New York City Ballet brought two new works that already looked old to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday. Ironically, to close the evening, the company danced an old work that looked perennially new. To top it off, that work showcased one astonishing debut.
Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia," created in 2000 as part of the company's Diamond Project, was the first of two dances getting Southern California premieres. A series of 10 pieces performed to lyrical and moody piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, the dance started promisingly.
Four couples -- Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, Lindy Mandradjieff and Edwaard Liang, Faye Arthurs and Jason Fowler, and Alexandra Ansanelli and Craig Hall -- lined up and performed ingenious, athletic movements out of sync with one another.
As the piece progressed, however, a feeling of mechanical soullessness took over. Each section focused on a singular, taxing movement gambit -- a woman carried upside down with her legs opening and closing like scissors, or women touching the floor and thrusting a leg up into the air -- often repeated in canon.
The movements looked as though they had liberally borrowed from the Balanchine repertory -- think "Agon" or "Four Temperaments." But they didn't illuminate the music, as Balanchine's choreography does.
Despite the hard-working dancers, whatever emotional values there were came from Mark Stanley's dramatic lighting and Alan Moverman and Susan Walters' fine pianism.
"Thou Swell," choreographed by company ballet-master-in-chief Peter Martins, has no high pretensions. It's pure entertainment. But by these standards, it already looks stale.
Premiered in 2003 in honor of the Richard Rodgers centennial, the work is set in a high-class, Art Deco nightclub, where elegantly dressed couples -- women in stylish gowns, men in tuxedos -- or cheeky waitresses and waiters dance to 16 songs by the Broadway master. An angled mirror reflects their movements.
There are flirtations, discoveries of love, disagreements, reconciliations. Everything looks familiar. Where is June Taylor when we need her?
The four lead couples were Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins, Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard, and Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette.
Debbie Gravitte and Jonathan Dokuchitz sang the songs. The onstage trio consisted of Nick Archer, piano; John Beal, bass; and Paul Pizzuti, drums. Paul Gemignani conducted the overblown, bland orchestrations by Don Sebesky.
At one point, dancer Nilas Martins sat at the keyboard to play maybe two measures, for no reason or contribution.
Two couples danced their roles for the first time in Balanchine's wondrous Symphony in C. Janie Taylor and Jared Angle were understandably cautious as the leads in the First Movement.
But Sofiane Sylve, who joined the City Ballet last year from the Het National Ballet of the Netherlands, simply stunned the audience as the lead in the Second Movement. Sylve has the poise, stillness and complete investiture of space that distinguishes a prima ballerina from everyone else.
Her clarity of focused, energized movement pointed out what was missing from so many of the dancers -- such is the state of the New York City Ballet today -- although Megan Fairchild and, especially, Benjamin Millepied, the leads in the Third Movement, shared her sense of focus.
Stephen Hanna, who also was dancing the role for the first time, partnered her strongly but hasn't begun to make the role personal.
Richard Moredock conducted somewhat sluggishly.
New York City Ballet
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Price: $25 to $95
Contact: (213) 365-3500