Dancer retirements are often bittersweet affairs; it can be heartbreaking to see favorite dancers retire, but their final performances often show a marked decline in technique that makes the retirement understandable. It’s rare to have dancers leave the stage before the stage leaves them. This Winter Season, two longtime New York City Ballet principals did just that. Last week, Teresa Reichlen retired after a heart-meltingly beautiful and brilliant performance of Balanchine’s Swan Lake. Today, Gonzalo Garcia retired with a ridiculously ambitious program: Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer, an excerpt from Justin Peck’s Rotunda and Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. Opus 19 and Prodigal Son are not, generally, retirement ballets.

Gonzalo Garcia
© Paul Kolnik

Opus 19/The Dreamer was one of those Very Special Occasions – frequent partners Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck alternated the role of the female lead. This arrangement worked better than I expected; Robbins’ choreography for the ballerina alternates between dreamy and ethereal with earthy and spiky. Hyltin is better at accentuating the more meditative moments of the ballet; Peck better at highlighting the fast par terre footwork. Both ladies seemed to make a conscious decision to dial back their presence to let Garcia shine. Garcia was amazing. There’s a lot of dancing packed into this 21-minute ballet and he danced with his usual soaring jumps and soft landings.

After Opus 19/The Dreamer there was a brief film about Garcia, created by Garcia’s husband Ezra Hurwitz. The film showed Garcia rehearsing in the studio while his colleagues past and present praised his perfectionism and kindness. It’s a testimony to Garcia’s character that his ex-supervisor Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet had nothing but glowing words for Garcia. How many people can say “My ex-boss loves me”? After the film there was a brief excerpt from Justin Peck’s Rotunda. Peck designed a moody, contemplative solo for Garcia. The solo reminded me a lot of the Brown Boy’s solo in Dances at a Gathering, which is actually my all-time favorite Garcia role.

Prodigal Son is a famously challenging role even for dancers at their peak. It’s a long ballet, with many famous moments, so there’s no place to hide. Garcia if anything jumped higher and farther than the last time I saw him dance this ballet (pre-pandemic). His finest attribute as the Son is how essentially lovable he is – he was young and callow, but there was none of the brattiness of so many other portrayals. When he crawled across the stage after being robbed and beaten by the Goons, he broke everyone’s heart. The final embrace by the Father (Aarón Sanz) had more emotional impact because of Garcia’s innate decency. Sara Mearns was commanding and voluptuous as the Siren. This role brings out the best in her. Mearns and Garcia don’t have the big height differential of some Siren/Son pairings, but Mearns’ emphatic phrasing and forceful personality made their pas de deux full of danger.

Gonzalo Garcia's farewell to NYCB
© Paul Kolnik

The curtain calls were sweet. Garcia’s colleagues, husband and family ran onstage with bouquets. His most frequent partners Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Megan Fairchild all seemed overcome with emotion. Garcia will remain with New York City Ballet as a repertory director. Given the way he scrupulously danced so much of the repertory for so many years, it seems to be a good move. 

I have so many favorite Garcia memories. I remember the first time he danced Balanchine’s short little duet Sonatine. I had previously seen the ballet with another principal dancer, and the ballet had made little impression. But when I saw Garcia dance it (with frequent partner Megan Fairchild), I saw the dialogue between the dancers, the interplay between the steps and the music. 

That was Gonzalo Garcia’s value as a dancer. He wasn’t the showiest dancer, but he brought out the beauty of the steps.

*****