Powerhouse. That’s the word that came to mind after I saw New York City Ballet’s program of 21st-century works at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Wednesday night. Personality, warmth, style: Those qualities burst out of the dances by Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. Add the elegance of the previous night’s Balanchine program, which alternates with this one, and you have a ballet company whose arsenal of talent and art is unlike any other.
New York City Ballet also is a smart operation. It steered clear of the standard fare that other troupes offer — the full-length ballet — which is a risky bet for audiences because if you don’t care for it or for the leading dancers, your fate is sealed for the evening. City Ballet offers two mixed-repertory programs for this engagement, which ends Sunday. This shows off more of its dancers, and it demonstrates Peter Martins’s good taste in choreographers.
Martins is the company’s ballet-
master-in-chief and is largely responsible for developing the fresh, bold voices of Ratmansky and Wheeldon, both of whom have been closely associated with the company, and more recently the voice of Peck. Peck is a company member who, with just a few years’ experience in making ballets, has developed a staggering ability to make bodies, patterns and laws of physics obey his vivid and delightful imagination. (At 27, he is now the troupe’s resident choreographer.)
In Peck’s “Everywhere We Go,” performed Wednesday, lines of dancers become circles and flow back into lines as if we’re watching raindrops slide down a windowpane. Andrew Veyette tosses Sterling Hyltin into the air and catches her, over and over. You’ve never seen a ballerina look so gleeful and giggly from the sheer fun of such a game.
The commissioned score by multi-
instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens, performed by the New York City Ballet Orchestra, is big and billowy and roaring, with powerful propulsion as well as moments of shimmering light. Oh, they were all having so much fun! Dare I say it became too much of a good thing? Peck’s work went on a bit too long, and the rush and surprise of it dwindled. He ought to do as Mark Morris does and rearrange and cut the musical movements to suit.
Martins’s contribution to the evening, “Symphonic Dances,” suffered far more from a pileup of too many endings and music that overwhelmed. In this case it was Rachmaninoff. Ratmansky, with “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and Wheeldon, with the pas de deux “This Bitter Earth,” got the proportions just right. With a couturier’s eye for detail, they both exhibited a light touch, a sustained and nuanced emotional tone, and a focus on the movement quality of the dancers. Wheeldon’s work was accompanied by Max Richter’s reorchestration of Dinah Washington’s song. Tiler Peck and Craig Hall underplayed the melancholy, transforming it into transcendent serenity through their seamless flow and slow smoldering.
There was seamlessness of another kind in “Pictures at an Exhibition,” drawn from a palette of natural, childlike exertions. “He likes what is coarse, unpolished and ugly,” Tchaikovsky said of composer Mussorgsky. Ratmansky seems to have taken that to heart, and his cast luxuriated in the freedom of the unschooled moves he made up. Tyler Angle whirled Hyltin around his shoulders; she came to rest with her feet braced against his chest, standing upright as he carried her into the wings like a banner. Lauren Lovette skittered around in her solo like a drunken firefly. In the section titled “Bydlo” (“cattle” in Polish), Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Gretchen Smith and Indiana Woodward lumbered like overburdened peasants charmingly play-acted by children as low piano chords rumbled.
Cameron Grant, the pianist, injected great spirit into Mussorgsky’s score, bringing it to life with a full-bodied personality to match the dancers.
Wendall K. Harrington’s bright, abstract art projections were echoed in the costumes by Adeline Andre, which were created in airy nude mesh splashed with color. Mussorgsky’s music memorializes an artist friend who died young, and Ratmansky’s ballet expands upon that. It pays tribute to the enduring, youthful wonder and spirit of play that art can inspire. You want to keep that spirit with you long after you leave the theater.
Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. Tickets: $25-$109. This program repeats Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.