This year, Balanchine’s birthday fell on a Saturday – an excellent day for a party, as any child knows – and New York City Ballet celebrated its co-founder from morning to night. Artistic director Peter Martins led a demonstration class for advanced students from the feeder school, current company members discussed what Balanchine meant to them, and of course there were the ballets – from The Prodigal Son, which Balanchine created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929, to Mozartiana, made two years before the choreographer died in 1983 at the age of 79.
In a single day we hopped from pop Americana (Stars and Stripes) to constructivist fable (The Prodigal Son) to slippery elegy (Mozartiana) and reverie (Walpurgisnacht Ballet) – each ballet a master of its kind but none reducible to genre, and all immediately identifiable as Balanchine.
After seven works in a single day, you start making new connections: for example, between the angularities in The Prodigal Son that spell moral deformation and those in The Four Temperaments, two decades later, that suggest astringent clarity. Or between the ballerinas in the late works Mozartiana and Walpurgisnacht (respectively, supple and inward-leading Wendy Whelan and silky Maria Kowroski), who glide backwards while facing forwards as if slipping inexorably into the past.
New and stirring patterns emerge within a work too. The goons in The Prodigal Son have always contained an element of the mechanical. On Saturday, in the best Prodigal I have seen, Siren Kowroski did as well – and for once you understood why her minions slavered over her. Joaquín De Luz as the Son both mastered the expressionist gestures and conveyed deep feeling, and the male corps were especially vivid.
While we’re observing the passage of time, it is worth noting that two-thirds of today’s principals have risen to their position in the past six years. Balanchine was dead before most of them were born. He does not cast a shadow over their attempts to, as young principal Sterling Hyltin put it, “uphold his mantle of greatness”, which they know mainly through the ballets. The whole company is better off for this blessed objectivity, dancing with great daring and curiosity.