New York City Ballet's Spring Gala kicked off with brief curtain speeches from new artistic directors Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan. Just their appearance got raucous cheers. Both of them tacitly acknowledged the turmoil the company had been through since the dismissal of long-time Artistic Director Peter Martins at the beginning of 2018 by saying that it was a "new era" at New York City Ballet.

New York City Ballet in the premiere of Justin Peck’s <i>Bright</i> © Erin Baiano
New York City Ballet in the premiere of Justin Peck’s Bright
© Erin Baiano

New era, new works. This spring gala had another new Justin Peck piece and a highly anticipated company debut of acclaimed choreographer Pam Tanowitz. Justin Peck's piece was entitled Bright but it might have been called Short because it was over before it began. In fact it ended so suddenly that people looked around expecting a second movement. The curtain rose on three ballet couples. Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen were the central couple, while Gilbert Bolden, Sara Adams, Andrew Scordato, and Emilie Gerrity mirrored the main couple's movements. The music was a somewhat languorous but pleasant sounding score by Mark Dancingers. The central pas de deux between Mearns and Janzen seemed to be a tribute to Sara Mearns' unique qualities as a dancer. There was her extravagant arabesque, her shifting the weight of her body in a way that's both controlled and abandoned. Janzen was her reticent partner. But alas just as the ballet was building into something interesting the music ended, the stage went black and it was over.

Pam Tanowitz' piece Bartók Ballet was considerably more ambitious. It was set to Bartók's String Quartet no. 5 and employs eleven dancers. When the curtain rises, everyone onstage is in a brown leotard and a loose brown shirt; at first it's only the women, but then the men slide onstage, and they are in the same.

Gretchen Smith and Indiana Woodward in the premiere of Pam Tanowitz’s <i>Bartók Ballet</i> © Erin Baiano
Gretchen Smith and Indiana Woodward in the premiere of Pam Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet
© Erin Baiano

Tanowitz is primarily a modern dance choreographer, and this work reflected that. There were many modern dance moves – the deep squats, the Martha Graham-like leg lifting, some knee slapping, some rolling around on the floor, the “Merce balance” with one leg extended forward but turned in. The women were wearing pointe shoes, but I saw few steps that needed to be on pointe; most steps were very modern dance with their flexed, turned in feet, dancing that is primarily to the ground rather than in the air. On the rare occasions when dancers did ballet steps (pique turns, pirouettes and the like) they looked like an anomaly.

Bartók's Fifth String Quartet is a thick, dense piece of music with five distinct movements and enough folk-inflected melody that it could have been an absorbing work. Alas, Tanowitz seemed to have little idea what to do with the dancers. Her work had no discernible structure. Dancers came and went randomly, and there was no relationship between them – you had no idea why one group or another was onstage and dancing together. At one point the leggy, blond beauty Miriam Miller changed out of her brown leotard into a skintight gold leotard and walked to the edge of the stage by the string quartet and danced by them. Why?

Eventually almost all the dancers shed their loose brown shirts and leotards for the skintight gold leotards. There was more random dancing with random groups, but little that stood out. For instance, Indiana Woodward was onstage for much of the piece but did little besides random knee slaps and pique turns. You’d never know she was such a special dancer if you only saw her in this piece. Miller raised her gorgeous legs so many times but was used throughout as little more than eye candy. Devin Alberda had an impressive solo in the second movement where he perfected the famous Merce Cunningham balance. So much movement and yet so little to remember.

Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s <i>Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3</i> © Paul Kolnik
Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3
© Paul Kolnik

The evening ended with Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Suite no. 3. Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring brought a regal elegance to Élegie, Ashley Laracey and Jared Angle were appropriately swoony in Valse mélancholique, and Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht quicksilver and light in the Scherzo. But Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia in the famous Theme and Variations were efficient rather than poetic. Fairchild, returning from maternity leave, has all the steps but dances in a clipped, staccato way when the music and Balanchine's choreography call for more legato. Garcia has the soft landings, legato phrasing, and elegant bearing the ballet requires, but struggled with the infamous double tour/pirouette variation and decided to finish his variation before the music was finished. The corps looked energized and sometimes their high, firm arabesques highlighted the shortcomings of Fairchild and Garcia.

An imperfect performance, but after Tanowitz's muddled Bartók, the Balanchine was like balm.