This was a terrific show. At two hours and forty-five minutes it was long but I would rather complain about getting too much than not enough. This was a night full of great music and great dancing. Damian Woetzel, in his position as Artistic Director of the Vail International Dance Festival, makes it his mission to find out “what if” by pairing dancers who don’t get to work with each other because they’re in different dance companies or different dance disciplines. He also looks for ballets that are seldom seen or have fallen out of the repertory.

Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine's <i>Apollo</i> © Erin Baiano
Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine's Apollo
© Erin Baiano
Balanchine’s Apollo, opening this show, is a perfect example of what Woetzel does so well. He put together two New York City Ballet dancers, Tiler Peck (Terpsichore) and Robert Fairchild (who filled the title role for the injured Herman Cornejo) with American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston (Calliope) and Boston Ballet’s Misa Kuranaga (Polyhymnia). They don’t get to perform together except in galas which are mostly showcase pas de deux but it’s in repertory pieces like this that they can really come to life. This was one of the most lively and warm performances of Apollo I’ve ever seen. Boylston and Kuranaga danced together with real joy and affection. Peck, who has risen to new heights over the last few years is reaching her artistic peak and was stunning in her strength and lyricism. For his part, Fairchild was thoroughly engaging in the reinstated Birth of Apollo which Balanchine cut from his final version. This ballet can seem cool and remote when NYCB does it but in this show I was reminded that when the gods and goddesses were more like us, we were more like gods.

Peck and Fairchild followed up with Balanchine’s Divertimento brillante, a resurrected pas de deux originally made for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride. It was presented with the Catalyst Quartet led by Pianist Cameron Grant on stage, and they played wonderfully. Peck was the epitome of a perfect, jeweled music box come to life. Wearing a classic pink tutu, she executed her hummingbird-quick petit allegro and tight turns with diminutive perfection.

The surprise of the night for me was Sara Mearns on stage with the Flux Quartet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Fandango, a dance originally made on Wendy Whelan. Mearns, who does everything with glamorous panache, cut loose in this dance with glorious abandon in a piece that was refreshingly free of pyrotechnics. It had the ease of improvisation in the slow sections coupled with the fire of being propelled from a cannon. She put on sudden bursts of speed, dancing in a flurry, and then coasted along, leaving trails of lingering fingers behind. In between, she interacted with the musicians and made them fully a part of her performance.

Sarah Mearns and the Flux Quartet in Ratmansky's <i>Fandango</i> © Erin Baiano
Sarah Mearns and the Flux Quartet in Ratmansky's Fandango
© Erin Baiano
For all that Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth is a song full of poignant longing, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography to it didn’t quite match up. Parts of it did not go with the music. Kate Davis sang the song beautifully but it seemed that the chemistry between Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal was lacking and so I mostly listened, glad that Davis was so talented. Elégie brought Carla Körbes back to the City Center stage in Balanchine’s last piece, originally made for Suzanne Farrell. Körbes did it well enough but emotional weight is not her strength. It wouldn’t have hurt to cut it. 1.2.3.4.5.6 was a mashup of dance styles. Michelle Dorrance’s tap dancing to rhythmic riff by Steve Reich provided the impetus for the movement. Robert Fairchild started, first as ballet dancer then as a tap dancer. Then came modern dancer Melissa Toogood and Memphis jookin’ legend, Lil Buck. As Dorrance tapped, the other dancers moved in turn and then Fairchild joined her for synchronized tapping. It was short on substance but long on crowd pleasing hijinks. Lil Buck closed the show with an epic finale. It was a notable exercise in diversity that made everyone better. The septet of musicians drawn from the Silk Road Ensemble was led by Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, Christina Pato on the Galician gaita, Wu Tong on a multi-reed sheng, Sandeep Das on tabla with the welcome return of Kate Davis on piano and vocals. The music covered hip hop, classical, jazz, traditional Chinese, Galician folk and contemporary Indian styles. Lil Buck is much loved for his creativity and musicality. His range of movement is fluid, hypnotic and extremely difficult to imitate. As a performer, he comes across as incredibly warm and generous. He brought his protégé, Ron “Prime Time” Myles and the two traded riffs back and forth with playful and electric sections of dancing. The highlight of the show was Lil Buck’s re-imagining of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. It’s such a well-known touchstone of classical ballet that seeing it done jookin’ style was initially discordant but Lil Buck won the audience over with the pure beauty of his vision. He glided and fluttered with his own idea of a swan that was original and different but still transcendent.

I hope this was only the first of an annual presentation of the Vail International Dance Festival at City Center. Woetzel puts together programs, musicians and dancers with a creative curator’s eye and gets the most out of the new combinations. Everything wasn’t perfect or even great but it was all interesting. It’s clear that there’s an audience for this show beyond Vail.