Here's the thing . . .
It's swell that Whelan and Kowroski and Mearns are getting a lot out of the process. But what about those of us in the audience? I'm not a foundation for the arts -- I don't feel I should have to shell out $100 per ticket to see crappy works that everyone knows will be dead-on-arrival all in the name of subsidizing someone's artistic development.
Fair enough...but I will repeat (I promise moderators: just once) that it's a balance. In part, because Whelan's and Kowroski's and Mearns' "artistic development" can impact their performances in the ballets you (and most of us) do want to see.
What if a sublime Kowroski Diamonds was partially nourished by, say, Prism, the Diamond Project work which Tomasson created for her early in her career? (I would say, a pleasant enough work, which featured her effectively, but hardly a masterpiece.) And for many of us, it was a Richard Tanner work that first brought the fabulous pas de chat of Ashley Bouder to attention: presumably that work was important for her as an early featured role.
Now IS it really always the case that dancers are "getting" something from these new works that spills over into other better works? Surely, one might well respond, an Ashley Bouder's talents transcend any one given work! She hardly needed Richard Tanner. Might it not even be detrimental to dancers to be putting too much energy into weak ballets, works that cultivate, as it were, values that are not particularly balletic or musical?
An important question certainly. Heck, Croce seemed to think that focusing on the hardly mediocre Macmillan made the Royal incapable of dancing the much greater Ashton. Though--to give a pertinent counter-example--Farrell seems to have learned a lot from dancing Bejart for years!
So I don't have tidy answers. But it is not at all clear to me that Whelan and Kowroski and Mearns have not benefited from having works created for them and that those benefits have not also energized their dancing in far better ballets: the ballets everyone agrees they love to see them dance. Whelan in particular first seemed to make her mark in Peter Martins' works.
Personally, I like to see programming at NYCB emphatically Balanchine-centric (uh...Robbins, too, matters, but his works seem much more uneven to me). And I wish they would do more "offbeat" Balanchine revivals (Gaspard de la Nuit?). But I actually don't know if that's what the new audiences want or not--as opposed to long-time balletomanes. I once had to stifle myself when a friend raved to me about Red Angels specifically at the expense of the "boring" Concerto Barocco (he's a very good friend).
It does seem pretty clear that under Martins, the company has been over-gambling on new works and new choreographers. I won't argue with anyone there and I share the disappointment, but I don't share the outrage. And I can't help but give Martins credit for his support of Wheeldon and Ratmansky and even the initial opportunities he has given others. Kevin O'Day did one much-praised work for NYCB and Martins gave him another chance. Likewise with Mahdaviani. Well, gee, I would have done the same...I fully support, too, the decision to invite Forsythe: he did not seem to 'take' at NYCB, but he is a major figure in contemporary ballet. As for more recent years, they have brought a lot of seemingly embarrassing flops--and Wheeldon and Ratmansky...
As for ABT being more exciting these days than NYCB as someone above commented? It's an entirely different kind of company, but given the kind of company it is, based in full length works, its productions of several of the classics are at least as embarrassing as NYCB's premiers and with less excuse. (I say nothing of some of the appalling premiers they offered post-Tharp, Pre-Ratmansky.)
As for the twentieth-century full-length works ABT dances--honestly, even as ballerina vehicles I consider many of them quite mediocre. (Onegin? If you think it's a great ballet, then it's no great surprise you don't like NYCB.) And what is a ballet like Onegin there for if not the "artistic development" of ballerinas like Vishneva who, I don't doubt, love dancing Pushkin's heroine as much as Whelan loves having works created for her. Ditto Osipova and Juliet. The one thing you can say for these works is that they are crowd-pleasers. So, score one for McKenzie and ABT--but, no, I don't find this approach exciting.
As far as the classics are concerned no-one seems to hold ABT to a serious standard--that is they complain, but without the sense of urgency one gets in complaints about NYCB. When it comes to Balanchine people do rightly hold NYCB to a serious standard.
It's as if people expect sub-par productions or a lackadaisical corps in the great nineteenth-century ballets at ABT. The attitude seems to be that as long as a Cojocaru or an Osipova or a Murphy are at the front of the stage who cares? I am not unsympathetic to this view; I love those dancers--and have never opposed ABT having a few regular guest stars. But if the Martins' regime is flawed, I would hardly hold up Mckenzie's as an artistic paradigm. The fact is that we need some major companies that are at least trying to get new works on the boards on a regular basis.
Presumably both Mckenzie and Martins are in their final years as directors of their respective companies...we will see if whoever comes next does better. Maybe, maybe not.