Among the signs that New York City is coming to terms with pandemic: the subway trains are unnaturally clean. The fountain at the heart of Lincoln Center is once again a favored hangout. New York City Ballet is reinstalled in its home, patrons are flashing electronic proof of vaccination at the door, and the company appears irrepressible. Returning after 18 months of shutdown, it fielded longtime stalwarts in a bulletproof program bookended by George Balanchine’s all-time greatest hits, Serenade and Symphony in C.

Audience entering the Koch Theater
© Courtesy of NYCB

The audience hollered its appreciation many times throughout the evening, at first when the curtain rose on the twilit ensemble in Serenade, their arms outstretched on the diagonal, palms flattened as if to shade them from the rays of a setting sun – or to remind the audience to stay six feet apart. The corps remain as luminous as ever in all their gorgeous rushing around, trailing clouds of pale blue tulle. When Sterling Hyltin sailed in on her billowy grands jetés we instinctively knew everything was going to be alright.

Sterling Hyltin and Company in George Balanchine’s Serenade
© Erin Baiano

In the decades since Serenade’s premiere, a range of stories have been read into the intriguing yet baffling encounters between the three deities known only as the Waltz Girl (Hyltin), the Russian Girl (Ashley Bouder) and the Dark Angel (Megan LeCrone) and two shadowy male figures. The soulful Adrian Danchig-Waring, in a debut, made a dramatic contrast to the cool, aloof Hyltin, while the hunky Aaron Sanz, preoccupied with an endless parade of ex-girlfriends, cut a dashing figure. Pandemic has not put a dent in Hyltin’s ability to take her traveling turns from 0 to 60 mph nor Bouder’s ability to hang out in a thrillingly steep piqué arabesque. But it was LeCrone who inhabited her sibyllic role with the most authority and a lush expansiveness. 

Balanchine famously incorporated spontaneous happenings in rehearsal into his choreography for Serenade, so when a dancer fell, the fall stayed in. It’s perhaps inevitable that in 2021 we would construe the falls, together with the dramatic leave-takings, the urgent embraces, and the solemn ascension of the Waltz Girl on the shoulders of the men, as a ritual of mourning.

There are no mysteries to unfold in the dazzling roller-coaster ride that is Symphony in C – just four battalions of dancers vying to jump higher, turn faster, dive deeper, swivel more sharply and beat their ankles more crisply in the air. Bizet wrote the caffeinated score at the age of 17; Balanchine dashed off the fiendishly difficult choreography in under two weeks; and, in the shadow of pandemic, City Ballet has wrestled it into exuberant, if not flawless, shape.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C
© Erin Baiano

It was a joy to witness the fearless and adorable Megan Fairchild once again captaining a phalanx of hitch-kicking hotshots in the opening movement. Leading the third and fourth movements, spitfire Indiana Woodward and the serene, sparkling Lauren King upheld the preeminence of the sisterhood. Reigning over all was Sara Mearns who conquered the second movement’s white-knuckle duet that had her plummeting from high extensions into nose-dives, with superb assist from Tyler Angle, while her entourage spun sublime geometries around them. She moved with grave dignity and power, legs slicing decisively through the air; a faint sorrow ran deep in her eyes as a plangent oboe confronted the strings. At the movement’s close, she anchored one pointe into the ground as Angle swept her around tenderly into a backbend over his knee, a reclining position from which she could survey the house upside down. It’s an unconventional angle to maneuver a ballerina into, but weirdly stirring amid the virtuosic frenzy that is Symphony in C.

Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain
© Erin Baiano

If the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain seemed a trifle thin, that was down to Arvo Pärt’s plaintive, plinking Spiegel im Spiegel, which sounds like an ode to a tap left dripping. Both Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour are retiring after this season, and the pairing felt bittersweet. Their sensitive, unembellished style heightened the oddness and the sense of alienation in the work – a welcome departure from the legions of dancers who, after its initial run with Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, have overplayed its erotic dimensions. When Kowroski runs both hands down la Cour’s face, it resonates less as a romantic caress, more like a being from one planet trying to get data on a being from another. And when she arches back into a bridge and he transports her in that precarious pose to a spot a few inches away, it evokes a construction project rather than sexual gymnastics. The piece is affecting and strange at the same time, and suggests the aftermath of a major extinction event – not inappropriate for our times.