Children of Their Time

by Leigh Witchel

We don’t choose when we’re alive. Golden age, silver, hell on earth or the long, dull slog, we live when we live and we reflect our times. Arriving at the right moment to till a barely plowed field, one part of Balanchine’s genius was his timing. Part of Peter Martins’ predicament was his. What will it be for those coming up?

New York City Ballet puts on a “New Combinations” evening yearly, celebrating new works. Two premieres were introduced by Martins’ 1990 work “Fearful Symmetries.” The more substantial new work, Justin Peck’s “The Times are Racing,” looked like several of his other works, but didn’t feel like any of them. In context, it may have come at the right time.

“Fearful” is still in rep going past a quarter century, and is one of Peter Martins’ best works. It’s a work of its time, the age of Iran-Contra, Ivan Boesky and Robert Chambers. The minimalist score by John Adams is like a rollercoaster that climbs ever upwards without ever letting on when and where the drop will come. Martins worked towards synthesizing his voice by addition: piling activity and difficulty on top of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The corps’ movement phrases are hard to the point of awkward: couples race in, jumping and then twisting back on themselves; women cross the stage with their pelvises pushed so far out it’s difficult for them to move.

At the finale, the group masses and the men explode into tours: “Theme and Variations” for the age of junk bonds. But everything cools down to synthesizer and marimba. The cast moves slowly to position themselves at the sides before drifting offstage. At the end, the principals lean on one another’s hands, not looking at each another, but at us with unseeing eyes like carved totems.

A new cast tackled the piece. Most of them were infants or not even born when it was made, so the dancers found their own context. The ballet is an obstacle course. Martins’ speed and punchy style made a lot of the dancers lead with their necks and chins – and look uncomfortable. The male leads, Zachary Catazaro, Russell Janzen and Harrison Ball, looked fazed until the coda. Catazaro and Janzen raced to catch up with their partners, and threw themselves around to make it. But they found their own emotional language in the duets, which felt quite different than they did in ‘90.

Janzen and Ashly Isaacs were more dreamlike in their dances than the originators (Heather Watts and Alexandre Proia) but there was a disturbance in the force: Janzen gestured towards Isaacs as if to show her off, but immediately turned away in ambivalence. He carried her offstage and appeared moments later with Claire Kretzschmar. In classical ballet terms, switching a partner mid-duet, something Martins does often, is wife-swapping, but Kretzschmar seemed unfazed and virginal.

When Watts and Jock Soto did their duet, now done by Isaacs and Catazaro, it looked like domestic violence. When the drums pounded to a crescendo, Catazaro didn’t use the same force Soto did when he flipped Isaacs over and yanked her into his chest. A long-legged happy blonde, Kretzschmar still seemed like Strindberg’s Miss Julie to Catazaro’s Jean as he crouched under her as if cringing in worship.

Alston Macgill in “Fearful Symmetries.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

Alston Macgill was a find in a secondary lead – originally Margaret Tracey’s. Macgill was a bit like her, but warmer and seemingly fearless: a fast, prodigious turner who could negotiate any finish while beaming happily.

“Fearful” isn’t a great work, but it is an interesting one. It’s an odd, rambling piece, and sometimes disturbing, but the more emotionally honest Martins is, the better his work.

Pontus Lidberg’s “The Shimmering Asphalt,” to sonorous, tintinnabular music by David Lang, was handsome, and decently crafted but seemed like making burgers out of filet mignon: a waste of some of the company’s best dancers in what turned out to be an ensemble work.

The large cast opened by moving en masse across the stage, replacing one another in a choreographic game of musical chairs or Duck, Duck, Goose. Rebecca Krohn and Janzen went into a quiet duet, but the main problem with the piece as a commission was, though it had a plum cast – Tiler Peck, Lauren Lovette, Sterling Hyltin among them – only Sara Mearns emerged from the faceless mass. Hyltin got a brief solo – but with her back to us. Peck danced another that kept her turning in complicated enchaînements where the last turn was the only preparation for the next. The solo was extremely complicated and all too brief. Mearns’ turn was pensive and still, based on walks and extensions. She spent a good deal of time just standing, but we’re talking Sara Mearns. Put a spotlight on her at center stage and something good will happen. After, she danced with the men and the amoeba-like moves of the corps were translated into partnering.

At the end, everyone came together. Mearns grappled with Chase Finlay, glitter fell and she stood alone to end – though she didn’t begin. Whose journey was this?

Justin Peck’s “The Times are Racing” was a journey at top speed. Set to Dan Deacon’s “USA I-IV,” it began with the cast in coats, active wear and sneakers instead of ballet footwear. One person stood while a crowd massed around him in a circle. The group jerked upwards and then moved, and the process repeated.

At first it seemed as if Peck was returning to a well-worn conceit of contemporary ballet: the individual and the crowd. But then the dance went off on its own, and did it the way Peck’s most interesting works seem to: by doing way too much. Peck, like Martins, is a choreographer of excess.

Everyone freaked out, racing. Robert Fairchild cut loose in front of the huddle, then a quartet coalesced for Sean Suozzi, Savannah Lowery, Gretchen Smith and Brittany Pollack. The music, loud and crinkled with static, had a rock beat and sounded as if it came from a boom box next door. The environment didn’t feel like a dance, but a jamboree.

A man in black confronted Fairchild and danced with him. Against convention, it was Peck. It’s unusual for a ballet choreographer to dance in his or her own work – but “The Times are Racing” was only nominatively ballet. Fairchild and Peck raced through a mirror duet – a goulash of steps that stayed tight under their bodies but coursed round the stage. It had hints of tap and ballroom in it; with Peck in black he felt like Fairchild’s alter ego.

The two ended the massive workout each balancing on one leg as Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck rushed out to embrace and danced a duet where he repeatedly hit the sole of her sneaker.

One legit question about Justin Peck’s oeuvre – as with almost every post-Balanchine choreographer at NYCB – is “Why?” After the hundredth ballet filled with tricky steps at top speed, who cares? He isn’t a choreographer with a cause, but the times seem to have given him one. It could be that the production shaped the dance: Humberto Leon’s workout wear was emblazoned with slogans: CHANGE. SHOUT. PROTEST. DEFY. Those ideas weren’t in the steps – but what was there was the energy of youth. When the crowd returned, it wasn’t faceless or Balanchine’s angelic corps. There was a hint of Robbins but also Arpino: the work was as much a paean to youth as “Trinity.”

The stage darkened for another duet for Fairchild and the choreographer. Everyone flooded back in to collapse with Fairchild left standing. Somehow, Justin Peck and NYCB, dance’s Establishment, gave a high five to the resistance.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Fearful Symmetries,” “The Shimmering Asphalt,” “The Times are Racing” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
January 26, 2017

Cover: Gretchen Smith and Sean Suozzi in “The Times are Racing.”  Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet‘s winter season runs through February 26.  The New Combinations program runs through February 4.

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