BECKET — Among the many quips attributed to the great choreographer George Balanchine is one in which he likened a well-organized program to a satisfying meal. Though the evening put together by New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht is lacking an entree, the starter course — four discrete duets and one solo — if not always substantial, at least whets the appetite, while the dessert — Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free” — is, at 70 years young, both the cake and its ubiquitous icing.
The program (obscurely titled “BALLET 2014”) is being presented at Jacob’s Pillow this week by Ulbricht and a small ensemble of his colleagues from City Ballet, the house of Balanchine. The dancers — mostly principals and soloists — and top-shelf choreographers represent a glamorous who’s who in the ballet world, but Ulbricht also makes room for the young choreographer Emery LeCrone and her cast, corps de ballet members Emily Kitkta and Russell Janzen.
The strongest of the duets, from Benjamin Millepied’s 2012 “Two Hearts,” is set to an original score by Nico Muhly, and as with the Robbins-Leonard Bernstein “Fancy Free,” it makes a strong case for good old-fashioned collaboration between choreographer and composer. In this subtle, tender, and finally melancholy duet, even the way Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle enter from opposite wings is weighted and poetic, as if they’ve been walking for miles toward this destiny. Peck is precise but not dry; whether she’s stepping up onto pointe or folding herself into Angle, it’s as if she’s morphing into the ground or into him. Angle continually meets and envelops her with the ardent, meticulous partnering for which City Ballet men are often known.
Robert Fairchild, in Justin Peck’s 2012 “Furiant,” and Craig Hall, in Christopher Wheeldon’s 2003 “Liturgy,” also hold up that legacy, supporting their respective partners Teresa Reichlen and Rebecca Krohn chivalrously. (In LeCrone’s world premiere “Opus 19. Andante,” Janzen’s comparative inexperience is ever-so-slightly evident in the way he grasps Kikta too high up her rib cage.)
LeCrone pulls off a neat trick with “Opus 19”: She has created a sweetly appropriate duet for these young dancers, with enough academic challenge to keep them honest while showing us the luxurious expansiveness of which their miles-long limbs are capable. LeCrone’s fellow choreographers, however, aren’t represented in their best works here: “Furiant” shifts between sweeping romanticism and allegro passages too mercurially to do more than stay on a breezy surface; “Liturgy,” going for sculptured ritualism, is instead often mired in a fussy self-consciousness despite sincere performances by Krohn and Hall.
Rather coyly, Ulbricht waits until the end of the first act to appear, but, oh, what he does in a barely two-minute span! In his 2013 “Sunshine,” Larry Keigwin winds the compact Ulbricht like a top, then sends him out, spinning and jumping; he must have touched the ground at least a few times, but I wouldn’t swear to it. In any event, Ulbricht was decidedly in the house.
It’s hard to imagine Robbins’s “Fancy Free” without Oliver Smith’s iconic set, and thankfully, despite the Pillow’s smallish stage, there it is, along with Kermit Love’s inimitable costumes. It’s generous of Angle, Fairchild, and Ulbricht, portraying the “three sailors on shore leave,” to give up so much space, but they make do with a brilliant equanimity. The men’s timing, both comic and musical, is fabulous: From those first exuberant cartwheels in, they each offer variations on a playful theme, Angle goofily charming, Fairchild mischievous, and Ulbricht puckish. The scrapes they get into over the women — Peck, again so right with Angle in the duet, and Georgina Pazcoguin, elegantly haughty on the surface, but burning for adventure — are just cirrus clouds on an otherwise heavenly horizon.