not quite possess the inner stillness that allows the movements of the variation – often jerky, wrenching isolations – to seem to grow out of indolence. That said, he comes remarkably close, and his movements have a precise, fluid quality that is intriguing. The stars of this ballet, however, are the six young dancers in the three themes of the opening section. Their dancing is clean and musically astute, and in their pas de deux their interactions with their partners feel natural and real. Perhaps, with future iterations of this cast and more rehearsal, the soloists will follow suit.