When Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan were appointed artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively, of New York City Ballet in February 2019, they couldn’t possibly imagine the challenges they would be facing a mere year later.
Both are Company veterans who had studied at the School of American Ballet and risen through the ranks to become celebrated Principal Dancers. But a deep knowledge of the Company’s immense repertory, its inner workings, and its traditions could not prepare them for the blindsiding advent of the pandemic in March 2020, which shut down live performances throughout the country.
The unprecedented problems posed by the pandemic are now, it is to be hoped, in the rear-view mirror. So it is not surprising that Stafford and Whelan speak with palpable excitement about the more inspiring challenge that followed: the programming of the year-long celebration of the Company’s 75th anniversary, which includes more than 60 ballets spread across 25 weeks of performances.
“We have so much incredible repertory and it was an exciting process to delve into all these works and choose the ones that make the most sense for the current Company,” says Stafford.
“Really showing the breadth of the 75 years was a big priority,” says Whelan. “We decided to start at the very beginning, with the roots, the seeds. It was Jon’s idea to do the works of George Balanchine in the fall, and to start with Jewels, picking up on the theme of the diamond anniversary.”
“We wanted to start with the all-Balanchine season because for those of us that came up through the School and Company, that’s the base of all of our technique,” Stafford observes. “That’s the base that all other things sprout from, so to start off with a focus on the core of who we are, in terms of artistry and technical proficiency, was a great jumping off point.”
As Whelan affirms, “When you have performed a lot of Balanchine repertory, you feel like you can do anything. We wanted to give that opportunity to the dancers. To give them that protein.” The fall season features 16 Balanchine ballets spread across 27 performances, and includes numerous favorites, from Concerto Barocco to Agon to Symphony in C.
Of course, even selecting from the Company’s extensive Balanchine repertory made for some rigorous decisions and hard choices, due to the sheer number of ballets he created—in just the past 10 years, New York City Ballet has presented more than 60 of his works.
“The wealth of his repertory is so immense, we could have used an extra season to program all of the Balanchine ballets we wanted to put on,” Whelan says. “But I think that we have found the right balance of works from the whole arc, all the radiant spokes of what he created.”
While Balanchine, who co-founded the Company in 1948 with Lincoln Kirstein, was an almost unimaginably fertile dance-maker, so, too, was Jerome Robbins, and a 75th-anniversary celebration necessitated paying tribute to the breadth and variety of his works as well. Throughout the discussion of the season, Stafford and Whelan returned frequently to the idea of nurturing the dancers, both the established principals and the emerging talents just finding their place in the Company, and Stafford sees the Robbins repertory, which will be highlighted during the 2024 winter and spring seasons, as central to this part of the anniversary celebration.
“Dances at a Gathering, in particular, helps dancers really grow, so that was important to me,” he says. “And I was really excited to include Interplay because that is traditionally performed by younger dancers, and we have such a talented group of new artists starting in the Company. It will be a great vehicle for them.”
“Again, the spokes,” adds Whelan. “Robbins had another remarkable range of works that dancers really respond to today.”
A major anniversary necessitates celebrating the Company’s history, but also pointing toward its future. In addition to the Balanchine and Robbins heritage repertory and works created between 1988 and 2023 by choreographers Kyle Abraham, Ulysses Dove, Albert Evans, William Forsythe, Peter Martins, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, Gianna Reisen, Pam Tanowitz, and Christopher Wheeldon, the anniversary season will also feature World Premieres by Peck (NYCB’s Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor), Ratmansky (NYCB’s Artist in Residence), Tiler Peck (NYCB Principal Dancer), and choreographer Amy Hall Garner. Tiler Peck and Garner will both be making their first-ever works for the Company.
Balanchine was an exemplar of the notion that a thriving company cannot simply be a museum of great works: “I don’t have a past,” he once said. “I have a continuous present. The past is part of the present, just as the future is. We exist in time.” To that end, in discussing future priorities for the Company Whelan and Stafford echo that idea. “Our legacy is to continue growing,” says Whelan. “Never ending the process of the evolution of the art form. That was Balanchine’s ethos.”