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“It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it.” You wouldn't necessarily think to apply the old chestnut from “American Bandstand” to the works of Igor Stravinsky. Yet in his swirling colors, counterposed in thrusting, angular relief, there is something obviously danceable to the modern master—and why his music has called out to such a wide range of dancers and choreographers over the last century.
“Stravinsky x Five,” a program from the winter season of the New York City Ballet, brings together five dances by five choreographers interpreting the music of this one composer. It begins with Scènes de Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon’s second work for the company that premiered in 1999. The work calls for sixty-two students, all drawn from The School of American Ballet, who dance in the imaginary reflection of the mirror at the barre of a ballet studio. The conceit is simple but brilliant and one that is ripe for exploration (and the first reason I came to see this program). But it rises or falls in its execution by the students, who must dance with synchronized precision. So here the work is also a demonstration of the next generation of NYCB, made more poignant as these young dancers do rise to the challenge of this ballet.
With a fanciful set by Ian Falconer, who envisions a soaring dance studio overlooking onion domes as though illustrated in a children’s storybook, the work recalls the Imperial Russian origins of both its composer and this company through its founder, George Balanchine. The dancers, starting with two of the youngest ballerinas and building to greater complexities of older students, perform not only as reflections in the imaginary mirror but also as reflections of the legacies of dance they carry forward.
Wheeldon’s choreography exhausts every permutation of the setup and goes too long, finishing in an Esther Williams finale. What should be saved for the conclusion now occurs halfway through. The reflection of a young dancer suddenly breaks from formation. A pas de deux of older dancers enters the “mirror” in a dream sequence imagined by the student on the other side. The unexpected break is the most meaningful moment of the dance, truly breathtaking, as the aspirations of countless hours at the barre are made real.
Next up is The Cage, Jerome Robbins’s 1951 ballet based on Stravinsky’s 1946 Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Unlike the Stravinsky of Scènes de Ballet, an old-world phantasia he composed for a Broadway review in 1944, this high-modernist work is all fits and starts. Robbins visualized this music in “insect and animal life” with “the female of the species considering the male as prey. This ballet concerns the rites of such a species.” The result is a Rubies feel, with many pigeon-toed struts executed in formation. The inhumanity of the spectacle is heightened by Jennifer Tipton’s stark lighting, teased tufts of hair, a rope web by Jean Rosenthal, and costumes by Ruth Sobotka that render the dancers as sun-deprived and subterranean. The story concerns a “Queen” (Savannah Lowery), a “Novice” (Lauren Lovette), and two male “Intruders” (Jare Angle and Sean Suozzi). But even when well danced, especially by Lovette, the result now comes across as mid-century burlesque, with a femme who is cartoonish fatale.
Eight Easy Pieces up next takes us from the 1950s to a work by Peter Martins that premiered in 1980. It also struck me as vintage PBS, a spare composition lighting up my Trinitron (which it just might have done). Through the dance Martins gives form to eight piano duets that Stravinsky wrote with easy left- or right-hand parts: three for the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev himself, and five for Stravinsky’s own young children. Here the piano and its shared players are brought right on stage. Martins’s minimalism can come across as fussy, but danced by Rachel Hutsell, Olivia MacKinnon, and Alex Maxwell, all new to their roles, the effect was a delight, with Stravinsky’s music distilled into pixels of color.
I hope the next dancer-choreographer commission holds up as well, but I doubt it will. Justin Peck is ballet’s millennial machine, a soloist and resident choreographer whose lack of affect (at least as seen in the documentary Ballet 422) is in contrast to the ebullience of his work. For Scherzo Fantastique, which premiered just this summer in Saratoga (and is this twenty-nine-year-old’s eleventh work for NYCB), Peck takes a right at spring and lands his Stravinsky in the full light of summer. With a stunning Fauvist backdrop by Jules de Balincourt, the Bushwick-based French painter, this dance should have everything going for it in its return to modernist animism. But here Peck is all sun and no shade, more MGM than NYCB, with a sensibility that harkens to a golden age when ours calls out for iron.
Finally it was time for the two masters together: Stravinsky and Balanchine. George Balanchine came to co-found the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet through one of those grand twentieth-century odysseys. Trained in what was then the Imperial Ballet School of Saint Petersburg, he fled the Bolsheviks for Paris where he became Ballet Master in the final years of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Finally, after a turn in Hollywood, he came to New York, where he set about teaching American dancers classical technique infused with Modernist sensibility, with his School of American Ballet training all of his dancers for New York City Ballet. In a program that begins at the barre in old Russia with Scènes, “Stravinsky x Five” concludes with the full fruits of Balanchine’s cultivation of ballet in new America.
Stravinsky Violin Concerto, first choreographed by Balanchine for the Ballets Russes in 1941 and reimagined three decades later for NYCB, is presented here front loaded with principals of the company. “The capabilities of his dancers to dance as he wanted came from his classes,” writes Suki Schorer in the new book Balanchine Teaching. Through the discipline of daily exercises at the barre, the execution of the plié, the tilt of the head in épaulement, and the importance of the fifth position to a body’s vertical center, Balanchine fine tuned the instruments of his company.
Even in the current principals of NYCB, we continue to see his resonance: the fluid flexibility of Maria Kowroski, the floating leaps of Amar Ramasar, the swift strength of Robert Fairchild, and the stunning precision of Sterling Hyltin. ”Balanchine’s choreography, he made clear, came from the music,” Schorer continues—and was arguably never better than from the music of Stravinsky.
