George Balanchine once said that during his grueling years as a pupil in the Imperial St. Petersburg Theatrical School, he didn’t fall in love with ballet until he was twelve. The change occurred the first time he appeared onstage in Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, set to Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s ravishing score, and young Georgi Melitonovitch was cast as a Cupid. His arrows, so to speak, boomeranged back, and he was smitten.
Tchaikovsky remained Balanchine’s favorite Russian composer (barring Stravinsky, of course), and the works that he choreographed for the company we know as New York City Ballet introduced audiences to aspects of Tchaikovsky’s music they mightn’t otherwise have discovered. What better reason for the company to devote the first two weeks of its season to ballets set to Tchaikovsky’s music? Of the ten ballets on view, nine were Balanchine’s and the other, Bal de Couture, a premiere by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins.
You could think of Serenade, Mozartiana, and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (the ballets on the opening program) as commemorating different stages in Balanchine’s relationship to Tchaikovsky. Balanchine began to choreograph Serenade less than six months after he arrived in New York, at Lincoln Kirstein’s behest, to found a school and company. Although, he had always loved Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and gave no deep reasons for his choice of music, it’s tempting to note that his first ballet on American soil was set to a piece by the very composer whose music had accompanied his first appearance onstage decades earlier.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, in its early incarnation as Ballet Imperial (1941—an homage to Petipa and Russian classicism, with its backdrop of the Neva River) established New York City Ballet’s presence in the just-opened New York State Theater in 1964. Balanchine made his first Mozartiana, set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, Mozartiana, Op. 61, in 1933 and the current one for NYCB’s Tchaikovsky Festival in 1981. It was one of the last ballets he choreographed before he died, and its images—which had always implied a death—issued from a different perspective and acquired a different resonance.
January 16, the second night of the season, featured the debuts of several dancers in new roles. In Serenade, Sara Mearns and Megan LeCrone appeared for the first time. The performance also marked Mearns’s return to the stage after spending eight months recovering from a serious back injury. When she entered at the reprise of the opening ensemble passage (reenacting a dancer’s late arrival at a 1934 rehearsal) and struck the other women’s gesture of warding off imagined sunlight, the tears usually summoned up in me by the swell of the music and the poignancy of the image came close to flowing.
Watching this splendid performance of Serenade, I marvel again at how, for instance, Balanchine uses running in this ballet. The romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48, inspires a patterned rushing about by cadres of women. Their long blue dresses flutter like a storm of leaves as they tear on, off, and around the stage, and those moments when they calm down or coalesce into sisterly groups seem almost miraculous. Mearns’s composure on this night is truly miraculous, considering that her comeback is also a debut. As always, she dances with a voluptuous fullness, surrendering herself to the moment. You’d never guess her pliant spine had known a moment of pain. Luring her noble partner, Jared Angle, around the stage in a darting passage, she doesn’t just look behind her to see if he’s following; her whole being seems to yearn back toward him even as her steps propel her forward. I’m sure Mearns will become even finer the more she dances in Serenade (the only moment when she betrayed nervousness at her first performance had to do with her timing in letting down her hair for the last section).
Megan LeCrone also made an auspicious debut in the role of the guiding angel who covers the eyes of the mysterious traveler (Adrian Danchig-Waring) in one of the enigmatic traces of narrative that seep into in this “storyless” (Balanchine’s term) ballet. Ashley Bouder is an old hand at the erupting jumps and leaps of the more ebullient woman. Her full, sheer skirt, which has a disconcerting life of its own, does its best to tangle around her; she triumphs.
Sterling Hyltin is making her debut in the ballerina role in Mozartiana. This is also Chase Finlay’s first time in the work. Hyltin projects a lovely delicacy but her dancing also has amplitude and force, and Finlay is an elegant prince to her princess (I sometimes feel a slight stiffness in his neck). In Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky alluded to several works by Mozart and one by Gluck, and although the music is clearly of the 19th-century, Balanchine’s “Gigue,” wittily danced by Anthony Huxley, has the manner and the nimble footwork of 18th-century dance (the bows on his shoes are a nice touch).
For Serenade, Balanchine switched the order of Tchaikovsky’s three movements to end his ballet with a stunning apotheosis. For the 1981 Mozartiana, he put the “Preghiera” (Tchaikovsky’s response to Mozart’s motet Ave Verum Corpus) first. In this prayerful sequence, the woman (Hyltin) does almost nothing but bourrée. Her tiny twinkling steps on pointe carry her here and there as if she were born on a current. But there’s nothing simple about the brilliant solos with which she and her partner challenge each other. My memory of the 1981 premiere is that this woman (originally Suzanne Farrell) first appeared surrounded by four tiny girl attendants (students at the affiliated School of American Ballet) in black dresses. In this production, the very adroit children appear later, and it’s four similarly clad full-grown women who are onstage after the curtain rises. I liked the shock of the earlier version; Farrell looked like a distraught court lady amid Lilliputians. Either way, you can imagine the two sizes of females as representing the transition from SAB students to NYCB dancers—a process that began with Balanchine’s first years in New York and continues today.
A fine letter that Simon Volkov wrote to Balanchine is quoted in the NYCB program. In it, he says that Mozartiana “does not follow the music, mirroring its meter and rhythm. It draws the music into a complex counterpoint.” Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 is much more exact in its relationship to the music and in its decorum. Still, the music wasn’t written for ballet, and the interaction between the orchestra (led by guest conductor Roberto Minczuk) and the piano (excellently played by Susan Walters) can seem like a bold and florid conversation.
The opening movement suggests a grand party. How ingeniously eight men take charge of helping 16 women! But the behavior is less ceremonious than that in a Petipa ballet. The leading dancers, Teresa Reichlen, Tyler Angle, and Ana Sophia Scheller (the latter two performing these roles for the first time) don’t exactly barge into solos and a duet, but neither do they introduce these with a watch-me hauteur. Some of the passages are as ripplingly tricky as the piano’s cadenzas; Reichlen dances her intricate solo with aplomb, and Angle executes his with the natural princeliness that often marks his dancing. Brisés volés become a pleasantly exacting pastime instead of an exertion. When the orchestra kicks in as the two leave the stage together, it sounds as if the instruments were applauding them. Scheller is charmingly piquant as the second leading woman, frolicking amid the two demi-soloist couples and the woman-dominated corps de ballet. She has a beautiful line—clear and open.
My own favorite part is the Andante. The ballerina, as if temporarily tiring of the duet, leaves the stage. Her bereft partner is immediately consoled by chains of women who take his hands on either side. He pulls them forward and back (they bouréeing as they go), as if he’s wielding giant wings made of women. His lady returns, and they dance together some more, but she can’t stay. He raises his arms, and his attendants return.
Balanchine makes you listen to music in ways you’ve never heard it in a concert hall or lounging with an iPod.