New York City Ballet has started the new season in turmoil, as its board fends off lawsuits and drags its feet on appointing a successor to Peter Martins, who was forced out nearly a year ago. On the bright side, the dancers who remain after an unprecedented series of firings, resignations, and retirements appear to be dancing with uncommon vitality and daring. And the three new works on parade this season, each costumed by a big-name fashion designer, offered many thrills.

NYCB in Matthew Neenan’s <i>The Exchange</i>, in costumes by Gareth Pugh © Paul Kolnik
NYCB in Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange, in costumes by Gareth Pugh
© Paul Kolnik

For Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange, designer Gareth Pugh restrained his usual urge to pad and puff the human body but clad the ensemble men in palazzo pants with straps across their chests, the women in glamorous scarlet gowns, their faces inexplicably obscured by red stocking masks. Once the free-spirited Tiler Peck burst onto the scene, it appeared that the costume budget had run out, for she was summarily wrapped in a billowing red bedsheet, as were her ladies-in-waiting. Costuming aside, Neenan gave us plenty to chew on as alliances between the variously clad contingents formed and dissolved, and coups d’état were plotted in a language full of spidery gestures, dizzying spins on quarter-pointe, and rapid little explosions off the floor. Peck and Maria Kowroski seemed to leave traces of gunpowder every time they made an appearance.

Dvorák’s lilting waltzes and string quartet proved anemic accompaniment to this modern spy-thriller. In contrast, a brief section in the middle, performed in silence, packed a wallop as the dancers flung their limbs emphatically and twisted their torsos in anguish. Punctuated only by the sound of footfalls, it left me wishing that Neenan had never met Dvorák and instead continued to let the dancers wring the rhythms from his sophisticated movement schemes in silence. 

Wunderkind Gianna Reisen on the other hand reveled in John Adams’ screwball ‘Book of Alleged Dances,’ picking a handful of those compositions for her piece, titled Judah. A lively string quartet sparred with the rebellious percussive sounds from a prepared piano (the latter in a recording) as woodland sprites in mossy green, water sprites in aqua, and fire sprites in coral gamboled around the winsome partnership of Lauren Lovette and Preston Chamblee in stark white unitards. Despite the jarring color palette (which you can blame on designer Alberta Ferretti), scenes often radiated pure human joy, or evoked fleeting intimacies.

This is Reisen’s second commission for the company. Remarkably, she is only 19, yet her work indulges in balletic conventions without the mannered effect of much contemporary ballet. 

Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway arrived freighted with expectations, for the company has rarely commissioned a black choreographer, let alone one whose vocabulary and aesthetic embrace the post-modern and hip hop. Designer Giles Deacon didn’t seem concerned about obscuring dancers’ bodies or faces, as his puffy, ink-spattered, long-plumed, sharp-quilled costumes and headpieces rendered some of the dancers nearly – in some cases, entirely – unrecognizable. And Abraham wasn’t inclined to filter the lyrics of Kanye West, Jay-Z, and others whose rap songs made up the soundtrack, alongside moody piano compositions by Nico Muhly and haunting ballads by James Blake and Erykah Badu. 

Were the misogyny and violent instincts expressed in the occasional lyric meant as provocation – or an ironic nod to the toxic environment that has not spared the ballet world? The answer seems immaterial. These dancers were inhabiting new skins; their prodigious talents fueled Abraham’s heady vision of a tribe of outsiders who inhabit a world straight out of anime. 

The Runaway seemed to contain more ballet steps than the other pieces on the program. Yet the technique was so tightly and musically woven with street and modern dance that there were no obvious transitions. The choreography is credited to Abraham “in collaboration with” the dancers. Perhaps nodding to a street dance battle, everyone in the cast showed off their gargouillades and other intricate bits of petit allegro – especially young superstar-in-the-making Roman Mejia – along with flashy turning jumps, and a heart-stopping master class in traveling turns from the smoking Sara Mearns. Ashley Bouder didn’t let her bristle-brush of a costume get in the way of dazzling feats of speed and balance. And humor abounded – as when an irritated Georgina Pazcoguin stomped off into the wings to ditch her enormous flouncy skirt, and Peter Walker, his head buried in pheasant feathers, threw a mini-tantrum and had to lie down.

But at the core of The Runaway is a narrative shaped around Taylor Stanley who apparently awakens from a cryogenic sleep-pod to a strange new world. From a few tentative twitches to long stretches of elegiac yearning and quicksilver vaulting, Stanley redefines virtuosity for a male dancer: one who commands stillness, who is rugged yet vulnerable, who takes risks but exhibits near-superhuman control.

As astounding as Stanley’s performance is, the entire ensemble makes an enduring impression, driven by the formidable, impertinent score. Brisk winds are blowing through musty corners of the theater-that-will-forever-be-known-as-the-New-York-State-Theater; hopefully, a new artistic director will keep the windows open.

****1