Even when it's not terrific, it's terrific. The New York City Ballet is such an extraordinary artistic institution, and has established such high internal standards, both in its dancing and its repertory, that even allowing for normal and inevitable fluctuations of achievement from occasion to occasion, one can safely say the company is incapable of a "routine" performance.
This isn't to say the company never has an off night or even a relatively dull one. As close to heavenly as the troupe may seem, it is composed of humans and is fallible. Wednesday night's program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, however, was in no way calamitous. It just wasn't particularly memorable, in the way NYCB performances so often can be.
None of the evening's ballets -- George Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and "Vienna Waltzes" and Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun" and "Other Dances" -- was new or even unfamiliar. And each one has been seen to greater advantage, on the whole, in the past.
And yet, and yet -- and this is just the point -- there was so much to savor and admire, so many rewards that could have issued from no other conceivable source, that without being in any way special this was still a special event.
Getting down to cases, the evening began with "Barocco," one of the pristine examples of Balanchine's abstract neoclassicism -- a plotless ballet to Bach's Double Violin Concerto. The miracle of its choreographic architecture is ceaselessly amazing -- how can the unadorned geometry of human movement constitute so perfect an analogue of the structural and expressive contours of Bach's music?
In the featured roles were Heather Watts and Judith Fugate, with Otto Neubert partnering Watts in the magical slow movement. The interplay between the women -- sunny, euphoric, straightforward Fugate in contrast to complex, intense Watts with her hints of pain and pathos -- gave the performance a cutting edge, even if the effect of the ballet in toto was on the subdued side.
The interpretations of both Robbins works had a feeling of underexposure about them. Understatement is one of "Faun's" fundamental qualities, of course, since the ballet is an evanescent sensual encounter between two dancers in rehearsal (as well as a modernized tribute to Debussy and Vaslav Nijinsky, who choreographed a notorious version of the same music in 1912). Wednesday's performers, however -- Margaret Tracey and Jeffrey Edwards, a pair of beautiful, exquisitely gifted youngsters fairly new to the company (both products of its associated school) and to this ballet -- carried the pallor a bit too far. The performance was like seeing a photographic print not quite fully developed. There's a lot of promise here, though.
Kyra Nichols and Robert LaFosse danced wonderfully in "Other Dances." Nichols is an immaculate technician and stylist, and indeed, has long been regarded as a company model in these respects. And LaFosse has made remarkable strides as an artist since his transfer from American Ballet Theatre, as his impressively mature account of the Poet in "La Sonnambula" earlier in the run demonstrated. Nevertheless their performance together lacked the necessary flavoring here. The quasi-Slavic, folkloric touches Robbins has engraved into the choreography for these Chopin vignettes looked like perfunctory embellishments, instead of central keys to the tone and atmosphere of the ballet.
The best came last. Though Darci Kistler and Jock Soto were on the lackluster side in the opening Vienna woods sequence, and though the "Explosions-Polka" registered only as a trifle with last night's cast, the amazing, eternally youthful Patricia McBride in the "Voices of Spring," Maria Calegari's glamorously seductive Merry Widow in the Leha'r section, and the ecstatic swooning of Stephanie Saland in the concluding "Rosenkavalier" waltzes carried this stunning confection of a ballet to intoxicating heights.