Chivalry is dead, as we are all painfully aware, in society and politics, and even behind the scenes at some of our best-loved artistic institutions. But onstage on opening night of New York City Ballet’s winter season, chivalry was alive and high-kicking. It was there in the attentiveness of Davide Riccardo, Maxwell Read, Kennard Henson and Jonathan Fahoury, as they each dashed valiantly back and forth between a pair of spinning commedia dell’arte chorines in Danses Concertantes. Teresa Reichlen could not have asked for a more tender and trustworthy partner to complete her striking shapes in Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra than Ask la Cour. And in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Adrian Danchig-Waring looked suitably on edge when summoned by the redoubtable Sara Mearns to assist her in her mission of world domination, while the soulful Joseph Gordon allowed himself to be drawn into Lauren Lovette’s sorrowful, needy orbit.

Erica Pereira and Harrison Ball in George Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes
© Erin Baiano

The men did not have to do all the squiring, however, for the women of the ensemble kept having to rescue their male comrades from deep plié in Danses, and the noble couples in Monumentum spun courtly moves into expressions of deep mutual respect. In their starkly modern practice clothes of black and white, against a plain backdrop, they communicated a yearning to redefine aristocracy (six decades before the Sussexes bailed).

Admittedly, Harrison Ball did race offstage at one point in Danses, abandoning Erica Pereira in mid-balance on pointe. But he knew she was capable of sustaining that balance on her own, and their subsequent pas de deux was a jaunty conversation between equals. Both were debuting in the ballet’s lead roles and handled the pressure like no big deal. Yet the choreography itself, while tricky, was mostly just a helluva lot of steps in a screwball amalgam of commedia, ballet, vaudeville and Fosse.

Stravinsky was shipshape under the baton of dynamo Clotilde Otranto: perky and insouciant in Danses, solemn and sacred in Monumentum, jagged and thrilling in the rest.

Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour in George Balanchine’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra
© Paul Kolnik

The ensemble shape-shifting in Monumentum – the backward walking in meditative criss-crossing patterns; the tightly-packed diagonal in which every other dancer slid slowly into a split then drew their legs in ever so slightly – made the most poignant and hallowed imagery of the evening, to Stravinsky’s strangely pure and uplifting musical tribute to 16th-century composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, who was as famous for his sacred music as he was for the gruesome murders of his wife and her lover.

Relations between the sexes turned frosty and combative in Movements. Reichlen and la Cour adopted a tough guy stance straight out of West Side Story and exchanged some side-eye, signaling the start of hostilities. Yet Reichlen remained strangely withdrawn through both Monumentum and Movements, her limbs stretching to glorious infinity as if by divine impulse, not her own. Her remoteness, however, could not diminish the astonishing visual impact of her flights through the air, as la Cour repeatedly tossed her up in an expansive arabesque, to be guided back to earth by the male flight deck crew.

The battle of the sexes raged through Violin Concerto and while no official victor emerged, I was tempted to hand the garland to the pack of corps men who charged in from the wings in a series of explosive Italian pas de chats. Or to Mearns, whose final slow stately promenade in arabesque suggested a military commander surveying enemy territory after a scorched-earth campaign.

Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon in George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto
© Erin Baiano

A shoutout to the ensemble who saved the final moments of Violin Concerto after they lost one female warrior to injury and her male counterpart discreetly withdrew. The seven remaining couples managed to create a new symmetry of their own, on the fly.

The curtain rose on this all-Stravinsky/Balanchine evening to reveal a reproduction of Eugene Berman’s front-drop for the first version of the work Balanchine created for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo. The ballet’s collaborators and the year 1944 are painted on the drop. This revived a memory of Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson’s play, which imagined a Connecticut gathering of Stravinsky, Balanchine and other Russian emigrés in the early days of the Cold War. Nelson captured the growing unease among artists in exile, whose works evoked memories of a long-lost homeland and their own visions of America. It was a time of suspicion and paranoia, in which immigrants, even heralded geniuses like Stravinsky and Balanchine, understood that artistic freedom is never entirely free.

Today, the Cold War between Russia and the US has morphed into a Dangerous Liaison. This City Ballet program was a reminder of how creative genius can flourish in a dark time, and generate enduring work that runs the gamut from the frivolous to the profound.