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Rising Out of the Pandemic, City Ballet Ushers in a New Era

Dance, perhaps more than any art, is one of reinvention and renewal, and New York City Ballet’s fall season showed that inevitable generational shift with particular clarity. It can be painful. When Lauren Lovette, bowing at her gorgeous farewell performance on Oct. 9, offered a tiny wave to the cheering crowd and then gave a decisive nod toward the wings — a signal to lower the curtain — I felt a hole in my heart. She’s only 29; while she won’t stop dancing entirely, she wants to devote herself to choreography. Her last movement on the stage was a deep, subterranean sigh.

Then, on Sunday, came the final performance of Maria Kowroski. She burst onto the scene about the time I began writing about dance, and I always felt a bond; my pursuit could seem impossible, but then I would watch Kowroski bravely stepping into one principal role after the next. Rightly, she became dance royalty.

Other dancers retired this season, too — the principals Ask la Cour and Abi Stafford, along with the soloist Lauren King, who has been a joy to watch all season, dancing with abandon and what felt like gratitude. But Kowroski, in her program, showed her singular spirit, somehow letting us float in the same air as her last dance.

She was so expansive, so soft in the spiritual opening of “Chaconne,” that the roar that initially greeted her was replaced by rapt silence. As her long limbs left lingering traces, she wafted across the stage with Russell Janzen, her partner, both a vision of gentle, smooth serenity.

In “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” she exposed a different side of herself, and not just because she was playing a stripper, lushly bending and relishing in her extension with gleeful voluptuousness. Clearly, she was having the time of her life. When in Tyler Angle’s arms, she traveled across the stage kicking a leg in the air, the audience shouted its approval. It was wild fun and full of abandon; Kowroski may have been performing for us, but she was dancing for herself.

When it was all over, Lincoln Center — the plaza, the sidewalks, even a nearby subway station — was full of people, many dazed and red-eyed as they clutched their programs and tried to walk in a straight line. A merry trio of male dancers carefully transported bouquets across the street to where a farewell party was going to happen. A year and a half ago, such a scene seemed impossible to fathom. It was all kind of breathtaking, but strange, a little surreal. Like the season itself.

Amid the pandemic, I reunited with an old friend who comes from the experimental performance world. The Knicks brought us together. But our shared love for basketball didn’t translate to ballet. He dismissed it. This fall, though, I started taking him to City Ballet performances; he became invested both in the dancers and in the choreography of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. And what was most gratifying was his realization, as he wrote me in an email, “that in spite of the seeming ease and fluidity of movement, the rigor and labor of the dancers did not escape the dance. They made the dance.”

That’s what this season has been like: an expression of rigor and labor, strain and sweat. Against the odds — and with a collective effort that extended far beyond the dancers — the company gave us four weeks of live performance, the chance to witness people pushing beyond what they thought they could achieve.

And more than simply celebratory, many of the performances — even in less than stellar ballets — were assured, vibrant and in some cases improved. Unity Phelan was ravishing, dancing with such sweep and strength that she seemed reborn. The same elegance and extension were there but she was instilled with a different sense of purpose and authority that made the most of her extreme beauty. Sometimes I thought it made her hold something back; but now she dances like she wants to be seen.

Midseason, she was promoted to principal, along with the ebullient, imaginative Indiana Woodward. When dancers like this succeed, you feel confidence; they are what principal dancers should be: individual spirits, musical, capable of making old ballets new.

The same was true of another promotion — Roman Mejia to soloist. Dancing with Phelan in “Western Symphony,” Balanchine’s homage to cowboys and dance hall girls, he was articulate and game — charming in a real way, not in the cloying, winking way he has sometimes been prone to. Later in the season, this time opposite Tiler Peck in Robbins’s “Other Dances,” Mejia seemed to be on the precipice of a new maturity — with both his partnering and the precision of his bounding jumps.

But there were plenty more to feel hopeful about: Joseph Gordon, for his ever-growing range, which gave his cowboy in “Western” a sense of jazzy sophistication and gave the lead of Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer” depth and mystery. Mira Nadon, who showed, again, that she can carve space like few others in the Stravinsky-Balanchine pairing of “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo” and “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” and Jovani Furlan, with his sleek elegance, are surely ready for more.

And there are always those generous dancers who stand out in a crowd: Savannah Durham, Davide Riccardo, India Bradley, Emma Von Enck, Olivia Boisson, KJ Takahashi. Chun Wai Chan, who started in August as a soloist, shows promise. And Gilbert Bolden III was everywhere. In Justin Peck’s “Rotunda” — a ballet as lightweight as his “Pulcinella Variations” is fussy — Bolden was a dream in his partnering of Sara Mearns: full of care and dynamism. He’s a big guy! All the more to love. His strength is one thing, but his real gift is his agility.

The debut of the season? It was saved for the final weekend when Isabella LaFreniere delivered on every bit of her promise — and more — in “Chaconne.” This vivid performance reintroduced her as a future ballerina of note: It’s one thing to be technically strong, which she is; it’s yet another to have musicality and phrasing.

LaFreniere didn’t come out of thin air — as a student at the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, she danced the lead in Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” at workshop performances in 2013. But since joining the company in 2014, she’s been plagued by injuries. Her featured appearances have been few and far between. I’ll never forget the authority and speed of her Dewdrop in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” in 2016, but in the 2017 and 2018 seasons she had to drop out of what would have been major debuts in “Firebird” and “Rubies.”

So I held my breath, even though in all of her appearances this season, her dancing had confidence and refinement. In “Chaconne,” performing with Adrian Danchig-Waring, LaFreniere was completely seasoned yet never formulaic. She played with accents, she took chances, she made the role her own.

With opulence and a sunny glamour, she grew beyond her positions, stretching into arabesques, and tilting and bending until she was thrillingly off-balance; she flowed through its tricky changes of direction without hesitation or awkwardness. She smiled all the way through. It was almost as though she was speaking with her sparkling feet: Welcome to my dancing! I’ve been wanting to show you this for so long.

It was worth the wait for LaFreniere to become whole again. Suddenly the prospect of City Ballet’s winter season doesn’t seem so cold, does it? That and the Knicks will get me to spring.

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