Glitz, Risk and Change

By Leigh Witchel

What do you want from New York City Ballet – Skill or risk? The company loves to congratulate itself on risk-taking (often when it isn’t) but at the fall gala, there were winds in the air of both change and risk.

The format of the gala is one that’s proved profitable: featuring costumes created by fashion designers. It brings people and money in, and if the costumes were sometimes cumbersome, none of them made dancing impossible.

You didn’t have to look at the program to know that opening work, “The Wind Still Brings,” was by Troy Schumacher. He has a signature feel to his ballets: that everyone onstage is young and naive. Daniel Applebaum and Kristen Segin entered first in costumes by Jonathan Saunders – tights and tops color-blocked diagonally in shades of blue and beige.

The rest of the cast joined them, leaping, yearning upwards, racing and stopping. Like Robbins, Schumacher doesn’t see the cast foremost as a corps for design, but a human mass: a crowd. Applebaum and Segin lay down and a slow section followed like somnambulistic wanderings. One dancer would lay down and curl up behind another, prompting the first to wake. Peter Walker arose bleary-eyed; another woman bourréed at him with outstretched arms like a specter.

Schumacher crafted an off-balance allegro for Devin Alberda; and in another echo of Robbins, the cast rose on half-toe before laying down one by one. The final allegro was in nervous unison with the timing of a jig. The music, by William Walton (arranged by Robert Miller) wasn’t easy to dance to; it was turgid even when it was rhythmic. It moved into a fugue, and Schumacher handled that as literally as Robbins did in “The Goldberg Variations,” with each dancer taking one musical voice. Schumacher’s finale used both dance and pedestrian movement (actual kicking, not a ballet step) before ending with a race and jeté off.

“The Wind Still Brings.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

You could see Schumacher trying things out, particularly with gender roles. Segin did a low double air turn and there was tentative female-female partnering. You could also see him cleaving to themes he’s approached several times before.

18-year-old Gianna Reisen is a recent School of American Ballet graduate and an apprentice at the Ballet Semperoper Dresden. Her “Composer’s Holiday” was small-scale. The cast, largely from the junior ranks of the company, were grouped as two lead couples leading four corps couples, dressed by Virgil Abloh. His costumes were actually dance costumes: the women in bodices and short skirts from black through peach to white and men all in discreet black bodysuits. The music, “Three American Pieces for Violin and Piano” by Lukas Foss, oscillated from Bartók to Satie.

The ballet began with Emma von Enck raised high by the men in black, who put her down and immediately left. The rest of the women stage pointed at her and started dancing neatly. The section ended with von Enck tossed skywards, and the scene blacking out just as she was suspended midair. When the lights came up, one man found a mate at the wings and started to pull her in, but unbeknownst to him she brought all her friends, including one she was dragging along the floor. An allegro hoedown with tossing and carrying ended the busy work.

Reisen’s vocabulary was cleanly neoclassical and she was comfortable with ballet’s conventions. “Composer’s Holiday” didn’t try for a lot conceptually, but also didn’t overreach; it seemed as much about acquiring and consolidating skills as making a statement.

Emma von Enck and Roman Mejia in “Composer’s Holiday.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Lauren Lovette “Not Our Fate” was anything but comfortable with ballet’s conventions. A paean to social conscience, but of the mildest kind, Lovette said in movement what Lin-Manuel Miranda said in rhyme: Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. Lovette has extended her craft from her first choreographic outing at last year’s gala, and if “Not Our Fate” wasn’t revolutionary, it seemed heartfelt.

A cast of five men and five women crossed the stage in pools of light, wearing Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim’s designs: the men in white shirts and tight black pants; the women in close-fitting peplum jackets and diaphanous handkerchief skirts. Reaching and yearning, they raced across the stage and through extensions and turns.

Partners connected with and rejected one another, and two main couplings formed: Ask la Cour with Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara and Preston Chamblee with Taylor Stanley. Both pairs were angst-ridden, the same-sex coupling of Chamblee and Stanley more so, with a kind of love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name sorrow.

