George Balanchine, when the mood struck him, made ballets that were really gifts to the entire company. A perfect example is Union Jack, a cheeky tribute to British culture that was made in 1976, the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence. Union Jack requires the entire corps de ballet to be onstage first as kilted Scottish regiments and later as Royal Navy sailors. The manpower required for this hour-long ballet, as well as the heavy elaborate costumes (some of the kilts and furry hats remind one of Braveheart) means Union Jack is not performed very often.

Teresa Reichlen and New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s <i>Union Jack</i> © Paul Kolnik
Teresa Reichlen and New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Union Jack
© Paul Kolnik

Yet underneath all the pomp and circumstance (the first ten minutes are pure marching of the different kilted regiments) this is a classic Balanchine ballet where the entire stage ends up in a flurry of allegro dancing. Last night's cast did justice to this ballet. It looked well rehearsed and the dancers sold the material with infectious enthusiasm. The women of the kilted regiments were especially strong – from the tiny, fast Sterling Hyltin as Dress MacDonald to the powerhouse kicks of Sara Mearns in the MacDonalds of Sleat to the leggy, imperious Teresa Reichlen leading the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The next section of the ballet (the "Costermonger Pas de Deux") changes gears completely. It's a tribute to British music hall acts. Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette played the Pearly King and Queen. Some backstory: Fairchild and Veyette used to be married. But if there was any awkwardness between them playing a bickering vaudeville couple, it didn't show. Fairchild has always had great comic timing; she was very funny as Ivy Smith in the revival of On the Town. She was equally funny last night. Veyette used his surprisingly elastic face to clown to the audience while doing several soft-shoe dance numbers. When the Pearly Princesses came onstage at the end with a pony, the Costermonger Pas de Deux had officially crossed the line from funny to adorable.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s <i>Union Jack</i> © Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Union Jack
© Paul Kolnik

The best section of the ballet however is the third section. It's called "Royal Navy" but is really a chance for Balanchine to indulge in one of the best-loved cultural tropes: the randy sailors. The men showboat with huge double tours – Daniel Applebaum and Sebastian Villarini-Velez were particularly high-flying. Part of the joke is seeing ballerinas like Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin in full blue and white sailor gear while strutting and preening like showgirls. It's corny, but so much fun. Teresa Reichlen again stole the show as the high kicking lead Wren.

The final stage tableau is something only Balanchine in his open-hearted ability to embrace different idioms could have done: all the Navy are onstage. Rule Britannia plays in the background, the Navy signals “God Save the Queen” with their semaphore flags, and the British flag lowers as the backdrop. Union Jack isn't a Balanchine masterpiece – it's more of a fun-sterpiece, which is even better.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s <i>Valse-Fantaisie</i> © Erin Baiano
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie
© Erin Baiano

The program started with a fleet, breezy performance of Valse-Fantaisie. This eight-minute ballet, set to Glinka's lilting waltz, is an excuse for some good old fashioned allegro dancing. Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht were excellent, both small, fast, with airy jumps. The corps of four girls were equally impressive; their light airy arms brought attention to Pereira's somewhat stiffer port de bras.

Kammermusik No. 2 has never been a popular hit; the dense, thorny Hindemith score is matched only by a dizzying array of steps. Balanchine does some gender bending; the corps of eight men in the background make graceful, knot-like patterns reminiscent of the all-female corps of Concerto Barocco, while the two women (a well-matched Unity Phelan and Emilie Gerrity) are the athletic Amazons with their high kicks, fierce stomps and fast footwork. Jovani Furlan, as partner for Gerrity, is new to the company (he was previously at Miami City Ballet) and he's an eye-catcher, even in a role like this which is more partnering than solo dancing. Peter Walker partnered Unity Phelan well.

All Balanchine programs can often measure the pulse of New York City Ballet in a way other mixed programs can't. And in the year of purgatory when there were no set leaders the all Balanchine often looked sloppy and under-rehearsed. Now, with two leaders in place, the company is dancing with its former confidence and brio. God Save the Ballet, indeed.

*****