New York City Ballet, widely regarded as quintessentially American, went out of its way to put on an all-Russian show to close its 87th New York season on Sunday night.
Officially the fourth annual Dancer's Emergency Fund benefit, the performance included unprecedented appearances by two guest artists from Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet as well as the company's first steps toward re-creating the crowning achievement of 19th-Century Russian Ballet, "The Sleeping Beauty."
The 12-part program, titled "A la Russe" and described as "A Celebration of Russian Music," was conceived by principal dancer Sean Lavery, who also acted as the evening's host.
When Lavery stepped in front of the curtain, he was appearing on the stage of the New York State Theater for the first time in more than a year because of his recuperation from the removal of a spinal cord tumor. The eager, capacity audience welcomed him with a prolonged, partly standing ovation. "That certainly felt good," the formally attired dancer said before introducing the event.
His opening remarks included personal expressions of gratitude to the fund that this performance's ticket sales helped to maintain, since he had been a recipient of its benefits when he was recovering from neurosurgery. His further comments entailed a recognition of the company's longstanding commitment to music and, in this case, to Russian music.
However, this program was Russian in ways unusual for City Ballet. Featured in both halves of the evening, which was planned to show off every principal dancer in the company, were Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa, guest artists from Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet who had been in New York since Jan. 31 on an historic arrangement to experience working in George Balanchine's choreography.
First, these young, prominent Bolshoi dancers (who had also performed during the final two weeks of the City Ballet season), danced the variations and pas de deux from Balanchine's "Apollo" (to Stravinsky). Later on, Ananiashvili and Liepa danced the pas de deux from "Le Corsaire," a familiar Bolshoi showpiece and the kind of 19th-Century warhorse Balanchine used to call an "old lady's dance.
"The Russians," as lobby talk most readily referred to Ananiashvili and Liepa, had obviously lured a good number of the curious into this event, but the regular company dancers provided the proceedings with excitements of their own.
Even before he realized he'd be able to include Soviet artists in his overall plan, Lavery intended to lend the evening another Russian feature unusual for his company. This was a staging of excerpts from "The Sleeping Beauty," the one great Tchaikovsky ballet that Balanchine himself never appropriated for his American organization.
As a preview of the company's forthcoming production (recently announced) of the full-length Tchaikovsky/Petipa work, Lavery chose to stage a version of the Rose Adagio (from Act I) for Kyra Nichols, and a performance of the Grand Pas de Deux (from Act III) for Merrill Ashley partnered by Lindsay Fischer.
Looking beyond the pick-up costumes and the intermittent showings of nerves, the audience reacted to the mostly familiar beauties of these dances with predictable enthusiasm. Nichols received the only solo curtain call of the evening.
The rest of the programming--eight other works by Balanchine plus two by Jerome Robbins--was Russian in readily recognizable City Ballet terms.
Probably the most spontaneous and unanticipated ovation came from a performance of Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" in which principal dancer Judith Fugate was partnered by soloist Peter Boal, who was substituting for injured principal Ib Andersen.
In this nonstop showcase for two classical virtuosi, Balanchine originally honored Russian art with American artists, and the current New York audience honored these latest two--especially the lesser-known Boal--with a thunderous, American reception.