Who else but the New York City Ballet could dress a ballet named after a color in black and make it seem like the only possible choice? The zest and tang of Peter Martins' "Ecstatic Orange," which received its Washington premiere Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, was in the dancing and choreography rather than the costumes.
The ballet, which received the first performances in its present form last June, has an urgency and force that many of Martins' craftsmanlike works have lacked. It's as though this was a ballet he had to make for its own sake instead of one churned out to fill a repertory niche. The choreography matches the energy of Torke's lush, pulsing score. The corps, sometimes crouching like athletes at the starting gate, sometimes deployed in squads of four like mini-armies, is used for pulse and mass; the principal couple (Heather Watts and Jock Soto) dances in sculptural contrast.
Their pas de deux, so smoothly danced that the tricky choreography never looks gimmicky, could be about the lonely self-sufficiency of modern love. It's replete with striking images. Soto leans over to Watts, who extends hands cupped like claws. Later, he positions her, with exquisite tenderness, on the ground; when he withdraws his support, she's quite securely and independently planted in a bridge.
Despite the work's many strengths, there's an unsettling sense that Martins' new ideas and Torke's new music have been stuffed, sometimes uncomfortably, into an old formula. Originally, "Ecstatic Orange" was a short ballet that is now given as the ending movement; the opening "Green" and central "Purple" sections were added later (the latter movement to a specially commissioned score; the other two were set to existing music). But Martins uses some Balanchine conventions -- central couple, two demi-soloist couples and the traditional A-B-A form with the pas de deux in the middle -- that seem out of time here. Every ballet doesn't have to be a pas de deux sandwich, and the first two sections are so nearly complete in themselves that the last section, which brings everyone back to do variations on what they've already done, though interesting in its own right, deflates much of the punch of what's gone before.
Structural quibbles aside, the dancing by all concerned was appropriately electric. Watts, always her best in pretzel roles, is terrific here. At once kitten and tiger, she never makes the role look merely acrobatic, even when she's standing on her head or wrapped casually around Soto's body. Soto danced with his usual sophistication and force; his stage mask of thoughtful detachment works well here. The four supporting soloists (Helene Alexopoulos, Lauren Hauser, Alexandre Proia and Peter Frame) danced their vestigial roles with classical calm.
Jerome Robbins' "In G Major" looked cheery and spacious after the dense power of "Ecstatic Orange" and Darci Kistler and Robert LaFosse danced the central duet with the right sunny lyricism. The program opened with a beautifully danced "Scotch Symphony," led by an ardent LaFosse and a sweetly unapproachable Judith Fugate.
New York City Ballet is on a roll. Catch it while you can; its visits are no longer annual events.