To say that New York City Ballet’s Taylor Stanley is having a moment would be a gross understatement. Lauded by the NY TImes and DanceTabs for his recent debut in Balanchine’s Apollo (the Times also gave him a profile), Stanley was put to work in all three ballets on Sunday’s “New Combinations” mixed bill. Major draws were the new Justin Peck and a revival of William Forsythe’s 1992 commission Herman Schmerman, not seen in full since the 90s. Although Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway debuted last fall, Stanley’s opening (and closing) solos in that ballet are what steal the show.
When the curtain goes up in Runaway, Stanley’s body is hunched over, his torso earthbound under the spotlight. Wearing a black and white printed romper, he gradually unfurls his body with some glitchy undulations – concerns one is in for a contemporary twitch-fest are gradually abated as Abraham’s choreography moves beyond trendy conventions. Stanley holds a développé a la seconde for what feels like a lifetime, again bathed in a dramatic spotlight, his muscle quivers visible. Stanley’s complete and utter self-possession is overpowering in its simplicity and beauty. There is something naive in it, as if we are watching him reinhabit his body anew – but rather than query it he is merely claiming what has always been his and his alone.
There are gentle nods to flexing, a street dance style – Stanley’s bones gliding beneath his skin – and voguing, a hip jut here and wrist flex there. Voguing and the occasional hip-hop dance motifs pepper Runaway throughout. Both forms of dance boast an aesthetic very much created by the self, by dancers, by individual bodies creating moves unique unto themselves, not holier than thou choreographers. The musical choices may seem at odds: the soft and earnest compositions of Nico Muhly and James Blake are juxtaposed with the confident, confrontational and outspoken words of Kanye West and Jay-Z. The most striking influence taken from the worlds of hip-hop and ballroom is the sense of conviction which first appears in Stanley but is embodied by the full cast, most especially his fellow male dancers Spartak Hoxha, Roman Mejia, and Peter Walker. Mejia performed an assured solo set to West’s rhythmically addictive, meta acapella rap ‘I Love Kanye,’ and Mejia’s wry smile, technique and joyous verve were a wondrous sight to behold.
The costumes by Giles Deacon echo influences from the commedia dell’arte via Bjork: puffy pantaloons and ruffs (one of the designer’s frequent fixations, one of them so enormous as to obfuscate one dancer’s entire head). Male dancers casually fist bump each other mid-duet, making the audience chuckle, and the entire cast is awash with joy, sass and panache – something sorely lacking in the other two works on the program. That said, Abraham’s moves could take an occasional cue from someone like Forsythe. During some of the potentially more engaging, edgier sections with hard beats and sharp angles, the choreography was sluggish. But these moments were rare, and City Ballet look good in Abraham’s clothes, they should wear them more often.
Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman uses similar vocabulary to In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, but Herman’s thrills are few and far between. Set to a score by his frequent collaborator Thom Willems, the sonic dissonances are reminiscent of a tired, worn out music hall organ played by mischievous monkeys in an abandoned theater. But these haunted echoes never reach the rhythmic, fevered pitch that give In the Middle its teeth, grit and sexuality. Tiler Peck was exquisite throughout in musicality and technical execution, including in the pas de deux which makes up the second half of the piece, so much so that Tyler Angle faded into the background (his costume – a shirt and long pants – didn’t help).
A lack of tension permeated not just Herman but also Peck’s Principia. A lack of commitment is perhaps the biggest flaw in Peck’s work, perhaps not only this one. A mood will appear very set, say a plaintive pas de deux, that then twitches and interrupts itself with quick movements and an unconquerable restlessness. Principia can’t just be. It has trouble sitting with itself. Principia meanders. The fidgety nature of it doesn’t feel, artistically, like it serves any aesthetic nor intellectual purpose.
One section stood out, a pas de deux of sorts between two men, who in as balletic a manner as possible, tease and tussle each other gently like a pair of lion cubs playing. The sense of innocence is not uncharted territory for Peck, whose works in my mind stand out for their emotional virginity. Emotion is alluded to without being fully fleshed out, a sense of wonder and wistfulness appears, disappears, and reappears again. The music – another score commissioned with Sufjan Stevens – only amplifies these sensibilities, with his use of chiming, twee percussion (he is fond of and good at utilizing idiophones). The choreography is frequently bright, brisk and airy, Peck’s ‘voice’ is established, and perfectly pleasant to watch. Clusters of dancers form and dissipate, but beyond the final message conveyed by the entire cast walking downstage holding hands (we, all different, are unified) any build up to that moment felt arbitrary and incongruous. It is an odd, heavy handed choice that was missing the satisfying sense of inevitability, as if it was the only possible way to conclude the work. The movement just prior – a boisterous, energetic segment with the entire cast going full throttle – would have made a fitting if less message-oriented coda.