Ballet scholars often talk about George Balanchine’s artistic partnership with Igor Stravinsky, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was an equally important inspiration to the founder and guiding star of New York City Ballet.
The choreographer embraced Tchaikovsky’s music as the engine for the ever-moving patterns of his most classical and musical works. That wonderful partnership was showcased on opening night of the ballet’s annual residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. On Tuesday night, the resident company danced three of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky creations: the pretty “Garland Dance” from “The Sleeping Beauty,” the bright and bouncy “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” and the elegant “Theme and Variations.”
While these dances are always a welcome sight at SPAC, the highlight of the evening was a ballet that broke the classical ballet mold — the SPAC premiere of Justin Peck’s fascinating “Year of the Rabbit.” In keeping with the company’s devotion to composers, Peck selected marvelous indie music maker Sufjan Stevens, with whom, like Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Peck obviously shares an affinity.
But unlike many formulaic ballets — even Balanchine succumbed to the equations that so closely followed classical music — Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” defies all categories. It stands in a class by itself, one that keeps the audience alert and marveling at every gesture and emotion that his movement evokes.
Six principals with a churning and darting corps de ballet swing this atmospheric performance into many landscapes. Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz compress the action into tense and lively attacks. Teresa Reichlen and Robert Fairchild, dancing together, are drawn like magnets, mirroring each other’s playfulness. Janie Taylor and Tyler Angle are stunning from their fiery first duet, “Year of the Dragon,” to their last simmering, gorgeous union in “Year of Our Lord.”
Throughout, the corps rambles in and around the dancers, keeping the frame fluid and as compelling as the duets and solos. Sometimes they are smooth, as when the boys push the girls across the floor, and sometimes aggressive, as when they send forth their limbs like javelins aimed at the principals.
There are so many surprises, including Bouder launching herself backwards into the arms of an awaiting group of boys and Fairchild just appearing in midair at the start of the ballet.
At just 25, Peck is one of the most promising young choreographers to work with the company since Christopher Wheeldon. And happily, the company will be dancing “Year of the Rabbit” twice more during its weeklong stay at SPAC.
The near-perfect evening was blemished by Ballet Master-in Chief Peter Martins’ “Barber Violin Concerto,” to Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14.” This is an odd ballet that juxtaposes a classical couple (Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford) with a modern one (Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle). The classical couple is marked by a cool formality while the modern one is grounded, emotional and angular.
They switch partners with interesting results: Mearns melts in the arms of Angle, while Stafford stomps his feet in anger at the wild gyrations of Megan Fairchild. In the end, “Barber Violin Concerto” is rather sad and unsatisfying.