It’s hard to digest New York City Ballet’s latest premiere without knowing the story behind it. In a roundabout way, it’s a story ballet, but not the kind in which a princess falls asleep after being pricked by a needle. “Architects of Time,” a collaboration between the choreographer Silas Farley and the composer David K. Israel, is a back-story ballet.
Its history dates to 1946. It was Igor Stravinsky’s birthday, and George Balanchine wanted to give his dear friend a gift. He composed a melody and set an acrostic poem to it, with the first letter of each line spelling the name “Igor” in Russian. Stravinsky, taken with Balanchine’s melody, harmonized the song.
The charming, quirky lyrics, translated into English, make it clear why Balanchine, the man as much as the choreographer, is sorely missed: “Name day and birthday / Guests, noise and animation / Let’s get drunk on Grand Marnier/Don’t forget a glass for me, too.”
Now it’s grown into something bigger, but not anywhere as charming or as quirky: Farley’s ballet, created in honor of City Ballet’s current Stravinsky Festival. It was unveiled on Thursday at the spring gala, which seemed like the right place for it. It wasn’t intended as just a pièce d’occasion, but its chances of surviving seem slim.
The work had its genesis with Israel, who found a photocopy of the song in the Harvard Theater Collection nearly 30 years ago. At the time, he was the musical adviser to the dance critic Arlene Croce. For him, it was a gold mine — and even better, one that provided a theme onto which he could compose variations. His score for “Architects of Time” is worth additional listens: It mines and manipulates Stravinsky’s music — sometimes in sprightly, shimmering ways — to create a new-old dancing sound.
But the ballet, which does the same with Balanchine’s repertory, ends up as a more or less polite showcase in which positions and postures, the angles of wrists and arms, don’t generate new choreography so much as mix together fragments from the past. What is the larger meaning? It seems less inspired by Balanchine ballets than by pictures of Balanchine ballets.
Unfolding in eight variations, “Architects” is book-ended by group sections that feature the full cast — eight men and eight women — as a moving organism scattering across the stage in arrangements of sleek turning jumps and leaps. Farley, here and elsewhere, creates slices of space in which dancers stand out from the crowd. Quinn Starner exudes a special luxuriousness, especially the way her crystalline épaulement shows off the angles of her head and shoulders; Samuel Melnikov’s juicy jump has a way of lingering in the air, ever expanding through his long arms and fluent hands.
In the end, such snippets are more gratifying than the featured moments — a duet for Emma Von Enck and Lars Nelson in which partnering is awkward in its starts and stops, and solos for Jovani Furlan and Claire Kretzschmar that hint at contemplative states yet rarely go deeper. Furlan, incorporating some strange, crumpling shapes that bring to mind Balanchine ‘s “Episodes,” is on a moody journey of sorts, while Kretzschmar, her arms her rotating through classical positions, drifts here and there on pointe with floor-skimming steps . In moments, especially when her arms her open as her face tilts up, there is the echo of the opening prayer of Balanchine’s “Mozartiana.” But the timing is off, and the effect is more pious than pensive.
It doesn’t help that the combination of Mark Stanley’s lighting and Cassia Farley’s costumes dim the stage considerably. Are they going for something elegiac? Even when the dancers are in a joyful mood — and thank you, Roman Mejia and Gilbert Bolden III, for turning up the volume — the setting is cheerless. Cassia Farley, who is the choreographer’s wife, has created short dresses for the women and unitards for the men; the lower half of each is deep maroon-red, and the upper half fades to show the dancer’s skin tone. They have the look of hard-boiled eggs dipped in dye and glitter.
While it made sense to pair Farley, a former company member who has always been entranced by City Ballet’s rich history, with Israel’s score, the collaboration is too static to soar. “Architects of Time” refers to something Balanchine says in the documentary “In Balanchine’s Classroom”: “Composer is architect of time, and we have to dance to it.”
Those words are urgent. In the film, he also says, “Music is the basis, or a floor that we walk on.” But here, the floor is weighed down by too much legacy and too little imagination. And on this gala program, there was too much to compare it to, including Balanchine’s all-female “Scherzo à la Russe,” a lively homage to Russian folk dance featuring advanced students from the company’s School of American Ballet, as well as what is arguably the crown jewel of the 1972 festival, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”
With its folk motifs, two spellbinding pas de deux and galvanizing group sections, “Violin Concerto” remains playful and soulful in startling ways. With all of his crisp virtuosity and intense focus his, Joseph Gordon, dancing with Ashley Laracey — looking otherworldly at times, hesitant at others — seemed to be shot out of a cannon. Unity Phelan, in a promising debut, used her glorious plasticity to vivid effect, but seeing her with a different partner will tell a different story; here, she danced with Amar Ramasar, whose prowess continues to be rooted more in confidence than corporeal truth.
The highlight of the night came straightaway, with Jerome Robbins’s “Circus Polka,” set to music that Stravinsky had composed for Balanchine, who made a dance for the young elephants of the Ringling Brothers circus in 1941. In 1972, Robbins used the music to make a showpiece for the students of the School of American Ballet and performed the part of the Ringmaster; Here, the recently retired Maria Kowroski did the honors.
To have a woman in the part was a first at City Ballet, but that wasn’t why it was so satisfying. Ruling over 48 children from the school, Kowroski used her height her to her advantage her — making the tiny dancers seem even tinier as they marched and pranced through Stravinsky ‘s score. Kowroski has the delightful ability to be both maternal and in on the joke. It was good to have her back her, even if just for a night.