City Ballet: Divertimento No. 15, Polyphonia and La Sonnambula

New York City Ballet is back, dear readers. After going into hibernation for the end of winter and the start of spring (or, more precisely, after performing at the Kennedy Center and other out-of-NYC locations), City Ballet is back for the last mini season of the 2011-2012 season. And that’s a good thing because on Saturday afternoon they were in top form.

The program was a Balanchine/Wheeldon one and included, in order, Divertimento No. 15 (Balanchine); Polyphonia (Wheeldon); and La Sonnambula (Balanchine). You might be able to guess that I was most excited for Polyphonia and that I enjoyed that the most. However, I was pleasantly surprised by La Sonnambula which, in addition to being Balanchine was a narrative. Usually not my cup of tea but I liked this.

But we start with Divertimento No. 15, choreographed by Balanchine to Mozart’s music. I had seen this before and didn’t have a favorable reaction. The second time around was much better, in terms of execution, though I still had a similar reaction to the ballet as a whole: It’s a perfectly pleasant and light ballet, a nice little divertissement. There isn’t, in my opinion, anything particularly impressive or moving or soulful about this, but it’s gentle and pretty, and a nice little amuse-bouche to get you in the mood for more ballet.

On Saturday afternoon, Jonathan Stafford was dancing in Divertimento; watching him jump around on stage always makes me happy. He’s just so buoyant. The spring in his step added a little pep to an otherwise serene ballet.

Next was my favorite piece of the afternoon and yet another example of Christopher Wheeldon’s expertise as a choreographer. Polyphonia premiered at City Ballet a little over ten years ago and, according to the repertory notes, was not only the fourth ballet Wheeldon created for the company, but also his first work after retiring from dancing. The notes add that the music is assembled from pieces by “composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who developed micropolyphony, a type of musical texture involving the use of sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time.”

And this is what I love about Wheeldon: He’s really a conceptual artist, with each element of the performance – the music, the dance, the lighting – being informed by the other. In Polyphonia, he uses light (designed here by Mark Stanley), and, by extension, shadows to help fill the stage. When this particular lighting is used in the beginning and the end, although there are only eight dancers on stage, it looks like there are twenty!

Moreover, all the movement was dictated by the music. Not exactly in the way that Jerome Robbins’s choreography expresses the feel of the music. Rather, in Polyphonia, Wheeldon’s choreography aligned with the score’s structure. When the music was discordant and slightly off, the dancing was slightly angular and danced in the round. As the music became more graceful and smooth, so did the dancing. And when those two styles melded, it was a sight to see: Wheeldon simultaneously bucked and conformed to balletic conventions, with a dancer striking a classic pose save for the palms-out jazz hands.

It was a terrific mix of classic and modern. In Polyphonia, Wheeldon finds a way to make the angular graceful. His choreography – every move a dancer makes – has meaning; it’s reflective of the tone of the music. The choreography is not exactly lithe and pretty but it is beautiful.

There are ten movements in Polyphonia and dancing them were eight terrific dancers, seven of them principals. At this performance, I watched Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle; Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia; Teresa Reichlen and Amar Ramasar; and Sara Mearns and Chase Finlay. (You may recall from past reviews that Finlay is currently a corps de ballet member, but he’s making his mark and will no doubt be a principal within the next five years.)

The first movement involved the entire cast and set the theme. Just like the Ligeti pieces we would hear throughout the ballet show that there is beauty in discord, in this first movement Wheeldon shows there is beauty in angles – in positions and moves that are usually antithetical to classical ballet.

The second movement, danced by the incomparable Whelan and Angle, looked almost like a yoga class, with the two expert dancers wrapping themselves around each other. (They would do this again in the ninth movement, during which they eventually hold the pose pictured above.)

Yoga was soon followed by another athletic movement, the fourth, during which Mearns, Peck and Reichlen proved that ballet dancers – female ballet dancers, at that – are just as athletic and strong as ball players of any variety. And yet, they never lost that graceful, beautiful look.

Next was the fifth movement, danced by Garcia and Ramasar. The music, lighting and choreography of this movement felt like spring. The lighting was bright and yellow; the music was hopeful; the choreography was spirited and lively. It was a fun jaunt, quickly juxtaposed by the sixth movement, danced by Mearns and Finlay. The yellow light turned to blue, the music slowed down and Mearns and Finlay danced a somber, almost elegiac dance. This was the most smooth, classically choreographed movement (fitting with the smooth, more classical music) and because of its difference, it made quite an impact on the entire ballet. It was a moment of quiet and solitude, a time for reflection amid the beautifully controlled chaos of the other movements.

Wrapping up Polyphonia were movements seven through ten. The seventh movement saw Whelan & Angle and Peck & Garcia engage in a bit of delayed mirroring, which was sort of reminiscent of the very beginning of Wheeldon’s After the Rain. The eighth movement was deliberate: Reichlan and Ramasar would make a move, pause in it, think about the next move and then make it. It wasn’t exactly staccato but it wasn’t exactly legato, either. Just purposeful. The aforementioned ninth movement, with Whelan and Angle once again wrapping themselves around each other, was phenomenal, and the final and tenth movement echoed the playfulness of the first movement, with the lights and shadows returning for an encore.

This was my first time seeing this particular Wheeldon ballet and after it, I am more convinced than ever that Wheeldon is one of, if not the, greatest living choreographers.

Closing out the afternoon was Balanchine’s La Sonnambula. As you may know, dear readers, I’m not a huge Balanchine fan and I’m not a huge narrative ballet fan, either. But, to my pleasant surprise, I did enjoy La Sonnambula, and not just because my favorite, Robert Fairchild, was dancing in it.

The basic story of La Sonnambula (with music by Vittorio Rieti, after themes by Vincenzo Bellini) is a love story. A Poet (Fairchild) woos the Coquette (Jennie Somogyi) while party guests dance around and three divertissements entertain. The party clears out and the Poet is left alone in the court, but not for long. He is visited by the Sleepwalker (Janie Taylor) and that’s when the ballet gets interesting.

The beginning is fine, with nice dancing from all. (I also really like Somogyi’s dress, designed by Alain Vaes.) The divertissements are pleasant enough, and I was impressed by Adam Hendrickson as the Harlequin. But the pas de deux between Fairchild’s Poet and Taylor’s Sleepwalker was fascinating. The Poet is becoming enchanted by this woman, who is, as her name suggests, sleep-dancing. She seems to be moving around oblivious to her surroundings, but soon we see she does have a sense of what’s around her. The Sleepwalker and the Poet connect. He learns how he can affect her movement, literally pulling her toward him one moment and lifting her leg in an arabesque in another.

By the end of the ballet, we see just how deeply they have connected, despite their different levels of consciousness: the slain Poet is carried off stage by the Sleepwalker (kudos to Taylor for being able to carry Fairchild – that’s one strong woman!) and the two ascend to their own lair.

And there you have it. Saturday in the ballet with George (Balanchine and Christopher Wheeldon!)

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