The good news is that companies are touring again. It seems like an age since New York received regular visits from large troupes from Europe and Russia. Seeing the National Ballet of Canada at City Center this weekend, back in the city for its first visit since 2016, brought home just how much the world has changed, and not for the better, in the last few years, through a global pandemic and, now, a shattering war that has divided the world into two camps.
This week New Yorkers received a visit from their northern neighbor, a triple bill of new, newish, and older works. The buzzy name here was Crystal Pite, a choreographer who seems to have most of the ballet world in her thrall, mainly because of her ability to move groups of dancers as if they were a single organism, a human energetic wave that sweeps and pulsates across the stage. It’s the dance equivalent of CGI. To this pulsating essence—human? animal? mineral?—Pite applies a sheen of wonder, horror or angst. “Who are we and what does it all mean?” her pieces ask, in different ways.
Her “Angels’ Atlas,” set to choral music by Tchaikovsky and Morten Lauridsen combined with an electronic score by Owen Belton, and performed in conversation with Tom Visser’s ashen, ghostly light clusters, is no different. It begins with a the dancers lying across the stage as the (recorded) sound of Tchaikovsky’s haunting chorus from the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” floats around them. They are the primordial mass of humanity. They rise up, reborn, only to enact pietà-like scenarios of death, collapse, and mourning. One section is dominated by thumping, jerky group movements, pulsating shoulders, hands, arms, hearts beating outside of the chest, bodies lunging and bending. In the next, set once again to choral music, a woman (Hannah Galway) falls again and again, her limbs collapsing beneath her, until she is joined by her partner (Siphesihle November) and the rest of the ensemble. They form river of mourning. In the end, November and Galway are left alone onstage, in a tight and helpless embrace. The piece is either deeply manipulative or moving, depending on your point of view. For me, it fell squarely, and irritatingly, into the first category.
“Angels’ Atlas” was the closer in a program that began with David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” created, originally, for the San Francisco Ballet in 2018. The mood was ecstatic, with dancers running onstage, faces lifted toward the light, arms parting the air before them. Anima and Animus are Jungian concepts for the masculine and feminine psyche, and Dawson has spoken of his desire to question ballet tradition and create a movement language that is less gender-based for the work. But in reality the piece is relatively conventional, with an opening and closing section that emphasize stylized, streamlined movement—splayed fingers, flexed wrists, stretched lines—and an adagio in the middle for two women, each partnered by two men. Each of the women (Genevieve Penn Nabity and Calley Skalnik) is raised up, slid across the floor, flipped over in the splits, and even held aloft in a Soviet-style torch lift (hand under the bum), very much in the acrobatic style of partnering that has become its own convention within contemporary ballet, an end in itself. All this happens, with much knitting of brows, to the soaring violin melodies of Aaron Schwebel, the violinist who led Ezio Bosso’s First Violin Concerto. The stage is brightly lit, bathed in the glow of a movie screen (by James F. Ingalls); the dancers clad in modernist blocks of black and white. But despite an elegant esthetic and the gesturing toward higher meaning, the piece stays firmly stuck within a standard idea of what contemporary dance is supposed to feel and look like.
It’s no surprise, then, that the middle work, Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto,” from 1966, looks out of place on this program of grand contemporary gestures. The ballet was created for the greatly admired Canadian dancer Lynn Seymour, who died just recently at the age of 83, while she was a dancer at the Deutsche Oper Ballet. At its heart lies an extraordinary pas de deux in which the woman (Tina Pereira), stretches and bends to the music as if alone at the barre, fully immersed in a private meditation. The man (Peng-Fei Jiang), barely there, is her support, a quiet force that allows her to levitate in a beautifully-placed arabesque or glide from spot to spot. Three couples echo their movements, which seem to float out of the haze of the rapturous second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. Here the focus and fluidity of the phrasing was slightly marred by two little slips in the partnering.
The music is familiar to New York audiences from Alexei Ratmansky’s 2008 “Concerto DSCH,” for New York City Ballet. MacMillan’s pas de deux rivals Ratmansky’s, with its hints of conflict and darker forces. But for the most part what is lacking in MacMillan’s ballet is a greater sense of energy and urgency, so dominant in Shostakovich’s music. The concerto was written for Shostakovich’s pianist son, so that he would impress the judges at his final exams. It’s full of jokes, impossibly fast runs, and well-known keyboard exercises (anyone who studied the piano will recognize them), as well as silent-movie effects meant to evoke wild chases and runaway trains. But in MacMillan’s version, the music is performed at a measured pace (here, by the excellent National Ballet of Canada Orchestra led by Zhenya Vitort at the piano), which saps it of its energy. MacMillan’s dance vocabulary, too, feels too prim, too posed, and at times too static to even scratch the surface of the music’s raucous spirit.
Nor do the company’s athletic, strong, bold dancers look at ease in the ballet’s style. It’s a difficult thing to switch from hard-driving, stretched movement to this more contained, classical style. That is one of the challenges that face ballet companies today—the desire to do everything, to have range, to excite audiences with big effects while also retaining the ability to perform works that rely on precision, control, and the well-executed detail. Almost always, the dancers end up looking energized by the new, and constrained and challenged by the old. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of any company. This visit by the National Ballet of Canada, now under the leadership of Hope Muir, poses, yet again, the never-ending question: whither ballet?