It is not often that the New York City Ballet — with its 91 dancers and full orchestra — goes on tour. The company is a deluxe attraction, but few presenters these days have the means to bring in such a large enterprise.
Seven years after the company performed at what was then called the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Southern California audiences this week will be among the first to see New York City Ballet Moves — a leaner touring ensemble drawn from the company's ranks that was launched this summer. It consists of up to two dozen dancers and company musicians performing works from the repertory set to chamber and piano scores.
In two Santa Barbara programs and one in Northridge, this newly minted ensemble will offer Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering" plus George Balanchine's "Sonatine," three works by Peter Martins, NYCB's ballet master in chief, and two by Christopher Wheeldon.
Audiences will encounter many younger NYCB dancers who have moved into important roles after some major retirements since the company last appeared in this area. Moves includes the company's versatile senior ballerina, Wendy Whelan, as well as a recently promoted soloist, Chase Finlay, who made a notable debut in Balanchine's "Apollo" last spring. Half of the 20 dancers are principals, three are soloists and the six from the corps de ballet have all been seen in featured roles during recent seasons.
The NYCB roster has evolved at a more rapid pace than it used to — as has its repertory, with contributions by choreographer-in-demand Alexei Ratmansky, Broadway's Susan Stroman and such European choreographers as Mauro Bigonzetti. But Balanchine and Robbins, who created dozens of works over many decades, remain the heart of its repertory, with the prolific Martins and Wheeldon (whose tenure as resident choreographer ended in 2008 but who continues to work regularly with the company) the other mainstays.
So this week's repertory represents the essential profile, though the absence of an orchestra severely limits which Balanchine works can be performed. For these performances, there is the delicately perfumed "Sonatine," set to Ravel's piano work of the same title.
"The idea for New York City Ballet Moves is that it's meant to be the same experience you would have seeing the company perform in New York. It's just that the repertoire is selected for a smaller group," said Katherine Brown, the company's executive director, speaking from her Lincoln Center office last week.
"We will always use live music unless something was made for taped music."
Because NYCB performs 21 weeks a year at its home base (Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater) and has longstanding engagements in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the windows for touring are limited — and touring is not as crucial for survival as it is for companies with shorter home seasons who count on tours to boost revenue.
"It's wonderful not to have to depend on that touring; on the other hand, we want to make sure that we're out in other communities, that other people have a chance to see the company. That's a big part of the impetus behind this new Moves group. We had been speaking to a lot of presenters, and there was a lot of enthusiasm." Brown said. "What's interesting about this model is that there can be more than one group out at a time."
For dancer Tiler Peck, who was a 15-year-old apprentice making her first appearances with NYCB the last time it came to Southern California, these performances will demonstrate her rapid trajectory. A principal dancer since 2009, the Bakersfield native is one of the company's strongest technicians and most natural performers. Pert and naturally adept at swift, intricate footwork, she soon transcended her natural soubrette qualities in roles that require sophistication, expansiveness and romance.
Peck first took dance classes at her mother's school, where she initially preferred jazz dance but kept up her ballet chops at her mom's urging. She later studied with former Bolshoi dancer Alla Khaniashvili and two of Balanchine's leading dancers, Patricia and Colleen Neary, before attending Westside School of Ballet, where former NYCB principal Yvonne Mounsey became a mentor.
At 11, Peck landed a role in Stroman's Broadway revival of "The Music Man" and during her year in New York studied at the School of American Ballet. That was when ballet really clicked for her, and her future path was set. Sitting in the Koch Theater's green room last week, she recalled, "At first I felt like a jazz dancer trying to do ballet. SAB was a challenge, and I've always liked to strive for something that's not really in my reach." After two summer courses, she committed to the School of American Ballet full time at 14 and became a company apprentice after one year.
She will dance two works on each of this week's two programs. In "Dances at a Gathering," Robbins' 1969 hour-long exploration of Chopin piano music, she has the central role of the woman in pink, who performs three contrasting duets in addition to other sections. This repertory mainstay for 10 dancers delicately evokes an intimate community of no set time or place, unfolding through delicately shaded, sometimes humorous encounters.
"I always feel the audience is watching a private rehearsal because we're all so intimate in this ballet," Peck said. "It doesn't feel like a performance; it's organic and really in the moment." She will also perform in Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" and two contrasting works by Martins.
Peck was part of the first NYCB Moves tour, which went to Vail, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo., in July; the ensemble has been asked back to both venues for next summer. Compared with regular company seasons, she said, "it felt a lot more intimate. We were together all the time. It felt more hands-on; we learned a lot."
That intimacy should extend to audiences as well, which gets to NYCB's dancers in less formal settings — and without having to wait another seven years.