Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in Justin Peck's Pulcinella Variations. (Paul Kolnik/Paul Kolnik)
Dance critic

Eyeballs, large as frying pans, stare at us from the ballerinas’ tutus, daring us to look away. If dance costumes ever had a diva moment, this is it. Justin Peck’s new dance, “Pulcinella Variations,” which the New York City Ballet performs through Thursday on its first of two programs, channels more than the Italian commedia dell’arte that helped inspire Stravinsky’s music. 

It gives us the circus.

This run at the Kennedy Center Opera House is the company’s first outing here since scandal rocked it this winter, with longtime director Peter Martins resigning amid the twin blows of a drunken driving arrest and public accusations by dancers of sexual and physical misconduct. (Martins denied the charges, and the company said its investigation “did not corroborate the allegations of harassment or violence.”) What does this program tell us about the health of the enterprise he left behind? In my reading, it’s a muddle. One big takeaway is that Peck, the resident choreographer, needs oversight in picking his designers. Yet now that he’s also serving on the company’s interim artistic team, that seems unlikely.

Peck’s ballet was the single new offering, sandwiched among three familiar works by Balanchine (“Divertimento No. 15,” “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” and “Symphony in Three Movements”) and  Martins’s 1992 duet “Zakouski.” Ghosts of the past collided with the present, and taste hung in the balance.

Peck does his work no favors with the costumes by Japanese fashion designer Tsumori Chisato. An astute dance costume designer knows that the clothing must allow for movement, and it must also complement it. These costumes, fun and zany as they are, with their frothy layers, checkerboard patterns, high turtlenecks and graphic prints, overwhelm rather than enhance.

Their visual excitement draws our attention as a flower does the bee, and the eye — that is, the brain — becomes distracted. The clutter of color, patterns and movement adds up to an attentional traffic jam. Let’s face it, zooming in on those giant, unblinking eyeballs is far easier than trying to derive meaning from the stylized actions flashing past. Costume hyperbole for the win.


Tiler Peck in George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. (Paul Kolnik/Paul Kolnik)

Only Tiler Peck fared well, sweeping through the lighthearted “gavotta” section with Joseph Gordon. Perhaps her long association with Justin Peck (they are friends, but not related) gave her the clout to choose the single most flattering attire: a modest tutu, no squiggly lines down her tights, and a simple, open neckline that drew attention to her face, and to the warmth and serenity of her dancing.

Justin Peck can’t rely on costumes to give his work a focus. Like some of his other dances, this ballet lacks a viewpoint — the philosophy from which it springs. “Pulcinella” has a variety-show quality, with one clever sequence unspooling after the other, like beads bouncing off a chain. Yet what ideas does it express? Peck is also a dancer, with a treasury of other artists’ choreography stored inside his body. In a certain sense, one ballet rises from the shadows of another, as Peck is in a prime position to know. So what is he responding to?

What are his values? 

The prominent contemporary choreographer Mark Morris, for instance, returns regularly (though never in the same way) to the sustaining power of community. He also prizes simplicity over melodrama, and the truth of gesture and corporeal emphasis over “acting.” 

Balanchine, to take another example, put stock in a theatrical ideal of womanhood, and an appreciation of the female form and its allure, along with his obvious technical hallmarks of musical clarity, line and speed. These were all apparent in the works by him that we saw on Tuesday. Peck should move beyond surface effects and look instead to the truths and principles that guide him inside.

It has been a rough time for the Balanchine legacy, with the fall of Martins, Balanchine’s successor. Is the shake-up to blame for Tuesday’s spotty performance quality? In “Symphony in Three Movements,” a ballerina and her partner, alone onstage, lost their battle with a tricky spacing sequence and she nearly face-planted. Soon after, an onrush of dancers led to a collision, with one pushing another out of his way. One hopes that’s not a reflection of the broader company dynamics. 

Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” and, especially, the “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” fared better. The pas de deux burst forth as a high-spirited game between Tyler Angle and the quick, clear and joyous Tiler Peck. The final moment unleashed gasps of delight from the audience, as well as applause, as Angle swept his partner high overhead, a glorious triumph for both.

How’s this for a counterpoint: In Martins’s pas de deux “Zakouski,” the ballerina, Indiana Woodward, lands big jumps on her pointes (ouch), smacks her thighs and her derrière, and generally whirls about with assorted gestures — a flexed foot, hands waving, hands clapping — that make her look rather flaky. By contrast, her partner, Joaquin de Luz, is the very picture of suavity and flair. He wears a billowy shirt and boots, and his look and his steps recall the role Balanchine created for Martins in his sexy “Tzigane.” De Luz ends up throwing Woodward to the floor.

Choreography reveals a lot about its maker. At times you wish it offered more, as with Peck. At others, it tells us quite enough. 

The New York City Ballet performs works by Balanchine, Martins and Peck through Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. From Friday to Sunday, the company performs a Jerome Robbins Centennial Program. $29-$99. 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.