NYCB Opening-Night Gala

Deep into “Nutcracker” month, I’m looking back at the New York City Ballet opening-night gala, which was held on Tuesday night, November 25 in what used to be the New York State Theater but which, as of opening night, has been renamed the David H. Koch Theater. More on that later.

First, the good news: although it was indeed a gala evening, it was still possible to get a 4th-ring seat for $15, provided you spent $20 to join the 4th Ring Society, which entitles you to $15 seats throughout the winter and spring seasons (the only exception, I think, is the retirement performance of a famous and well-loved dancer, which  guarantees a sold-out house—e.g., in the last two years, Peter Boal, Nikolai Hubbe and Damien Woetzel).

For balletomanes on a limited budget, this is heaven. Balanchine made sure the State Theater (it’s going to take me a long time to call it by its insalubrious new name) was designed for ballet. As a result, the 4th ring is just fine, particularly if you have a small pair of binoculars (10×25 is perfect) for the solos and duets. (There are people who can’t stand to watch ballet through binoculars. Perhaps because I’m also a birder, it’s second nature to me.)

The bad news is that, out of 9 dances presented (all but the first one excerpts), 5 were by Peter Martins, the Ballet Master in Chief, 1 by Susan Stroman, 2 by Balanchine and 1 by Jerome Robbins. Peter Martins looks great in a dinner jacket, and I guess that when it’s your ballet company you get to stuff the program, but the truth is that although he was a wonderful dancer in his day, he’s a second-rate choreographer.

It was an all-American-composer evening, starting with Martins’s complete “Chichester Psalms,” a lugubrious effort to music by Leonard Bernstein, with the NYC Opera Chorus. The chorus (with boy soloist) stands across the back of the stage on risers, on which the dancers also sit waiting their turns. The women are in white. The men wear long black skirts with black swags angled across their bare chests. The effect, to me, is vaguely Mesopotamian, with all that that suggests about slow motion and the repetition of ceremony. There is a great deal of tedious ensemble dancing, with principles Sara Mearns and Jared Angle doing their best in the muddle.

Martins cast his wife, Darci Kistler, with Albert Evans in a duet from his “Barber Violin Concerto.” Evans, a veteran, is in better shape than he’s been in years.  Kistler, a young marvel when she joined the company in 1980, is now, alas, past her prime.

Not that there weren’t moments. especially in “A Fool for You” (Ray Charles) and “Calcium Light Night” (Charles Ives) which is mostly charming. It’s also relatively early Martins (1978), as opposed to the 2004 “Chichester.” His choreographic skills haven’t aged well.

There were moments in Susan Stroman’s “Blossom Got Kissed” (from “Duke”), too, but that doesn’t make Stroman an interesting choreographer, either. She’s slick, and apparently popular, but one longs for the real thing.

We got it in Robbin’s “Ives, Songs,” with Rachel Rutherford and Philip Neal, Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegaard, accompanied by a baritone and a pianist. Both women gave us wonderful point work—but then, they had serious choreography to work with.

Balanchine was represented by “The Unanswered Question” from “Ivesiana,” with Janie Taylor and Daniel Ulbricht, and by the closing number, excerpts from “Who Cares,” set to Gershwin, one of Balanchine’s most beloved and wonderful dances. Jennifer Ringer looked great, and even Nilas Martins, never a particularly interesting dancer, looked good. (It was family night at the ballet.)

In addition to the dancing, we got a fawning speech and a vodka toast from the stage by Martins to Mr. Koch, who has given $100 million to NYCB, enabling the upgrading of the theatre, among other things. “I hope you like your seat,” Martins said to Koch, who was sitting in the first ring. “It was Lincoln Kirstein’s seat. If you don’t like it, you can go to the other side and sit in Balanchine’s seat. Whichever one you pick, it’s yours. Forever.”

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