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Departing from his more familiar choice of non-narrative ballets, Christopher Wheeldon in his latest (and perhaps last) work for New York City Ballet as its resident choreographer has turned to Oscar Wilde’s poignant short story of a nightingale who sacrifices its life to help a student please his sweetheart. He tells this simple fable in a choreographically abstract way that heightens its sadness. Collaborating with Bright Sheng, the company’s composer in residence, he has devised an oriental look and sound for a ballet that is enhanced by Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Mark Stanley’s subtle lighting.

Wendy Whelan’s slender physique is ideally suited to portraying the fragile little Nightingale. Before the curtain rises, birdsong fills the air. The Nightingale first dances alone to Sheng’s score, a mix of western rhythm and Chinese cadence. Skeins of mist skim across a full moon sporting a single large eye that winks occasionally, commenting on the action. Enter the Student (Tyler Angle) pursuing his fleet-footed love (Sara Mearns), who has refused to dance with him unless he brings her a red rose. The Student’s despair and the Nightingale’s promise of help are summarised in one of Wheeldon’s convoluted but lovely pas de deux that in its gentleness is the antithesis of the fierce Firebird that he once re-choreographed for Boston Ballet.

Although both Student and Nightingale seek a red rose bush, all that can be found are white and yellow ones. Clustered groups of dancers by some alchemy become flower petals without descending to the Disneyesque or cute. Searching further, the Nightingale finds what it is seeking but the red rosebush is bereft of blooms. A male corps dressed in brown and rusty red becomes a plant that writhes and threatens. As the Nightingale sacrificially presses its body to impale its heart against a thorn, dancers’ arms shoot up like tendrils of new growth; blood-red streamers flow down the stage and a single rose emerges. In spite of the Keats ode that declared “thou were not born for death, immortal Bird!” this Nightingale indeed perishes. The Student plucks the rose and offers it to his love. But she discards it, whereupon the Student, in his rush to follow her, steps on it and crushes it. Wheeldon’s tale of the death of love is fraught with haunting images.

Peter Martin’s jaunty Jeu de Cartes, although not as funny as John Cranko’s (also to the Stravinsky music), had the distinction of Sterling Hyltin, a deliciously frisky flirt, with Jared Angle, Benjamin Millepied and Andrew Veyette in suit. A fine performance of Balanchine’s Davidsbündlertänze with Cameron Grant at the piano featured senior company members, in particular Kyra Nichols still looking girlish and dancing freshly, who will retire at the end of the season after, unbelievably, 30 years. Her ardent partner Nikolai Hübbe, Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard, Jennie Somogyi and Nilas Martins completed the cast. One of Balanchine’s last and most movingly sad works, it draws on the life of Schumann and his fellow artists and more than hints at imminent loss. In all, a nicely varied evening, if at times a little melancholy.
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