New York City Ballet’s London return

Sadler’s Wells, London
March 7, 2024

It’s hard to believe that it is sixteen years since New York City Ballet graced these shores. So, we might have expected more to be made of their recent short visit. Instead, their Sadler’s Wells mixed bill was a low key event; which was probably just as well because, while the company has always projected a sense of excitement and even danger in their dancing, alas, little was evident in this quadruple bill.

The opening Rotunda from resident choreographer Justin Peck is a long, drawn out, dull affair. It was more than neatly danced but, as a piece of choreography, ultimately goes nowhere. The ensemble come together, they part. They dance together, they dance apart. There are enjoyable moments but, as a whole, and especially for an opening work, it is a snooze. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung add nothing to it with an eclectic mix of unflattering costumes in a ragbag of colours.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s Rotunda
Photo Erin Baiano

Musically, the Britten Sinfonia under the baton of Andrew Sill had their work cut out with some fiendish chromatics, courtesy of composer Nico Muhly, but nothing that one would come out whistling.

Inevitably, there was a Balanchine work, which maybe just as inevitably proved to be the evening’s highlight. Duo Concertant was danced charmingly by Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, accompanied by onstage musicians Elaine Chelton (piano) and Kurt Nikkanen (violin). Balanchine was nothing if not sensitive to the needs of his onstage musicians, and provides the dancers with plenty of pauses so that we can take in the challenges of Stravinsky’s score from his neoclassical phase. It was a delight, with considerably more nuance than the much longer Rotunda that preceded it.

Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant
Photo Paul Kolnik

Pam Tanowicz’s Gustave Le Gray No.1, danced by Naomi Corti, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ruby Lister and Mira Nadon and accompanied by Stephen Gosling is in the same vein. The choreography is interesting and comes with moments of light and shade, although it felt a little contrived have the dancers move the (still-playing) pianist across the stage. This time, Bartelme and Jung enliven matters with striking scarlet costumes that give each dancer a surreal silhouette.

Naomi Corti and Adrian Danchig-Waring, with pianist Stephen Gosling,
in Pam Tanowitz’ Gustave Le Gray No.1
Photo Erin Baiano

The choreographically largely disappointing evening closed with Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle), to over-loud and unpleasant pop-music that wailed and thumped in another over-long work for the ensemble. Giles Deacon, a fashion designer, created sculptured parodies of ballet tutus and eighteenth-century-themed clothing for the men that created the impression of a Hogarth painting overlaid by Jackson Pollock with the lighting of one of Rembrandt’s darker works. Love Letter (on shuffle) has plenty of challenging choreography, which the cast rose to in every way, but like Rotunda, it is all on one level and relentless.

Jules Mabie and Taylor Stanley in Kyle Abraham’s Love Letter (on shuffle)
Photo Erin Baiano

The response from the audience was understandably muted.

It is difficult for any company that was centred around one individual for so long to find its way in the decades following. New York City Ballet is sitting on a huge archive of superb works, but they cannot embalm themselves in its amber. Equally, as time moves on and as the people who were directly involved in the creation of those works are increasingly no longer there, ballets will inevitably change, however well preserved in trust.

The cultural climate is no longer favourable to enabling one person to dominate an entire company, probably rightly so, but it does mean that companies are in danger of losing their individual identities and signatures, instead merging into a bland, international form of dancing, that, however well-executed, fails to speaks to the times or enliven.

It would be fabulous to think this visit might presage the return of New York City Ballet on a larger scale. But please, with better programming.