SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It’s startling how different New York City Ballet looks at the open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The light has the effect of subtly changing faces, feet, musculature. Choreography, too. As I watched two performances here on Saturday, works as familiar as George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” and “Symphony in C” suddenly revealed fresh details. The dancers looked happy, despite the afternoon heat, as if performing for friends. A high quotient of young people in the audience cheered and clapped at every opportunity.
The evening performance was a gala. Offstage, because it was Bastille Day, the theme was “Moulin Rouge”; audience attire ranged from shorts to plumes. Onstage there was a celebration of new choreography, with three ballets from this year, one a world premiere. In a curtain speech before the program the company’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, succinctly and accurately reminded the audience that, while City Ballet might have its raison d’être in the unmatched quantities of choreography it dances by Balanchine and Robbins, it also presents more new choreography than any other company. He then introduced the choreographer of the evening’s world premiere, Justin Peck, whom audience members promptly feted before seeing any dancing.
Mr. Peck has been emerging as a choreographer for some years, but on a small scale. The coming year brings his first serious exposure. This work, “In Creases,” will be presented on tour by the smaller New York City Ballet Moves and will reach the main company’s repertory at the David H. Koch Theater in 2013; and there’s another premiere, to music by Sufjan Stevens, that will have its premiere at the company’s October gala. When we have lived with both pieces a little, we will have a much better sense of the nature of Mr. Peck’s talent. I look forward to the opportunity, because that talent already seems mature and individual.
Despite the pun, “In Creases” is not a funny ballet. Its title is a comment on its score, Philip Glass’s “Four Movements for Two Pianos,” in both the way this music falls into a series of sections and how its sections build in momentum and power. The two pianos are onstage, at the back, facing each other. There are eight dancers – four male, four female. Women wear blue-gray leotards; men wear black socks and dance slippers beneath pale two-tone overall tights (white and grayish blue). Costumes are by Mr. Peck and Marc Happel. Though it’s possible the male attire may grow on me, I wouldn’t bank on it.
Yet that doesn’t distract. This is choreography whose forms immediately seize attention. There’s no moment, as so often occurs with young ballet choreographers, when we spot Mr. Peck’s sources. Doubtless he’s steeped in Balanchine, Robbins and others, but he isn’t wearing them on his sleeve. His ensemble keeps giving way to brief but quasi-climactic images to individuals. The way lone dramas or dances keep being absorbed by the group is what gives the dance its particular flavor. Gestures, images, sequences leap out and pass as if in a dream or in a changing cloud.
Here are moments that stay in memory: A handsome tableau travels across the stage, its dancers in profile all holding arms heroically (one arched above, one stretched out). A man (Robert Fairchild) is suddenly left lying face down, almost as if dead apart from his angled elbows; the others carry on as if this were part of a ritual, and he then rolls and rises. Two women in profile on point, feet crossed and apart in fourth position, address each other while moving to the music, until two men join them. Mr. Fairchild faces the other seven dancers, who stand like two barriers ahead of him, or rather two fans, gradually – marvelously – spreading open in his path.
The ballet passes so smoothly that it’s difficult to remember after a first viewing just how these and other scenes all fit together. There’s no doubt that Mr. Peck is an accomplished planner of poetic structure, but only at a few moments did real steps, phrasing and dance impetus get under my skin. The impression “In Creases” leaves, though, is of a dreamscape that heightens the progress and colors of its score. And its sureness of construction is striking. Sharing a program with works by the far more experienced Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Wheeldon, it looks the most perfectly edited – the one that has the surest vision of what it means to be.
“In Creases” tells us more about its men than its women. Sean Suozzi has a solo ending in a circuit of jumps; Christian Tworzyanski and Taylor Stanley both make telling contributions; and Mr. Fairchild emerges, by means of fleeting episodes, as the protagonist. In solos, whether folding his arms before his face or traveling backward on half-toe in bourrées (a step usually reserved for women on point), he’s always absorbingly natural; with others, his attention heightens the imagery.
The gala began with Mr. Millepied’s “Two Hearts,” new in May. That piece, alas, doesn’t improve on further acquaintance. But Mr. Wheeldon’s “Carillons,” new in January, sometimes does. The matinee included Mr. Martins’s “Waltz Project,” returning to repertory after many years, more strongly cast than when new in 1988. A series of duets for four couples to an assortment of modern piano music, each couple separately characterized, it’s among Mr. Martins’s finest choreography. Dancers new to me in “Symphony in C” included Ana Sophia Scheller and Chase Finlay in the first movement, performing with élan; the authoritative dash of Mr. Finlay’s dancing was especially welcome.
New York City Ballet continues performances through Saturday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; (518) 584-9330, spac.org.