After two weeks of soulless Swan Lakes and a program of new works by young choreographers, the company is settling back into its regular repertory. There are still a few opportunities to catch the Balanchine program, which features the all-to-rarely-seen Square Dance, a ballet whose cheerful surface belies a quiet, limpid heart.
Unfortunately though, after this week there will only be one more chance (on Oct. 12) to see the “Here/Now” bill, consisting of a quartet of works by the three contemporary choreographers most closely linked to the company: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck. Peck and Wheeldon got their starts here and Ratmansky began the American phase of his career at the company. You’ve got to hand it to Peter Martins – he has an eye.
The oldest piece on the program is Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. Made in 2001, it has stood the test of time. Just last week it was performed at the Fall for Dance festival, by Miami City Ballet. Its cool, aloof style suits City Ballet better. The vocabulary is an extension of the angular, modernist movement developed by Balanchine in works like Agon and Episodes. There are clear allusions to Agon in the final pas de deux, set to György Ligeti’s “No. 2 Mesto, rigido, e cerimoniale” from Musica Ricercata (better known as the music from the movie Eyes Wide Shut). The situation is similar: a man and woman face off in an encounter that is both erotic and tense. The woman’s flexibility is a visual metaphor for her erotic power; throughout, she maintains a dominant edge over her partner. In one of the most striking moments in Wheeldon’s ballet, she crouches on her partner’s thighs and then expands her body into space; he lifts her straight up, her body wide open, fingers splayed. He does the lifting, but it she who pulses with energy.
I’ve seen the dance many times, but Unity Phelan, who now performs the pas de deux, has found a new dimension, an even greater air of raptness and sensuality. She revels in it, well balanced by the handsome, rough-edged Zachary Catazaro. They make that pas de deux really sizzle. Meanwhile, Lauren Lovette brings enormous poetry and stillness to the sixth section, set to a Satie-like piece from Ligeti’s Three Wedding Dances. (The pianist, Alan Moverman, plays with clarity, incisiveness, and a strong sense of contrast.) Polyphonia was preceded in the program by a Wheeldon pas de deux, Liturgy, a runic piece set to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. It was danced by Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle; their performance was shrouded in sadness, and had me wondering whether Koworoski, one of the company’s senior dancers, is beginning to contemplate the end. It felt like a farewell.
Ratmansky’s Odessa was new last season. Because I watched it in rehearsal, I wasn’t allowed to write about it then – company policy (*). So this was my second look. Like his earlier Russian Seasons, Odessa is set to music by the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, this time a suite drawn from a movie score. (The movie, Zakat, is based on Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories.) Both music and dance are rife with popular motifs, tangos and klezmer and bombastic dance-hall numbers that send the dancers careening across the stage in cabaret-like chorus-lines. The action involves three couples, each with its own dysfunctional relationship. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle have trouble connecting; she is more impulsive, and freer, when she dances alone or with the other women. Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz have a fraught dynamic; she may or may not be a ghost, as suggested by a pas de deux in which she is lifted away from him again and again by a group of men, acting like spirits. He too is lifted by the group, pulled away from her. Dark forces keep them apart.
Ashley Bouder and Taylor Stanley are brawlers; their louche pas de deux has the look and feel of an apache dance, a showy fight. Some viewers last season accused Ratmansky of flippantly depicting violence toward women; try as I might, I find no merit in the accusation. Like the Babel stories and the music, the ballet depicts disreputable behavior – De Luz, in one of his best roles to date, is a pint-sized hot-shot in tight trousers – but it’s all so dreamlike and surreal that it is very difficult to transfer these situations to real life. And, as usual with Ratmansky, the female characters hold their own, technically and dramatically.
The ballet goes by in a flash; if anything, it is almost too fast-paced to process. You don’t get to spend enough time with any of the characters. A chorus of couples echoes and comments on the action: falling, cartwheeling, snaking across the stage in zig-zagging formations. Before you know it, it’s over. And you want to see it again.
Peck’s The Times Are Racing closed the matinée. The ballet, performed in sneakers, is a manifesto of freedom and youth. The costumes are everyday clothes cut-off shorts, asymmetrical skirts, hoodies, t-shirts emblazoned with slogans. The music is driving electronica (by Dan Deacon). The dancers burst with energy, exploding out of tight formations into choreography that combines ballet, jazz dance, tap, hip-hop. It’s fast, sharp, hard-driving and unapologetic. A duet originally danced by two men – Peck and Robert Fairchild – is now performed by dancers of either gender. Today it was Peck and Ashly Isaacs, side by side, tapping, gliding, crouching, piquéing across the stage in sneakers. The other duet, for Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar, is casual, egalitarian, a little sexy.
The ballet feels fresh and honest and the dancers clearly enjoy being given the chance to perform a version of themselves. So, if at times The Times are Racing feels a little bit like an ad for Benetton, well, that’s ok too.
(*) I’m in the process of working on a book about Ratmansky.