Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns danced the opening pas de deux in George Balanchine's "Chaconne." (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
It’s been nearly three years since New York City Ballet fully graced the stage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. And the company’s return on Wednesday night, after a pandemic-driven absence, was a welcomed one. The large crowd greeted the dancers and musicians as only Saratoga audiences do – with cheers as soon as the curtain rises.
Truly, there is a special relationship between City Ballet and its devotees — City Ballet’s dancers and musicians always perform their hearts out – with more drive, abandon and flourishes at SPAC. And in exchange, the audience goes wild with gratitude.
But for the first time in my 30-plus years of reviewing City Ballet at SPAC, I saw something on Wednesday night that I never saw before – a slight wobble from the corps de ballet. I’m not sure if it’s the months of uncertainty during the pandemic, dancing in isolation, or new artistic leadership. Yet the body of dancers who frame all of the historic repertory looked under-rehearsed. Out-of-synch glimpses could be seen in the second section with the female corps in George Balanchine’s romantic “Chaconne” and in the men’s percussive takeover of the stage in Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces.”
On Thursday morning, I’m taking that as an anomaly because the lead dancers in the triple bill, including Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace,” were what one expects from City Ballet. They were excellent.
Let’s take Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in the opening duet in “Chaconne” to music by Christoph Willibald von Gluck that has not been seen at SPAC for years. With clouds in the background, the two enter on opposite ends of the stage. As the sounds of a soft flute rises, the two slowly raise their heads, seemingly noting a passing breeze. They approach each other magically, not really looking at each other, but drawn by an invisible cord. And what unfolds is one of the most touching and tender pas de duex in all of Balanchine’s canon.
Mearns is made for this. With her hair down, she’s an ethereal being who floats along with Angle as her gentle guide, lifting and escorting her in a romantic, spiraling haze. It is sublime. Mearns and Angle are all one needs to enjoy “Chaconne.”
Emma Von Enck and Harrison Coll also are noteworthy in the other “Chaconne” pas de deux. Dressed in a costume that looks like her center was swirled in ribbon candy, Von Enck is a dynamo in the lead-up to what evolves into a boisterous, super-fast finale.
Even more enjoyable is “Glass Pieces,” an audience favorite. The dance, with its propulsive Philip Glass score, makes the audience feels like they are (safely) dropped into New York City's rush hour. In the first section, dancers walk fast with purpose in every direction. In the last, the dancers appear like trucks and cars converging and maneuvering at a busy intersection.
Unity Phelan and Jovani Furlan danced the central pas de deux. While they didn’t express the usual otherworldly quality this duet usually elicits, they carry through another sensibility – impressive strength and power that can calm the most chaotic waters. Together, the two look like they could conquer any city.
The evening also included a surprise from 1966, Cunningham’s “Summerspace.” While I’m no fan of Cunningham, Balanchine who invited the modern dance pioneer to City Ballet, obviously was. And City Ballet premiered the 1958 work, with music by Morton Feldman, the same year it inaugurated the SPAC stage.
While I find Cunningham’s works as something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, I was impressed with the cast’s ability to master its challenges – basically rehearsing without music as their compass. While, I came to appreciate the work that transports its viewers to a summer meadow, I’m not sure I would choose to see it again.
Of course, City Ballet is another story. The company is only there until Saturday and worth a trip.