New York City Ballet goes all in on Tchaikovsky at Kennedy Center


Maria Kowroski and Company in George Balanchine's ‘Swan Lake.’ (Paul Kolnik)

An all-Tchaikovsky ballet program: In concept, who can quarrel? But what looked good on paper proved somewhat flat in execution when the New York City Ballet opened its six-day series at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday.

It wasn’t that the works lacked interest. All were by choreographer George Balanchine: First, his one-act interpretation of “Swan Lake,” accompanied by music from the ballet score’s second and fourth acts. This was followed by “Allegro Brillante,” the stage like a wind-whipped field, so swift and brilliant was the dancing.

The more complicated Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 capped the evening. It was complicated because it looks like two different ballets, and it is. Balanchine created “Theme and Variations” to the fourth movement of the suite in 1947; nearly a quarter-century later, in 1970, he choreographed the first three movements and pasted on “Theme and Variations” as their finale. The whole thing has baffled audiences since. (This is undoubtedly why “Theme” is more commonly performed on its own.) You feel like you’re squinting in the newer sections, which take place in some murky, melodramatic realm in which the women wear their hair long and look like water nymphs behind the slight fog of a scrim.

The curtain drops, and when it rises a few moments later, it’s like you’ve wandered off a dappled side street and onto an open boulevard in blinding sun — bright lights, bright tutus and hard, fine-chiseled classical dancing. You can try to make sense of it in various ways: The first sections show a highly selective evolution of ballet, how dancing progressed from barefoot free spirits to the yearning romantic era and on — ta-da! — into neoclassicism.

Or perhaps the first parts represent a dream, and the finale is the awakening. Or it opens with a view of a muddled, sentimental past, and Balanchine is showing how he has sculpted and polished all that into a cool, efficient, dazzling present. But trying to make the parts fit in the mind is fruitless labor. “Theme” is better alone, and the earlier sections make no argument for their necessity.


Tiler Peck and Company in George Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. (Paul Kolnik)

The challenge of this evening went beyond the mysteries of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. The ballets were cast from strength throughout — Maria Kowroski, every willowy inch a queen, and a breathtakingly buoyant Tyler Angle in “Swan Lake”; the fleet, tireless Tiler Peck with Amar Ramasar in “Allegro Brillante”; and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz in “Theme and Variations.” Elaine Chelton was the extraordinary pianist in “Allegro.” (The New York City Ballet Orchestra was conducted by David LaMarche.) Yet each of these works was a piece to admire rather than to love. Each one, as visually rich and showy as it was, felt superficial.

Balanchine’s “Swan Lake” seems to take place in Arctic Russia; glacial hills enclose the space, and icicles dangle overhead. I thought swans were migratory birds, but these are content to flutter in the snow. Certainly, they looked pretty enough in the cold, blue light, but if you believe, as I do, that Tchaikovsky had moonbeams and fiery passions in mind when he composed, you might think the picture is off.

Even more than the icy setting, though, it was the lack of emotion that made this “Swan Lake” unsatisfying. The corps (in black, or rather a sooty gray) unfolded in endlessly clever lines and shapes, and Kowroski hit all her positions, and yet there was no transcendence here, no glimmering of feeling that turned technique into poetry.

That was to be expected: The New York City Ballet is rooted in plotless works. Narrative richness is not its forte. But that lacking comes across as a fault in such a familiar story as “Swan Lake,” especially because Balanchine’s version is not clearly an abstraction, nor is it clearly following tradition; it tries to have it both ways.

High athleticism is the hallmark of this program. In “Allegro Brillante,” I felt like I should have been holding a scorecard. That feeling would not have seemed so sharp, approaching a letdown, if “Allegro” had been set off with works of a markedly different texture. The balance was off. Any one of these Tchaikovsky ballets would be better served on a different program, buttressed by pieces with warmer tones.

New York City Ballet

performs Program A, the all-Tchaikovsky program, Sunday at 1:30 p.m.,
and Program B: Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance),” Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” and George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes” Thursday and Friday
at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday
at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. 

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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