LaCour and Dutton-O’Hara saw one another across the stage with similar ambivalence, reaching away as they pulled towards one another. The partnering started to take on the shadings of LaCour’s other partnering roles. As he begin taking Dutton-O’Hara through the flip-roll in the Elegy of “Serenade,” but took her airborne as she flew round him. That section ended with another echo of the rest of the evening: Dutton-O’Hara was also lifted high and dropped. Lovette resolved the ballet by switching gears. As Michael Nyman’s music sped up happily, everyone got together and was happy as well.

It’s hard to look Lovette’s good intentions and rebellion against current events without realizing that we’ve gone back in time about five decades. Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two,” was trailblazing for ballet (but not for dance) in 1986 and is older than Lovette. Even 31 years ago, it still transcended the notion of the doomed queen that Lovette found herself mired in.

It was fascinating as well to see a young female ballet choreographer’s interpretation of a same-sex relationship in dance terms. Like men talking about women, women talking about men tells us more about women. The biggest irony is that Lovette’s take on same-sex dancing was to incorporate the roles that she learned – and have been imposed on her. She used traditional ballet partnering with Chamblee as the man and Stanley as the woman, doing finger turns and a shoulder sit. NYCB, for all its talk of innovation and risk, has been behind the times since it went from being a trailblazer to being the establishment. Lovette reached for liberation, but made it to “Brokeback Mountain” and yaoi: gay romance from a female perspective.  Bless your heart, thanks and we know it’s not your fault, but this isn’t progress.

“Pulcinella Variations.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

To cap off the show, Justin Peck did something well within his qualifications: a traditional divertissement to Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite.” (Oddly, Peck cut one of Stravinsky’s funniest, most inventively orchestrated numbers, the Vivo for double bass and trombone, but he may not have wanted anything between the big duet in the work and the finale).  The raucous commedia dell’arte costumes by Tsumori Chisato had pop art applique and every variation of a short tutu skirt – cut in half, asymmetrical at the side, telescoping – that she could come up with. Proving that nothing is new in fashion, they recalled Ian Spurling’s costumes for “Elite Syncopations.”

Peck’s intent may have been far simpler than the others, but he had the choicest ingredients: Stravinsky’s rhythmic score and the top tier of the company. The divertissement structure meant that the choreographer could feature each dancer in a solo or duet, and he worked to their strengths: Jared Angle and Sara Mearns in a pensive duet, Sterling Hyltin in a bright allegro where the men all peeked out from the corner for a moment to watch.

Indiana Woodward, wearing a leotard with half a tutu skirt, danced a speedy transition and Brittany Pollack turned through the Andantino to violins and horns, bringing herself round and round in extensions. Anthony Huxley sped through an intricate tarantella with the strings chattering like cicadas; Andrew Scordato, to blatting horns, picked up his feet in tight designs under him. Gonzalo Garcia and Tiler Peck are an infrequent pairing, but a felicitous one. The choreographer made them a full classical pas de deux and variations fashioned from the suite’s Gavotte with two variations.

In the imaginary war for Top Dog Diva, Ms. Peck may have won this ballet-battle over Mearns. Even though both were cast exactly in their brand, what was fashioned for Mearns felt more warmed-over: droning oboes, slow lifts and reaches, all with the faded scent of roses. Peck, straight from her hectic debut in “Swan Lake,” luxuriated in a glamorous duet at tempos she could stretch out in and play. She moved fast and slow as she pleased rather than being pushed out the door.

Mr. Peck flattered everyone, but especially Ms. Peck and Garcia, crafting a virtuoso variation as well for him. Angle and Mearns led off the final section and in another role reversal, it was Huxley who got to sparkle in fouettés.

The gala was a short, dense show, with no intermission and the ballets timed in rapid-fire succession to get folks out of the theater and to dinner. The company seems to be hearing the rumblings about diversity and parity. You could see the beginnings of change on the stage in who was making the dances and even in the more varied skin tones of the dancers. Yet the most skilled and finished product on offer was the safest bet on the menu.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

Fall Gala
“The Wind Still Brings,” “Composer’s Holiday,” “Not Our Fate,” “Pulcinella Variations” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 27, 2017

Cover: Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley in “Not Our Fate.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

New York City Ballet‘s fall season runs through October 15.

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