The New York City Ballet gave the first performance of their DC tour at the Kennedy Center tonight: a divertissement of new and older works, all but one work sharing in a light-hearted spirit. It was, ironically, the more solemn work that was the highlight of the evening, however. 

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain is justly celebrated as a near synthesis of form, content and music. An adagio set to the meditative tonalities of Arvo Part’s exquisite score for violin and piano, the male/ female binary, so much the common coin of ballet form, is re-imagined here in a particularly alluring way, and reaches, if one may speak so boldly, a kind of spiritual apogee, which, if performed well, cannot fail to strike an audience, as a thing of beauty and transcendence. Think of it as akin to Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss, or indeed as a kind of sacramental dance, where the outward form is evocative of inward grace. Tonight, Tiler Peck and Jared Angle gave it very moving expression, attaining to long lines and a symbiosis of bodies. They were both manifestly gentle and immensely strong: an attractive combination. What a pity to hear Angle’s skid noises on the floor just at the end, but I suspect even dancers have feet of clay at times.

Amar Ramasar and Ashley Laracey in Peter Martins’ <i>Infernal Machine</i> © Paul Kolnik
Amar Ramasar and Ashley Laracey in Peter Martins’ Infernal Machine
© Paul Kolnik

Set to a striking score by Christopher Rouse and choreographed by Peter Martins, The Infernal Machine is one of those works, one feels, where the music definitely comes first. It’s supposed to. Rouse himself has described it as a ‘brief orchestral showpiece’. Ashley Laracey and Amar Ramasar respected its clockwork rhythms, its mechanical sputters, its atonal soundscape, by pushing their bodies beyond the established forms of the classical idiom. There were unconventional lifts, sinuous interlacing of bodies and jagged disruptions. Mark Stanley’s lighting effects illuminated Laracey’s arms and legs, cleverly evoking cogs in this machine.

Ash, another creation of Martins, is a playful work, with a charming score by Michael Torke. One noted immediately the strong ports de bras; one also noted some technical glitches – an imperfect alignment here and there, a few fall-offs, scrabbled pirouettes, and rushes to keep tempo. Largely, however, the dancers' mobility and deftness were not in doubt: they caught the nervous energy in Ash, in a light-hearted way.

To have the pianist and orchestra buried in the pit whilst playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is a novel experience. And yet, this is what George Balanchine, intended with his 1941 homage to the late nineteenth-century ballet traditions of his homeland. Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2, first known as Ballet Imperial, is, in many ways, Petipa on speed

Justin Peck’s <i>The Most Incredible Thing</i> © Paul Kolnik
Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing
© Paul Kolnik
The older aesthetic is partly there not only in the tiaras and glittery sequins but in the classical mastery of patterning: straight lines, diagonals, circles weaving in and out, and across the stage. But it is also a work of its time, fluid and, seemingly more egalitarianism here than in classic Petipa, where one is never allowed to forget the hierarchies. The exciting finales of the first and third movements show everyone on stage dancing as one. It was almost always a busy, boisterous stage, and the NYCB are particularly adept at being busy. Teresa Reichlen’s emergence from where she had been all but concealed in the centre of the corps for her fast and furious tour de force was very nicely done. The second movement’s choreography, centred, as it is around 10 women and one man, followed by a pas de deux, promises much in the way of unusual grace. But the effect was not half ethereal enough. It was as if, in the hectic dynamism of the finale of the first movement, they had forgotten to transition to gentle lyricism in the second.

Taylor Stanley in Justin Peck’s <i>The Most Incredible Thing</i> © Paul Kolnik
Taylor Stanley in Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing
© Paul Kolnik
Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing premiered last month in New York, so it arrives fresh to us here. Based on a more than usually preposterous story by Hans Christian Andersen, this is a fantasia presenting a succession of personages, themed according to the o’clocks: thus 3 Kings, 4 seasons, 7 Sins and so forth. The central appeal lay in the visuals and costumes by Marcel Dzama and Marc Happel – leafy body-suits for Adam and Eve, bobbed wigs, black specs and whorl tutus for the sisterhood of muses, and a cuckoo (Peck) again as feathery of form as she was fleet of foot. It was easy on the eye and had a charm about it, but it did go on a little at the end.