One engaging biography of composer Mikhail Glinka, designated “father of Russian music”, describes him in early adulthood as a “slacker” in a cushy government post secured by his family’s high-flying connections. Weary of even the slight demands of this job, Glinka secured medical leave and fled to Italy, then Germany, to indulge his passion for music-making – his subsequent achievements a cautionary tale for parents who try to steer their artistically-minded children into a respectable profession.

New York City Ballet in Pam Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet
© Erin Baiano

Glinka’s haunting Valse-Fantaisie – which inspired George Balanchine’s glorious paean to speed – was reportedly composed at a time when his romantic life was a shambles. One hates to wish heartache on any composer but it produced a corker, from which Balanchine exorcised the darker demons.

Erica Pereira dispatched the lead ballerina role with heart-stopping fleetness and panache, sustaining her balances on pointe between stretches of breakneck allegro – every fluttering beat, every airy leap, every whirl on pointe crisp and limpid. Barreling in from the wings on her first entrance, she took note of conductor Andrew Litton’s snappy tempo and tossed partner-in-crime Daniel Ulbricht a mischievous glance, as if to say, “Let’s show him fast.” The duo and four caffeinated aides-de-camp flew across the stage, propelled by the restless energy of the score, punctuating all that mad dashing about with huge billowy developpés on pointe that melted into luscious backbends. The potential for wipe-out threatened at every twist and turn of the spellbinding score but the sextet laughed in its face.

Béla Bartók was the opposite of a slacker. His deep dives into Eastern European folk music enriched the music world, and his String Quartet no. 5 is sparingly flavored with folk rhythms amid an assortment of strenuous workouts for violin, viola and cello. Themes seem to reappear with a meticulously constructed logic or symmetry. The same cannot be said for choreographer Pam Tanowitz’ response to the score. In her first outing with this company, Tanowitz scattered the cast across the stage seemingly at random, sometimes partly hidden in the wings, and had them explore a staggering array of movement ideas that sometimes echoed the knotty explorations of string technique in the score.

New York City Ballet in Pam Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet
© Erin Baiano

The rest of the time, bursts of pure ballet – chaîné turns, entrechats, quivery gargouillades, strings of brisé volé and other things with beats in them – along with more pedestrian movements arose like stray thoughts which Tanowitz wanted to catch and release, without stringing them together for some bigger effect. There was a droopy, poetic loveliness to some of the oddities – like hands fluttering insistently during turning jumps; stiff arms swinging like a pendulum; the bewitching Miriam Miller clinging to a proscenium pillar as she tipped into a deep arabesque penchée; Kennard Henson spinning calmly in the midst of chaos.

Clad in bronze lamé leotards, with floppy, slashed sleeves that exposed their arms, the ensemble frequently hoisted their arms stiffly out to the side; the effect was that of glamorous villagers balancing poles on their shoulders, as if carrying heavy loads to market. One by one they changed into gold bathing costumes reminiscent of “million dollar mermaid” Esther Williams, MGM’s aqua-musical star of the 1940s. Then, in a puzzling ritual, they’d lean forward as if to examine a shell in the sand while adjusting their suits.

In these exalted precincts of ballet, where George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins wrought their game-changing experiments in the 20th century, Tanowitz’ Bartók Ballet emerges as a perfectly organic development for the 21st. The whole thing was untidy but fascinating. I would have liked to see the gentlemen of the FLUX Quartet furiously scraping away at center-stage, just to add to the anarchy, rather than squirreled away in a niche off the proscenium. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Taylor Stanley in George Balanchine's Western Symphony
© Paul Kolnik

Restoring order and symmetry, Balanchine’s Western Symphony brought the evening to a rousing close. In an America that never was, populated by skirt-chasing cowboys and sassy saloon girls, square dance meets traditions perfected at Versailles and the Russian imperial theatres. To Hershy Kay’s symphonic take on good old American folk tunes, Taylor Stanley vaulted imaginary fences, Lauren King nailed her hops on pointe, Jared Angle took rejection philosophically, the leggy Teresa Reichlen made a series of traveling relevés into high extensions look like child’s play, while the adorable Roman Mejia wooed her with his turns and jumps.

What should have been a bulletproof triple bill was marred by a forgettable Justin Peck world premiere titled Bright, and a technically adept execution of Jerome Robbins’A Suite of Dances by Gonzalo Garcia, who grinned, grimaced and muscled his way through what should have looked unstudied, improvisatory. Downstage, the cool and elegant cellist Ann Kim, tackling Bach’s cello suites, got it right.

The original version of this review stated incorrectly that Pam Tanowitz was working with dancers on pointe for the first time at New York City Ballet. In fact, she has previously created two works with dancers on pointe at New York Theatre Ballet.