New York City Ballet to bring new works and a few classics to SPAC

The Company in Justin Peck’s "Copland Dance Episodes." 

The Company in Justin Peck’s "Copland Dance Episodes." 

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New York City Ballet’s season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center opens Tuesday and will offer a week of SPAC premieres and old favorites. Up first is the popular “NYCB On and Off Stage.”

“It’s an inside look at the ballets we’re doing for the week,” said Tiler Peck, who will co-host the evening (alongside Principal Dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring) and who has been one of the company’s principal dancers since 2009. “The show switches between talking about the pieces and chronologically what’s happening in the company. Little excerpts from all the dances will be given, along with brief chats with the dancers.”

The NYCB Orchestra, under Music Director Andrew Litton, will provide support.

Peck, who joined the company in 2005 as a member of the corps, recalled her early experiences in some of the ballets that will be performed during the week.

“I’ve danced in ‘Fancy Free’ (Bernstein/Robbins) for years. I was in the corps at 17 when Damien Woetzel was a principal, but I was only a monster in ‘Firebird’ (Stravinsky/Balanchine, Robbins),” she said. “But in ‘Love Letter’ (Blake/Abraham), the dance was made on me. And I’ve done the lead in ‘Swan Lake’ (Tchaikovsky/Balanchine).”

But the new Justin Peck ballet titled “Copland Dance Episodes” is quite different. It is a nonnarrative dance set to four of Aaron Copland’s most famous scores, including “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid,” “Fanfare for the Common Man” and episodes from “Rodeo.” As an original, full-evening, abstract work for 30 dancers with no intermission, it is the first original full-evening work created for NYCB since Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature” in 2004, and only the second full-evening, abstract work to enter the Company’s repertory since George Balanchine’s “Jewels” was created in 1967.

Tiler Peck worked with Justin Peck on her role.

“The choreography is very musical. It’s why I love dancing it,” Tiler said. “From the beginning we had a [one-week] intense rehearsal period dedicated to the Copland. Justin had mapped it out with his wife and then would show us. He had a plan that we created together.”

Justin eventually chose to have “all the ladies and one man in ‘Appalachian’; all the men and one lady in ‘Rodeo’; and everyone will be in ‘Billy,’ ” Tiler said.

But Tiler Peck will not be dancing at SPAC. Instead, Alexa Maxwell, who was recently promoted from the corps to soloist, will perform her role; and Chun Wai Chan, Peck’s original partner who has recently been promoted to principal, will reprise his role.

Tiler will be off to choreograph dances with the Cincinnati Ballet.

“With Lauren Lovette, who is not with NYC Ballet any longer, there are just the two of us women choreographing,” Peck said with a laugh. “But I’m still dancing a lot and I’m grateful to be dancing. I take class daily and still work on my technique to hone.”

There are, however, two new people making their debuts with this ballet. Costume designer Ellen Warren had been a member of the company’s corps for nine years before opening her own design company, “Louise Apparel,” in 2012.

“I’d always had fit issues with the leotards so I began making them for myself,” Warren said. “Then I began selling them to others. Justin saw them and reached out. This is the fourth time I’ve been working with him but it’s my first commission. Justin liked the colors. I had 10 leotards with different colors in which you could mix and match. They caught his eye.”

Completely self-taught as a seamstress — she still does her own sewing — it took Warren a few months to put together a prototype with leotards for the women and tights for the men, both in two different colors.

“No two are alike. The company’s costume shop did the dyeing of up to 60 different colors. Marie Deserto was the primary dyer and she was a wizard. Getting 60 different colors was incredible,” Warren said. “What’s really fun is that it may look like chaos but the colors ebb and flow.”

The world these 30 dancers had to inhabit required the kind of fantastical place that painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson could provide. He, too, is making his debut with the company.

“Justin had seen my Denver exhibit in [2018] and we talked about what he responded to,” Gibson said. “I use patterns of triangles . . . they happen a lot.”

These represent historical as well as geometric shapes that tell stories coming from his Choctaw/Cherokee heritage, he said. In 2020, Peck contacted Gibson again, but this time to create two front drops for his new ballet.

“Justin wanted to build on the ‘Rodeo’ theme,” Gibson said. “So I listened to the music’s texture. It had a lot of color and patterns.”

Peck wanted no scrims or white space. Rather, he sought a front drop that for Gibson was “a scale that was difficult to comprehend. Nothing prepared me for it. Generally, I work up to seven-by-eight-foot canvases. The curtain itself is 40 feet by 60 feet.”

The colors Gibson chose are also very warm and bright with oranges, reds and yellows in huge triangles and shifting shapes. As the lighting designed by Brandon Sterling Baker plays across his drops, Gibson said it activates the paint and everything “comes alive.”

All of this is a new experience for Gibson.

“I don’t follow ballet. Beyond seeing ‘Nutcracker,’ it’s a new world . . . a different experience,” he said. “But I loved it, and learned how scale turns about and how to work with a choreographer. I saw the ballet twice and each time Justin tweaked it. It’s really beautiful, powerful, and I loved the minimal stage design and the light shifts. Now my kids are excited about attending.”

There are also three other ballets that Tiler Peck talked about: “Scherzo Fantastique” (Stravinsky/Peck), which premiered in 2016; “Liturgy” (Part/Wheeldon) is a beautiful pas de deux; and “Play Time” (Knowles/Reisen), which is fun and sparkling.

New York City Ballet

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 18–22; 2 p.m. July 20, 22

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center

HOW MUCH: Ticket prices vary by show

MORE INFO:; 518 584-9330

Categories: Life and Arts

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