A new day has dawned at New York City Ballet, a company beset for more than a year by scandal, a management shake-up and a lawsuit. Such was the message that recently appointed artistic director Jonathan Stafford and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan sent Tuesday night, when they took the unusual step of walking onto the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage to speak.
Addressing balletgoers before the curtain opens is something directors of regional troupes are known to do as they seek to put a friendly face on their community-based organizations. But it’s rare to see the leaders of a colossus such as NYCB adopt such direct engagement with its public.
“We’re really proud to be standing here,” Stafford told the audience. He mentioned fond memories not only of dancing at the Kennedy Center but also of sightseeing in Washington. Whelan spoke briefly about the ballets to come. Their remarks were pleasant and thoughtful, though there was just a shade of hesitancy about them. Still, the two directors — one a casually chic star ballerina and the other with the reserved posture of a businessman — presented a good look for a company hoping to reassure its base while also signaling openness and a fresh way forward.
The program that followed echoed this in almost every way, from the sense of glowing new energy to the note of unpreparedness, which was especially pronounced in George Balanchine’s “Kammermusik No. 2.” The evening began with the youthful ebullience of “Composer’s Holiday” by Gianna Reisen, who was fresh out of the company’s affiliated School of American Ballet when she created it at age 18 in 2017. It’s an adorable piece. The six women wear short, fluffy cocktail dresses, and they respond with playful bounce to the surging folk-dance rhythms in Lukas Foss’s “Three American Pieces for Violin and Piano.” (Arturo Delmoni played a crisp, lilting violin, and Susan Walters was the excellent pianist.) Just when I was thinking I had seen most of Reisen’s moves before in any number of contemporary works, the male dancers proved me wrong. They tossed one of the women high over their heads where the spotlight caught her, suspended in air with her skirt like a cloud, before the stage went black.
Yet by the time “Kammermusik No. 2” finished, I was worried. There’s no crime in programming a bright but insubstantial piece such as “Composer’s Holiday.” “Kammermusik,” however, felt like a hard turn further off course. It has lots of vintage charm. It fairly screams its 1978 premiere date, with two leading women in ponytails and hair ribbons and all manner of exaggerated, crooked-limb shapes. It’s a busy affair — but without the clarity needed to keep it from becoming a muddle. Teresa Reichlen and Abi Stafford were frequently out of sync, and I’m not talking about the moments when they were meant to be. At times, one shortened the full expression of her arms to keep up with the other, and the racing tempo of Paul Hindemith’s score got the better of them.
Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” bore evidence of rush and imprecision in the corps, though this didn’t affect the leading dancers. Ashley Bouder, outgoing and warm in the first movement, and Sara Mearns, in the quiet, mysterious second movement, gave particularly fine performances.
It was Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer” that fully rose to the heights one expected, led by the ravishing lightness of Sterling Hyltin, a singularly musical ballerina, and Gonzalo Garcia’s earnest romantic hero. Here Robbins borrowed from his previous works — some Slavic touches recall his “Other Dances,” for instance, and there’s the shadowy moodiness of “In the Night.” Robbins also tossed in odd, broken-body configurations (the “thing” in the ’70s; this work is from 1979). Yet sustained throughout is an air of otherworldly mystery, of worlds dissolving and reemerging, beautifully aligned with the atmosphere of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D. Violin soloist Kurt Nikkanen lent a haunting touch.
New York City Ballet performs this program again Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon and a second program of works by Justin Peck, Kyle Abraham and others Thursday through Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $29-$99. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.