I blame Carrie Bradshaw. Sex and the City casts a shadow over New York City Ballet each fall – ever since Sarah Jessica Parker, board member and tireless cheerleader, channeled Carrie’s fashionista obsessions in a gimmick to pair choreographers with fashion designers for the company’s annual fall gala. It’s not a terrible idea. But most of the designs over the years have been in competition with the choreography, rather than in service to it. (Only the memorable pairing of Kyle Abraham and Giles Deacon produced a keeper.) This season yielded uneven results.

New York City Ballet in Andrea Miller’s sky to hold
© Erin Baiano

The choice of choreographers, Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell, represented a long-overdue break with the old boys’ club. Miller and Bell have both run their own companies for many years, and both created imaginative short films for City Ballet’s digital-only season last fall. 

Unfortunately, Esteban Cortázar’s shiny, tie-dyed costumes for Miller’s mainstage work did the dancers no favors. Skintight and ombré in the wrong places, trailing long wisps that emanated a '60s Summer-of-Love vibe, his designs helped derail the first-ever partnership at City Ballet of a female dancemaker with a female composer-singer. The latter, Colombian-Canadian Lido Pimienta, was a potent presence on stage, her crystalline vocals soaring above the sentimental tale of an encounter between a seed (Taylor Stanley) and a storm (Sara Mearns). The eye-catching bits of dance for Stanley had him rolling about on the stage in splendid contortions and traipsing in Afternoon-of-a-Faunish fashion. Mearns wasn’t given much to do other than fling her hair about, get flung about by stormy men, and fall dramatically out of piqués. The score got very Russian when she came on.

Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley in Andrea Miller’s sky to hold
© Erin Baiano

There was a hint of a romantic triangle with the handsome, chiseled Chun Wai Chan (a new arrival from Houston Ballet, terrific partner material). Mearns and Stanley nuzzled and clinched, then everybody rushed on in couples to clinch. There were some breathtaking moments, mostly in the ensemble work: the enormous running jumps toward the audience, and deliciously cryptic arm movements like a ballet version of voguing. The piece is terribly earnest and solemn, with dancers frequently arching their chests to the sky, arms outstretched (the title of the piece, sky to hold, should come as no surprise.) Yet I missed the muscularity, the wit and the unexpected twists in Miller’s work for her own company. She should come back and do something for City Ballet free from the siren call of the fashion industry. 

Megan LeCrone, Megan Fairchild and Company in Sidra Bell’s Suspended Animation
© Erin Baiano

On another planet, designer Christopher John Rogers enveloped, almost smothered, Bell’s dancers in puffy, scrunched-up tutus; accordion-folded cocoons; cloaks bristling with oversized frills and ruffs; a hat shaped like a giant lozenge, another like an overturned wastebasket – all in neon shades. (Imagine a tamer edition of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer’s designs for the 1922 Triadic Ballet.) Bell responded to this fabulous excess with angular, pared-back moves, sometimes reminiscent of fencing, which the dancers executed with stark self-possession. Observing each other with curiosity, they rarely made contact until late in the game. In a slow, decorous parade across the stage the dancers seemed to satirize the aristocracy – or the ballet world, which traces its origins not just to court dances but to the art of the sword. There was a wistful yet hard-edged tone to the magnificent proceedings, amplified by the score – a quartet of compositions by Dosia McKay, Oliver Davis and Nicholas Britell, at times melancholy, at others buoyant. 

Two-thirds of the way through this mesmerizing enterprise, titled Suspended Animation, Bell had the dancers shed their outlandish outerwear for utilitarian bike shorts, leggings and leotards. Their minimalist movement lost its intrigue and the whole thing was on the verge of petering out. But in darted Megan Fairchild to the rescue, in a sparkly barely-there leotard, skittering around and scattering invisible fairy dust.

Lauren King in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony
© Paul Kolnik

The evening closed on another high with George Balanchine’s Western Symphony. A series of flirtations between high-spirited cowboys and dance-hall ladies, this 1954 ballet was not just a Russian emigré’s spin on a Hollywood fantasy of the American Wild West but also a weapon of Cold War cultural diplomacy. With its witty interlacing of Americana and classical European and Russian ballet conventions, it was one of the works toured under US State Department sponsorship – part of a strategy to win over the European elite who considered lowbrow, mass-produced American culture a threat to their hallowed artistic traditions. 

In the post-Cold War quest for a new world order, there is assuredly no threat to the radiant Lauren King with her breezy gargouillades, nor to space-chomping, high-kicking Emily Kikta who demolished the madcap final Rondo, nor to the high-stepping, hip-cocking speed demons of the City Ballet corps.