by Leigh Witchel
So there we were, gathering to celebrate life after the geniuses died. The Here/Now Festival opened with a curtain speech by Peter Martins that was part declaration, part apology. “It’s basically killed all of us,” he remarked about the workload for putting on 43 ballets over four weeks. About the motivation for the festival, “It’s time to give Mr. B. a vacation. He’s been carrying it for so long . . . This is what we have been doing for 30 years. It’s not so bad.”
It’s not so bad. If it hurts to be the generation that watches Mr. B. join Petipa and Bournonville as historical figures, without new ballets, the old ones will wither from disinterest even faster. Mr. B’s batting average was nowhere close to 1.000; if the festival makes .200, that’s genuinely a major success.
Martins programmed mixed bills as well as programs devoted to a single choreographer, and the first was the company’s first Resident Choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. The opening All-Wheeldon program reminded us of his strengths that we don’t always remember. “Mercurial Manoeuvres” from 2000, reminds us how chic Wheeldon’s early neoclassical work was. He knew from jump how to make a big pas de deux and he knew how to move a corps de ballet. He was even itching to find new ways.
There’s a reason for the British spelling in the ballet’s title. Wheeldon had done his own “Scènes de Ballet” the year before, but this is the work that seems to tackle Ashton’s version and his heritage. With the addition of a male soloist and two female demi-soloists, Wheeldon’s version has similar casting: main couple, four men and 12 corps women, all in neat navy blue. Early on, Wheeldon marshaled the women across the stage; their arms bent and sliced as they wove. Their feet ticked a zigzag path, all of it much like the Euclidean geometry of Ashton’s “Scènes.”
Harrison Ball was once again pressed into service to cover Anthony Huxley’s scheduled performance, this time in the solo male role. He appeared in silhouette at the back center, looking like a runway model – if a runway model could do double tours. Ball drifted side to side and his arms curled. He threw his head back as he moved; it was more rapture than Ashtonian épaulement – but that could be trained into épaulement.
Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle entered for Wheeldon’s duet, which had sympathetic echoes of how Ashton introduced his ballerinas. Here, four men surrounded Peck at quadrants and pressed her up overhead. Four women marked off the square around Angle, drifting round him on their toes. Wheeldon had the two meet in a huge lift; he understood early on the nature of the Big Pas de Deux. The duet’s signature is a small lift that had the woman frozen in mid-air like an image in a locket.
Peck’s role was created on Miranda Weese, who wielded timing like a scalpel. When Weese did them, those lifts were like a quick intake of breath. Peck softened the accents, and she and Angle didn’t do lifts bang on the note, which worked fine for her. Angle’s role was originated by Jock Soto, so it requires the strength of a Clydesdale, and Angle handled it all. At the end, Peck and Angle stared and looked at each other, then he pressed her off. Their affection is private but presentational, like two people courting yet aware that someone is watching: a duet for a man, a woman and a stage.
The corps started the third movement in two squadrons. Ball and Angle chased one another in turning coupé jetés as the men carried out four women and eight others sifted on. Wheeldon choreographed another Ashton reference – the low braced arm in arabesque that seems to model an imaginary bracelet – before Shostakovich’s complicated fanfare that faked us out twice before actually ending on the third repeat. “Mercurial Manoeuvres” is bright and cheeky, but it glittered with precocity.
The following year, Wheeldon made “Polyphonia” and changed course towards a more contemporary idiom. The work is now a repertory staple, and boasted several debuts.
Unity Phelan took on Wendy Whelan’s anchor position. She’s longer and straighter than Whelan but just as plastic; her youth brought fresh details. Her dreaminess and otherworldly focus was almost a cross of Whelan and Alexandra Ansanelli. She looked good paired with Zachary Catazaro, also on his first outing, who was big and discreet. In the last duet, the splayed lift over Catazaro’s head became a cry, but the last flip felt segmented: rather than up and over and through, it was up and over. Through.
Sterling Hyltin took on Jennie’s Somogyi side role with a developed presence and made it seem bigger than it was. Sara Mearns has reframed Ansanelli’s role for a while. Ansanelli left by Craig Hall was an abandoned, vulnerable girl; when Chase Finlay left, Mearns was a heroine, solo. The whole cast looked together and synchronized, no easy feat in Ligeti’s cavalcade of notes at the opening.
The final portion of the evening went from Wheeldon the prodigy to Wheeldon the pro. Perhaps that was where he was headed from get-go: Even the follow-up to “Polyphonia” made for San Francisco Ballet the next year, “Continuum,” felt less like an extension of the first work to Ligeti and more like outtakes or remixes.
“Liturgy,” made for Jock Soto and Whelan in 2003 didn’t delve deeper into Soto and Whelan’s partnership as much as package it in a nice, portable adagio. The music is Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” which even by then was overused. The woman stretches and jackknifes, but her contortions are effects, not a relationship. It’s less of a pas de deux and more of an exotic nightclub act.
An argument can still be made for Wheeldon returning to composers such as Ligeti or Pärt; “Liturgy” was the run-up to the better “After the Rain.” And “Liturgy” made a good showpiece for Maria Kowroski, ably partnered by Jared Angle. The slow, complex posing and stretching was flattering and showed what she can do that others can’t. Angle manipulated her in a never-ending fall.
Fast forward, past the New York critics abandoning Wheeldon after exhibiting our usual disappointment that he wasn’t Balanchine. For the past few years he’s concentrated on major narrative ballets, each one more proficient – and more emotionally distant – than the last, until finally getting on Broadway, landing a commercial success with “An American in Paris,” and making his pile of dough.
Last year’s “American Rhapsody,” is a Broadway number, and a weak one at that. It’s a bad commercial for “An American in Paris,” and perhaps the least jazzy Gershwin ballet ever. Wheeldon was running totally on craft; there was little style and less emotion. The costumes have been toned down since the premiere. The leads, once in jackets of different shades, are now in a similar blue to the corps. It’s more unified, but also harder to find them. The orchestra was trying so hard, the horns moaning and whining heatedly, yet almost everyone onstage was dancing ever so neatly.
Going into Robert Fairchild’s and Peck’s original parts was a thankless task. Russell Janzen has straight lines and an up-and-down axis, that made it difficult to recreate the loose style that was second nature to Fairchild. Lauren Lovette couldn’t make something of the non-role that Peck at least filled with virtuoso turns and balances. The “let’s-build-a-bridge” ending would have been successful kitsch if the costumes had all lit up when the cast reached the final pose. Thank heavens for Amar Ramasar, shimmying and projecting. He danced as if he were on Broadway, which he will be soon, in Justin Peck’s choreography for “Carousel.”
Wheeldon’s been critiqued harshly (including right now) by people who felt he didn’t live up to his hype – but also his promise. Sure, he’s not Mr. B. It’s now going on 35 years and no one will be before those of us who care are dead. Martins was right in a sense; Balanchine’s furrows need to fade in the soil before the next can come along to plow that field. But Wheeldon always tried so hard to give us what he thought we wanted. He is at his absolute best when he isn’t trying to second-guess what pleases us.
copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“Mercurial Manoeuvres,” “Polyphonia,” “Liturgy,” “American Rhapsody” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 25, 2017
Cover: Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in “Mercurial Manoeuvres.” Photo © Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet‘s spring season runs through May 28.
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