BY JOCELYN NOVECK, The Associated Press
NEW YORK — At farewell performances for its retiring dancers, New York City Ballet tends to suddenly feel like a big family, with everyone home for Thanksgiving, bearing flowers and hugs and snapping photos.
That was certainly the case on Sunday as the company bid goodbye to Charles Askegard, one of its best-liked dancers – especially by the ballerinas that he partnered with an assured grace for 14 years.
Askegard, 42, is hardly leaving dance – he's actually forming a new company, Ballet Next, with a former American Ballet Theatre ballerina, Michele Wiles. And he will likely be making many other guest appearances.
But City Ballet audiences will no longer see him in familiar roles such as the male in "Diamonds," from George Balanchine's elegant "Jewels," or the swaggering cowboy in "Western Symphony," the rollicking crowd-pleaser that closed Sunday's program.
And so, at curtain calls, they rose in unison to applaud the dancer known to colleagues as simply "Chuck," as one by one, his female partners came out with bouquets and kisses. One of them, the veteran dancer Wendy Whelan, stood behind him and snapped photos with a tiny camera she had brought onstage.
A gaggle of male dancers followed, with a more macho greeting – Askegard even got a chest bump. (You thought ballet dancers didn't chest bump?) The love-fest was topped off by a burst of confetti from above.
Askegard came to City Ballet in 1997 after 10 years at ABT, and was promoted to principal dancer the following year. Strikingly tall at 6 feet and 4 inches, he quickly became known for his steady, gallant partnering.
It's a crucial role in a company: Male dancers who excel at partnering are not always the flashiest, don't always jump the highest, but they save their partners from disaster, allow them to shine, and give them the security to take risks, elevating the performance for everyone.
On Sunday, it was a delight to witness Askegard's synergy with three of his favorite partners – other than his wife, of course, writer Candace Bushnell, upon whom the Carrie Bradshaw character in "Sex and the City" was based.
First there was the long-legged Maria Kowroski, with whom Askegard was paired at the beginning of his NYCB career by company head Peter Martins. The two came onstage in white, glittery costumes to dance the pas de deux from "Diamonds," the romantic final act of Balanchine's full-length "Jewels," which ended with Askegard kissing his partner's hand.
Then came one of Balanchine's popular "black-and-white" ballets – black and white practice leotards, that is – the 1959 "Episodes," also with Kowroski as his partner. (Other standouts included a supple Jennie Somogyi, in the third section.)
Askegard had a chance to display more drama in Jerome Robbins' "In Memory Of...," in which he plays a death figure competing with a woman's earthly lover (and winning). As the woman, Whelan gave a particularly impassioned performance and justly won cheers.
The evening ended with "Western Symphony," a romp to Hershy Kay music that's pretty impossible not to enjoy. Askegard was paired with the company's ballerina of the moment, Sara Mearns, one of the younger dancers that Askegard has helped mentor.
With 30 dancers on hand to support him, Askegard looked like he was having the time of his life as he closed out one era of it.
Watch Askegard in "Swan Lake" in 1999: