We are far enough into the 21st century that 21st-century ballets can now be grouped into: masterpieces, excellent works, and works that need not see the light of day ever again. New York City Ballet's spring season kicked off with one masterpiece (Alexei Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition), one excellent work (Justin Peck's crowd-pleasing Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes), and one piece that can be retired (Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare).

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition
© Paul Kolnik

Pictures at an Exhibition might be (along with Concerto DSCH) Ratmansky's all-time greatest work. Mussorgsky's famous piano work was played beautifully by Susan Walters. This dance for five men and five women has that Ratmansky quality of being both very Russian and universal at the same time. It begins casually with all the dancers seated on the floor. One by one, they do a little solo, and sit back down. The ensuing dances range from lighthearted and playful (the Tuileries solo looks like a firefly dancing) to mysterious and mystical (a pas de deux to The Old Castle that has the woman being lifted like a up high like a sparrow and then just as quickly dropped to the floor, ending with her lifted upright, her back arched, facing the heavens).

Ratmansky brings out the very best in his dancers and tonight was no exception. Despite two last minute substitutions (Tiler Peck was replaced by Indiana Woodward and Abi Stafford by Lauren King) the ballet was a joy to watch from start to finish. There was not a weak link in the cast but special mention must be made to Tyler Angle for his remarkable partnering skills and Sterling Hyltin for her unique ability to combine harebell delicacy with unshakeable strength in The Old Castle, Indiana Woodward's spritely Tuileries solo, Georgina Pazcoguin fierce and feral in The Gnome, and four men (Taylor Stanley, Joseph Gordon, Aaron Sanz and Daniel Ulbricht) in a playful pas de quatre. This is a rich work that only gets better upon repeated viewing.

Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski in Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare
© Paul Kolnik

Bigonzetti's Oltremare's program notes say that the ballet is about "the feelings of people who have left their homeland on a quest for a better life in a far new land". The dancers are indeed dressed as if they just arrived at Ellis Island: they are wearing late 19th-century garb, carrying large suitcases. Bruno Moretti's music sometimes sounds like a Nino Rota soundtrack. But the actual ballet is full of contemporary moves that look out of place with the vintage costumes and decor. For instance, Bigonzetti often has women picked up, turned upside down, legs spread-eagled. Another favorite move is to have women dragged across the floor. There's no consistency to this piece – it can't decide what it wants to be.

That said, NYCB's dancers made the best possible case for Oltremare. Maria Kowroski showed off her astonishing flexibility in a pas de deux with Tyler Angle. Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker managed to make those upside down, crotch-baring lifts seem more passionate than vulgar. And best of all, Andrew Veyette, after a long lay-off due to injury, returned with a bang. His solo had him dancing with a speed and energy I haven't seen from him in years. He even capped off his solo with a revoltade/540 (really a cabriole/turn done almost parallel to the ground with an extra high scissor kick). It brought about the only spontaneous audience applause in this otherwise ponderous ballet.

Sara Mearns in Justin Peck's Rodeo
© Paul Kolnik

Justin Peck's Rodeo is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. The ballet starts with dancers running from one end of the stage to another and maintains unflagging energy. The ballet is for 15 men and one female, but Peck has the males split into different groups that resemble different cliques of jocks in a high school. There is the trio of shorter jocks who wow the crowd with their jumps and pirouettes à la seconde (Daniel Ulbricht amazing, supported by the wonderful Anthony Huxley and Gonzalo Garcia). There's a quintet of taller jocks who dance a surprisingly intimate pas de cinq in the score's slow, contemplative second movement. At one point the ballet even has some cheeky fun with the height disparity between the different cliques – Ulbricht looks up at the very tall Silas Farley before backing away. There's a cheerleader (Sara Mearns) and her jock boyfriend (Russell Janzen), whose pas de deux is by far the least interesting part of the ballet; the conventional male/female pas de deux is not something Justin Peck has ever been able to make compelling. Finally, there's the rip-roaring finale which made the audience very happy. This ballet manages to capture the same all-American freedom and fun that was in Agnes de Mille's ballet of the same name, yet be completely different at the same time.

The overall pulse of the company was strong. After so much turmoil and uncertainty, the company is dancing with freedom, confidence and joy. If this performance was any indication the spring season will be filled with many memorable nights at the ballet.