BWW Review: NEW YORK CITY BALLET Serves up a Five-Course Feast of Ballets to the Music of American Composers

There may be no better way to chase the gloom of an unseasonably chilly and wind-whipped evening in NYC than to watch New York City Ballet's delightfully varied quintuple-bill entitled "Americana x Five". On October 2nd 2015, with Hurricane Joaquin's approach bringing on a gusty downpour, I was among the lucky dancegoers at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center who enjoyed one of the best programs the company has offered in a long time. If you'll be in town through October 7th, don't miss the chance to see the works of four very different choreographers set to the equally wide-ranging works of a talented handful of American composers.

Those of you who know that I'm not always a fan of Peter Martins' dancemaking may be surprised to learn that I did like his "Ash", a fast-paced virtuoso challenge to a brisk score by Michael Torke. The piece was a satisfying opener, even though the ensuing ballets by a trio of masterful choreographers still trumped the Martins offering. Ashley Isaacs and Taylor Stanley, both of them soloists, were crisp and convincing as the lead couple. They were backed by four pairs of demi-soloists, all of whom performed with the requisite attack and stylishness. The minimalist costumes by Steven Rubin in complementary hues worked perfectly.

Richard Tanner's "Sonatas and Interludes", danced with both tenderness and authority by Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley, is set to five of the 20 pieces in John Cage's collection by the same name. The music, dating from the 1940s yet still startlingly fresh, was ably played on stage by Cameron Grant at a "prepared piano". The term refers to Cage's experimental use of objects placed between the strings to alter the sound. Reportedly, Cage hit on this idea when he had been working with full percussion groups, but found himself in a situation where the only available instrument was a grand piano. In his 1981 book with Daniel Charles, Cage is quoted as saying that he realized it was possible "to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra . . . With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard."

As much as I savored the first two ballets, I could barely wait for the third one. Balanchine's "Tarantella", a pyrotechnical romp for a tambourine-wielding twosome to Louis Moreau Gottschalk's rollicking "Grand Tarentelle for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 67" has long been one of my favorites. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz did not disappoint as they tossed off the tricky steps with charm and aplomb, all the while relating to one another in an endearing fashion that held the audience in their thrall.

After an intermission, we were treated to the final two ballets on the bill. Justin Peck's "Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes" showed off the highly individual and risk-taking trademarks of NYCB's Resident Chorographer with 15 sportive and strapping male dancers on stage plus Tiler Peck as the only woman. That said, I can't be the only one who kept seeing flashes of Agnes de Mille's iconic "Rodeo" to the same Aaron Copland score from which Peck plucked his selections. I found this jarring. In a program note, Justin Peck wrote that his hope was that his work "adds a new perspective and spark to this orchestral score in a stimulating, out-of-the-box manner and in so doing, further honors this enduring and highly productive American composer in a manner that words cannot convey." That intent is admirable, but the result simply didn't work for me.

Last but most definitely not least, Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from the 1936 musical "On Your Toes" with music by Richard Rodgers proved once again that Mr. B. still outshines them all. This ballet and "Tarantella" were the best on a bill that featured the works of three other very good contenders. The gentleman seated next to me, who had never seen "Slaughter", was convulsed with laughter at the high jinks in the campy tale of the rivalry between a pompous Russian "premier danseur" and an American hoofer -- complete with a hired hit man, saucy strippers, and lascivious male patrons in a seedy NYC club. Sara Mearns as the lead Striptease Girl was a high-kicking, sweetly seductive marvel who played off of Tyler Angle's Hoofer with all kinds of dramatic charisma. For his part, Angle proved once again that he's an accomplished tap dancer. He also displayed quick-witted stage presence when he realized that the back center seam of his pants had split open. Without missing a beat or making so much as a grimace, he incorporated the wardrobe malfunction into his character's already waggish persona by at times coyly covering the offending rip with the note Mearns passed to him warning about the gunman. Thumbs up, Angle! You're a true showman.

After the performance, we all emerged onto the Plaza to trek our way through the puddles as Joaquin's mischief continued to turn umbrellas inside out and thoroughly drench us. Yet everyone was still smiling as we bantered happily about what we had just seen. Thank you New York City Ballet for proving once again that dance has the power to enchant and uplift even when Mother Nature conspires against us.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

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