New York City Ballet Is in Limbo, but in Bloom

Posted May 31, 2018 6:39 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — New York City Ballet is impressive in a state of limbo. Peter Martins resigned as ballet master in chief at the beginning of the year; since early December, the company’s day-to-day artistic life has been run by a team of four, all under 40. Yet City Ballet — still the world’s most valuable company for the excellence of its classical-modernist repertory — is in remarkably good shape. Had Martins resigned a decade or two earlier, the same could not have been said. Just what happened to make the difference in the years 2008-18?

There are multiple answers. Dancers have learned again to step off balance into space and to embody their music rather than merely to follow it; and a number of excellent new ballets have revitalized the company’s sense of mission.

Another central factor has been the contribution of Andrew Litton, who joined the company as music director in 2015. He may not be an ideal ballet conductor — he lacks the instincts of an accompanist, leading sometimes with scant regard to what’s happening onstage. Yet, again and again, he has hungrily jumped in to established repertory and made us relisten to music we thought we knew.

He reached a new peak with the late-May performances of Léo Delibes’s marvelously infectious 1870 score for “Coppélia.” From the overture — the harmonies for the brass instruments playing quietly, the sweeping, rainbowlike melody for the strings — it was evident that this would be a singularly vivid account.

And, thanks to Litton and the darkly twinkling, fascinatingly musical Tiler Peck, “Coppélia” brought a classic example of the art of the choreographer Marius Petipa, who is celebrating his bicentennial and is the creator of several peak roles for leading ballerinas. An important part of Petipa’s art was the way he constructed solos for these queen bees.

One of Petipa’s favorite devices can be seen in the third-act solo for Swanilda, the heroine of “Coppélia.” When the solo’s opening melody returns, halfway through and now to teasingly hypnotic effect, Petipa makes his ballerina slowly travel across the stage in a single diagonal. As she repeats the same tiny sequence of steps — as if making lace — all on point, she subtly plays with her hands and eyes.

The real spell comes in how she marries dance to music. With Swanilda, the diagonal is a retreat (downstage right to upstage left); its charm lies in how very little her upper body does and in how that little makes magic. With Peck and Litton on Saturday, this was a bewitching Petipa moment.

Other ballerinas have also been in full bloom this spring. Maria Kowroski’s musicality was at its most multifaceted in her performances of George Balanchine’s “Mozartiana”: Not only does she play with rhythm now, but she also lets the music’s harmonic stresses show in the tension she brings to classical body shapes. Sterling Hyltin, with her laughing eyes and enchanting blend of delicacy and audacity, was another winning Swanilda.

Teresa Reichlen, coolly magisterial, shaped the second movement of Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” (her debut in the role) like grand sculpture in the air. Nobody dances with more confidence than Sara Mearns, who’s dancing at present with more power than eloquence. Though there’s more suspense to the “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” than she showed in her role debut on April 29, it was momentous to see this fragrant choreography delivered on the heroic scale she invariably shows.

Joaquin de Luz, who will give his farewell performance in October, is going out on a high. His Franz in “Coppélia,” sunny and brilliant, embodied his characteristic amalgam of panache and polish. When Martins’s successor is finally appointed, de Luz’s departure and the absence of Amar Ramasar (currently in “Carousel”) should prompt her or him to address the shortage of blaze amid the company’s leading men. There are many fine partners (the Angle brothers, Jared and Tyler, set superlative standards, with the younger Russell Janzen almost as fine), but few heroes. Daniel Ulbricht, always sparky and engaging, keeps gaining subtlety; but Andrew Veyette, another source of virile humor, is showing a few signs of coarseness. The mysterious Anthony Huxley still varies, perplexingly, between being too guarded and being classicism inflamed. Zachary Catazaro, despite his handsome presence, shows only borderline capacity for bravura roles, while Chase Finlay — physically as impressive as Catazaro, technically stronger, but often an awkward partner — now comes across as more of a stuffed shirt than when he first emerged 10 years ago.

Feminine pulchritude mattered to Balanchine; many of his dancers had the looks of the movie stars or models of their day. Several young women at soloist and corps levels today continue this connection of personal glamour of dance distinction: Unity Phelan and Emilie Gerrity (often paired, as if being usefully encouraged to learn from each other’s virtues), Miriam Miller and Ashley Hod. The first three made several debuts of note this spring. Lydia Wellington and Meagan Mann, eye-catching beauties too, are being given more opportunities at last, as is the bright, decisive Sara Adams. And Indiana Woodward, piquant, bubbly and brave, has become one of the company’s most winning characters: She has only to gain more upper-body distinction and facial legibility to deepen her power over the audience.

This spring, three new ballets were revived, but I find both Lauren Lovette’s “Not Our Fate” and Peter Walker’s “dance odyssey” too cliché-laden to be worth watching a second time. In both cases, a same-sex duet is made to look like trite — too foolishly gushy in “Not Our Fate,” too tweely cute in “dance odyssey” (which elsewhere carries on as if same-sex meetings were a private aberration).

Justin Peck’s “Pulcinella Variations” is more important. Arguments rightly occur (some in my own mind) about Tsumori Chisato’s assortment of carnival-surrealist costumes, but surely this choreography, well attuned to the witty zip of Stravinsky’s score, carries them. This is the first ballet in which Peck, so accomplished in the larger structural logistics of choreography, convincingly shows himself a modern classicist. Ballet steps pour forth here with wonderfully natural fluency, while challenging the speed and dexterity of the dancers.

The company’s season ends on Sunday; the weekend is packed with debuts. Who would have thought that four young people could steer a major company so well through so long a transitional period? Onward and upward.