New York City Ballet Digital Spring Gala captures the beauty of ballet and hope for the future

May 6, 2021

David Mead

For this year’s Spring Gala, by necessity a digital production, New York City Ballet eschewed the usual feast of on-stage ballet in favour of a film by Sofia Coppola. It’s very much a ‘coming home’ or a ‘coming back’ film. It’s intimate and full of poignancy, Coppola capturing beautifully the quietness and emptiness of the theatre, backstage and front of house, and even outside. But it’s also a film that stresses home and light at the end of what has often seemed a long, dark tunnel.

The opening titles are interspersed with mostly backstage shots including still packaged pointe shoes and tutus on hangers waiting for dancers to return, but the one that really strikes home is of the empty, almost ghostly David H. Koch Theater promenade.

Gonzalo Garcia dances an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a GatheringPhoto Philippe Le Sourd
Gonzalo Garcia dances an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering
Photo Philippe Le Sourd

Dancers recall how they felt when they first returned to the theatre and its stage; what it meant to them. But perhaps Tiler Peck speaks for everyone: all dancers, of all levels, and all those who simply enjoy watching bodies in motion to music when she says, “Dance is not an isolated art form. It’s meant to be experienced by other people.” So true.

The filmed dance excerpts are brief but telling. There’s often a sense of the performers being lost in space, in memories, in the moment, in the movement; none more so than Gonzalo Garcia as her dances a solo from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering in an otherwise empty studio. Then, in a loading bay, Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen dance part of Balanchine’s Duo Concertant. Their pleasure in the movement, in dancing together, is obvious.

Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour in an excerpt from George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder WalzerPhoto Philippe Le Sourd
Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour in an excerpt from George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer
Photo Philippe Le Sourd

As Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour dance a waltz from Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer on the theatre’s huge promenade, it feels like they are in a vast, empty ballroom. You can feel the spirits of those who usually throng the space and its upper balconies, and who hopefully will do so again soon.

From empty foyer to empty auditorium, save for Anthony Huxley on stage and a new creation, appropriately called Solo, from Justin Peck. Barber’s Adagio for Strings carries huge emotional weight and has become indelibly associated with sorrow. The six-and-a-half-minute solo is sublime and rather moving. In practice clothes, Huxley is graceful yet strong. Small phrases develop into longer ones. At one point he pauses and looks at the vast rows of seats. It’s like he’s feeling his way back.

George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15Photo Philippe Le Sourd
George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15
Photo Philippe Le Sourd

Until now, Coppola has shot solely in black and white, but suddenly we have blues, whites and silvers as colour returns with the final excerpt, the finale from Balanchine’s Divertimento No.15. It’s light, and bright, effervescent dance that fizzes like champagne. It feels like a celebration, that we have made it. The dancers revel in the speedy footwork and thrilling movement, none more so than the super-sharp Tiler Peck.

That New York City Ballet approached Coppola to make the film says much about how far ambition for dance on screen has travelled in the past fifteen months. She does the company and the art form proud, and at just a touch over half-an-hour, it’s not too long and leaves you shouting for more.

New York City Ballet’s Digital Spring Gala 2021 is available on YouTube until May 20, 2021.