Going Off on His Own

by Leigh Witchel

For a short but depressing moment, the new piece on the New Combinations program at New York City Ballet looked as if it were going to be the same old same old. But soon enough Peter Walker dropped the company’s House of Martins style and spoke on his own.

Even with Peter Martins’ retirement and the cloud that surrounds it, NYCB has still spent almost 35 years as the House of Martins. We’ll see plenty of his work this season, including, if you can stomach it, a particularly violent version of “Romeo + Juliet.” The New Combinations program started with a revival of his 2006 ballet to John Corigliano’s music for “The Red Violin.”

You could say “The Red Violin” is quintessential Martins, but so much of Martins’ work is cut from the same cloth, what isn’t quintessential? Let’s just say it contains all the ingredients: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Unity Phelan and Megan LeCrone in “The Red Violin.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

The good: Martins has always done yeoman work in structural breakdown of complicated music. He’s dogged and thorough about parsing a score and reflecting its mechanics on the stage: every note has a step or a movement, every change in the music has a reaction.

At the opening four men in gray entered, dipping low into arabesque penchée. They were matched by four women in bright colors. As each one came out, she traversed a diagonal and at the end, took her partner off. Later on at a crescendo, the women neatly burst one by one into spins. Martins altered his stage pictures like gears shifting and rotating with almost modular responses.

The bad: Part of the good. Martins’ literal response to the music with what seems like nothing driving it but math and structure recalled Arlene Croce’s slap at Doris Humphrey, that Humphrey could reduce a Bach concerto to a nest of mixing bowls . . . and the bowls were brown. The ingredients for Martins’ visualization of Corigliano were the same as for visualizing John Adams or Charles Wuorinen. Start with a pose in an open, tilted stance with the arms angled to the sides. Add a skidding or sliding run. Then do a jump with a bent front leg, the arm scooping overhead and the torso curling in sympathy with the arm. If there had been a point of view, these repeated ingredients would be a style. But Martins took Balanchine’s fig leaf of modernism, that the steps and the music were the meaning, as dogma. What was missing – what has always been missing, was a sense that the music was propelling any sort of response beyond visualization.

The ugly: It’s amateur psychology to analyze artists through their work, but let’s forget about analysis and just look. When Martins’ ballets haven’t been emotionally clotted, they’ve been violent. Particularly the best of them where it did seem as if he were saying something beyond musical interpretation. Martins’ heart has never been in adagios, but when he does them, the women was  hauled or thrown. Occasionally (“Tanzspiel,” “Guide to Strange Places”) she was getting killed or in danger of it. Here, the women finished collapsed in the men’s arms, splayed out as if it were a crime scene photo.

Martins got a bum rap as a craftsman. He knows a lot about ballet making and can apply his craft. But was it better or worse when he stopped hiding behind craft and let us see what was on his mind? He didn’t only get slammed because he wasn’t Balanchine. He got slammed because he was Peter Martins.

Sara Mearns in “Russian Seasons.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Alexei Ratmansky’s first ballet for NYCB, “Russian Seasons,” premiered a few weeks after “The Red Violin.” One of the reasons “Russian Seasons” felt so refreshing was its outpouring of emotion and how the dancers responded. Abi Stafford danced the woman in green instead of the role in blue she originated. There were mechanical glitches; the walk skyward stepping into her partners’ hands looked as if it hadn’t been ironed out, and her skirt misbehaved. But she danced as if she had been freed from prison. Sara Mearns slashed in after her, dressed in blood red. She pushed the role as hard as she could, whirling with her hands locked overhead, stopping and glaring out at us like a troubled spirit.

There were several debuts, including Maria Kowroski in Wendy Whelan’s pivotal role. Kowroski spun in and collapsed in sorrow and exhaustion, but her debut really came together at the end when she returned in white crowned with flowers. Until that point it felt more like steps than narrative, but she and Jared Angle put their fingers over their lips, warning us that some secrets must not be revealed. He lifted her up and she hovered above him like Christ in sorrow. Finally they paused before the wings, bowed to something they could see but we could not, and headed off into a blinding glow. Even when Russian Seasons was abstract, or not telling you why the dancers were elated or upset, you could see its heart on its colorful sleeves.

