By Terry Trucco
New York City Ballet is renowned for many things—the grace and speed of its dancers, its unparalleled repertory of more than 500 ballets, including nearly 450 ballets created for the Company, and its unique status as the company shaped by the genius of George Balanchine, a firm believer in the importance of new work.
Balanchine died in 1983, but the Company’s mission to promote the choreography of its time never stopped. Since then, NYCB has commissioned more than 200 new works, from story ballets to abstract pieces, full-evening ballets to pas de deux. The Company’s ability to inspire choreographers is equally impressive. An alumni sampling includes celebrated international ballet makers like William Forsythe and Liam Scarlett, artists with roots in contemporary dance like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Angelin Preljocaj, and home-grown talents including former and current NYCB dancers like Jean-Pierre Frohlich, Benjamin Millepied, and Lauren Lovette.
NYCB audiences have come to expect new ballets nearly every season, but somehow the Company never paused to take a breath and focus on the evolution of the Company and its art after Balanchine. That is about to change. The centerpiece of NYCB’s Spring Season is a four-week festival of ballets commissioned by the Company from 1988 to the present, running from Tuesday, April 25 through Sunday, May 21. Aptly titled the Here/Now Festival, its repertory underscores the diversity and range unleashed during the last three decades: 43 ballets by 22 different choreographers including those mentioned above. Also on tap: world premieres by NYCB Resident Choreographer Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky.
In a stroke of serendipity, the festival coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Company’s New Combinations Fund, conceived in 1992 to foster the Company’s commitment to new choreography. Hundreds of generous donors, through the Fund, have been instrumental in supporting the creation of more than 170 ballets at NYCB, including many that you’ll see in the festival.
Festivals have a long history at NYCB, from those built by Balanchine around the music of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, and Ravel to the more recent Diamond Project and Architecture of Dance festivals devised by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins.
About the conception of the idea for the Here/Now Festival, Martins explains, “Between Balanchine and Robbins, we have possibly the greatest treasury of ballets in the world. But at some point you have to create your own treasure.” He continues, “Throughout my years as the Company’s Ballet Master in Chief, our biggest challenge has been to see if it is possible to create a body of work that can sustain this company beyond the works of Balanchine and Robbins. And I thought now is the time to focus exclusively on the vast array of work that has been created for New York City Ballet after Balanchine with this festival.”
The Here/Now Festival was two years in the making, and Martins admits it was not easy to distill three decades of creativity into four weeks of performances. The artistic merits of each work had to be balanced by practical considerations like production elements, casting, and such. “There were so many pieces that I wanted to show, to take ownership of, if you will, but it of course wasn’t possible to perform everything,” he says. But in the 43 pieces chosen for the Festival, audiences will see the timeliness, inventiveness, and immense variety of the Company’s post-Balanchine’s work. “In looking back at the past 30 years of choreography, I was really astonished by the level of quality, integrity, and innovation that we have been able to produce, with many of these ballets now in New York City Ballet’s active repertory, as well as the repertories of numerous ballet companies around the world,” Martins says.
The Festival begins with a week of three programs, each dedicated to the work of one choreographer—Peck, Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, currently three of the most prominent post-Balanchine creators all with deep connections to NYCB. From there, it circles from Martins’ lyrical Barber Violin Concerto (1988) to recent ballets like Kim Brandstrup’s noirish Jeux (2015). Along the way, pieces returning to the stage after several years’ absence include Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s emotionally charged Chiaroscuro (1994), Ulysses Dove’s dynamic Red Angels (1994), and Mauro Bigonzetti’s brooding Oltremare (2008).
Reviving so many works not recently danced required painstaking planning. Martins met with his eight ballet masters to map out a calendar of how and when the ballets would be prepared. Rehearsals commenced in November and stretched past the Winter Season. “We can’t put this together in March and open in April,” he says.
One benefit of reviving ballets recently created was having many of the original cast members on hand. Martins says, “The dancers, they hear the music, their memory clicks, and they somehow remember the steps.” At the same time, complex festivals like this offer fresh casting opportunities. “We had to carefully think about casting to try to minimize overlaps within each program. That said, the Here/Now Festival will provide numerous opportunities to utilize the extraordinary depth of talent we have at all levels of the Company, which will be very exciting for the dancers and audiences alike.”
Perusing the Here/Now Festival’s long list of ballets, Martins observes that all were commissioned and paid for by the Company and choreographed in house. “They were made on the premises. That’s what’s astonishing about this.”
The New Combinations Fund played its part. It currently raises more than $2 million annually for new choreography, a long leap from $3,500 in 1992, when it was established by Martins and two long-time NYCB supporters, Denise Saul and Daniel Shapiro. Designed as an annual birthday salute to Balanchine’s spirit and philosophy, the fund was named for one of his favorite aphorisms, “There are no new steps, only new combinations.” Martins recalls, “He would say, ‘There is no such thing as originality—you can only hope for a new way of interpreting what was. In our world of choreography, new combinations are the best you can wish for.’ ”
The Here/Now Festival serves up a feast of new combinations but also a chance to reflect upon three decades of creativity. Which Martins does. “Just before Mr. B’s death in 1983, he said to me, ‘We don’t know the future. All I can tell you is 25 years from now people will dance very differently.’ That tells you that he knew ballet wouldn’t die after him, but it would change. New choreography is the life blood of this company. The dancers love it, our audiences love it—it’s in our DNA.”
This story originally appeared in New York City Ballet’s Spring 2017 Playbill.