New York City Ballet's New Combinations program opened with Peter Martins' The Red Violin. Unity Phelan and Chase Finlay danced the ballet as well as could be expected but the work suffered from a pall of ennui. Megan LeCrone and Zachary Catazaro also performed their parts very well but I had an inescapable sense that the dancers were not enjoying themselves. The problem was in the choreography. You can tell that Martins understands the music thematically but what you see seldom corresponds to what you hear or what you feel. It doesn’t help that the music here is a violin concerto of limited dance appeal by John Corigliano. Martins builds ballets around a few steps that constitute the general visual theme and then repeats them, well past the point of enjoyment. In The Red Violin, it was many steps and turns executed in attitude devant and a sliding step moving backwards in arabesque. The overall feeling to me is mechanistic rather than organic. At the heart of this ballet there is a stultifying lack of feeling.

Unity Phelan and Megan LeCrone in Peter Martins’ <i>The Red Violin</i> © Paul Kolnik
Unity Phelan and Megan LeCrone in Peter Martins’ The Red Violin
© Paul Kolnik

Peter Walker’s new dance odyssey, in contrast, was immediately joyous. Yes, you can tell instantly that he’s yet another choreographer springing from Balanchine’s well and you would be forgiven if you yearned for more outside influences but there was much to like in this piece. It has a sense of playfulness that combines energetic dancing with the casual camaraderie of a social dance. Devin Alberda’s duet with Sebastian Villarini-Velez who was filling in for Anthony Huxley had a bit of Broadway swagger. Alberda’s moonwalk drew delighted laughs. Walker stepped in to replace Adrian Danchig-Waring and his jumps gleefully rode the crest of Oliver Davis' music. Walker is a dancer who relishes being airborne. He partnered Ashley Laracey in a pas de deux that exemplified mutual regard. Laracey is just a beautiful dancer. Tiler Peck’s whipping allegro likely left blisters on the stage as she blazed through her solos. Zachary Catazaro showed strong presence as her partner. Walker’s treatment of the ensemble dancing was deft with appealing patterns and movement. dance odyssey was lighthearted, not deep, but the dancers’ smiles were genuine. This ballet made me want to see more from Walker and I feel sure we’re going to get it.

Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Peter Walker’s <i>dance odyssey</i> © Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Peter Walker’s dance odyssey
© Paul Kolnik

Russian Seasons was Alexei Ratmansky’s first piece for New York City Ballet and his first set to music by composer Leonid Desyatnikov. The result is a work of evident Russianness and potent but ambiguous narrative. Folk music and dancing are at the heart of this ballet but there is so much more to it. The more you watch Russian Seasons, the more you see. In the hands of a less competent choreographer, emotion without context is at best irritating. How many times have we seen contemporary dancemakers try to squish drama into their work and fail miserably? This is why Ratmansky is one of the very best choreographers in the world today. His dancers are vividly expressive characters engaged in compelling drama, even without an explicit narrative. Unity Phelan danced as much with her eyes as with her feet, lending heart to her part. Emilie Gerrity was potent in her anger. Megan Fairchild cast aside her natural perkiness and got rough and tough. Twelve years after its creation, we’re still talking about what’s going on in this ballet and we’re still looking forward to what the next dancer in gold, or red, or green will do with the role. That’s the mark of a great work.

Unity Phelan and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s <i>Russian Seasons</i> © Paul Kolnik
Unity Phelan and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons
© Paul Kolnik

I could have done without The Red Violin but the rest of this program was solidly enjoyable.