New York City Ballet
Gala: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Fanfare for Orchestra), Capricious Maneuvers, Neverwhere, Spectral Evidence, excerpt from Western Symphony
New York, David H. Koch Theater
19 September 2013
Fashion Forward – New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala
Ever since Sara Jessica Parker – board member, ballet lover, tastemaker – began taking an interest in New York City Ballet’s galas, fashion has been pushed to the forefront of these events. The ballets are starting to look like a bit of an afterthought. Last fall the entire soirée was dedicated to Valentino, who designed all the costumes and took an onstage bow alongside the dancers. Then, in the spring, the young designer, Joseph Altuzarra, made the costumes for Christopher Wheeldon’s A Place for Us, a breezy pas de deux starring Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. Just before the lights went out, one of Peck’s straps gave way. A valuable lesson was learned – reinforce the straps.
Another gala, another fashion experiment. This time around there were three collaborations: Prabal Guru with Justin Peck, Iris Van Herpen with Benjamin Millepied, and Olivier Theyskens with Angelin Preljocaj. (All of the designs were realized with the supervision and assistance of the in-house costume guru, Marc Happel.) The dances were introduced by featurettes showing outtakes from the fittings. “I have to keep in mind it’s not a fashion show,” said the young Gurung, with winning innocence. (This Refinery29 feature includes 3 video featurettes about the designers.) Gurung’s costumes for Peck’s Capricious Maneuvers turned out to be the most pretty and bland of the evening: flouncy short dresses (one in a very fetching shade of red) with detailing that was almost completely lost from a distance. The dresses flared fetchingly when the women turned, but I spotted one of the male dancers adjusting a drooping strap on his harness-like top not once but twice during the dance. Straps, it turns out, are tricky.
Amid all the fuss about the costumes, the choreogaphy paled. Neither Justin Peck’s Capricious Maneuvers nor Benjamin Millepied’s Neverwhere rose to the level of the choreographers’ best work. Once again Peck revealed his flair for creating endlessly shifting ensembles, and the gaiety of spirit that makes his ballets such fun to watch. The dancers kept tossing each other around and sliding under the onstage piano. The music was Lukas Foss’s sprightly Capriccio for piano and cello, an inspired choice. There was a lot of running and spinning and ingenious patterning; brief duets emerged, then a trio of women performing jazzy steps to a syncopated melody on the piano. But the piece never really coalesced into something more substantial. It was Peck’s breeziest, lightest, and possibly most facile work to date. (Then again, he’s twenty-five, so he’s got time.)
The ballet that followed, Millepied’s Neverwhere, was hampered in equal measure by the Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen’s futuristic costumes – quite fantastic to look at in themselves – and its score, a suite by Nico Muhly (Drones and Viola) that never seemed to go anywhere at all. Everything about Neverwhere was stylish, including the architectural lighting by Mark Stanley, but the dancing felt aimless, lacking a clear point. Each of the sections, divided by blackouts, began well, but then stagnated, just as the music seemed to spin endlessly on itself. A duet for Sterling Hyltin and Tyler Angle (accompanied by a droning bass) hinted at something deeper, but despite a poetic motif of a hand caressing a cheek, the emotions felt unconvincing. Made out of tiny scales of plastic that glinted in the light – and crackled as they moved – the costumes were extremely striking but seemed at odds with the dance. It did not help that the dancers were barely recognizable.
The dancers’ identities were even more inscrutable in Spectral Evidence, by the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, costumed by the Belgian designer, Olivier Theyskens. (I recognized Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, but did not realize until I checked my program that Megan Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin were also dancing, and they are hardly wallflowers.) This was due both to the extremely low lighting (by Marc Stanley) and to Preljocaj’s uniform movement for the dancers. Like the Van Herpen costumes, Theyskens’ were quite arresting in and of themselves. They were real costumes, meant to serve the theme of the ballet: gauzy shifts for the women with deep red patches appliqued to the backs and sides, as if the dancers were bleeding through their skin. And for the men, tight-fitting priestly garb reminiscent of the Puritans. Preljocaj, with his keen imagination, took inspiration from the Salem Witch Trials, though it never became quite clear what, if anything, he meant to say about them, except perhaps that they were weird and sinister and in some way erotic. The women, in their bloody dresses, were presumably witches, or women accused of being witches, or perhaps the ghosts of the accused. It was hard to tell. In any case, the piece began with a coup de théâtre, a haunting image of four ghost-like hands appearing behind the standing figures of four priestly men. The phantoms handled the men’s bodies like puppetmasters, in silence.
Spectral Evidence was the only piece of the evening not performed on pointe, and the contrast of Preljocaj’s organic, fluid movement with the more staccato feel of the other pieces was a welcome change of pace. His musical choice – a selection of eccentric vocal works by John Cage – was appealingly weird. There were arresting moments: a raucous rhythmic section, danced only by the men, and a mercurial solo for Robert Fairchild, in which he mimed along with Cage’s loopy voice (“étrange, n’est-ce pas?”). But the piece was undermined by a lack of structural variety – almost every section was performed in unison by one group or another – and by the fact that most of the choreography seemed to focus on the torso and arms and ignore the legs.
What a joy, then, to see a section of Western Symphony, with those marvelous frou-frou tutus by Karinska and that euphoric outpouring of Balanchine’s’ crisp, witty steps. With what ease Balanchine mixed together several styles at once, everything from swaggering cowboy walks to the Charleston to a mazurka step and – why not? – a bit of square dancing. In his hands all these ingredients come together like a big, happy, organic whole. This was the highpoint of the evening, along with the Fanfare for Orchestra by John Adams, splendidly played by the orchestra on its raised platform at the opening of the evening (under the baton of Andrews Sill). Maria Kowroski, as the lead showgirl, could have used a little more kick in her stride, but why quibble. In the role of lead cowboy, Zachary Catazaro, a corps-member who always seems poised for greater things, whooped it up, pulling off some impressive leaps (including an incongruous 540 degree turning kick). As the curtain descended, with the dancers still spinning, we were left wanting just little bit more, which is just as it should be.
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