Bringing It All Back Home: City Ballet Begins Again With Balanchine

The creation of art: From left, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Bouder, Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay in George Balanchine’s “Apollo” on Tuesday night.

New York City Ballet opened its six-week winter season on Tuesday with “Apollo” (1928), a ballet about the creation of art. Choreographed by George Balanchine to a classic score by Igor Stravinsky, “Apollo” would always be a good work to commence a City Ballet season — but seldom more than now. The company is passing, commendably so far, through a crisis.

Peter Martins, its ballet master in chief and just the second artistic leader in its 70 years, resigned on New Year’s Day, after allegations of physical and sexual harassment surfaced. Since December, the day-to-day artistic life of the company has been run by an interim team. It is not known when a permanent successor to Mr. Martins will be announced — a delay that is surely valuable and a sign that the complexity of this job (or jobs) is recognized.

Mr. Martins succeeded Balanchine, who founded City Ballet in 1948 with Lincoln Kirstein. When Balanchine died in 1983, the company’s dancers rose to the occasion for several years. This wasn’t just a sign that he had left City Ballet in shiningly good shape. You could feel that the performances were acts of self-dedication, of communion with the dead. (In 1988, that excellence began to erode.)

Now with the departure of Mr. Martins, City Ballet has reached a different but related test of character. Again, the company has met the challenge. None of these dancers can remember life before Mr. Martins. All were handpicked by him. And this repertory — the season opened with Balanchine triple bills on Tuesday and Wednesday — was scheduled by him back in 2017. Pluck, spirit and dedication were all on display. You could find fault, but only in ways you could during the Martins era.

Balanchine’s birthday, more honored now than in his lifetime, was on Jan. 22. Even if you missed these opening performances, you could read on social media the gratitude of dancers, to both Balanchine (whom none of today’s dancers knew) and Mr. Martins, and their pride in continuing to fulfill their mission.

Jan. 22 was also the day on which, in 1928, Igor Stravinsky first played the score of his new “Apollon Musagète” (known today as “Apollo”) to Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. For Balanchine, who was assigned to stage it, Stravinsky’s score was an epiphany. The music and his choreography contained layers of artistic history: They told the Greek myth in ways that fused radical novelty with classical tradition. Diaghilev, watching an “Apollo” rehearsal and turning to the composer Nicolas Nabokov, said of Balanchine: “What he is doing is magnificent. This is classicism, classicism such as we have not seen since Petipa.”

On Tuesday, Chase Finlay’s tall and statuesque Apollo and the muses Sterling Hyltin (Terpsichore), Ashley Bouder (Polyhymnia) and Lauren Lovette (Calliope) were utterly lucid exponents of the Balanchine vision. Many who remember City Ballet’s “Apollo” during Balanchine’s lifetime would still like improvements, but they’re the same we’ve wanted for years. Mark Stanley’s lighting is too tepid, and several aspects of the choreography are misaccentuated. Andrew Litton’s conducting, though it elicited wonderful orchestral playing, was insufficiently propulsive. When Terpsichore placed her finger onto Apollo’s at the start of the pas de deux, the emphasis was overdone: What should matter more is the line that follows as she turns away.

So today’s “Apollo” lacks playfulness, excitement, naturalness. (Balanchine once described Apollo as “a country boy,” the muses as “three broads who happen along.”) But its formal qualities remain thrilling: The lines of Mr. Finlay’s dancing open out vastly into the surrounding air.

Balanchine’s “Apollo” was an open-sesame. Its revelatory meeting of ancient and modern became the hallmark of his work. Classicism and modernism also coexist in many of his ballets, not least the five others on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s programs.

On Wednesday, “The Four Temperaments” (1946), one of the peak ballets of the 20th century, was vivid in all its facets, from Lydia Wellington’s gleamingly cool, sure delivery of the opening duet onward. Teresa Reichlen has long been the definitive exponent of Choleric’s thunder-and-lightning steps, while Anthony Huxley, sometimes too contained in the past, broke through as Melancholic to a new fervor, his torso powerfully showing the conflicts embodied here. No conflicts for Tiler Peck’s incisive Sanguinic: She was all full-throttle, outward-bound momentum.

Maria Kowroski, the company’s senior ballerina, and her partner Tyler Angle brought a greater wealth of nuance to “Mozartiana” (1981) than they’ve previously achieved. Sara Mearns, the troupe’s most dramatic stylist, firmly steered “Cortège Hongrois” (1973) from severity to jubilance, and “Chaconne” (1976) from elusive spirituality through to rococo brilliance. She was handsomely partnered by Russell Janzen (“Cortège”) and Adrian Danchig-Waring (“Chaconne”). Both these men were admirable: More authority will come with more experience. Mr. Janzen seems unnecessarily anxious, as if not knowing how good he is.

Wednesday’s account of “Divertimento No. 15” (1956), a celestial work featuring five ballerinas and three cavaliers, was both bold and clear. My cavil here is not a new one: Some of these ballerinas (Megan Fairchild, Abi Stafford) stepped out eagerly into space without illuminating the air around them; they were bubbly but not radiant. But it was good to see Ashley Laracey back from a six-month injury. Could this lovely but often self-absorbed soloist become an exemplar of classical style?

Outside the auditorium, the David H. Koch Theater looked distinctly festive. Jihan Zencirli’s large installation of primary-color balloons in the upstairs foyer is the latest, brightest and merriest of the six art installations the company has presented in the past years; Ms. Zencirli is the first female artist to have been commissioned. Even though I prefer this beautiful foyer in an unadorned, pristine condition, I enjoy these balloons: They hang like huge grapes from a pergola.

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