City Ballet: Ash; This Bitter Earth; The Infernal Machine; Jeux; and Paz de la Jolla

New York City Ballet's winter season is almost over, but Saturday afternoon I got to see five ballets during the 21st Century Choreographers program, bringing my season to a close on a high note.

First were three shorter ballets. Peter Martins's Ash got things going. Or, more accurately, the music did. Ash is set to an eponymous composition by Michael Torke, and was Martins's fourth ballet set to Torke's music. I found the music—especially the percussion section—to be more interesting and engaging than the choreography and dancing. Unfortunately, the ensemble (Sara Adams; Spartak Hoxha; Laine Habony; Sebastian Villarini-Velez; Ashley Hod; Devin Alberda; Unity Phelan; and Cameron Dieck) looked a little sloppy in the chaotic choreography. This is unusual for the venerable Company.

Soloists Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro were the featured dancers. They were good together, but they couldn't do much to make this ballet interesting. As I've noted before, I like watching Catazaro dance because unlike a lot of the male dancers (including the ones in the Ash ensemble), he looks strapping. He has a strong masculine look, tall with broad shoulders, muscular legs... That's appealing off-stage, and it makes him visually appealing to watch as he dances on stage. Catazaro was the most captivating part of this otherwise just fine ballet. (To wit: Ash was so unimpressive that I didn't remember that I had seen it before—in October, no less. I had to look at my notes from previous ballet outings to remind myself that I'd seen it before.)

Next came This Bitter Earth, the Christopher Wheeldon pas de deux that premiered at NYCB in 2012 as part of the fall fashion-filled gala. The Valentino costumes were gone, as was female role originator Wendy Whelan. But we were in good hands, dear readers. I loved it, as I had before and as I knew I would. It's reminiscent of Wheeldon's own After the Rain (the pas de deux section), with a similar color palette and choreographic style, not to mention the lyrics. (This Bitter Earth uses a composition by Max Richter, with recorded vocals by Dinah Washington; the song actually comes from the Shutter Island soundtrack.) And that's not a bad thing. Wheeldon is clearly exploring a theme but he incorporates small yet powerful moments, distinguishing one ballet from the other.

Instead of the Valentino designs, the dancers wore costumes by Reid Bartelme. These alternate threads are softer than their Valentino counterparts, and include cutouts that complement the dancers' bodies and their movements. What a treat that said dancers were Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns. I had seen Angle dance This Bitter Earth with Whelan during its premiere, so I knew he'd be terrific. Not so unexpectedly, Mearns blew me away. She and Angle have great chemistry, which is essential for this intimate ballet, and Mearns's dancing is so emotional and beautiful; she was magnificent.

The third brief ballet was another Peter Martins work, The Infernal Machine, this one a pas de deux set to a Christopher Rouse composition of the same name. In the repertory notes I read before the curtain went up, Rouse notes that the piece was "inspired by the vision of a great self-sufficient machine eternally in motion," and that "while this machine is not specifically satanic, it is more than a little sinister." That struck me as a provocative statement, and I'm pleased to report that Rouse's assertion comes through in the music and Martins's choreography.

This ballet is a little different for Peter Martins. Indeed, there is something sinister about this. There's a sexiness and slight danger to the choreography, which is a welcome departure from the norm. Note the way Preston Chamblee holds Unity Phelan. (Chamblee and Phelan were great.) It's less like how a ballet partner holds you and more like how a lover would put his hands on you. There's purpose and passion. The rawness of the interaction is echoed in Catherin Barinas's costumes, which look purposely worn and tattered, with cutouts and accents in bold places. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and think it would pair well with the similar-in-tone Funerailles.

After intermission, I got to see Kim Brandstrup's Jeux, which was a favorite this past fall. Once again, I enjoyed the contained short story, the depiction of the game of love. Neither Sterling Hyltin nor Amar Ramasar appeared, but in their places were Lauren Lovette, returning to the stage after foot surgery, and the great Craig Hall (pictured at right). Principal dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring reprised his role, but the highlight was Sara Mearns, who, as she did when I saw this piece in the fall and earlier in the afternoon in This Bitter Earth, thrilled with her vibrant, emotional dancing. Merde!

Finally, a bit of sunshine by way of Justin Peck's 2013 ballet, Paz de la Jolla. The creation of this ballet, you might recall, is the subject of the fly-on-the-wall documentary Ballet 422, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is now streaming on Netflix. In preparation for seeing Paz again, I re-watched Ballet 422. This gave new poignancy to Paz, as I had the creative process fresh in my mind.

As expected, I loved seeing Tiler Peck flutter about the stage, welcoming everyone to her beach. I enjoyed the music, "Sinfonietta la Jolla," a beautiful Bohuslav Martinu composition from the early 20th century. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar delighted as they searched for each other, weaving in and out of the estimable ensemble, until finally catching a few moments for themselves. It's a sunny, entertaining ballet, just the thing to ward off the winter doldrums.