Troy Schumacher
Teresa Reichlen and Joseph Gordon in Troy Schumacher's “Common Ground.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Growing Pains

New York City Ballet's 21st Century Choreographers

Performance
New York City Ballet: 21st-Century Choreographers
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 9, 2015
Words
Madison Mainwaring

This fall, NYCB’s bill of newly commissioned works was something of a gamble. Save for Justin Peck, the choreographers were dark horses, relative unknowns outside of their company and locale. I suspect this has to do with age more than anything else; four of the five (the exception being Kim Brandstrup) have yet to reach their thirtieth birthday. Peck, Myles Thatcher, Robert Binet, and Troy Schumacher are young men with corps de ballet experience (Peck was only recently promoted to the soloist rank) who have been given a platform, one of the most prestigious in the ballet world, in order to display their wares. The move on NYCB’s part probably had something to do with the title of Peck’s ballet, “New Blood”—youth is supposed to provide much needed relief for the ossifying classical arts—and the hope that, given Peck’s popular traction and commercial success, this model could be replicated by other twenty-something male choreographers.

In “Polaris,” Thatcher displayed a work which was supposed to showcase Tiler Peck as the angsty loner. There was a slight mismatch between message and medium; Peck, with all her bravura and wit, is not the most existential of dancers, and the glittery ice blue costumes read more like skating rink material than what might be suited for expeditions into the colder regions of the human experience. Binet’s “The Blue of Distance” was equally angsty in disposition, though the loner in this case was Harrison Ball (unequal partnering, and the subsequent odd man out, seemed to be a theme of the evening). Binet is very thoughtful about that which separates as well as that which connects, the negative space, an idea reinforced by the epigram to the work (this from Rebecca Solnit): “This light that does not touch us…that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.” Peck’s “New Blood” also took a cue from its title; with its AB-BC-CD-DE partnering and choreography, it seemed dedicated to the canon and the way mutations change an otherwise constant theme into all possible variations.

These works were technically refined, without glaring compositional gaps or declensions in the action or the visual mise en scène. All of the choreographers knew what they are doing with a musical score. There was nothing “wrong,” if you will. But as the course of the evening went on, I had the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was the same feeling I have when I know that someone is watching me, and I have yet to identify who is looking, or why. Part of the spectacle of the theater is always the spectacle of the spectators, to be sure, and I myself do a healthy amount of staring at my fellow audience members. But I was also certain that this sensation had nothing to do with my immediate physical environment, and everything to do with the kind of choreography that was being performed onstage. I had felt this kind of thing before while at the ballet, and in particular while at NYCB. But it was only with the successive presentation of these three works that this sensation became pronounced enough that I could begin to understand exactly what was behind it.

Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker in Justin Peck’s “New Blood.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Every work of art is a manifold thing, but I will generalize and say that it is constituted by 1) the private sphere of the artist—the way he sees in or thinks about the world, all that he has experienced and all that he has dreamed of and 2) a communication of this essentially private experience to the public sphere, which is then manifest in the work of art itself. No matter how clear the language, there will inevitably be some ambiguity in what it articulates, as the private, internal experience is ultimately a mysterious one. This is why the work of art defies the empirical categorization of, say, gymnastics; it is why, generation after generation, people are compelled to try to make sense out of that which they have seen and heard at the theater.

These younger male artists desperately want to be liked. They are seeking the approval of both the audience as well the company director who is signing the checks. The way this manifests itself in their work is that every choreographic flourish has been well considered from the viewer’s eyes. And as it must be; the mirrors in the practice studio go to show that ballet is a form dedicated to the viewer. But if the artist or choreographer consistently thinks of his work as it is to be consumed rather than as it is produced—the move towards accessibility—it becomes mundane. While making the work of art, the artist cannot think of his approval ratings, or else the translation of the internal mystery from the private to the public sphere is stunted. This is not only a betrayal of the internal mystery, it is also a betrayal of the impulse that brings both maker and viewer to seek out the work of art in the first place. Art communicates, but it does not pander; you can always tell when a movie has gone through one-too-many control audiences. The artist must always be slightly dismissive of the audience, even if this is expressed quietly within the constraints of a traditional form.

It is this that I was feeling when I felt like I was being watched. Peck, Thatcher and Binet cared too much about what the viewer thought. Their choreography was refined but it also was, at base, empty, transparent, a mechanism for them to be gratified vis à vis the viewer’s eyes. I wish they cared a little less; I want the work to be able to stand on its own, without me. There was emotion expressed in both “Polaris” and “The Blue of Distance,” but it was painted on the outside as affectation rather than rising organically out of the form; the nigh-universal critical consensus was that the steps did not adequately support the emotion behind them. The word used most frequently for Peck’s work, on the other hand, is “slick,” and that it is. I hope that Peck is daring enough, at one point or another, to fail completely. I hope, if he is ever kept up at night asking questions of himself without obvious answers, that these questions eventually make their way into his work, otherwise I do not know what the point will be in going, year after year, to see it.

In the midst of all of this, Schumacher gave us a knot of real experience. And a youthful one; I feel like he must have played in the mud when he was a kid. “Common Ground” appears to examine the behind-the-scenes relationships of a theater collective. Bright lights frame of the back of the stage, as if we’re watching the players from behind the curtain. The dancing feels private, intimate; Schumacher carries Robbins’s torch. There’s an exuberant, “look-at-what-I-can-do” quality that’s a tad flashy, but then again ballet dancers can do remarkable things, and it’s great when you let them show off a bit. Alexa Maxwell turned pure dervish. The dancers’ energy is infectious, as are the steps; they learn from one another, and sometimes get a little carried away—as in the airborne partnering of Ashley Laracey by Amar Ramasar—when doing so. “Common Ground” ends with the dancers lying on the floor, and this has been much critiqued as defeatist in attitude. It’s also what we do after a day well spent. And during the dance the ground is, of course, what one shares in common.

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