What stood out? What stood still? Who was still standing?
The big event of New York City Ballet’s spring season, the Stravinsky Festival, packed and publicized as it was, somehow wasn’t the most memorable. Something less curated was: modern life. The six-week season, which ended on Sunday, felt herculean, a testament to effort, though not the kind born of sweat. Casting, always complicated with so many moving parts, became even more knotty with the domino effect of Covid and injuries.
Surprise debuts were made (Georgina Pazcoguin as Polyhymnia in “Apollo”) and debuts were lost (Ashley Laracey, sadly, as Polyhymnia in “Apollo”). As Pazcoguin wrote on Instagram in advance of her performances: “Wild times. Sending love to my colleagues who prepared this role and for various reasons cannot take the stage. I’ll try to do you proud. ”
That bumpy, landslide feeling never really let up. Cast changes were so common that even on the morning of a program, you didn’t always know who was performing that night. Early on, one of the company’s reigning principals, Sara Mearns, sustained an injury and then contracted Covid-19. (And judging by her posts on Instagram, she was not asymptomatic.) Other veteran principals, including Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild, were missing for all or much of the season.
And, eight days before his scheduled farewell performance, Amar Ramasar suffered an injury while performing Jerome Robbins’s “Four Seasons.”
But your heart really had to go out to Laracey, who after stepping in to principal parts in “Symphony in Three Movements” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” tested positive for the coronavirus and was forced out of “Orpheus,” as well as “ Apollo. ”
Laracey, who has been a soloist since 2013, is in her 20th year with City Ballet. It’s doubtful she will be promoted to principal, as she herself said in a recent interview in WWD. While she may not be the strongest dancer in the company, she has that witchy, weird thing down. I was eager to see what she would make of her role in “Orpheus” (1948), a ballet that still feels inert – the rare Balanchine work that seems dated. She brings an otherworldly quality to just about all she dances.
My biggest disappointment this season? I was traveling and missed the premiere of Pam Tanowitz’s new “Law of Mosaics.” By the time I returned, it had been canceled altogether, another fallout of illness and injury.
On Sunday, the season ended with Ramasar’s farewell performance, the luminous Divertissement pas de deux in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opposite Sterling Hyltin. Because of his injury – a partial tear in his quadriceps tendon – he shared the role with Andrew Veyette, a fellow principal who filled in for the more virtuosic choreography.
It’s no secret that Ramasar has had a few rough years. In 2018, he and two other male dancers were caught up in a texting and photo-sharing scandal; he was fired from the company and then reinstated after a ruling by an arbitrator. His performances since returning weren’t always easy to watch; he took me out of the dance. And lately, he seemed to waver between two general moods: brash or humble.
On Sunday, he chose humility for the performance; the bows were something else entirely. Hopping off the stage, he waded through the crowd in search of a hug. His destination was a surprise: Peter Martins, City Ballet’s former artistic leader, who retired in 2018, amid accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. (Martins denied the accusations.) Another dancer in the photo-sharing scandal, Zachary Catazaro, was among the line of people wishing Ramasar well onstage. Throughout, the crowd roared its approval, as if the last few years never happened.
Yet so much was good about City Ballet this season – the parts that had to do with actual ballet. And while it was a long six weeks, it also allowed space for a new generation to perform major parts. The week of performances of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” ended the season on a high note; this richly detailed ballet from 1962 could have been choreographed yesterday. It’s the rare story ballet with exuberant choreography and actual humor.
Jovani Furlan, who took over Ramasar’s role in the Divertissement after his injury, captured the seamless flow of the choreography in both his attentive, romantic partnering and noble dancing. He was also outstanding in the Sarabande section of Balanchine’s “Agon.” But his presence is worth more than any one role or a show: It’s a reminder that there’s a new generation afoot at City Ballet, and it’s astounding.
That word best sums up Indiana Woodward, who sparkled all season with more than just her usual youthful verve and enthusiasm – witnessing her ever-growing depth has been a delight. In the Divertissement, she had a wistful mix of discernment and splendor as she danced with Veyette, a veteran looking better than he has in years. Woodward is the name you hope to see on any program; her musicality lit up Robbins’s “Piano Pieces” and “Four Seasons,” which made up one of the most handsome program’s of the season.
In an odd way, though the season was dominated by the Stravinsky Festival – a selection of many of Balanchine’s most profound ballets, honoring the 50th anniversary of a landmark festival – what lingered were performances of a pair of rarely seen works by Robbins: Along with “Piano Pieces,” there was the sumptuous “Goldberg Variations” at the start of the season.
Beautifully staged, full of subtlety and richness, these ballets brought out expansive qualities in dancers: Unity Phelan, in the June-Barcarolle of “Piano Pieces,” was elastic and otherworldly, dancing in some other realm; Anthony Huxley and Roman Mejia, alternating in the same ballet, showed how two approaches – one scrupulously precise, the other bold and daring – could both be radiant. And speaking of radiance, Phelan, in her debut as Titania in “Midsummer,” just about glowed.
In the Stravinsky Festival, there were glorious debuts, too – notably Isabella LaFreniere in “Firebird,” a long-awaited, incandescent performance that used every angle of her long body. Her jump was something fantastical, like an illustration of courage; her expansive arms and back were full of breadth. But LaFreniere’s imagination, alluringly vivid, seems to be the spark that elevates her technique – especially in parts like Firebird, the Queen in “The Cage” and Helena in “Midsummer.” In the right role, her dancing is an emotional response to music. She is the kind of soulful, independent dancer that evokes the spirit of the great Kyra Nichols.
But so many dancers are thriving right now. Mira Nadon, Emilie Gerrity and Mejia seem ripe for promotion; and the promotion to principal of Chun Wai Chan – a noble, generous presence in every role I’ve seen him dance – has to be a good sign. Farewells are not just for goodbyes but for new beginnings, a fresh start for a new generation led by dancers like Chan, Furlan, Woodward and so many more. What did the spring season show us? That talent is overflowing through the ranks. Proof was on the stage.