Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mixed Bags

Fairchild and Peck in Spectral Evidence. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The New York City Ballet seasons can be a bit of a mixed bag - as they are, in fact, mixed bags of short pieces, almost inevitably. The past two nights at the ballet have brought some very high highs (Dances at a Gathering) and some very low lows (Union Jack) and some things in the middle (all of the contemporary pieces). 

Let’s start with the evening of contemporary pieces. It was my second time seeing Preljocaj's Spectral Evidence, and I have to say I liked it a lot better this time around. Maybe because I knew what I was getting into, or maybe I was better disposed to Preljocaj after having seen and loved his Le Parc in Paris this December. This time, I really enjoyed the mix of creepiness and comedy, the strongly rhythmic dancing set against suspended musique concréte. Robert Fairchild was again in fine form as the lead vampire priest, and Tiler Peck lovely as his ghostly vampire bride (this is just a guess at what those characters are, but this is the kind of ballet that makes you want to guess). I’m still rather disturbed the conflagration of women near the end of the ballet, but I’m not entirely certain that I’m against it. Well worth a second trip to the theater. I hope they keep it going in future seasons.

The main event of the evening was, of course, the world premiere of the new Liam Scarlett ballet, Acheron, set to the Poulenc organ symphony. Set on a darkly lit stage, the dancers move in surprisingly classical choreography, forming and breaking groups based on shared movement. There were some very exciting moments, especially with regards to the unconventional partnering (I actually gasped at one point). Scarlett tends to flood his stage with dancers moving in masses, very unlike Balanchinian choreography which tends to be very direct in its use straight lines and geometric figures. The resultant counterpoint is something that unfolds like a musical phrase separated into different instruments. A Webern tone-color melody if you will. 

Scarlett rehearses some of that exciting partnering for Acheron with Amar Ramasar and Ashley Bouder

The design of the ballet had some problems though, especially the costuming and lights. According to the program notes, Scarlett designs his own costumes, which is a mistake. They’re very quotidian - ombré skin tight pants for the men and ombré short dresses for the women. A costume designer could help him bring something exciting to the work. The piece was also not helped by the unfortunate programming of three works done all in almost total darkness - what might have felt innovative to each of the choreographers on his own seems almost comedically trendy, not to mention tough on the eyes, after the evening. I was glad to be sitting in the orchestra level - I imagine everyone in the fifth ring had a headache by the end of the evening.  Despite the design issues, however, I am eager to see the ballet again, perhaps with new costumes or lighting and put on a program with something of a better counterpoint.

Something like Dances at a Gathering, which I saw Saturday night. This Robbins work, to solo piano music by Chopin, is constantly inventive. Robbins treats his dancers as people, so even in an plotless work like this one each dance suggests a small story. Even when the dancers move in unison, it seems like they came to that movement as a result of their own unique thought processes. They move organically, musically. Each of the leads in the work was only more effervescent than the last. Adrian Danchig-Waring seems to have the perfect body for Robbins work - a clean, pure, curved line, a gracious manner. Antonio Carmena added humor to his performance, and Tyler Angle showed off excellent partnering skills. Tiler Peck was my favorite, however, her entire body unified in its projection of the movement and line, something that I think Robbins’s work particularly calls for.

Megan Fairchild on the subject of Dances at a Gathering

Oh how do I wish Dances at a Gathering had been put on the program with Acheron. Instead, it was put on with Union Jack, which ought to be illegal. But if human law cannot get those who arranged this programming, divine law certainly will, for it is a sin to put something so beautiful, delicate, and entrancing on a program with something so clunky, offensive, and utterly dull. To begin with, the score is unimaginably boring, plodding along with bangs and clashes and twittery tweets for what seems like hours. To add insult to injury, the choreography is tedious, empty virtuosity piled on virtuosity. 

And finally, as I stewed in my seat, eyes sagging back into my skull, I was visited with a sneaking thought that grew and would not go away. This ballet ostensibly celebrates America’s British heritage, choreographed on the occasion of its Bicentennial (good to know someone was taking the bold step to really celebrate those aspects of American cultural heritage that are so often overlooked). Why, then, is the choreography essentially a catalogue of every movement in ballet taken from African-American and Irish dancers? Tap dancing, split-jumps, over-the-tops, bent knee leaps, chorus lines. Oh the painful irony! And all those movements so divorced from real music that they become boring. Irony again! And the final song - ‘Rule Britannia’ which ends in the lyric ‘Britons never will be slaves.’ Hmmm. I do not blame the dancers, who threw themselves into the ballet like the completely hard-core professionals they are. Or the orchestra, whose ears must still be ringing with that utterly terrible music. But why oh why is this still in the NYCB repertory at all? In the middle section of the ballet, a pony was brought onstage. In a moment that justifies all the anxiety that I have ever felt at seeing live animals onstage, the pony pooped. Oh pony, I agree with your critical opinion entirely.  My recommendation: buy tickets to Dances at a Gathering, leave at intermission, and do something else with that hour and a half. God knows I wish I had.

New York City Ballet, January 31, 2014, Vespro: Choreography: Bigonzetti, Music: Bruno Moretti, Leads: Maria Kowroski, Tyler Angle, Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, Andrew Veyette; Spectral Evidence: Choreography: Angelin Preljocaj, Music: John Cage, Leads: Tiler Peck, Robert Fairchild; Acheron: Choreography: Liam Scarlett, Music: Francis Poulenc, Leads: Sara Mearns, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Rebecca Krohn, Tyler Angle, Ashley Bouder, Amar Ramasar, Anthony Huxley.

February 1, 2014. Dances at a Gathering: Choreography: Jerome Robbins, Music: Frédéric Chopin, Leads: Megan Fairchild, Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, Tyler Angle, Antonio Carmena, Zachary Catazaro, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joaquin de Luz. Union Jack: Choreography: George Balanchine, Music: arranged by Hershy Kay

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