Review: At New York City Ballet’s Gala, the Usual With a Twist

Ballet galas are a special species of performance, as much about schmoozing and speeches and gowns as about the dancing. Ballets made for such occasions tend to fall into certain patterns and formulas: usually upbeat and often emphasizing opportunities for dancers to show off. As with any genre, a gala-style piece can be done in a rote or fresh manner, and at New York City Ballet’s spring gala on Thursday, the two premieres were fresh enough.

In their connections to the company, the choreographers presented a contrast. Justin Peck, City Ballet’s resident choreographer and artistic adviser, was contributing his 24th work for the troupe. Amy Hall Garner, a midcareer, newly in-demand choreographer, was offering her first. But these dancemakers were similar in what they delivered: the usual, with a twist.

Following George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” Peck’s piece came first. His formula was the taking-turns, challenge-dance pas de deux; his cast, the reliably marvelous team of Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia. The main twist was the choice of music: Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” — which gave the dance its title — is inspired by James Brown. It takes a string quartet (here the PUBLIQuartet) and makes it funky.

A challenge-dance duet is home territory for these performers, well equipped with the firepower to pull off escalation. But the dynamic was playfully emphasized here with another twist: a ball. Trading off, the dancers passed it, sometimes bouncing it off the back wall — he had a ball, she had a ball, and they had a ball together. It was cute.

Brandon Stirling Baker lit the piece with elegance, his scenic design putting stenciled numbers on the wings that suggested a warehouse or maybe an old gym. Humberto Leon dressed the dancers in gray and black. It was their skill, though, that made the performance more than cute.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia in Justin Peck’s “Dig the Say,” another world premiere.Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
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