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Dance review: New York City Ballet Moves in Santa Barbara

New York City Ballet MOVES
Los Angeles Times

Can an appetizer-size portion of New York City Ballet be as gratifying as the entire multi-course company?

That was the question Wednesday, as New York City Ballet Moves made its Southern California debut at the historic Grenada Theatre (with an annoyingly creaking stage), presented by UC Santa Barbara’s Arts & Lectures. With no more than 20 principals, soloists and corps de ballet members, this ensemble is nimble, created to tour. Even better, it brings along its own musicians.

The downside is Moves’ restricted repertory; on this occasion, no works by co-founder George Balanchine, the artistic foundation of City Ballet. That was a disappointment. 

Some masterpieces do fit Moves, and quite nicely. “Dances at a Gathering” (1969), Jerome Robbins' work for five couples, celebrates love, playfulness and Chopin’s piano pieces. Pianist Susan Walters began, and Gonzalo Garcia ambled on, dreamily applying gentle assurance to a slow mazurka.

Just that fast, we were reminded that certain dance qualities remain sacrosanct at NYCB. It is embedded in its genetic code that in any size of ensemble the dancers will fully shape and make physical a score’s tonal colors and pulse. Most everyone revealed themselves through exquisite timing and clarity.

Tiler Peck, in pink, delighted with her fully animated style. She was perfectly matched in one duet with Garcia, a leading man of crisp and thoughtful expression. Sara Mearns projected deep romantic longing, and her opening duet with Chase Finlay told a wonderful story of risking your heart for love. Mearns just needs a stalwart partner. Keep an eye out for Lauren Lovette, whose fleetness and sparkling demeanor were enchanting. Another impressive young soloist was Antonio Carmena, who has springs for feet.

Act 2 opened with a simple yet searing pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, “After the Rain.” His couple has a bruised outer layer, but an unbreakable attachment. Wendy Whelan was both tense and delicate, her gestures one long river of motion. Ask la Cour partnered her with sincerity and exactitude, but acted more as her servant than her equal. Kudos to violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Alan Moverman, for their skillful playing of Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel.”

The closer was Artistic Director Peter Martins’ tribute to Ray Charles, “A Fool for You.” This was lightweight, fun stuff, relying on saucy swishes and jazzy shuffles to animate eight songs, including “Hit the Road Jack.” This time, music was not inspiration enough and most in the cast had trouble manufacturing  soulful swing. Daniel Ulbricht and Joaquin De Luz saved the day, stirring up an electrical charge with showy leaps and spins. 

Depth and a worthy repertory will be NYCB Moves’ challenges. But, come to think of it, that’s not so different from any other company.