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Turn up the Heat

Justin Peck, the 28-year-old resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, is on a roll. Judging by the number of works he has created for NYCB and other ballet companies in the last few years, Peck seems unstoppable in his drive, creativity, imagination, and eagerness to create. He is a rare, prodigious talent when it comes to dancemaking. A new Peck ballet (just like a premier by Alexei Ratmansky or Christopher Wheeldon) is a major event in today’s ballet.

Performance

Miami City Ballet: “Heatscape” / “Viscera” / “Bourrée Fantasque”

Place

Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY, April 16, 2016

Words

Oksana Khadarina

Miami City Ballet in “Heatscape” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

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So it comes as no surprise that “Heatscape,” a new work Peck created for Miami City Ballet in 2015, was one of the most anticipated offerings during MCB’s recent season at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in New York.

Set to Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D Major by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), the sundrenched and effervescent “Heatscape” proved a perfect vehicle for the exuberant dancers from Miami. (This is the second work Peck created for MCB. In 2013, Lourdes Lopez, the company’s current artistic director, commissioned from the rising star choreographer a pas de deux, “Chutes and Ladders,” which was premiered as part of a New World Symphony showcase in collaboration with MCB.)

“Heatscape” is an irresistible cornucopia of movement, color, and sound. It felt as if Peck was inspired not only by Martinů’s picturesque music but also by the hot Miami weather. The sunny beach atmosphere saturates the ballet from start to finish, and there is an ocean of images which, in the course of the dance, rise and collapse like cool, breezy waves, perfectly capturing the ever-changing rhythmical dynamics and moods of the endlessly beautiful score.

The architectural geometry of Peck’s choreography is sophisticated and bracingly fresh. Trained at the School of American Ballet, Peck still dances with NYCB as soloist; and it’s obvious where his choreographic point of reference—and his love and respect of the classical ballet tradition—is coming from. Throughout the piece, one can’t help but notice the images that bring to mind those of Balanchine’s “Apollo” and “Concerto Barocco”—a witty homage to the great ballet master. Nevertheless, in “Heatscape,” Peck emerges as a unique voice, with his own unmistakable style, mood, and manner.

The ballet begins with a brisk downstage run: the entire cast, dressed in white summer costumes, dashes to the front of the stage and freezes in sculptural poses only to scatter across the space in a series of perpetually-shifting patterns. The dancers constantly zoom, bounce and whirl; and if they come to rest, it’s only for a moment.

A tender duet between a man and a woman looks particularly poignant amid the incessant rush of movement in the ballet’s opening movement. This is the moment when Martinů introduces a romantic Tchaikovskian melody as if offering a refuge from the avalanche of crashing arpeggios and smashing chords. The leading man (the outstanding Renan Cerdeiro) seems a loner and an outsider; the woman (Emily Bromberg) becomes his spiritual saviour, giving him the hope and inner strength he craves. Their dialogue, steeped in poetic sensibility, feels ardent and animated all at once.

The second movement centers on another pas de deux, sensitively danced by Tricia Albertson and Kleber Rebello, which feels more elegiac and somber than the first one, with the dance imagery alluding to emotional conflict and heartbreak—a painful good-bye between people who used to deeply care for each other. The concerto’s Andante, to which the duet is set, is in itself a heart-rending cry of despair. (New York City Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Gary Sheldon delivered a masterful rendition of the score. Francisco Rennó was an excellent pianist.)

The ballet ends on a fast and cheerful note, with the frenetic speed and bright atmosphere of the dance-packed action restored and brought to a level high enough to leave the dancers—and the audience—happily breathless. The elaborate choreographic formations expand and contract with a newly acquired intensity. The stage, like never before, is flooded with zesty, high-spirited movement so exhilarating and inspiring you want it to never end.

The visual perception of “Heatscape,” however, would never be the same without the impressive set designs by street artist Shepard Fairey, who created an elaborate backdrop—a huge sun-like painting in deep red and orange hues—that decorated the stage and contributed to the ever-escalating heat of the dance.

The program’s centerpiece, Liam Scarlett’s “Viscera,” was also new to the audiences of New York City. Created in 2012 for MCB, the ballet was commissioned from Scarlett, who is choreographer-in-residence at the London’s Royal Ballet, by the company’s co-founder and then-artistic director Edward Villella. It was the second “piano concerto” ballet of the evening, danced to Piano Concerto No. 1 by contemporary American composer Lowell Liebermann.

“Viscera” a well-crafted ballet for the cast of 16, is full of intricate choreographic vignettes for the ensemble and features a gorgeous pas de deux in the middle movement, danced with terrific skill by Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra. Yet after the blazing performance of “Heatscape,” the prim and polished “Viscera” left me cold. The unremarkable lighting (the stage was shrouded in darkness, particularly during the ballet’s opening movement) didn’t help.

The evening’s closing number—George Balanchine’s “Bourrée Fantasque” (1949)—made a spectacular, rare and very much appreciated gift to New Yorkers, for this ballet is a precious rarity in the active Balanchine repertory.

Choreographed to a collection of dance music by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier, “Bourrée Fantasque” is a tempest of kinetic energy, exuberance, and wit. Expansive and sparkling, this three-part showpiece moves from character comedy to glamorous romance to dazzling extravaganza, culminating with a typical Balanchinian “send-them-home-happy” finale.

Jordan-Elizabeth Long and Shimon Ito perfectly captured the comic absurdity of their tall-girl-short-guy duet in the ballet’s beginning. The eloquent Simone Messmer and Rainer Krenstetter were all poise and cool grandeur in the central pas de deux, coloring their dancing with a subtle tint of unattainable love; and the entire cast went for broke in the ballet’s electrifying conclusion, with all the dancers massing onstage as if for a show-stopping Broadway number.

Oksana Khadarina


Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and DanceTabs, among other publications.

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