October 31, Halloween. I was walking to City Center for the opening of "Balanchine: The City Center Years." But then I began thinking of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." You must all know the musical. Everyone returns for a reunion, only to be met with ghosts and remembrances of their past lives. After all, City Center is where New York City Ballet began in 1948. I wondered who I would encounter? I saw Allegra Kent. I think I saw two other members of the company who danced on New York City Ballet's opening night 70 years ago? But perhaps I'd encounter some of the other principal dancers of that time: Maria Tallchief on the stairs? Or Tanaquil Le Clercq at the bar? Or Frank Hobi? Francisco Moncion? Nicholas Magallenes? Yvonne Mounsey? Diana Adams?

The list would go on and on. Whatever happened, I promised to be cordial and warm. As it turned out, I met no one in person, only in my mind.

The evening began with greetings from Arlene Shuler, New York City President and CEO, and Wendy Whelan, no introduction needed. They were short and sweet. They said nothing that I did not know before. Still very pleasant, and it's always a pleasure to see Wendy Whelan, who sat in front of me for the performance and seemed to be having the time of her life.

I can only imagine the logistics that went into the programming. Eight different companies to dance Balanchine: New York City Ballet (of course!), Miami City Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre.

Then there's the repertoire that's being presented: Serenade, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, Tarantella, Symphony in C, Apollo, Concerto Barocco, Divertimento No.15, Scotch Symphony, Midsummer Night's Dream Divertissement Pas de Deux, Four Temperaments, Glinka Pas de Trois, Agon Pas de Deux, and Symphonie Concertante.

But why not Ivesiana? Movements for Piano and Orchestra? Episodes? The really quirky ones from the 1950s and 1960s! Or even an evening of Jerome Robbins. After all, he was also there at City Center during this time.

And let's not forget the City Center stage, smaller than New York City Ballet's home base, the Koch Theater. Would it be accommodating?

In fact, I felt that everyone was more at home here. I liked the stage. I loved the mezzanine and balcony jutting out into the auditorium. And you're always close up. You can see the dancers interacting-or is it interdancing?-it makes one feel at ease with the performance. You're not somewhere alone. You're connecting to the ballet. That's one thing you never get at the Koch. It's impersonal, cold. Here it's warm, inviting.

How do you start an evening? With Serenade, Balanchine's first American ballet, 1934, performed by Miami City Ballet. I think I've seen Serenade at least 300 times in my life, and I never tire of it. As most of us in the dance world know, Balanchine always said that his choreography never really told a story. And if you wanted to make it up-go ahead. And who hasn't, especially when the curtain rises on the seventeen women with their right arms lifted as they slowly move them over their heads and take a breath; their chests uplifted. I can't think of anything more poetic.

The cast was excellent all around, especially Simone Messmer as the "waltz girl." (Can I say girl?) Messmer's performances in the past have sometimes been outstanding, sometimes erratic, as if she were phoning in a performance. Not here. She was totally engaged with the music; she understood its dramatic tension and, in her own way, outlined a story of love lost. I'm not quite sure how this was accomplished; in the end, it doesn't matter. But I have not seen such a strong dramatic presence on stage in a very long time. To say she was unique is an understatement.

The rest of the female cast, Emily Bromberg and Jeanette Delgado, and the men, Rainer Krenstetter and Chase Swatosh, were outstanding, as was the corps. But there was even more to this. There was sun and glow here. You could feel the dancers. And the juxtaposition of stage and audience was the reason. It is something that is lost at the Koch.

I thoroughly enjoyed Maiirnsky's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed by the dynamo, Kimin Kim, whose leaps seemed not only to galvanize an audience, but also terrorize them as they cut through the air, and Viktoria Tereshkina, an excellent dancer who did not shimmer like Kim. And the final lift, as they go off stage right, missed the mark. He should have lifted her at the 50% mark of the stage. Here it was about 75% mark. No excitement. Balanchine's "Neapolitan" Tarantella, was danced by the Royal Ballet's Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé, two very competent soloists, who could not capture the joy within the dance. They were having fun but, as I mentioned above, I really would have enjoyed a more perverse and shocking ballet like Ivesiana, even if it would have made the audience uncomfortable, what with a possible rape and the scene of a woman being passed around by men. Not to mention a ballet finale with people crawling around on their knees. I wonder if it's time will come again?

The evening concluded with Balanchine's magnificent Symphony in C, here danced by a City Ballet all-star cast: Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in the first movement; Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in the second movement; Ashley Bouder and Anthony Huxley in the third movement; and Lauren King and Taylor Stanley in the fourth movement.

And then I wondered again. Were those ghosts peeking in? After all, they performed on this stage for many years. What was it like on opening night in 1948? Was it the same as it is now in 2018? Did they feel like they were being propelled into the orchestra pit during that final exquisite rush in the Bizet?

That's something we'll really never know. But how wonderful to revisit the past on the stage where so much of Balanchine's creativity was given free rein, where American ballet was tested and born, and which has left a legacy 70 years later--and will still be seen 70 years from now.

Thank you, Mr. Balanchine.

Photo: Paul Kolnik

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From This Author Barnett Serchuk

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