The Corcoran Cadets in George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes" (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
New York City Ballet returned to its summer home, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, on Wednesday with a powerhouse of a program that proved that the company is continuing to propel its way into the future.
That was evident in the opening night premiere of Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing,” a ballet that stunned by pushing the classical steps into the realm of street dance and, not so subtly, unleashing it as an act of political protest.
This is a Peck that has never been seen before, strong, daring and authentic. And while “The Times Are Racing” is hardly a perfect ballet or his best ballet, it sets him on a path that challenges the norms of what is acceptable at City Ballet. And the audience and the dancers clearly loved it.
The piece opens with the dancer in a huddle, with just one in the center rising above the pack. To an electronic score by Dan Deacon, they jerk upwards, robotically only to freeze for a second and then reassemble with another in the middle. Wearing sneakers and street clothes, emblazed with words like “Defy,” “Act” and “Shout,” the dancers are unhinged, dancing with the company’s trademark speed that was pinched by moments of intense stillness. It was as if Peck was asking us to really see the shape, the intent and the dancers, not as superhuman being, but as people that enjoy cutting loose. This is how dancers move when they are not onstage. This is how dancers dance.
The best moments were the two duets – one Peck and Ashly Issacs and another with Tiler Peck and Daniel Applebaum. Peck and Issacs, in t-shirts and jeans, performed in synch and syncopated. Tiler Peck and Applebaum’s pas was more playful, with Applebaum slapping the bottom of her sneaker to stimulate her to forward motion. They also took turns twisting themselves in a balletic tinged break dance move that fascinated.
Peck, though straying far, also gave a few nods to the company’s founding iconoclast George Balanchine – especially in his quartet that made note of “Apollo.” And like “Apollo,” “The Times Are Racing” is hastening ballet to the next decade.
The evening also featured Balanchine’s display of American military pageantry in “Stars and Stripes,” a perfect opener on the day after the 4th of July. Daniel Ulbricht, a hands-down favorite with SPAC audiences, drew roars of approval leading the dashing all-male third regiment. He’s a jumping, spinning marvel that never fails to please.
Megan Fairchild and Tyler Angle were also perfectly saucy as Liberty Bell and El Captain – flirting with each other as they clicked their heels, saluted and tossed off with ease their fleet and fancy footwork.
The final campaign is a showstopper with the American flag descending as the backdrop. It’s impossible not to feel a flutter of patriotism.
Peter Martins’ surging “Fearful Symmetries,” to music by John Adams completed the evening. This is my favorite Martins work as it showcases some of the youngest dancers in a work that continually builds, then explodes and then melts into a savory and satisfying vision.
One final note. Elizabeth Sobol, the new president and CEO of SPAC, made sure she filled the house on opening night with box office specials. Hopefully, the days of ever-increasing ticket prices and stripping patrons of deals has gone. An executive director who understands art is for all people, not just those who can afford it, has the potential for building the region’s untapped audience.
Bravo to Sobol and New York City Ballet, which knows how to perform with heart in a city that loves its dancers and musicians.
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