Paz de la Jolla – wunderkind Justin Peck’s third premiere for New York City Ballet since July (the first does not debut at Lincoln Center until spring) – wraps a conventional, even derivative ballet around a stealthily complex and beautiful one.
To the adagio of Martinu’s cool, bright, pulsing Sinfonietta La Jolla, Sterling Hyltin rises from a post-coital nap on the beach to wade into the midnight waves. A dozen corps members – shimmering in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s translucent shifts like moonlight on water – represent those surges. They swallow Hyltin up and spike their limbs before collapsing around her in a placid heap.
The speed with which that glimmer of danger surfaces only to subside confirms the 25-year-old choreographer’s preternaturally sure hand, as does his use of reclining dancers’ angled knees to form cartoon waves. The sheer unlikeliness of knobbly knee for liquid crest makes the correspondence work as metaphor. As for the drama, it reaches to the root of the art. Drawn away from her slumbering lover (Amar Ramasar) toward the waves, Hyltin resembles the woman in Balanchine’s Serenade who waltzes with one man, begs another not to abandon her and finally succumbs to more powerful, alien forces that overwhelm the body and the will like dance itself can do.
Peck alludes to other ballets in his outer, allegro sections as well, but in too piecemeal a fashion for it to resonate. This autumn, American Ballet Theatre’s ultra-virtuosic Herman Cornejo rampaged through Ratmansky’s first Shostakovich ballet as the imp of history; in Paz de la Jolla, ultra-virtuosic Tiler Peck (no relation to the choreographer) dashes this way and that as the genie of . . . fun in the sun? Meanwhile, Hyltin and Ramasar meet cute, like way too many ballet girls and boys, before they get interesting.
The music’s allegro sections reflect contrary notions, circa 1950, about the California coastline, the “La Jolla” in the title. The triumphal tones affirm the air and ocean as ours to exploit. But the most wavelike refrain is as sharp as glass: the ocean is deadly wild. For the ballet to cohere, Peck needs to get the two La Jollas to meet – and not cute.
Repeats Wednesday and Friday, www.nycballet.com