NYCB Just for Fun: Carnival of the Animals, Jeu de Cartes and The Four Seasons

The fall season is in full swing at the New York City Ballet. On Saturday afternoon, I attended the “Just for Fun” program, and it was lovely.

We begin with Carnival of the Animals, a 2003 Christopher Wheeldon ballet that I had never seen before. Using music from Camille Saint-Saens and narration written (and originally performed by) John Lithgow, Wheeldon tells the tale of little Oliver (Maximilian Brooking Landegger), who falls asleep in the Museum of Natural History, and at night, all the creatures come to life, taking on the personalities of various people in the boy’s life. (In this “revival,” the narrator is played by stage veteran Jack Noseworthy.)

What a fun, creative and wonderfully imaginative ballet. Tapping into a child’s imagination, Christopher Wheeldon creates a delirious fantasy world, a panoply of dreams come to life. Each species has a distinct choreographic language, and seems to make perfect sense. (That is, it makes sense that the child would imagine that group of people as that animal or relic.) For example, cheerleaders take the form of exotic birds; jocks are jackasses. 

Sara Mearns comes out, bouncy and plucky, as the kangaroo librarian. She’s feisty, but she quickly disappears. Luckily, she reappears in short order as a glorious mermaid, looking every bit the dream she’s supposed to be in. Rebecca Krohn’s wistful Swan Lake memory dance is also enchanting, as she exudes an air of tender regret of what’s passed, of things from a lifetime ago.

I like how the costumes (by Jon Morrell) suggest - in every detail but not in an overboard or distracting manner - the creatures; these are wearable, moveable fashions, not The Lion King type masks and constructions.

This is the kind of ballet that reminds you choreographers are directors, too. (Agnes de Mille was on to something.) In an early work, Wheeldon proves himself a man of vision, summoning a singular world brought to life by his collaborators. This makes me so excited to see his Cinderella next month (courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet, which will be camping out in New York for a couple of weeks) and for his full-length musical adaptation of An American in Paris to come to fruition.

Moving on to Peter Martins’s Jeu de Cartes we get something that is “just for fun,” indeed. I enjoyed this much more than I remember liking it. It‘s light and frivolous. Taylor Stanley’s (as the King of Diamonds) extension is impressive and Andrew Veyette (as the King of Spades) is reliably good. But the most satisfying part of watching this is watching Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild dance. Hyltin (the Queen of Hearts, of course) looks like she’s having a ball, effortlessly prancing around the stage with a delightful, infectious carefree attitude. Late in the ballet, Fairchild (the King of Clubs) comes bounding out, as if to say, “Oh, hey guys! I came out to play, too!” He’s in full Robert Fairchild flair mode, which is a treat to watch. He connects and flirts with his fellow dancers, making him utterly engaging. Jeu de Cartes is a fun divertissement, and offers an opportunity to watch these accomplished dancers play. 

Bringing the wonderful afternoon to a close was Jerome Robbins’s The Four Seasons, a truly beautiful ballet. (It's a perennial favorite of mine: from 2010; from 2011.) Winter (featuring Devin Alberda, Lauren King and Anthony Huxley) is whimsical, as the snowflakes dance around to keep warm in the cold. Spring is airy and full of light, full of pretty moves. Sara Mearns looks like a lovely sprite on a glorious spring day, and she’s joined by an equally gleeful Jared Angle. Summer, featuring the statuesque Teresa Reichlen and Amar Ramasar, is languid and sultry, like a hot, lazy summer day. And fall is crisp, warm and utterly impressive. (Tiler Peck is simply astonishing. Daniel Ulbricht is full of energy as a buoyant nymph creature, and Joaquin De Luz does nice work as another fall spirit.) The whole ballet is just so pretty - a wonderful, more traditional ballet that shows off different moods to audiences‘ delight.