A bare stage, two warm-up barres and a small group of New York City Ballet dancers chatting and warming up greeted the Ballet Encore audience Thursday night at the Sottile Theatre.
Dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring then formally introduced the evening as a living program note. Minor rehearsal injuries led to last-minute changes to the program, even from the night’s insert. Two performers, freelance dancer Lauren Lovette and Miami Ballet corps member Cameron Catazaro, flew in from Miami to seamlessly cover the gaps in the remixed program.
Ballet Encore included a range of pas de deux — a dance for two people — from New York City Ballet’s repertoire. Connection and intimacy were primary focal points, and the informal, fourth wall breaking opening extended that connection to the audience, if only briefly.
Traditional works wove with contemporary pieces. Through them, the dancers connected and celebrated the choreographic history of the company.
Indiana Woodward joined Danchig-Waring to kick off the performances with “Three Chopin Dances” by former New York City Ballet director Jerome Robbins. Their near-constant hand-holding when together emphasized the romance of the two characters in Robbins’ theatrical, humorous work, deftly accompanied by pianist Susan Walters. After Woodward’s percussive and playful solo and Danchig-Waring’s soft, buoyant one, the two reunited for a coquettish ending.
Principal dancers Unity Phelan and Jovani Furlan followed with a traditional and famous pas de deux, the “White Swan Pas De Deux” from Swan Lake. Phelan leaned into the drama of the White Swan for a captivating performance. Her avian arms fluttered from her back down to her fingertips amid longing glances exchanged with Furlan.
Ironically, “In Suspense,” a solo choreographed by Côté for principal dancer Sara Mearns, was the highlight in a night celebrating the pas de deux. The explosive solo utilized touch and focus in a way that made it seem like Mearns was not dancing by herself but rather with herself, somehow transforming “In Suspense” into a pas de deux for one. The muscular, often athletic choreography was punctuated with moments of delicate intimacy, and Mearns expertly navigated the dynamic shifts. At one point, Mearns knelt in a single spot centerstage and dove into an intimate port de bras of reaching and stroking before erupting back into a more frenetic, larger movement. The solo almost felt too short simply because of Mearns rockstar performance.
“After The Rain” by Christopher Wheeldon was another highlight among the contemporary works. Despite arriving the morning of opening night, Catazaro felt in sync with Phelan. Against a backdrop that slowly moved from shades of sunrise to a wash of blue moonlight, Wheeldon’s haunting duet explored a cycle of emotional co-dependency. Unusual lifts of Phelan in a backbend or with her legs akimbo and feet flexed created a sense of manipulation, and Phelan‘s direct focus and collapses into Catazaro built unrequited yearning against his deliberately avoidant gaze. All of this was underscored beautifully by Waiters on piano and Rachel Orth on violin.
Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition,” performed by Lauren Lovette and Danchig-Waring, rounded out the contemporary works. Draped in layers of nude chiffon with geometric shapes of watercolor yellow and blue, the two were almost in constant physical contact. Lovette’s feline-like curling, climbing and contorting painted a series of moving, abstract paintings with Danchig-Waring serving as the anchor. At times, blue lighting made the two appear as if they were carved from marble.
The evening concluded with “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” by New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine. The piece, choreographed in 1960 after the original Swan Lake score containing this pas de deux was discovered, is a celebration of the pas de deux, complete with a traditional structure and showstopping turns, leaps, lifts and footwork. Furlan and Woodward brought balletic bravura, especially Woodward with her space-consuming turns and delicately precise footwork.
A flick of the house lights brought the evening to an abrupt end after “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Without so much as a final ensemble bow, the sudden ending sharply severed the connectivity of the evening. And after an hour of intense focus on the intimacy of ballet, Ballet Encore deserved one final moment of connection with the audience for closure.
Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
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