Sometimes a work of art can be compelling for its strict adherence to the rules of a given form, for the comfort and beauty that can be found in a virtuosity we already know how to gauge. Classical ballet is rife with examples of this sort. Other times, a spirit of rebellion or failure to conform can provide a kind of satisfying spaciousness—an atmosphere in which we are dazzled not just by what our eyes are seeing but by what we might imagine going forward. On Thursday, June 30th, 2022, at the Joyce Theater, Christopher Williams Dances had moments of both in the queer reimagining of iconic works from the Ballets Russes canon.
The evening began with Williams’s dark rendition of “The Afternoon of a Faun.” Vaslav Nijinsky’s first ballet premiered in Paris in 1912, set to Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. With its overt sexual tone, as a faun encounters a tribe of water nymphs, the original ballet created much controversy. Williams sought to retain some of that shocking nature by taking the ending to a more gruesome place.
The stage set with crouching nymphs, New York City Ballet principal Taylor Stanley made their first of many entrances of the evening, in silence. Costumed as the mythical faun—complete with goat horns, pants painted to look like a hide, and pointy, prosthetic ears—Stanley seemed less surefooted than usual as they sniffed the nymphs and made their way through some of Nijinsky’s hieroglyphic-style shapes. But once the music began, their movements became fuller, rounder, and more steady. Meanwhile, the nymphs paired off to partner one another in a rolling fashion as they traversed the stage, pausing in backbends that created a pleasant sculptural balance. In their nude unitards, strewn with greenery and flowers, the nymphs also embodied the scenery, using their bodies to float their limbs up off the ground like grasses blowing gently in the breeze.
Lulled into this idyllic landscape, Stanley’s faun submitted wholeheartedly to the intoxicating power of the nymphs. Dropping to the ground to lay with one, Stanley was only able to savor a few dreamy moments—their head cradled in the nymph’s hands—before another nymph picked him off and strangled him. Dragging him upstage, the tribe set upon the faun, noisily devouring his body as the curtain dropped.
After such a dramatic ending, “The Prayer of Daphnis & Interlude” excerpts felt like an abrupt work-in-progress. Daphnis, a young goatherd danced by Joshua Harriette, and a trio of hooded dancers comprising Hesperides, or nymphs of the evening star, made the most of their choreography but the two short dances failed to coalesce. On the other hand, the excerpts from “Narcissus” made me curious to see more.
The evening length work premiered last November at New York Live Arts, using Nikolai Tcherepnin’s 1912 score “Narcisse et Echo,” composed for the Ballets Russes. The excerpts featured Echo, Narcissus’s spurned would-be lover danced by Mac Twining, and Narcissus, performed in near perfect unison by Stanley and Cemiyon Barber. A sweeping and confident solo introduced us to the mountain nymph Echo: here an intersex being portrayed through Andrew Jordan’s whimsical costuming, including breasts and a brightly coiled phallus inspired by the ceremonial “penis sheaths” of the ancient Greeks. Twining’s virtuosic jumping and solid balances set up Williams’s new twist to the tragic story—instead of wasting away to nothing but a repetitive voice, Echo turns away from Narcissus after he rejects them for his own reflection, charting their own path apart from their tribe.
Stanley and Barber entered together with coy and sharply musical gestures. Presumably we missed the section where Narcissus encounters his reflection for the first time and instead were introduced to them as one unit. Their costumes were also mirrored, with their one-shoulder harnesses and anklets on opposing sides. Exceedingly comfortable with each other and well-matched physically, they were joyous as they turned circles, serene as they waved at one another on the ground. And while Barber is not actually a mirror image of Stanley, dancing as his reflection, his port de bras and overall movement quality were equally articulate and generous. They swished side to side and as the momentum built, they crashed and rolled into each other. Their homoerotic symmetry created a dynamic tension with the lone, but dualistic, Echo.
When an ensemble of mountain nymphs crawled on, whispering and slinking, Echo pantomimed “no more” with a definitive sweep of their arms, rejecting Narcissus’s thrall. The nymphs creeped over to Narcissus, seeking to wake him. As he roused, the nymphs partnered each other with soaring overhead lifts. Building to a climax around Narcissus, the excerpt ended symbolically with hands unfolding from his sex like bloom. (In the program notes, we were reminded there is a flower of the same name.)
After intermission, the New York premiere of “Les Sylphides” showed off more of Williams’s stagecraft. Adept at moving the corps de ballet—albeit one smaller than Michel Fokine’s—he made full use of the stage with his patterns, weaving his all-male cast in and out of classical tableaux. Standing and kneeling with arms overhead in high fifth, they swayed side to side in a fashion familiar to any all-female corps. But these men, costumed more as insects than the familiar white tulle fairies of the original ballet, brought an energy that was altogether different. Even with Frederic Chopin’s sweet preludes, mazurkas, and waltz dances, the sylphs were decidedly multi-dimensional, alternately soft and strong. Stanley, as the Queen of the Sylphs, was perhaps the most enticing, with some spectacular petit allegro moments. But being barefoot rather than in pointe shoes did have some drawbacks, one of which was a feeling of struggle in the partnered promenades between Stanley and Twining, as the young poet, resulting from the increased friction.
However, what the dances lacked in fluidity and ease, was made up for with spirit and stamina. And here is where the concept of spaciousness struck me: no longer was the work centered solely on a delicate beauty. Much like the creatures in “Faun,” there was a magical power emanating from the animal-like quality of the sylphs—a triumph of the visceral over the ethereal.
Williams’s painstakingly researched and revised scenarios resulted in such wildly creative costume design from Jordan and vibrant dancing from all. What this means for where ballet can go is open-ended. I have to imagine that women, though there were few in this cast, also stand to be freed up from the binaries imposed on ballerinas with this “Yes, and” approach. The truth is that ballet has always been a home for queerness. But leading with that queerness—rather than forcing it into the cis-heteronormative stories and relationships that still dominate—is a generative act that leaves the door open to more invention.