1972 was the year the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Richard Nixon went to China, San Francisco launched a new rapid transit system that made use of unproven, space-age technology, ABBA burst onto the music scene, and George Balanchine made Symphony in Three Movements.

Roughly the 20th in a long line of ballets Balanchine set to Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements remains one of his weirder and most cherished works. Phalanxes of women in regulation white leotards, with ponytails flying, form highways down which hurtle soloists in shades of candyfloss pink – followed by a quintet of female racing drivers in black leotards, their male pit crew on high alert.

Adrian Danchig-Waring and Sterling Hyltin in George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements
© Paul Kolnik

The steely-nerved Sterling Hyltin, in the palest pink, floored her piqué turns with impressive downforce and aerodynamic efficiency around a constantly shifting oval track formed by the high-strung corps. The sharp-elbowed, jazzy technique is peppered with land-grabbing developpés that finish in a deep lunge, and explosive jumps in which the dancers seize more air by crunching their knees toward their chest, hips askew. The whiz-bang Lauren King and Anthony Huxley got the mix of recklessness and precision just right, though the ensemble was untidier than I’ve seen in seasons past.

Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring hooked up for the singularly odd central pas de deux, full of snaky arms, twirly wrists, perilous promenades on forced arch, and bodily contact that doesn’t feel at all intimate or even human. Toward the end, they crouch and stare straight at the audience, tracing big circles with palms hovering parallel to the floor – as if surveying a territory over which they once ruled.Throughout, Hyltin’s ironic, lightly mocking expression conveyed mystery but also telegraphed “I’m being mysterious,” while Danchig-Waring took the whole enterprise far more earnestly.

This season, Symphony in Three Movements is sandwiched between Justin Peck vintage 2017, and spanking-new Justin Peck. The company will lose Peck as a dancer after this season, once he steps into the newly created role of artistic adviser. I had mixed feelings about this, watching him explode on stage in his own work, The Times are Racing, alongside the powerhouse Ashly Isaacs. Isaacs is the central figure, who appears to be in some nameless danger. Members of the ensemble reach out to her, but she never fully enters into their community; instead, she makes her own way in a hostile world. Peck shines as her principal ally, in a fierce side-by-side duet that fuses tap, soft-shoe and street dance. Elsewhere in this sneaker ballet, hip hop and classical ballet are folded into a language that comes across as the dancers’ mother tongue, rather than a forced multi-cultural experience.

Ashly Isaacs and Company in Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing
© Paul Kolnik

From The Times' inception in 2017, Peck intended the lead role to be gender-neutral. It was first danced by Robert Fairchild, then by Isaacs. Ballet companies should do more of this – not for the sake of political correctness, but to make new and interesting things. The threat of boredom is real in the world of ballet, all the possible combinations and variations on fouettés having been exhausted. Same-sex partnering is another new weapon in the dance-makers’ arsenal, but most choreographers who give it a go fake their way through it. The Times includes a moving duet, full of supported promenades and thorny lifts, finely executed in this performance by Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum.

A somber, defiant mood permeates (notwithstanding the uplifting message about the resilience of community that runs through all Peck's ballets that I've seen.) It's spelled out, in case you missed it, by the hip non-costumes by Humberto Leon that pop with color and verbs like REACT and DEFY printed on T-shirts and hoodies. That mood is buttressed by a tremendous score: four pulsing, growling, static-packed tracks from Dan Deacon’s album America, blasted at a volume more common to Yankee Stadium than the Koch Theater.

Indiana Woodward in Justin Peck’s Principia
© Erin Baiano

Peck’s newest work, titled Principia, opened this program with a yawn. Its downfall is the symphonic mishmash of a score by favored Peck collaborator Sufjan Stevens, whose songwriting on his own albums is far more original than his scoring for dance. Earlier Stevens scores for Peck ballets, Everywhere We Go and In the Countenance of Kings, share a quality of not knowing what they want to be when they grow up: a little bit Gershwin, a little bit John Adams – and now with Principia, a lot of Copland and a touch of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé. But whereas Copland wrote the music of the American prairie, Stevens writes the music of the AstroTurf lawn. Apart from a lovely, expressive duet for Taylor Stanley and Indiana Woodward, and Peck’s skill at shaping ensembles into shifting topographies, my notes read “this thing doesn’t end”.