New York City Ballet hosted a gala with unfortunate new costumes for Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” But the repertory is what matters, and it’s been dazzling.
This year’s New York City Ballet fall gala was an outlier. In recent years, fashion has taken center stage, with designers and choreographers collaborating to make new work. But on Thursday, this annual event at Lincoln Center took a different path. As the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, a vice chair of the company’s board of directors, put it in remarks before the show: “Tonight, we’re going vintage.”
She meant the ballet side of things — specifically George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” (1970), whose costumes were reimagined for the gala by Wes Gordon, the creative director of Carolina Herrera.
Originally designed by Karinska — and redesigned by Ben Denson in 1983 and Santo Loquasto in 2013 — the costumes for this ballet need, at the most basic level, to move. The ballet is a celebration of New York City after all. But only one part of Gordon’s unflattering dresses oscillated madly: their spinning skirts.
What you want to see in a jazzy ballet like “Who Cares?” is simple: the leg. Gordon’s dresses, in shades of pink and blue — like party favors at a gender reveal — were too long and sodden with colored stones. If they had a back story, it was “Barbie crashes the prom.”
Who cares about costumes? I do. I also care about music. “Who Cares?” is set to George Gershwin songs, adapted and orchestrated by Robert Miller and Hershy Kay. For the gala, Patti LuPone, Vanessa Williams and Joshua Henry sang the Gershwin standards from the stage — occasionally awkwardly so — as dancers performed solos and pas de deux from the ballet. The addition of the singers, which required further orchestrations by Miller, was a distraction that made the ballet less musical.
Even when there were sparks of joy — Indiana Woodward in “My One and Only,” Isabella LaFreniere in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” Joseph Gordon in “Liza” — the look was mostly unsophisticated, the sound was inconsistent and the costumes were fussily garish rather than sexily so.
Balanchine’s choreography was suddenly a one-note affair; this was a terrible way to show off his legacy. Nor was it a good idea to remake the costumes instead of restoring Karinska’s or creatively reimagining them. As the fall season has continually shown, it’s not only Balanchine who is the star, but Karinska, whose eye for color and cut remains astounding. Balanchine once said half of the success of his ballets was owed to her costumes.
At least the evening (which included two films and two sets of speeches) ended with “Glass Pieces” (1983), a work by Jerome Robbins, the company’s other founding choreographer. Set to Philip Glass, it offers another balletic take on city life. There are three couples in the first movement and a pas de deux in the second — hauntingly danced by Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring — but this work belongs to the corps de ballet.
You live for the last couple of minutes when their bodies, having been driven by relentless speed and meticulous spacing, relax into the hypnotic score with their focus giving way to smiles. Sweaty and united, they dance as one, spilling across the stage until they freeze, arms reaching to the sky.
But before the gala night, City Ballet’s fall season has belonged, rightfully, to Balanchine with programs packed with gems, including the revival of a dazzler: “Bourrée Fantasque” (1949), set to music by Emmanuel Chabrier. It swings from comedy to romance and finally snaps to in an exhilarating finale in which dancers converge in a dizzying array of concentric circles.
The swirling bodies form something of a psychedelic carousel with a ballerina surging up from the center like a mermaid rising out of a fountain. This made me smile since I love Esther Williams. And, you never know what was in the back of Balanchine’s mind; “Neptune’s Daughter” was released earlier that year.
So many steps and gestures reference other Balanchine ballets, yet “Bourrée” is its own world, with each section unfolding like a dream ballet. The first, “Bourrée Fantasque,” is full of humor, starting with its casting: a tall woman and a shorter man. (It was originally performed by Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins.) The woman, at one point, swings her leg back in attitude until her foot bonks her partner’s head.
In the cast I saw, the opening pairing of Mira Nadon and K.J. Takahashi was sweetly jovial; their teasing, mischievous gestures contrasted with the sharpness of their footwork — including second position pliés that suddenly widened, jabbing the floor with their heels. Balanchine turns classical steps inside out with humor, but the choreography’s brisk flash and force is also found in the delicacy of its power.
The flowing, romantic second movement, “Prélude,” with Emilie Gerrity and Gilbert Bolden III, showed off smooth ardent partnering by the polished, gallant Bolden; Alexa Maxwell and David Gabriel sparkled in “Fête Polonaise” — seemingly jumping through invisible hoops.
The ballet, with costumes by Karinska, ran for only a weekend, but it will return in the spring (with, one hopes, more extravagant headpieces as shown in old photos). The season opened with a week of the Balanchine triptych “Jewels,” which flew by with a flurry of fine debuts. Emma Von Enck and Jovani Furlan spun “Rubies” into gold, while Christina Clark made an indelible impression as the ballet’s lead soloist with her poised, regal calm. Nadon, Emily Kikta and now Clark show different ways of approaching the soloist part. Their interpretations are so personal, so full of individual perfume.
LaFreniere, dancing with Chun Wai Chan, made a formidable debut in “Diamonds” — a picture of elegance and confident control as she rapturously illuminated the facets of the choreography. And Nadon’s “Emeralds” debut was enveloped in mystery: lush, full of secrets and born in the moment.
Von Enck, fluid, detailed and vivacious, breathed new life into “Tarantella”; and Kikta, in both “Western Symphony” and “Stars and Stripes,” used her glorious wingspan to glittering effect. She towers over everyone, but instead of shrinking, she bravely pushes her length to its limit. Also in “Western,” Woodward and Furlan were invaluable in the second movement: adorably sad and sharply funny.
But there were duller, more unimaginative turns by Erica Pereira and Megan LeCrone in “Stars and Stripes”; Sara Adams, inexplicably cast in “The Unanswered Question” and “Apollo,” moves efficiently but without texture. And Peter Walker’s partnering, in “Agon” opposite a coolly elegant Miriam Miller, and in “Stars” with Nadon, was tense and slippery — thick with wobbles.
In “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,” an especially luminous Sara Mearns, partnered beautifully by Tyler Angle, swirled in and out of Balanchine’s dizzying patterns with fortitude, ease and ravishing detail. She’s been one of the most urgent and alive dancers of the season, including her performances in “Diamonds” with Russell Janzen, who retired on Sept. 24. His gallantry, his sensitivity to his partners and to the ballets he graced is going to be hard to let go of.
But there remains the richness of the present, captured in the skillful partnering and exceptional verve of the young principals Roman Mejia and Furlan; and hope for the future, embodied by another dancer with an appetite for partnering and expansive dancing: Gilbert Bolden III. (His full name bears repeating.)
This season, his body has lengthened and become more agile, whether dancing a corps de ballet role or a lead. In his sparkling turn in the first movement of “Western Symphony” with Olivia MacKinnon, he swooped in and saved the day. As any cowboy should.
New York City Ballet
Performances continue through Oct. 15 at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, nycballet.com.