In Transition, City Ballet Sets a Fresh Agenda

Posted October 7, 2018 5:17 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Dance is the art of transition. At New York City Ballet, however, it’s remarkable how many kinds of transition are happening simultaneously. The company and its followers must continue to assess the complex legacy of Peter Martins, who resigned as ballet-master-in-chief on Jan. 1. As the company searches for its next artistic director, the interregnum of the interim leadership team has been alarmingly prolonged. A lawsuit, filed in September, charging the company and others with serial instances of condoning the mistreatment of women, continues.

And the company is dancing, dancing, dancing. Its fall season has already delivered many performances that have raised the barometer and given cause for congratulations. Into this multilayered situation has arrived the fresh and vital agenda set by Teresa Reichlen’s speech, delivered at the fall fashion gala on Sept. 27.

“We will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass,” she said, with the entire company onstage beside her. “With the world changing — and our beloved institution in the spotlight — we continue to hold ourselves to the high moral standards that were instilled in us when we decided to become professional dancers.”

Her words brought City Ballet back to the tenet that its founder-choreographer George Balanchine once expressed to a ballet mother: “La danse, madame, c’est une question morale.” Dance, madam — that’s a moral issue.

Reichlen’s point — her whole speech — should become part of the search committee’s criteria in choosing a successor to Martins. It should also become an ultimatum to the company’s board about the Martins legacy.

In 2017, Martins was accused of sexual and physical harassment — accusations that he denied. A two-month investigation, commissioned by the board, found insufficient evidence to corroborate these charges.

Let’s concede that some instances of harassment are hard to verify; but this case included witnesses who gave their names to newspapers in describing physical attacks by Martins. No investigation can brush their published accounts away — and yet it has looked to many as if the board was trying.

Now the company must weather the highly disturbing accusations in the latest lawsuit. Some of that suit’s points may be found to be erroneous; others may be questionable or unprovable. Nonetheless a picture has emerged of an alarming climate at City Ballet in which, the lawsuit says, the company “condoned, encouraged and permitted” male dancers in their abuse of women and property (and drugs and alcohol) without sufficient penalty.

No routine denial will do. True leadership is needed; only with Reichlen’s affirmation of sheer moral principles has this been established.

The spirit in her words has been made flesh by the whole company in its dancing this season. Three ballerinas — Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Reichlen, wonderfully unalike — have given peak performances this fall of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” The scintillating, blithely daredevil “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” danced by Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz was a thrill even to those who remember it in Balanchine’s day. It’s been a long while since a dancer threw herself into those fish catches with the headlong abandon that Peck showed here.

In the “Concerto Barocco” that preceded it, Reichlen exemplified cool-as-a-mountain stream sweep and purity. Modernism and classicism meet in “Barocco”; Reichlen makes Balanchine’s choreography count as sculpture, architecture, music and feminism.

The quietly fearless Sterling Hyltin’s interpretation of the title role of “La Sylphide” (a Peter Martins staging) has become a classic account. This is the archetype of Romantic ballets, opening with the image of the title sylph kneeling as she contemplates Scottish farmer James asleep in his armchair. I love the way Hyltin sways from deep in the waist, as if moved by poignant desire for this man; I’m enchanted by the seamless transitions she later makes between grief and humor in addressing him. It’s touching just to watch her step lightly onto point, as if recapturing pointwork in its early Romantic innocence.

Debuts, especially by junior members of the company, have always been part of the drama of any City Ballet season. Just now, with three male principals recently fired, a fourth retiring Oct. 14, and a fifth injured last week, the shortage of male dancers is a pressing issue. A fresh supply of male dancers is needed — and has been materializing.

Roman Mejia — now in his second year in the company — is just 18 years old. On Sept. 29, he danced Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” with Peck as if bringing it fresh from the mint, with terrific brio. Changes of direction and focus were keenly vivid (how well he always uses his eyes and head to open up paths in space); and the élan he showed in jumps and turns was a true thrill. He and Peck, who have danced together in Vail, could become a superb virtuoso partnership: They even have the same dimples, dark-glinting eyes and a quality of joyous laughter amid sweeping action. Joseph Gordon is a mysterious Adonis whose classicism is made of air; Sebastián Villarini-Velez is a young Mars, fiery and burning. On Sept. 21, the two men made gorgeous debuts in the first and third movements of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” as did sparkling Indiana Woodward beside Villarini-Velez and valiant Troy Schumacher in the fourth movement — all excellent. Gordon had already made his debut in “Diamonds,” partnering with the mighty Mearns. Although theirs isn’t yet a convincing partnership, you could see how both learned from it, he growing in heroism, she tempering her characteristic bravado with newly dulcet strokes.

Unity Phelan, the most elegantly and glamorously poetic of the young generation now ascending to ballerina roles, danced the second ballerina in “Emeralds” for the first time in a dreamy, rapt murmur on Sept. 19. As other “Emeralds” debuts demonstrated — notably Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum in the lead male role — this elusive ballet is being finely guarded. Claire Kretzschmar’s debut as the tall soloist in “Rubies” showed all her audacious glee.

What other artist in ballet charted sublimity as often and as profoundly as Balanchine? More than any other choreographer, he made ballet seem like a form of religion. It’s therefore tempting to adopt a Saint Balanchine approach to ballet history: tempting but unwise. He was no saint when it came to love. And, like many other important artists, he could be both vindictive and unjust.

Nonetheless, his offstage manners were largely exemplary and inspiring; and his choreography remains the richest domain in world ballet. We may forgive his lapses; I hope I understand why some want to forgive Martins’ lapses too. What we should not do, however, is to say they were of no consequence.