Sarah Kaufman reviews New York City Ballet program with ‘Episodes’

There came a point in Wednesday’s program by the New York City Ballet — a second collection of the black-and-white ballets by George Balanchine that the company is dancing this week — when all the starkness, cranked-open physicality and cold, bright emptiness lost its holding power. For me, at least. On the heels of Tuesday’s run of similarly styled works at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the straightforward, linear push of it all began to feel like a hard sell. Emphasis on hard.

Then Sara Mearns stretched herself out in “Episodes” like some kind of miraculous fiber — elastic, strong and ever-expandable — and the event took on an entirely different tone. Watching this ballet was an immersive experience — Mearns, music (Anton von Webern), audience, bound together by an unnamable emotion.

“Episodes,” half of a work created in 1959 (Martha Graham made the other half, but it is no longer performed), didn’t much care if you loved it. It swirled along on its own path, in its own universe of eerie light. The dancers were so wrapped up in their intensely individualistic displays that you were slightly shut out but entirely sucked in. Tall, assertive Teresa Reichlen, in a pas de deux with Ask La Cour, was like a lost clown, or one of “Blade Runner’s” replicants, somewhere between human and engineered. Sebastien Marcovici unfolded waiflike Wendy Whelan into one spread-eagle position after another, until she finally gathered her legs back under her and strode off the stage like fairy royalty.

In other words, “Episodes” was more than a showcase of steps and shapes, even though it was just as distilled and unembellished as “Square Dance,” which opened the program, and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” which closed it. Ashley Bouder’s crystalline technique put a high gloss on “Square Dance,” and her partner Taylor Stanley — still in the corps de ballet — performed an impressively confident, expansive solo. A work like “Square Dance” is easy on the eyes — bouncy, upbeat and relentlessly showy — but I found it less interesting than the astringent weirdness of “Episodes.”

Mood is all — this is what also elevated “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” Maria Kowroski was just this side of an ice princess — she wasn’t going to let Amar Ramasar get too close. No worries. He had charisma to burn, and he hooked all the rest of us.

This program repeats Saturday afternoon. The company performs other works through Sunday.

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, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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