Once upon a time, ballet companies didn’t feel the need to market programs with a catchphrase. But this season New York City Ballet has packaged Barber, Broadway and Balanchine, the performance of which was breezy, badass and bewitching.

New York City Ballet in Balanchine's <i>Diamonds</i> © Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in Balanchine's Diamonds
© Paul Kolnik

There’s been speculation over whether Peter Martins’ works would continue to be programmed in the aftermath of his inglorious departure, in a haze of misconduct allegations. Would Martins deny the company the rights to his work? Their disappearance would not make an irreparable dent in the rep of a company that has arguably the greatest rep in the world. Would new leadership prefer to wipe the slate clean? Or would a few ballets survive, with Martins dropping in to rehearsals and making casting decisions? Awkward from every angle.

But from out front on 5th May, his Barber Violin Concerto soared above controversy. This despite its clichéd premise of a knock-down-drag-out between classical ballet and modern dance, each represented by a dancing duo, and despite a less than compelling debut from Sterling Hyltin in the ballerina role. Emma Von Enck and Taylor Stanley were taking their first whack at the modern side of the equation and proved striking.

The first movement, in which the classical couple and modern couple stay in their lanes, is frankly a snooze, with much yearning, lyrical movement from the former and myriad broken wrists and elbows, lunges and contractions from the latter. Aaron Sanz as the classical guy channeled Balanchine’s Apollo with admirable sangfroid, but Hyltin could not find her groove after bobbling her first whipping turn out of the starting gate.

The thing truly started to heat up once the pairs switched partners. Hyltin made a virtue of untidiness, and at the end of the second movement, summoned up a contraction into a deep C-curve, to be ported off by a solicitous Stanley, while her legs eloquently carved circles in the air.

In the breathless third movement, Von Enck brought down the house with her twitchy, fearless efforts to lure Sanz out of his Apollonian musings. Skittering around him like a mosquito, clambering up his back, kickboxing, tumbling, throwing a fit whenever he tried to lift her and deposit her somewhere else, Von Enck made comedy virtuosic.

Sara Mearns in Balanchine's <i>Slaughter on Tenth Avenue</i> © Paul Kolnik
Sara Mearns in Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
© Paul Kolnik

The matinee opened with a dynamite turn by Sara Mearns as the Striptease Girl in George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. This tale of an insecure Russian premier danseur noble who hires a gangster to assassinate his American tap-dancing rival – ripped from the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes – may be cartoonish, but it has depth and heart.

Daniel Applebaum is a scream as the Russian artiste. The lanky, brooding Peter Walker makes a fine, impassioned Hoofer, who falls hard for the Striptease Girl. But it is Mearns’ transformation from working girl to ardent lover that blows the doors off the hot pink set. Performing for paying customers, her coquettish yet distant bearing belies an instinct for self-preservation. Then, in a scorching after-hours duet with the Hoofer, she reveals her unguarded, tempestuous self. She takes a bullet meant for the Hoofer and appears to expire – but it’s a fake death, like Juliet’s. The grief-stricken Hoofer embraces her ‘corpse’ and flings her about, as Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo did in the crypt scene. The poignancy of the moment is dispelled by a cheerful denouement.

Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski in Balachine's <i>Diamonds</i> © Paul Kolnik
Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski in Balachine's Diamonds
© Paul Kolnik

Balanchine’s Diamonds closed out the afternoon with Maria Kowroski at the top of her game, supported with exceptional tenderness and fervor by Tyler Angle. The opening waltz finds Tchaikovsky at his dullest – and Balanchine, too. The corps dancers couldn’t do much with it. But once Angle’s prince showed up to pay court to Kowroski’s princess, the piece soared. Abstract ballets be damned: there’s a story here – at least the way Kowroski and Angle danced it. The self-assured prince seemed to be proposing marriage to put an end to a bitter feud between their royal families (though the nobility never address sensitive matters head-on, hence the pair’s famous zigzag walks in their initial encounter). Kowroski struggled with this merging of the personal and political but was soon won over by the kindness in Angle’s eyes and his rock-solid support in promenade.

Much ink has been spilled over Suzanne Farrell’s return to the fold to coach Diamonds (after having been banished for decades by Martins.) Whether Kowroski was channeling Farrell seemed immaterial as she etched line after glorious line in the sublime pas de deux. She danced the intimate moments with much soul-searching, then radiated an incandescent happiness in the finale. Angle delivered an incisive allegro, spurring masses of courtiers to weave in and out of kaleidoscopic patterns, celebrating the perpetuation of empire.

****1