Ballet-lovers tend to have a high tolerance for flimsy, illogical storytelling, laced with Orientalist fantasy, often featuring mythical bird-like creatures, usually female, who despite their formidable intellects and superhuman athleticism always seem to fall for dimwits. New York City Ballet’s Firebird – a George Balanchine creation with assist from Jerome Robbins – is no exception. It is further encumbered by silly costumes for the evil sorcerer Kastchei and his army of mutant woodland creatures, no more scary than the Mouse King in The Nutcracker and strangely at odds with the hair-raising music. But it’s an absolute must-see for the wild reverie created by Chagall’s fantastical set designs and Stravinsky’s unearthly score. And for the Firebird’s dancing.

Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine’s Firebird
© Paul Kolnik

On the 116th anniversary of Balanchine's birth, the company fielded veteran Ashley Bouder, who gave the Firebird the perfect amount of drama with a hint of danger. She used her flickering pointes like daggers into the ground when she sensed a threat, and more delicately, like quills on parchment, when pondering the vagaries of human behavior. That red tutu is dynamite, enhanced by the eloquence of Bouder’s upper back muscles, the power in her thrusting arms, the fascination in her shimmering hands, and her lethal grands jetés.

Andrew Veyette did what he could with the role of Prince Ivan, dressed like one of Santa’s elves. Of course he would fall for the ravishing and dignified Emilie Gerrity, among the 13 ensorcelled Maidens – who wouldn’t? But the critical business with the Firebird’s feather, which the Prince was supposed to brandish in times of trouble to summon the Firebird, got lost in the hither-and-thithering of Kastchei’s minions. Somehow Bouder instantly materializes with a scimitar which she presents to Veyette who proceeds to slay Kastchei then Bouder has to point Veyette in the direction of Gerrity because he apparently can’t find her even though she is standing in a spotlight and the whole conflict is over in a jiffy and Bouder bourrées off in a melancholy mood because the life of a superhero is fundamentally a lonely one.

I missed the ritual theatrics of Michel Fokine’s original version in which a giant egg is said to hold Kastchei’s immortal soul; the angst-ridden struggle between the four principals in Alexei Ratmansky’s interpretation; and even Maurice Béjart’s eternally reincarnating communist Firebird. But come for Chagall, Stravinsky, and whoever City Ballet dispatches onstage in the magical red tutu.

Tiler Peck And Tyler Angle in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante
© Erin Baiano

This particular all-Balanchine program opened with the invincible Tiler Peck in Allegro Brillante. It’s barely 15 minutes but it’s a mighty sprint for the ballerina and Peck did not break a sweat. She seems to have conquered the science of finding minute adjustments in the distance of her heel from the ground that give her the optimum launching pad for whatever supersonic step comes next. She sustained her balances out of pirouettes prepped to race through the next allegro sequence, then turned all lush and expansive when she found herself in the arms of the admiring Tyler Angle. Modest, yet impeccable in his own allegro technique, Angle partnered Peck with serene confidence. When she dove into a rakishly tilted arabesque penchée, he needed only one hand to steady her at the hip as she swept around in promenade. The corps, too, were splendidly fleet of foot, the entire thing a triumph from the moment the curtain lifted to reveal the ensemble already whirling through complex geometries.

Gonzalo Garcia and Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s La Source
© Erin Baiano

Balanchine’s La Source, to a sparkling score by Delibes, completed the formidable triple bill. Megan Fairchild’s steely precision and brittle, angular technique might seem all wrong for this paean to the lush, expansive French style embodied by Violette Verdy, who originated the role in 1968. But Fairchild romped through it with great flair, sailing through the air at tremendous altitudes, luxuriating in every sinuous shape, etching tiny beaten jumps with marvelous clarity, playing with phrasing. Her gracious smile bore a trace of mischief, as if to say, “I bet you didn’t think I could do that, but I just did that.”

In contrast, Gonzalo Garcia labored mightily through his jumping challenges, traveling more along the horizontal than the vertical. He seemed to catch a second wind late in the game, pulling off an impressive round of springy turning jumps. His devotion to Fairchild never wavered, however, and the pair breezed through a treacherous promenade in high à la seconde, insouciantly swapping hands overhead.

Debuting in the soloist role was speed demon Emma Von Enck, who rocketed through the air in sauts de basque. She radiated joy but did not display the subtle polish of the ensemble ladies, like Eliza Blutt, whose carefully shaded épaulement, elegant port de bras and half-smiles bespoke tantalizing mysteries.