New York City Ballet Spring Gala

Another gala, another night of great performances. I had the pleasure of attending the New York City Ballet Fall Gala performance in September, when I saw a world premiere Christopher Wheeldon ballet, and I was quite excited to attend the Spring Gala last night, featuring two Wheeldon premieres! Let’s dive right in.

First up on the program was the NYCB premiere of Wheeldon’s Soiree Musicale, set to a score by Samuel Barber. This piece first premiered at the School of American Ballet Workshop in 1998, making it is one of Wheeldon’s earliest works. And that kind of showed.

While quite lovely and whimsical, it is also a rather safe ballet, somewhat generic for Wheeldon. It is the closest to a traditional ballet I’ve ever seen from Wheeldon. That’s not to say it is bad, it's just different from what I had expected.

I should note, however, that for this gala performance I was sitting in a part of the house I had never sat in before: up in the third ring and all the way on the side—essentially a box seat. I mention this because the seat gave me a slightly partial view and put my sightline at an angle that kept me from seeing anything happening on stage from the front, meaning I didn’t get a good look at the formations and poses. I’m seeing Soiree Musicale in the 2013-2014 season and I should be sitting in my regular seats. I’ll be curious to see if my different perspective changes my perspective.

From what I could see, Soiree Musicale is a light and pretty ballet. The women have beautifully-colored, fluffy crinoline skirts that float and flutter along with them. (Costumes are by Holly Hynes.) Broken into six movements, the ballet quickly veers from what seems to be its Balanchine inspiration, and Wheeldon’s voice creeps in.

The second movement, “Scottische,” led by corps de ballet members Kristen Segin and Indiana Woodward, is lighthearted and, in my interpretation, is the story of two friends or sisters vying for men’s attention. Next is the “Tango,” featuring a beguiling Brittany Pollack and a seemingly endless supply of men. It’s a funky, tempting dance.

The penultimate movement is the pas de deux (creatively titled “Pas de Deux”), and, on Thursday night, featured fine work from soloist Lauren Lovette and new principal dancer Chase Finlay. The ballet’s finale is a spirited recap of sorts, recalling the five movements that preceded it. Delightful as I found it last night, I’m looking forward to seeing it next season so I can get a better view and better handle on what the typically inventive Wheeldon was going for.

But never fear, dear readers. As he’s proved over the years, Christopher Wheeldon is one of ballet's most preeminent choreographers and the next piece on the program, the world premiere of A Place for Us, is another glorious reason why.

Mixing Leonard Bernstein’s “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” with “Interlude” from Andre Previn’s “Clarinet and Piano Sonata,” A Place for Us is a stunning, emotional pas de deux (and that’s from a disadvantaged point of view) and Wheeldon’s homage to Jerome Robbins. (In the program, there’s a dedication: “For Jerome Robbins. A thank you.” Plus, there’s a surprise in the choreography.)

With just the pianist, Nancy McDill, the clarinetist, guest artist Richard Stoltzman, and the two dancers, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, on stage, A Place for Us feels rightly intimate. (The title, of course, is an allusion to the lyric in the West Side Story ballad, "Somewhere," and traces of the song are wonderfully noticeable in the ballet's score.)

It begins with a singular lit rectangle on stage and the couple dancing in it. Then a second lighted box appears, and then a third and a fourth. As the lovers move to and dance in the different “places,” trying to find their own, the dances take on different emotions, but there are leitmotifs within the dance because the couple is the same, regardless of the place.

Then, to my overwhelming delight, all the lit boxes converge and pour across the entire stage because the whole place is for us. It’s one of the most emotional and glorious moments of ballet I’ve ever witnessed. The lovers continue to dance along in their journey (with a direct reference to Robbins’s choreography that had me in tears). Though both Peck and Fairchild (both absolutely stunning) had solo moments, they mostly danced together, mirroring each other throughout because, in its essence, A Place for Us is about them finding their way together.

(A Place for Us plays again this season on May 15, 17 and 22, and will return in February 2014 and May 2014. You do not want to miss this. For proof, watch this "flash footage" on the Company's Facebook page.)

The third and final piece before intermission was an excerpt from the West Side Story Suite, “Cool,” led by Andrew Veyette. It was during “Cool” (which I’d seen multiple times before), that I became even more interested in seeing Soiree Musical from a different seat. I know “Cool” and so I knew what I was missing from that point of view. The dancing still popped and raced but without seeing those formations, you miss some of the vitality.

(On a side note, hearing even a single song from West Side Story performed like this—with a full orchestra bringing to life every note Bernstein wrote—only confirmed my frequent assertion that West Side Story boasts the greatest score in American musical theatre history. No question. This is what beautiful music sounds like.)

After intermission we began with an excerpt from Glass Pieces, a Jerome Robbins ballet set to Philip Glass music, and, dear readers, it was astonishing.

This piece of Glass Pieces is fast, furious and constantly in motion. The dancers never stop moving and the propulsive score doesn’t relent for a moment. The orchestrations trick you into thinking the music has let up when certain instruments hang back, but don’t be fooled: the pulse is always there.

The non-stop action on stage reminded me of Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, which, since it came after Glass Pieces, was probably partly inspired by this Robbins work. Glass Pieces, led by Justin Peck, has a more ominous score than Mercurial Manoeuvres, making it utterly intense and setting your heart racing. (Think of it as an Argo for ballet.) The repertory notes point out that Glass was heavily “influenced by Ravi Shankar and the hypnotic rhythms of Indian music.” For sure you will be hypnotized by this rhythmic, unyielding and extraordinary ballet.

Next up was an excerpt from the Balanchine-Gershwin classic, Who Cares? Meant to evoke the exuberance of New York City, the full ballet features 17 Gershwin standards (with orchestrations by Hershy Kay). For the gala, we were treated to “The Man I Love,” with Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, as well as guest vocalist Queen Latifah (who, by the way, needs a lesson in humility). It is a nice pas de deux and Hyltin and Ramasar were in top form.

Closing out the night with a flourish were excerpts (the Fourth and Fifth Campaigns) from the uber patriotic Stars and Stripes, the Balanchine ballet that features Hershy Kay’s adaptations and orchestrations of the John Philip Sousa music and marches we all know.

The “Fourth Campaign” is a fun “anything you can do I can do better”-type dance off between the Liberty Bell (Ashley Bouder) and El Capitan (Andrew Veyette). It’s athletic, springy and quite impressive. (And Bouder brought lots of spunk to the role, especially when her hair piece started to fall out and she snatched it and flung it off stage…to thunderous applause!)

The “Fifth Campaign” features all regiments, which fills the stage with a thrillingly large company, all of whom bounce around the stage as an American flag rises to its full glory in the back. It’s total schmaltz but the good, fun kind that knows it’s just meant to dazzle and doesn’t disappoint.

The New York City Ballet spring season continues through June. Visit for more information and to purchase tickets.