Super Tuesday took on new meaning at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the New York City Ballet spun its opening-night performance into a whirlwind of exhilaration.
The arts center’s ballet series has become a parade of familiar full-length productions. So kudos to NYCB for launching its weeklong engagement with a raft of repertory works, as is typical for this company. On top of that, each work was vastly different from the last, with the evening culminating in resident choreographer Justin Peck’s new, lavishly designed narrative ballet that shimmered with rarely seen, take-it-to-the-wall ambition.
That ballet is titled, aptly, “The Most Incredible Thing.” It’s not his own boast, not entirely. That’s the title of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that inspired Peck. It’s about an artist whose elaborate clock miraculously survives destruction, and as a reward, he gets to marry a princess.
But the larger prize is that the enduring resonance of art is revealed. Andersen’s tale addresses the indestructible nature of human creativity. Once a work of art is made and shared with others, its effect on the human spirit cannot be erased. It’s a compelling theme for a writer, and a choreographer, to latch onto. Life is short, but art is eternal.
Peck has never made a story ballet before this. His training and career have unfolded entirely at New York City Ballet, home to the Balanchine treasury, which mostly consists of short, plotless works. Peck has had little chance to study or perform in ballets with a plot and characters. Going from zero to 100 mph may be foolhardy, but then again, I am inclined to celebrate grand ambition in ballet, an art form that falls too easily into the formulaic. And I heartily celebrate Peck’s efforts in “The Most Incredible Thing.”
However, I also hope he revisits it with a director who will help him develop his characters through movement and also create transitions between scenes. As it is now, this ballet feels like the second act of “The Nutcracker,” with one exotic grouping after another, or a series of random vaudeville acts.
With each strike of the hour, a group of creatures emerges from the miraculous clock. Representing One O’Clock, Tiler Peck is a sparkling, airborne Cuckoo Bird. Silver-costumed Muses, in sculptural, bell-shaped gowns reminiscent of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus designs, spin around at Nine O’Clock. And so it goes. Yet in many cases, the dancing that Peck has given his characters does not tell us their story.
Where Peck excels is in a swift and musical sweep of lovers’ dances, especially for Taylor Stanley as the Creator and Sterling Hyltin as the Princess. Also wonderful is the witty choreography for a group of mischievous children representing Eleven O’Clock.
Peck also has chosen his collaborators exceptionally well. The music by indie rocker Bryce Dessner is studded with mechanical whirrings and clocklike dongs and ticks. Visual artist Marcel Dzama’s sets and costumes go a long way to creating an immersive, surreal and edgy world that feels like you’ve wandered into an antique shop in another galaxy. There’s a patina to his brilliant blues, greens and golds, a very different palette for ballet, and the colors and striking silhouettes encourage the eye to linger and discover.
I saw this work recently in New York’s David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where the effect was diluted. The Opera House stage is the perfect size, a little more compact, and its dimensions help to intensify the action and the visual effect. I very much look forward to seeing “The Most Incredible Thing” develop, and live up to its name.
Is any other ballet company as fit and athletic as this one? Another highlight of the evening was Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,” a confection of sheer energy and technical brilliance, led with racehorse courage by Teresa Reichlen, with Tyler Angle and Ana Sophia Scheller. Also on the bill were two works by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins — the vigorous, racing “Ash,” with the careening horns of Michael Torke, and the more mysterious “Infernal Machine,” with a whimsical tick-tocking score by Christopher Rouse — as well as a beautifully detached Tiler Peck paired with Angle in Christopher Wheeldon’s slow burn of a pas de deux, “After the Rain,” with music by Arvo Part.
Conducted by Andrew Litton, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra played all works with passion and verve.
The New York City Ballet performs this program, and another that features the ballet “La Sylphide,” through March 6 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-2600. $29-$149. kennedy-center.org.