As he whirled through the breathless gush of “Tarantella,” New York City Ballet dancer Spartak Hoxha banged his tambourine with such relish that two of the jingles popped off. They flew high above his head, catching the light like lucky nickels — a metaphor for this company’s exuberant release of its gifts.
Eagerly danced as it was — with Erica Pereira matching Hoxha’s vigor — George Balanchine’s “Tarantella” was not the most energetic offering Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The program was simply a knockout from start to finish. The company is at the peak of its powers, not only bursting with dance talent but rolling in a wealth of repertoire.
Alongside two fine Balanchine works, the second being the clear, joyous “Square Dance,” were two Washington premieres: Alexei Ratmansky’s beautifully rendered, unnerving “Odessa,” unveiled just a month ago in New York, and Justin Peck’s 2015 corker “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” in which 15 men and a single ballerina (Tiler Peck, ballet’s Wonder Woman) fly through Aaron Copland’s giddyap like horses out of the starting gate.
Make America great again? With its young, diverse, athletic cast, “Rodeo” feels like a whirlwind tour of American greatness. On Tuesday, Tiler Peck and Justin Peck (yes, the choreographer — his also a soloist in the company) danced “Rodeo’s” lone duet together for the first time. Watching their mix of giddy playfulness and shared awe felt like peering into the depths of an extraordinary friendship. “Rodeo” was full of passages like that, by turns romping and introspective. It’s a paean to brotherhood, cutups, sensitive souls, wonder, discovery and — What have I left out? Oh, yes — simply, love.
“Odessa” and “Rodeo” are nothing alike, but they offer a layered and complex experience of dance — as shape and form, and also as expressing elusive emotions and realities of human behavior. “Odessa” brings this about with extraordinary deftness, as we’ve come to expect from Ratmansky, a master of emotional understatement. Here are his continued fascination with social upheaval and his spectacular gifts at evoking it. It made me think back on his “Symphony #9,” made for American Ballet Theatre, where an unsettled air intrudes on the gaiety, alluding to the growing tragedy of Stalinism. “Odessa,” with its portraits of submission and mute defiance, feels more universal, though it, too, is grounded in the history of Ratmansky’s Russian homeland.
The roots of it appear to wind back to the great Odessa-born writer Isaac Babel and his play “Sunset.” Babel was a chronicler of gangsters, Cossacks and the underclasses; he fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s paranoia and was shot in 1940. With its three leading couples, Ratmansky’s ballet loosely recalls Babel’s play, which concerns three men of Odessa’s underworld and three women whose fates hang on them. The infectious music, performed with high color by the New York City Ballet Orchestra, is a suite of dance tunes and off-kilter revelry by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, who compiled it from his score for a film based on the play.
Ratmansky’s work calls into being an intriguing air of brutality, handled with a light touch. The darkness is virtually ignored by the ensemble dancers, who are bright and festive. But Ratmansky draws our attention to a gesture or a downcast look, and in these moments we sense how one character feels about another. At the ballet’s beginning, for example, Sara Mearns hesitates before lowering herself slowly onto her partner’s lap, and in this slight expression of reluctance it’s clear that she detests him. The excellent leading women — Ashley Bouder, Sterling Hyltin and Mearns — find themselves the targets of cruelty, and they have many responses to it. But what surfaces, just enough to give us hope, is quiet grit.
Babel called himself “a master of the genre of silence,” and it’s a description that also suits Ratmansky. There’s a carnival flavor to “Odessa,” with its tango melodies and snappy group dancing, but the three leading women are often shrouded in visual and emotional silence. They aren’t as jolly as the corps dancers; they avert their gazes, drop their heads, even close their eyes at times, and this inward focus conveys a sense of being voiceless and locked up inside themselves.
In a seamless flow of formally shaped dancing, there are sharp flashes of violence. Some are overtly physical, as when Taylor Stanley grips Bouder’s neck and shoves her to the ground. At other, colder times, they are suggested. One dancer points an accusing finger at Mearns’s legs, as if to criticize the shortness of her skirt, and Mearns’s posture immediately, almost imperceptibly shifts from pride to submission. She sinks slowly to her knees and offers him her hand in a gesture of entreaty.
But are the women victims? Not entirely. Bouder whips through a virtuoso series of turns, a yowl of independence. At the end we see the women of the ballet’s corps perch willingly on their partner’s knees, an echo of Mearns’s action. Seeing them, I felt the jolt of recognition, and I understood that Mearns’s different approach had been, in her own small way, a revolt. “Odessa” left me with this: The spirit can find a way to endure, even if it is only in the imagination.
This program, the first of two this week, also featured the sparkling pairing of Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay in “Square Dance,” an essay on the links between classical ballet and its folk cousin. A central and disarmingly humble male solo underscores the deepest connection between the two dance forms by paying homage to the spiritual rewards of moving to music.
The New York City Ballet repeats this program Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The company will perform a second program, featuring works by Balanchine, Justin Peck and Christopher Wheeldon, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.