Peter Walker faked us out in “dance odyssey,” but in a good way. The work started out by serving Martins realness. Why wouldn’t it? Once upon a time, NYCB’s junior choreographers made Balanchine realness. That was what they grew up with, and it became their model. This generation did not grow up with Balanchine; it grew up with Martins. Martins created his style from the ballets of 1972’s Stravinsky Festival, and his progeny are imitating his driving allegro.

Things did not begin auspiciously, with a garish blue and red light show projected on the stage’s gold curtain. The score by Oliver Davis began twitchy in the manner of any of the choreographers Martins would have tapped for a score, and the ballet was danced in front of a cyclorama that changed colors divided by a thin fluorescent tube suggesting a wave.

Highlighted by costume color, Zachary Catazaro and Tiler Peck danced, and Ashley Laracey with Adrian Danchig-Waring. This season – and all its flux – has brought several dancers from eclipse into the spotlight. Ashley Laracey was coming back from an injury, and she’s now more visible than she’s been in a while.  The stage filled with the full cast, dutiful duets and restless activity – and no sense of why.

Devin Alberda and Anthony Huxley in “dance odyssey.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Walker put Devin Alberda and Anthony Huxley together for a duet to pizzicato notes and the sense of the ballet changed. There’s a backstory; Alberda and Huxley were a couple a few years back, and though their relationship wasn’t relevant to “dance odyssey,” their camaraderie was. After a strong start when he joined the company (and after some very public conflicts with Martins) Alberda languished in the corps for years. Given a fresh chance, he showed off technique that’s long deserved to break out of the corps. Huxley, a very shy dancer, actually smiled.

Their duet, a virtuoso buddy number, got silly, even corny – Alberda threw in a short moonwalk as a joke. At the end they pulled one another offstage, and the ballet had shaken off its mechanical air. Couples exchanged partners, but instead of the air of wife-swapping that changing partners has in a Martins ballet, this felt like play.

Walker’s structure also faked us out. It looked as if he was deploying a neat Martins structure, two lead and four corps couples. But not really. Everyone was featured, and that looked as if it were an institutional comment. He put Huxley, a company principal, with three other corps men, and each got a featured duet with a partner. Huxley did overhead partnering with Sarah Villwock, something he’d ordinarily never get a shot at because of his height.

Roman Mejia and Kristen Segin crackled through a fireworks display of quick beaten steps. Alberda danced a waltz with Lydia Wellington where he let her free and she returned later. Lauren King, a company soloist in the women’s ensemble, got her moment in a nocturne for her and Daniel Applebaum.

Ashley Laracey and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “dance odyssey.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Laracey reappeared, now in a skirt; earlier, crop tops were added and discarded. She and Danchig-Waring danced another nocturne, this one to violins. Couples walked across the stage behind them in darkness as if it were a park on a summer night. She reached with and for Danchig-Waring; he reclined on the floor like The Faun as she bourréed away from him tenderly as the curtain fell.

The spark of “dance odyssey” was the classic one of a young NYCB choreographer: astute casting. For decades, the job of yeoman dancemakers in the company has been to discover new dancers or uncover overlooked ones. It’s been a tradition from d’Amboise to Clifford to Wheeldon to Peck. Walker took up that important role nicely.

“dance odyssey” wasn’t just well-cast. Even when the vocabulary reverted to House of Martins allegro, Walker’s work still felt different. If there’s a lesson here, it’s one we saw in every ballet on the program. It’s not the steps that make a dance, or even how they’re put together. It’s the intentions and ideas behind them.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“The Red Violin,” “dance odyssey,” “Russian Seasons” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
February 1, 2018

Cover: Lauren King and the cast of “dance odyssey.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

New York City Ballet‘s winter season runs through March 4.

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