Here/Now and Again

By Leigh Witchel

Trying to describe something after seeing it once is like trying to describe a line when you can only view a point. Is it straight, does it curve? Ballets need to be seen often to understand not only what they do, but where they are headed.

“Liturgy” has become Maria Kowroski’s go-to vehicle: it drops easily into a program and she looks good in it. The work is an exploration of shape and partnering. The original impulses to make the pas de deux were simple: the success of “Polyphonia” and the gifts of the two dancers who starred in both: Jock Soto, a phenomenal partner, and Wendy Whelan, an intense and plastic dancer.

Kowroski and Jared Angle brought us the shapes, if not the intensity, but that allows you to focus on the design. She wrapped her legs round him like pincers, then fell upside down like a divining rod. Wheeldon opened Arvo Pärt’s obsessive (and overplayed) “Fratres” with repetition of his own: the couple’s arms winding through clock hours, their faces tilting and framed by their palms. Those poses are descendants of Balanchine’s vocabulary when he was being exotic, as in “Rubies” and before that Nijinska in “Les Noces” and down the line. It’s a third-generation Orientalism so ingrained in ballet’s heritage that the original impulse has been forgotten. It’s now just movement vocabulary we’ve passed down.

Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle in “Liturgy.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

After 16 years, “Polyphonia” is everywhere (Miami City Ballet performed it the night prior at Fall for Dance). Putting both on the same program showed how Wheeldon experimented with shape over a series of ballets – and borrowed from himself. The couple that opens and closes the ballet (again originally Whelan and Soto) makes shapes that are cousins of those in “Liturgy”: at the end of their first duet, the man flips the woman upside down on his back, her legs like antennae slowly beating.

The cast featured several debuts. Joseph Gordon and Adrian Sanz are often cast together, here they had a duet where Sanz was more high-strung in his turns, Gordon more aggressive. In the beautiful duet originally for Craig Hall and Alexandra Ansanelli, Russell Janzen (also a debut) towered over Lauren Lovette, but like a sheltering tree. Both moved slowly, reaching out and touching each other as if in parasomnia. He left her quietly at the end of the duet because that was when the music ended. In the solo that follows, the woman needs to make something emotional out of nearly nothing. Lovette used tiny, active footwork, putting as many quick movements of her toes in every inch.

In Whelan and Soto’s final duet, Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro (who was just promoted to principal) still couldn’t get the last flip to work. If memory serves, it went over in a smooth circle. Here, it happened in several parts: upside down split, go to floor, crawl under leg. It looked labored.

Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro in “Polyphonia.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

On second glance, and perhaps because the issue was so thoroughly hashed out in social media, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Odessa” looked benign. It was clear with both what you watched and what you heard in Desyatnikov’s score that this was a burlesque lampooning overly dramatic emotions.

Three couples led the dance. At the opening, two couples embraced, but Sterling Hyltin refused Joaquin De Luz, and then immediately danced with him. The contrary behavior, which gets confusing in Ratmansky’s work, was part of the point here.

Ashley Bouder and Taylor Stanley started into an Apache dance that they didn’t play for laughs or even actual emotions, but more like human-sized Punch and Judy puppets: he pushed, she pulled and they flopped. After, the male corps cakewalked out and raced in place. Bouder did repeated turns to show how many she can do.

Ratmansky is as close to Russia’s Orientalism as Balanchine was, and both he and Desyatnikov touched on it in a slinky duet for Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns. That segued to a tango and out flew De Luz, with the women slouching in behind him. He grabbed Hyltin before she could leave. They drifted together and the men lifted her in the scene Siobhan Burke described as a metaphoric gang rape.  On a second viewing there seemed to be even less of that.  It was a quote from ballets such as The Unanswered Question section of “Ivesiana” or “Illuminations,” where the woman isn’t violated, but unreachable. The men were a metaphoric barrier that kept her separate from De Luz, and when she smacked him right after it seemed to be for his failure to breach it.

The oddest part was, as in much of Ratmansky, it was all forgotten in a phrase or two. When the music changes, that’s it. Balanchine did that too, but he got away with it more successfully because he was using building blocks of classical dance, not emotional gestures. And yet the ballet ends abstractly, quoting, of all things, “Konservatoriet,” before moving towards an apotheosis and a tiered final pose.

“Odessa.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Yes, “The Times Are Racing,” looks like a clothing ad. You decide which brand. But late stage capitalism and relentless commercialization are part of The Times, and that’s the world Justin Peck grew up in: The Revolution Will Be 20% Off. To open the work, a crowd moved in clumps, exposing single protagonists to the recorded threnody that begins Dan Deacon’s “USA I-IV.” The lighting turned fluorescent and Ashly Isaacs raced out, falling in small motions towards us. Peck himself entered as a racing figure who appeared and disappeared as if he were a thought in her head. The music rose, feeling like a mix between Aaron Copland and Michael Nyman. The prêt-à-porter coats the cast wore started to look less like American Apparel, and more like mystical robing.

Peck’s duet with Isaacs was gangly and awkward, but suited them. Peck is an awkward dancer at times, Isaacs is more technical but also raw. The hyperactive duet fused that goofy awkwardness into a movement style. As the score segued into marimbas, a million movie musical references from Gene Kelly to “West Side Story” poured out. It ended with both of them balanced on a single foot, frozen in mid-run.

Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar entered from the opposite sides to dance a pas de deux; Ramasar moving her in switchblade partnering and playing percussion on the soles of her shoes. The dance massed towards its finale with the group leaping – shades of “Trinity” – and then almost boxing as Isaacs danced solo in front of them. At the end, Isaacs was left standing with the group collapsed around her.

“The Times Are Racing” is one of Peck’s most personal and best works. At first view it wasn’t clear if the social commentary was just window-dressing. Now he’s made most of the roles gender-neutral (Isaacs took on the role originated by Robert Fairchild; in a succeeding cast Stanley and Daniel Applebaum danced the pas de deux done here by Ms. Peck and Ramasar). And yet as you watched it, there was a sense that it is so of the moment that even if it’s well-made, it might seem too 2017 in 2027.  It’s a millennial ballet in the best sense, exemplifying the most laudable qualities of the generation: its collective spirit and hope.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Liturgy,” “Polyphonia,” “Odessa,” “The Times are Racing” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 3, 2017

Cover: Tiler Peck and cast in “The Times Are Racing.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

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