Like many works by Justin Peck, his new “Principia” is immediately arresting. Two dozen dancers clump in a crouch, and somebody in the middle spurts up. Then someone else does, followed by another and another, each burst contributing to the collective image of a fountain. A little later, dancers huddle together in three groups like tall sheaves of wheat. When someone touches the top of a bundle, it opens to reveal a treasure inside: another member of the company.
Such images and formations have been the most conspicuous proof of Mr. Peck’s uncommon talent since he began choreographing for New York City Ballet in 2012. “Principia,” which had its debut at the David H. Koch Theater on Thursday, is his 17th ballet for the company, and it shares much with those he’s made before. It’s youthful, ardent, inventive, sincere. Claire Kretzschmar might be said to define its sunny spirit, except that no one in this work stands out for long.
A pair might draw focus in the foreground, but behind them, in silhouette, life goes on, with other people making connections or missing them. (The lighting is by the masterful Jennifer Tipton.) Those missed connections are typical, too. A friendly threesome keeps turning into a duo, leaving one member out and reaching into the wings. Two guys who have eyes for each other can’t seem to stick together. The group keeps absorbing their pas de deux.
By the end of “Principia,” whose fancy Latin title alludes not so helpfully to Isaac Newton, this wistfulness has already turned into wistful memory, as all the images of the dance return in an artfully composed, meditative skein. In tone, this is a bit like high school seniors flipping through a yearbook, remembering when they were young. And the rush to reminiscence almost seems an acknowledgment that what has immediately preceded it — a series of exposed duets and solos — is more generic and less engaging than the group stuff, a persistent problem in Mr. Peck’s work.
There’s a sense in “Principia” of compositional habits leading Mr. Peck to say the same things he’s said before. Part of the trouble could be with the music. This is far from the first time that Mr. Peck has turned to the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and the two artists clearly have a simpatico relationship. Yet, even more than in their 2014 collaboration, “Everywhere We Go,” Mr. Stevens has produced an inoffensive collection of pastiche orchestral sections, lacking the kind of sustained organization that George Balanchine said a choreographer needed. That gives Mr. Peck room to impose his own structure but not much help in escaping creative ruts.
On Thursday, “Principia” was book ended by the chic of two different eras. The program opened with the return of William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman,” a 1992 work that since 1994 has been represented at City Ballet only by the pas de deux that Mr. Forsythe added in 1993.
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We haven’t been missing much. The opening section, for three women and two men, is a black-and-white affair that offsets hyperextension and some rhythmic panache with flat-footed walking and other ostentatious casualness. In its anxiously jokey relation to the classic of Balanchine modernism that City Ballet is also performing this week, it could have been titled “Agon Schmagon.” What is as dated as the sound of the electronics in Thom Willems’s recorded score? The early-1990s attitude of this dance.
The “Herman Schmerman” pas de deux confronts the same conventions that Mr. Peck struggles with now, but it sidesteps them with a wink. Before it’s time to trade off solos, the couple shakes hands. After the woman reappears in a yellow skirt, so does the man. With its sped-up showing off and Twyla Tharpian jogging, the pas de deux is kind of fun, and Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle looked sexy having fun with it.
You want a man in a skirt? Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway,” closing the program, has two of them, shirtless in fur collars — and it also has tracks by Kanye West (among others). Mr. Abraham created the work, his first ballet, for the 2018 Fall Gala, and its costumes by Giles Deacon are wild. Pieces made for these fashion galas often don’t find a place in the repertory, but Mr. Abraham’s is holding up.
There’s a kind of irreverent joke, of course, in dancing ballet steps to confrontational hip-hop. But it’s an earned joke, because the steps fit the speech rhythms so well. Mr. Abraham has discovered real connections, humorous and beautiful, between ballet and his own hybrid, street-influenced style. “The Runaway” feels of the moment, and overdue. And it remains a star vehicle for Taylor Stanley, who is so at home and extraordinary in this new mode that it’s hard to imagine the dance without him. Catch his performance before it’s a memory.