The installation by the artist JR at the David H. Koch Theater has transformed that building's greatest glory, its tall, spacious first-floor foyer. Unlike the 2013 cartoon tower by the Brooklyn art collective Faile, it doesn't spoil or invade the space; it both deepens and teases it. Go up to the fourth ring, and, from above, it looks like a Baroque ceiling. Virtually life-size images of New York City Ballet dancers are arrayed in rings, whorls and patterns around the floor in various trompe l'oeil effects.
I've heard this installation called pornography. (If so, it's surely an unsuccessful example of that genre.) I think it can certainly be described as kitsch. But it's also imaginative, and, on a fascinatingly large scale, intensely entertaining. And its sense of playfulness is very happy. Finer as art are some (not all) of JR's distressed black-and-white images of dancers in the ground-floor foyers, notably one of Emily Kikta (in the lobby by the left-side elevators), with fabric blowing around her à la Loie Fuller.
On Thursday night, the latest in City Ballet's series of Art Nights, the audience played on that floor, and posed for photographs all around it, like stucco accretions to its design. Disco was played beforehand and in the intermissions and afterward by a D.J. Though his choice of numbers grated beside the music played in the ballets, there need be no quarrel with the principle of occasional party nights of this ilk.
Art Night had a special repertory of five ballets: three - "Kammermusik No. 2," "Concerto Barocco" and "Rubies," all by George Balanchine - from the current repertory (I have already reviewed them), plus two pas de deux to modern music: Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain" and Peter Martins's "The Infernal Machine." In the context of ordinary repertory, it would matter more that the leisurely "After the Rain" number is little more than manipulative schmaltz and that the fast-and-furious "Infernal Machine" feels synthetic. What emerged here were their basic virtues of contrasting pace, which extended the evening's range as a primer in modern classical ballet.
It would be good to think some of Thursday's audience returned at once to see the new program that entered the repertory on Friday: a double bill of Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" and Balanchine's "Union Jack." Celebrating the two choreographers most crucial to City Ballet history, it was called "Balanchine and Robbins: Masters at Work." (The "at work" tag is redundant; in which of their ballets were they not working?) What's impressive here is the new line taken by each choreographer, after decades of celebrity, and his success in sustaining it at remarkable length.
"Dances at a Gathering" was widely hailed as a masterpiece from its 1969 premiere on. It's set to an assortment of different piano pieces by Chopin (mazurkas, waltzes, études, one scherzo and one nocturne). And its informal manners, loose structure, suggestion of folk community, and changing moods all established a whole new kind of dance theater, with a dreamlike sequence of events that goes way beyond that of earlier ballets such as Michel Fokine's "Les Sylphides" and Balanchine's "Serenade" and "Ivesiana."
The way that Robbins changes the tone between one musical number and another is already amazing; the way he then keeps changing mood and organization within some individual longer numbers is more astonishing yet. In two solos, he strongly suggests that this is a memory ballet - the opening one for a man in brown and one halfway through for a woman in green, both of whom take the stage and seem to be sketching their remembrances of dances past. But all 10 characters, even if their connection to their music is often dreamlike, are marvelously real in behavior.
It's a work that can pall when not danced with a wealth of nuance. Tiler Peck (in pink) and Sara Mearns (in mauve) did much to make Friday's performance eloquent. Ms. Peck's phrasing - with miracles of changing balance in one number - was enthralling; and though Ms. Mearns is not currently in the finest physical condition, the subtlety of dramatic inflection she gives to a gesture, a glance, a step makes her a rare artist. Joaquin De Luz brought a new quiet maturity to the brown role.
Among the other parts, Adrian Danchig-Waring (green) combined crispness and freedom; Brittany Pollack (blue) showed a newly adult quality; and the charm and good manners of Tyler Angle (purple) made an important contribution. Though the persona shown by Megan Fairchild (apricot) remains too lightly adolescent - she seemed the only child onstage - her boldness was welcome. I find Maria Kowroski's physicality wrong for the green solo, despite effective moments.
Though "Union Jack" is seldom singled out as one of Balanchine's most original works, you can't watch it without feeling the risks it takes. No choreographer had a stronger sense of ceremony than Balanchine, but the amount of slow procession and parade here remains breathtaking - and tremendous. The ballet is a salute to Britain, and Balanchine catches several layers of the British persona: reverence and irreverence, the stiff upper lip and the twinkling eye.
Janie Taylor, Ms. Mearns and Teresa Reichlen, leading, first, regiments of kilted guards and naval units also, all have the glamour of old navy black friday 2013-time movie stars. Ms. Mearns, at the head of a thundering all-female dance unit, begins to restore to it the galvanizing dynamic force it lost over 20 years ago (more, please); while Ms. Reichlen, subtly cheeky and elegantly gorgeous at the same time at the head of a line of Wrens, is in full bloom.