October is Polish American Heritage Month which makes this a good time to reflect on the enduring appeal of Jerome Robbins’ works set to the music of Frederic Chopin, as presented here at New York City Ballet.

Robbins was one of the greatest American choreographers of musicals but he was also the child of Polish immigrants and seemed to have a direct channel into Chopin’s music. But how did he succeed where other choreographers continually fall short? Dances at a Gathering is evocative in the same way Chopin’s music is with all its echoes of love, loss, rapture and regret. For me, Robbins unlocked the mystery by painting Chopin’s music rather than setting steps to it.

Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz in Jerome Robbins' <i>Dances at a Gathering</i> © Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering
© Paul Kolnik

He eschewed classical form and incorporated Slavic dance gestures to give it a feeling of improvisatory freedom. In doing this, he described the color and flavor of the music. The parts are even named after colors. Robbins also gave characters and situations to the performers in Dances at a Gathering, creating a non-narrative structure that ensures a connection between the dancers. They each have individual reasons for being there and they have very definite relationships with one another. Joaquin De Luz’s brown opens it up with a meditative solo in a place he left behind long ago. Ashley Bouder’s Slavic coquette in green (her first time in the role) is persistently upbeat and yet she somehow still lets you feel her character’s essential loneliness. She keeps trying unsuccessfully to make a durable connection and wryly shrugs it off when she fails. In the first Scherzo of Opus 20, we feel the turbulent echoes of war, especially from Sara Mearns in mauve. Mearns is thrilling in this ballet and her pas de deux with Amar Ramasar was typically seamless. The ethereal middle section of the Scherzo was danced with aching love by Tiler Peck (pink) and Jared Angle (purple). Peck, perennially cast as the spitfire, shows that she has breathtaking legato. Megan Fairchild in apricot was bursting with vitality. There are too many indelible moments to mention them all. The closing Nocturne brings out the full company, all together on stage for the first time. They watch something passing by; is it a flock of migrating birds? And then they look out at the audience and beyond, wondering where it all went. Then they seek each other out and somehow life goes on. This is life’s greatest challenge, the essence of longing and loss. Dances at a Gathering is a ballet that we never get tired of because it speaks to enduring truths and the pull of nostalgia only gets stronger as the years pass.

Teresa Reichlen, whose stature grows with each new season, ran away with The Firebird. She begins with an almost unfair advantage in that she’s already close to unearthly with her fantastically long limbs and lyrical movement. With all that length, she still manages to move quickly enough to create the bird-like speed that the Firebird needs.

Teresa Reichlen in George Balanchine's <i>Firebird</i> © Paul Kolnik
Teresa Reichlen in George Balanchine's Firebird
© Paul Kolnik

Her grands jetés are like arrows, streaking across the stage. Wearing that vivid scarlet costume, Reichlen was towering and remote, making everyone else irrelevant. Everything else is incidental because it’s her ballet. George Balanchine’s Firebird is not a story-telling triumph but it is a visual masterpiece. Chagall’s exquisite designs more than compensate for the vague story and Karenska’s costumes are archetypally perfect. That it falls short in story-telling is no great loss given the color saturation and spectacle. You feel immersed in the lost world of the Ballets Russes and that’s no bad thing but it isn’t exalting either.

Dances at a Gathering dominated this program which is no surprise. It carries emotional weight that doesn’t diminish with time. Firebird was played very well by the orchestra and was visually lush but even led by a stunning Teresa Reichlen, it felt like a less substantial conclusion to the evening.