A New Era For New York City Ballet? Spring Gala Showcases Justin Peck and Pam Tanowitz

A New Era For New York City Ballet? Spring Gala Showcases Justin Peck and Pam Tanowitz

On Thursday night, the New York City Ballet spring gala saw a handful of firsts — most notably, the first season to open under the leadership of Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan and the first (ever) piece from the celebrated choreographer Pam Tanowitz to debut on the City Ballet stage.

Stafford and Whelan, whose histories with the company stretch back decades, opened the gala with the promise of ushering the company into its next chapter. 

“We never really had the opportunity to partner while we were dancers,” said Whelan, an ALL ARTS advisory board member, quipping that while she danced Stravinsky, he danced Tchaikovsky, “so it’s been a real thrill for both of us to now discover an amazing new partnership as we embark on an exciting new era at New York City Ballet.”

Justin Peck and Sara Mearns after world premiere of “Bright.” Choreography by Justin Peck. New York City Ballet Spring Gala. Photo: Erin Baiano.

The overall optimistic tone of the gala — a balm for what has been a fraught year and a contrast to the company’s gala in September — found an echo in the evening’s opening piece, a premiere from Justin Peck titled “Bright.”

The curtain rose to show dancers, clad in loose white costumes with pastel color-blocks, pacing the stage, lit by Peck’s longtime collaborator Brandon Stirling Baker. The choreography that followed flowed with the energy (and brevity) of a sunrise. Radiant gestures erupted from the ensemble of six dancers with ease, as was demonstrated by a series of arabesques that seemed to float into the air as if gravity were momentarily suspended. Though brief, the piece offered a rush of joy, which was encapsulated in its totality by Sara Mearns, who danced her role with characteristic authority.

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The second work of the evening came from Tanowitz, who premiered her piece “Bartók Ballet.” Conceived as part of the Women’s Choreography Initiative at American Ballet Theatre in 2017, the piece is the first of two commissions for the company. The second will debut next spring.

A sweeping contrast to Peck’s elongated movements in “Bright,” “Bartók” offered up playful choreography in staccato bursts. Set to String Quartet No. 5, played on-stage by the Flux Quartet, the piece distills classical ballet movements into eccentric explorations of technique. A pas de chat, for example, becomes rigid and uncanny in its execution; a foot may flex or turn in with unexpected speed. 

Pam Tanowitz and ensemble after world premiere of “Bartók Ballet.” Choreography by Pam Tanowitz. New York City Ballet Spring Gala. Photo: Erin Baiano.

Ending the evening on a note of classical grandeur and a nod to the company’s founder, the program concluded with Balanchine’s neo-classical “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3,” which Balanchine originally created in 1947. Staged behind a scrim that casts a dreamlike spell over dancers, the first three movements featured captivating performances of Balanchine’s romantic choreography, with a standout rendition from soloist Ashley Laracey in the second movement. The suite’s rapturous (and difficult) finale, “Theme and Variation,” welcomed back principal dancer Megan Fairchild, who made a triumphant return to the company this season after leave.

Top Image: "Bright" (World Premiere). Choreography by Justin Peck. New York City Ballet Spring Gala. Photo: Erin Baiano