Sara Mearns
Sara Mearns in Alexei Ratmanksy's “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Mercurial Manoeuvres

New York City Ballet's “New Combinations”

Performance
New York City Ballet: “New Combinations”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 27, 2015
Words
Oksana Khadarina

“New Combinations” was an apt way to describe the outstanding triple bill that featured “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Alexei Ratmansky, “‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck, and “Mercurial Manoeuvres” by Christopher Wheeldon. All works were specifically created for NYCB in the 21st century; all three choreographers have close artistic and collaborative ties (past and present) with the company.

Ratmansky made his first major entrance into American ballet in 2006 with his gripping and widely successful “Russian Seasons,” a plotless ballet to music by Russian modern composer Leonid Desyatnikov, commissioned by NYCB as part of the company’s Diamond Project. (At that time, then 38-year-old Ratmansky was artistic director of Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.)

Today Ratmansky is a household name in the ballet world. Equally versed in narrative and abstract dance forms, he stages ballets around the globe to universal acclaim. He is also artist in residence at American Ballet Theater, which just recently unveiled his brand-new production of “Sleeping Beauty” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

“Pictures at an Exhibition,” which premiered last year, is Ratmansky’s fourth ballet for NYCB. It takes its title from the 1874 piece by Russian classical composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Enthused by a posthumous art exhibit of paintings by Viktor Hartmann, the composer’s close friend, Mussorgsky composed a suite of miniatures for solo piano and named the 11 sections of his composition after Hartmann’s drawings and sketches that inspired them: “The Gnome,” “The Old Castle,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” “Catacombs,” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” among others.

Taking cues from the music’s colorful nature, Ratmansky and his collaborators—costume designer Adeline André, projections artist Wendall K. Harrington and lighting designer Mark Stanley—created a deeply theatrical and wondrous world of movement, color and light, populating it with eccentric, fairytale-like characters.

At the beginning of the ballet, Wassily Kandinsky’s Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles (1913) is projected on a huge backdrop; and, in the course of the piece, various fragments of this vibrant, childlike watercolor, wittily disassembled and rearranged, appear on the scrim behind the dancers. Alluding to Kandinsky’s artwork, Andre made a bold fashion statement, outfitting the cast—five women and five men—in glossy, translucent multicolored costumes adorned with various geometric shapes.

Ratmansky never ceases to astonish and delight with his imagination and artistic inventiveness. In this piece, his classical vocabulary has a distinctive, improvisatory quality, with each “picture” revealing its own unique character. Now wildly playful, now fervently lyrical, his 16-part ballet feels like a collage of picturesque mini-stories, all highly entertaining, suspenseful and immensely enjoyable; in which the cast, with terrific theatrical flair, seems to animate the propulsive, prickly and often humorous Mussorgsky score.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” begins on an amusing note, with the dancers running toward center stage to form a three-row mini-theater: they are both spectators and performers of a series of evanescent solos, accompanied by “Promenade”—a leisurely-paced walking theme and the common thread that ties these musical pictures together.

My favorite part of the piece was a languorous duet set to the mournful sounds of “The Old Castle.” The ballerina role, originated by the remarkable Wendy Whelan, is tailored to her prodigious classical gifts and features an array of spectacular partnering sequences: striking lifts, holds and turns. The graceful and lyrical Sterling Hyltin was riveting in this role, enjoying the assured support from her partner, Tyler Angle.

In a tumultuous solo set to “Baba Yaga,” the superb Zachary Catazaro danced with sweeping ardor and dramatic panache. Standout performances also came from Georgina Pazcoguin in a flamboyant and spiky number, “The Gnome;” and from the highly talented Lauren Lovette in a playful romp, “Tuileries.”

Like Ratmansky, British-born Christopher Wheeldon is a prominent creative force in today’s classical ballet. He created “Mercurial Manoeuvres” in 2000 for the NYCB’s Diamond Project festival of new choreography while still a soloist with the company. (That same year he retired from dancing to concentrate solely on choreography.)

“Mercurial Manoeuvres,” which culminated the program, is increasingly absorbing in its architectural and stylistic originality. From the very first bar, the stage is saturated with an eye-catching whirlwind of movement as the dancers dart in and out of the wings in a series of rapidly shifting choreographic arrangements that at times evoke a military exercise.

The ballet’s music—Dmitri Shostakovich’s jazzy and sardonic Piano Concerto No. 1—sets the bravura tone and forceful tempo for the opening and closing sections of the piece.

