New York City Ballet
Fall Gala: Morgen, This Bitter Earth, Clearing Dawn, Funérailles, Belles Lettres
New York, David H. Koch Theater
23 September 2014
Gala State of Mind
It’s as pointless to complain about ballet galas as it is to grumble about the weather. They serve a purpose – replenishing the cash drawer – and they keep the plutocrats happy. For the rest of us, there are the new works to look forward to, often unveiled en masse at the opening of the season. The Sept. 23 shindig at New York City Ballet was no exception; it included three new ballets, all by young choreographers, two of them (Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher) dancers in the company. As in previous seasons, fashion was the subtext. Each choreographer was paired with a designer whose eye, at least in principle, was called upon to enhance the work. That these designs also create buzz in fashionable circles just adds to their appeal.
But somehow amid the hoopla about the clothes – including a lovely film starring the always levelheaded master of the costume department, Marc Happel, the ballets lose some of their luster. I look forward to seeing them again, tucked into mixed bills where they can stand on their merits next to older works in the repertory.
The oldest work on the program, Morgen, was by the company’s director, Peter Martins. The 2001 ballet is set to rapturous Strauss songs, sung (in the pit) by Jennifer Zetlan, whose light soprano gained in warmth as the evening progressed. Morgen, too, received a makeover, by Carolina Herrera. Herrera’s were the most decorous, understated costumes of the evening: silky dresses, of varying length, in midnight blue, white and coral. One at a time, three women drift on, dreamily, to linger in an abandoned colonnade facing a blue-tinged alpine vista. There they are joined by poetic young men who swoop them through the air in tricky lifts, many of which involve the woman hooking herself over the man’s shoulders in ingenious ways. At least the women have slightly contrasting personalities: Sterling Hyltin, in white, is spry and youthful; Maria Kowroski, in coral, more melancholy; Sara Mearns, in dark blue, is passionate and needy. But the men are interchangeable to the point that it takes some time to notice that they never stay with the same woman for long. Despite the swelling Straussian melodies and their poetic texts – which speak of dreams, winter, and the wheel of time – the duets are rather monotone. It’s just rapture and more rapture.
With the exception of Troy Schumacher’s Clearing Dawn, male-female pas de deux also dominated every ballet that followed. (I’ve seldom seen so many pas de deux in a single evening.) The most intriguing twist on the form was in Funérailles, made by the young Briton Liam Scarlett for Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, and set to an excerpt from Franz Liszt’s Harmonies réligieuses et poétiques, dramatically played onstage by Elaine Chelton. Here, the dress, a billowing and multi-layered concoction in black and various shades of gray by Sara Burton (of Alexander McQueen), was used to great effect. Tiler Peck emerged from the shadows like a heroine from a gothic novel, ominously awaiting a nocturnal visitor. Robert Fairchild duly arrived, wearing embroidered tails but no shirt. Their arms twined like poisonous tendrils; he pulled her to him forcefully and ran his fingers down her spine, then flung her overhead. The foam-like skirt became a third character in their courtship, augmenting every lift and kick, at times engulfing both dancers in its liquid folds. Like Liszt’s overheated music, the pas de deux had theatrical flair; it would not have looked out of place in a story about ghosts or vampires. Peck and Fairchild pulled it off with panache. (Both will be acting in musicals this fall.) But this is precisely the kind of ballet that makes people snicker about ballet, so overwrought, so froufrou.
Justin Peck’s Belles Lettres opened on a scene of almost startling beauty: a flower formation through which dancers kept weaving, appearing and disappearing. Then, as they unspooled into a long chain, two dancers were pulled toward each other, forced by the group into an amorous encounter. This led into a series of pas de deux, one for each of the four couples. César Franck’s untitled piano quintet seems to have awakened a new romanticism in young Mr. Peck, usually more preoccupied with dreaming up dazzling geometries for the ensemble.
The scene was reminiscent of the decadent ballroom at the end of Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes or La Valse: elegant, opulent, but not quite right. The women appeared to be almost imprisoned by their partners, held too close, too insistently. The astonishingly fluid Anthony Huxley, spinning and gliding across the stage with the speed and lightness of a hummingbird, offered the only glimpse of freedom in this closed world. A touch of his hand released a woman from the vise of her lover’s arms. Peck is widening his palette, acquiring a new maturity. His Belles Lettres has style – the dresses, by Mary Katrantzou, have an attractive 1930’s line – as well as atmosphere and subtlety of texture. If there’s a small bone to pick, it’s that the pas de deux are still a little generic.
Because of a City Ballet policy that bans critics who’ve watched rehearsals from reviewing the final product, I can’t say much about Clearing Dawn, corps-member Troy Schumacher’s first ballet for the company. I wrote a preview about it for the Times. I will say this: as the only work on the program that wasn’t built around partnering, it provided a welcome contrast. Schumacher’s style is still a work-in-process, but one can sense his desire to present his dancers as people, not romantic fantasies.
Even more down to earth is This Bitter Earth, a pas de deux created by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan in 2012. It’s a rather simple work with the feel of an intimate conversation. Whelan falls, and her partner (Tyler Angle) catches her. She rubs her forehead against his arm, seeking solace. They touch palms, enacting a ritual of trust and friendship. What’s remarkable, though, is the way Wheeldon has drawn a portrait of this particular dancer, of the way she moves and interacts with the world: simply, directly, without ornamentation. Whelan will retire from the company at the end of the season. She’s forty-seven, she’s had a good run. But the honesty and open-heartedness she brings to her dancing will not soon find its match.