Polish National Ballet
Adagio & Scherzo, Rite of Spring, Moving Rooms
New York, Joyce Theater
15 June 2015
Fast & Furious
There was no rest for the weary at the Joyce on Tuesday night, where Polish National Ballet whipped through its New York debut with an adrenalin-packed program.
Anyone expecting traditional ballet from PNB would be mistaken. While the troupe has roots dating back to the 18th century (including the rejection of a job application from a one Jean-Gorges Noverre ) and a healthy dose of classical repertoire, PNB’s current identity is heavily shaped by contemporary influences. Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor has strong street cred in this department: a veteran dancer from Lyon Opera Ballet (Le Ballet de l’Opera of Lyon) and the Dutch National Ballet, Pastor also shares the post of resident choreographer of DNB with Hans van Manen.
Two out of the three works on the mixed bill are by Pastor, and they’re both frenzied.
Despite the title of Pastor’s Adagio & Scherzo, not much separates the two. Pastor bulldozes through Schubert (C major String Quartet), with minimal musicality. In the vein of Forsythe, Pastor slings the dancers around the stage at hyper speed, leaving little to the imagination. Even when the music is slow, the stage is busy. Where one step would do, five are crammed in. The prettiest moments are the simplest: like when Yuka Ebihara falls softly into an arabesque in the arms of her partner, the leg lower than 90 degrees – a gravitational embrace.
Pastor claims there is no story but that he is “focusing on emotions,” which drives the dancers to put on histrionic airs – staring intensely at each other, at the audience, eyefuls of possession for the couples and despair for the singletons. Favoring 180 degree leg flings for women throughout the work, by the time the scherzo rolls around the extensions start to feel like a mere circus trick, contortion for contortion’s sake, rather than movements that evolve naturally from the shapes that came before it.
If Adagio & Scherzo was fast and furious, Emanuel Gat’s Rite of Spring was rabid. Set in a square bloodbath of red light, Gat’s Rite incorporates salsa, but not as you know it. Stravinsky’s skull-cracking score takes the social dance in another direction, away from sexy, sensual swivels to a language of frenzy – of focused, obsessive compulsive twitching, of a junkie jonesing for a fix. The repetition and the dancers’ hollow stares only contribute to the vacuity. The exhausting piece for five rarely gives the dancers a break, but the men – Robert Bondara and Kurusz Wojenski – tug at cadences with an enviable elasticity, contributing a dynamism that matches the music. At least in Rite, Gat is a better choreographer for men, which is something of a shame given the passionate performances by Marta Fiedler, Aleksandra Liashenko and Karolina Sapun.
Pastor’s Moving Rooms feels a little like McGregor lite: the stage opens with Carlos Martin Perez’s chiseled muscles rippling in a bald light. Later a couple in nude leotards does a pas de deux, featuring several distorted renditions of balletic poses; they move like two crepuscular gargoyles unfurling in the night. The music is quasi-Baroque meets silent horror film, i.e. a restless harpsichord. As in Adagio & Scherzo, Pastor shows he likes men handling women: a man touches a woman’s face, her shoulders, or her wrist and she moves in direct response, often semi- rapturously, every time. What if just once, she stood stock still, unmoved?
Despite all the virtuosity, I’m still not sure I’ve seen PNB’s artists really move, as in carried by the music rather than hurried by it. PNB appear to have fantastic dancers – Maksim Woitiul has a particularly captivating presence – but at least in this mixed bill, they look like a race of crazed thoroughbreds. Choreography should not be an endurance test, it should be a dance.