There is this myth that both balletomanes and modern dance enthusiasts like to believe which is that ballet choreographers and modern dance choreographers held each other in mutual contempt and there’s an unbridgeable modern/ballet divide. The truth is these dance masters respected each other. In 1966 George Balanchine added Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace to the New York City Ballet repertoire. It has been revived intermittently since then. On Saturday, New York City Ballet put forth its latest revival in honor of the Merce Cunningham Centennial Celebration.

New York City Ballet in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace
© Erin Baiano

Summerspace is one Cunningham work where the music and décor are as important as the dance. The speckled color costumes and backdrop by Robert Rauschenberg look out of an Impressionist painting. Morton Feldman's Ixiom is airy and soothing, like the “nature sounds” people play to create ambience. Cunningham’s choreography for two men and four women evoke nature as well – the dancers look avian. At times the dancers even wriggle their fingers like a hummingbirds’ wings. It’s an enchanting work.

The latest generation of NYCB dancers did well in absorbing the Cunningham dance vocabulary. There are several moves that are repeated over and over again – one is the famous “Merce balance” – the feet are on demi-pointe with the free leg outstretched in développé. The other is a jump in arabesque but where the jumping leg is folded inwards midair. Finally there’s something I like to call the “duck on a pond” pose – a dancer lies on the floor with her torso and elbows held up and back leg outstretched and front leg folded inwards.

Adrian Danchig-Waring in the original Cunningham role did not dance like Merce himself (no one does, not even Cunningham-trained dancers), but he got the direction changing circular jumps and slightly disembodied vibe down pat. Emilie Gerrity in the Carolyn Brown role was also very good – the famous slides to the floor in deep squat with the front leg outstretched were done smoothly. Lydia Wellington, Abi Stafford and Sara Adams all tackled the Cunningham vocabulary with admirable fearlessness, although some of them did not attempt the Merce balance on demi-pointe, only flat foot. Andrew Veyette struggled visibly with the balances and the folding leg jump.

With that being said the performance was not idiomatic. The dancers kept betraying their ballet origins by turning out at the hips. They also seemed all too aware of each others’ presence instead of giving the feeling that they are a random group of creatures dancing in their own niches in the Summerspace ecosystem. A problem when Cunningham’s whole art was based on the concept of randomness. But what a work! As Cunningham dissolved his own company upon his death revivals by other companies will be his legacy.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Serenade
© Paul Kolnik

The evening was bookended with two Balanchine/Tchaikovsky classics – Serenade and Piano Concerto no. 2. Serenade casts a spell no matter how often one sees it – the curtain goes up on the 17 moonlit girls and one gets goosebumps. The performance was not perfect – Megan LeCrone as the Dark Angel had a nasty tumble, Preston Chamblee did not rotate the Dark Angel’s “invisible arabesque” with much smoothness. But the positives: Sterling Hyltin as the Waltz Girl was ethereal with lithographic arms, a pliant back and huge airy jumps. At times she looked like she was dancing Giselle. Erica Pereira was fleet and charming as the Russian Girl. The corps was excellent. Only the overly bright yellow panels recently added to the front of the womens’ costumes take away from the moonlit ambience.

Piano Concerto #2 aka Ballet Imperial received a radiant performance from Sara Mearns, Russell Janzen and Lauren King as the “turning girl.” Mearns danced the marathon lead part with atypical restraint. In her opening solo with those those pirouettes with the free leg in tendu she was serene, not a word I’d use normally on Mearns. Only in the final moments when she has one last series of fouettés did one sense that she was using her tremendous power. Otherwise she exuded a queenly glow.

Lauren King in George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2
© Erin Baiano

Janzen was excellent as her partner and in solo work. His variation of cabrioles, brisés, and double tours that land on one knee were clean and classical. He partnered Mearns with tenderness and care, and their duet in the second movement was breathtakingly beautiful. King’s sunny smile and fast turns brought warmth to this otherwise very regal ballet. Marc Happel’s new costumes continue to irritate – under the lighting they are a dull blue and the overly gilded bodices and skirts of the women don’t look imperial – they look like someone went crazy with the bedazzler.

Judging by the enthusiastic audience reactions to this program one might have to rethink the modern/ballet divide. Maybe there’s only two types of dance – good dance and bad dance. And Cunningham and Balanchine are definitely on the same side there – their dances are not just good, they are masterpieces.