“Stravinsky x Five” continues with modified casting through this Friday, February 3, at the New York City Ballet.
If this is not turning into a golden age for classical choreography, it is at least becoming a silver age or a bronze. The recurring program of “21st Century Choreographers” at the New York City Ballet gives a welcome overview of this resurgence and highlights the company’s own role in nurturing this surprising turn of events—a surprise, given the uncertain state of contemporary composition in other performing arts.
This season’s “21st Century” program offered work by two of the brightest young stars, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck, but began squarely in the late 20th Century with Ash, a ballet by Peter Martins that premiered in 1991 at the New York State Theater, along with his Infernal Machine from 2002. Some might begrudge a Martins double-header as a case of royal prerogative for the NYCB’s Ballet Master-in-Chief. Yet I appreciated the inclusion for the clear line these two works draw from the NYCB’s founding choreography of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—and their connections to and contradictions with more contemporary work.
Ash feels like late twentieth-century ballet, and classic Martins: cerebral, technically demanding, and spare. In its lack of narrative and its appeal to abstraction, the dance is the most Balanchine-like of the program and also the most remote in its tense counterpoint. In the late 1980s, Michael Torke, the composer for Ash, wrote a series of orchestral pieces called “Color Music.” Ash works through a similar interest in Synesthesia—the mixing of the senses—through the use of colored lighting by Mark Stanley and primary shaded costumes by Steven Rubin, which also share an unfortunate affinity to the uniforms of Star Trek. A friend commented that such a dance can be inaccessible, overly taxing on the dancers while offering little to the audience, which is perhaps true. At the same time, I found it exhilarating to watch Ashley Laracey rise above the technical demands put to her and find this ballet’s inner grace.
The story of The Infernal Machine starts out similarly obtuse. In the program, its composer, Christopher Rouse, managed to refer to a play by Jean Cocteau, a connection (or lack thereof) to the Oedipus myth, a “Perpetuum mobile,” and an orchestral tryptich—which goes a long way in saying very little. Instead, this brief, furious pas de deux of Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee mixes robotic motion and inappropriate groping to an uncertain, uncomfortable, and uncompromising end.
Located between the two Martins was This Bitter Earth, a pas de deux with Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, with music by Dinah Washington and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, which premiered in 2012. The ballet has just about everything a contemporary audience might want from dance. Wheeldon is also everything Martins is not: deeply romantic, easily accessible, employing a narrative that is clearly discernable. Here the earth tones of the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and the dustbowl blues of Dinah Washington—interposed with a techno-beat by Max Richter—gave us a couple dancing on the edge of desperation. I am not always drawn in by the popular emotiveness of Sara Mearns, whose sense for theatricality departs from the traditional coolness of classical ballet, where emotion is conveyed through movement over physiognomy. Some have also criticized Wheeldon for the gender politics of his pairings, which admittedly at moments can become strictly ballroom. But ballet is also ready for such an infusion of red-blooded romance, for a new affection not only between the dancers but also between the stage and the audience. With Mearns perfectly cast in this role, This Bitter Earth delivered its earthly bitterness in spades.
The NYCB may have thought that by including Jeux, a dance by the London-based Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup that premiered last year, the company was giving a nod to greater gender inclusivity in its selection of choreographers. Unfortunately, this Kim is a man, and this ballet is a manly embarrassment. Drawing on the tropes of film noir, Jeux uses blindfolds and bare bulbs to affect an arch narrative about a woman betrayed. But with business casual costumes by Marc Happel, the dance rather feels like a Bear Stearns holiday party gone wrong, with coworker Craig Hall caught cheating on Sara Mearns with Lauren Lovette, and Mearns saved by the passionate embrace of Adrian Danchig-Waring as, what, the hunky janitor? Cliché piles upon cliché in this ensemble dance that ends with a giant novelty tennis ball (the “jeux”). On my day, Mearns, blindfolded, even inadvertently knocked her head against another dancer’s leg at one point. Clearly she wished she had stuck around on that Bitter Earth rather than head to the big city.
Finally it was time for Paz de la Jolla, the 2013 dance by NYCB dancer and resident choreographer Justin Peck, set to music by Bohuslav Martinu. I say “finally,” because here is the dance many of us had come to see: the subject of the documentary film Ballet 422 and the product of the NYCB’s astonishing wunderkind, who has already choreographed something like twenty-eight ballets—or a number equal to his current age. Peck’s humility in the face of the tradition of Balanchine and Robbins comes across palpably in Ballet 422,—and it is on display here again in his intuitive understanding for classical movement and form. Rather than fight the tide, Peck has a remarkable ability to channel a dancer’s flow, deployed in a sunny ballet inspired by his upbringing in Southern California. What begins in beachy bliss, with splendid Esther Williams-like swimsuit costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, supervised by Marc Happel, transforms into a eddying, swirling tide of abstract, fluid motion. The ensemble becomes the ocean, with arms and legs forming the patterns of rolling surf. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar become engulfed in the waves, while a third dancer—a lifeguard?—swims out for the rescue. On the day of my performance, Georgina Pazcoguin replaced Tiler Peck in this role, which drew noticeable (and regrettable) disapproval from the audience. Pazcoguin’s gymnastic style gave a different, and not altogether uninteresting, shape to the part, even as we missed Peck’s sinuous forms. But it was the other Peck who was still on full display here—the choreographer in residence who, one hopes, never leaves his home at the New York City Ballet.