It was a good night at the ballet, the first Black & White program of a pair that celebrate Balanchine’s stripped down, contemporary classical ballets. Taken as a whole, they represent his search for an economy of everything to find the essence of modern classical dance. Is there any place better to start than with Concerto Barocco? This piece reminds us with every step that Balanchine was always the musician-choreographer, the one who sought to reveal music by making it visible with movement. Elements of the choreography show us the many faces of Bach and for me, he never did better than he did here with the Double Violin Concerto in D minor. Sara Mearns and Teresa Reichlen were the two violins, dancing in, through, and around each other, and they were exquisitely complementary. There’s a passion to Mearns that radiates outward while Reichlen draws you to her with softness. It is always about balance and harmony. The counterpoint of the music came out in the corps de ballet’s canonical hops on pointe and sweeping arms movements, repeating the motifs. The corps was ragged in the first movement but this was sorted out by the time the bourrées began the adagio second movement. The weaving patterns that Balanchine used would, in later years, come to seem as though he were gratuitously or self-indulgently playing with a puzzle just to see what he could do with it. In Barocco, the weaving and puzzle-making are an integral part of the music. The holding hands are moving through, under and around one another, and are emblematic of the music’s structure which returns to themes - after developing them with intricate variations. Justin Peck managed to become an intimate part of the ballet with his partnering. It often seems that the male part is little more than beast of burden but Peck made himself seem essential, as though he were conducting an orchestra of sublime instruments.

Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring in <i>Episodes</i> © Paul Kolnik
Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Episodes
© Paul Kolnik
Episodes was the least work on the program. It’s certainly a landmark as it represented a 1959 collaboration between Balanchine and Martha Graham. Balanchine’s original rendition of the ballet included a solo created on Paul Taylor, then a dancer in Graham’s company, but it has since been excised. Unfortunately Episodes frequently comes across as a studied, self-consciously modern dance rather than something that Balanchine was really feeling. You can almost imagine him in the studio pondering how he was going to create a work that would show up Graham’s by effectively “out-moderning” her. It’s mostly a succession of simple classroom steps re-stated with flexed feet, turned in legs, and pelvis thrusting forward. It’s effective but it’s not his best work. Jennie Somogyi was a crowd favorite in Concerto, Opus 24, partnered by Craig Hall while Savannah Lowery and Jared Angle negotiated their tightrope walking duet with the right amount of tension and tenderness in Five Pieces, Opus 10. Balanchine doesn’t recover his natural choreographic voice with this piece until the fourth section’s Ricercata in Six Voices. No accident since it’s based on a theme from Bach’s Musical Offering and Balanchine always serves the music. Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring were beautiful in this final section.

Is there any better way to close a night at New York City Ballet than a with masterpiece that features Ashley Bouder? There isn’t and here’s why: Bouder, more than any other dancer in the company today, exemplifies Balanchine’s love of speed and dynamics. She goes all out, all the time. Where many other choreographers create their pieces to slower, dancing tempos, Balanchine always made his dancers work with the music as it was played in the concert hall. He was a lot of things but the most distinguishing factor of this company is, and has always been, the speed and attack of its dancers.

Ashley Bouder and Tyler Angle in <i>Four Temperaments</i> © Paul Kolnik
Ashley Bouder and Tyler Angle in Four Temperaments
© Paul Kolnik
There were three great performances in the closing Four Temperaments: Ana Sophia Scheller and Tyler Angle in Sanguinic, Amar Ramasar in Sanguinic, and Ashley Bouder in Choleric. Scheller is a lyrical dancer; slender and seemingly delicate, she nonetheless moves with speed and precision that defy typecasting. She and Angle have a great partnership that is perfect in Sanguinic. Ramasar is arrestingly powerful, even sculptural in physique, and he exploited his ability to engage in stillness to become statuesque in Phlegmatic. Few dancers excel at dancing while standing still and when Ramasar does it, all attention goes straight to him. He’s a dominating force on stage. Gonzalo García in Melancholic was not bad by any means but he suffered a bit in comparison to the others on this evening. Still it was Bouder’s ripping and thrilling Choleric that ran away with the show. She simply brought a level of excitement to the finale that exceeded all the rest and this is a part suits her brand of allegro dancing perfectly. In the post-Wendy Whelan season, it’s Ashley Bouder’s New York City Ballet.

The company continues to provide some of the best dancing on the planet, night after night. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a matinee on Sunday or Friday night because the company is so full of talent right now. The richness of the repertoire is a part of the attraction in itself and these thematic programs offer an opportunity to see some great choreography in a specific context as with the Black & White programs. Here we saw the reduction of ballet’s grand excesses to its purest essence. No lighting tricks, no costumes, no scenery, little to no thematic content. Just pure dancing. At his lowest, Balanchine was still a deep thinker and at his best, he created several of the greatest works of the twentieth century.