Dressed in attractive royal-blue costumes, the perfectly-drilled cast was intrepid and keenly responsive to Wheeldon’s ever-changing and expertly mapped choreographic designs. Propelling this “Manoeuvres” forward, the regiment of 12 corps ballerinas was in top form, navigating through the multiple hurdles of the choreography with élan and phenomenal speed.

Yet the heart of this ballet is its central duet, accompanied by the concerto’s slow movement. In it, Shostakovich’s elegiac music brings a profound contrast to the otherwise swift and energetic pulse of the piece. Wheeldon responds in kind by leaving onstage only the leading couple for an achingly beautiful, sensual pas de deux.

It was a moment to behold, watching the rapturous Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen fully immersed in their intensely emotional dialog, their bodies and souls intertwined. Mearns brings captivating dramatic power to any role she dances. The expressivity of her movement style is virtually unparalleled, making her the utmost theatrically-accomplished principal ballerina in the company. Every step she takes is imbued with character; every gesture communicates emotion. Even her stillness is telling. Carving sinuous shapes with her body and pouring her heart into her dancing, she made this role truly her own.

The spritely Gonzalo Garcia left a lasting impression as the principal soloist—the lone man in red—who opens the first movement evoking a giant Firebird and then leads the corps in their fast-moving marches.

The world premier of the company’s soloist and its resident choreographer Justin Peck, titled “‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes,” was the most anticipated event of NYCB’s winter season, and rightly so. Peck’s meteoric rise to stardom as a choreographer is quite unprecedented. He is only 27 years old, but has already created 15 ballets for NYCB as well as L.A. Dance Project and the Miami City Ballet.

For his new work, Peck chose the symphonic suite of the same title (minus diacritical marks) by Aaron Copland, which the composer arranged from his iconic score for Agnes De Mille’s equally-iconic ballet “Rodeo,” choreographed for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942. The orchestral version of “Rodeo” includes the four out of five original movements: “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe-down.”

Bringing a new perspective to the familiar Copland score, Peck’s exceedingly-athletic “Rodeo” is a celebration of NYCB’s man power—the ballet calls for 15 male dancers and one single ballerina. Comradeship and solidarity are recurrent motifs here; and Peck’s ingenious pure-dance aesthetics—cleverly sculptured groupings and patterns, astute musicality and comic connotation of the steps—brightly showcases the prodigious talent of the company’s male contingent.

With the sounds of a spry brass fanfare, “Rodeo” takes off with a sprint as the dancers, forming one long diagonal, dash from one side of the stage to the other as if competing in a track-and-field event. In fact, with its cast dressed in striped sporty uniforms and being constantly on-the-go, the piece evokes an athletic gathering of sorts; and the theme of running through open space is one of the main leitmotifs of Peck’s choreography.

The ballet brims with moments of wonder, surprise and sheer fun. At one time, four guys sit on the edge of the stage, gawking into the orchestra pit as if having a chit-chat with the musicians, their legs dangling over. At another, a male dancer yanks out a long, white cord out of the floor as if starting an invisible engine.

One of the most unexpected and dramatically compelling scenes of the dance is an all-male quintet performed to dreamy sounds of “Corral Nocturne.” The music rips the heart with sadness and melancholy. (This is the moment in the score that suggests Cowgirl’s despair over her unrequited with Head Wrangler in de Mille’s original ballet.) Peck’s interpretation of the music in this section is nothing like I have ever seen before: The five men embark on a spiritual journey, gliding together onstage in a tightly-knit cluster, their movements soft and graceful. This episode is explicitly about human relationships and connections that last a lifetime; and here Peck may come closer than anyone else in ballet canon to an expression of male camaraderie.

The lone ballerina (the brilliant Tiler Peck) enters the stage in the third movement, “Saturday Night Waltz.” At first, she dances alone, completely unnoticed (or maybe even ignored) by the men, who are gathered in small groups at the back of the stage. When she finally attracts Amar Ramasar’s attention (the only lucky guy who gets to dance with the girl), they lose themselves in an amorous pas de deux. Theirs was a finely-crafted love story, yet I felt that the music (the enchanting “I Ride an Old Paint” theme) offered far more possibilities for choreographic expression than this duet was able to reveal.

Still, this remarkable new work proved once again that Justin Peck has a tremendous gift for ensemble choreography. The way he deploys multiple teams of dancers in space and time is awe-inspiring. There is no doubt that this young, prolific choreographer has a unique creative voice; and I can’t wait to hear more of what he has to say.

Martha Graham Dance Company
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