New York City Ballet in “Fortuitous Ash” by Keerati Jinakunwiphat. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

New York City Ballet debuts Keerati Jinakunwiphat's “Fortuitous Ash”

Performance
New York City Ballet: “Fortuitous Ash,” “Voices,” “Everywhere We Go”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Theater, New York, NY, February 1, 2023
Words
Faye Arthurs

On Wednesday night, the New York City Ballet premiered “Fortuitous Ash,” the first ballet choreographed by an Asian American woman, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, in the company’s history. It was set to the first score by a female Asian composer, Du Yun, to enter the repertory. Unfortunately, the overdue shattering of dual glass ceilings was more exciting than the work itself. When the curtain fell on the ballet’s final tableau, it came as a surprise; it felt like the piece was finally gearing up to say something. Before the gold fabric dropped, I thought the lights were dimming to signal the end of an expository first movement. Curiously, the entire work felt like preamble.

From left: Mira Nadon, Emilie Gerrity and Ashley Hod in “Fortuitous Ash” by Keerati Jinakunwiphat. Photograph by Erin Baiano

This was not the fault of Du Yun, whose fascinating score provided a nervy, genre-spanning journey. It commenced with an eerie, somewhat mystical bass flute solo, hypnotically played by Scott Kemsley, then went through a brassy, cacophonous patch before finishing with reverb-heavy electric guitar distortions, nicely rendered by Dan Lippel. Aurally, “Fortuitous Ash” seemed to begin in a haunted yoga studio, pass through a jazz club in the wee hours, and finish in a rock arena, with a cooldown track for mosh pitters. Guest conductor James Baker expertly guided the orchestra through this unusual shapeshifting. Jinakunwiphat’s choreography, however, took no such turns. From the outset, she was mostly invested in the subtle contrast between slinkiness and stillness. Featured motifs included snaky passé sequences and plunked sissonnes. The jump vocabulary was uncommon, so that was interesting: the dancers gathered no momentum before takeoffs and then had to stick the landings while transitioning into various adagio ronds de jamb. But these steps didn’t evolve or progress along with Du Yun’s soundscape, which included her composition “Air Glow” as well as excerpts from “Run in a Graveyard.” Leisurely stroll through a graveyard was more like it.

KJ Takahashi, aloft, and Chun Wai Chan in “Fortuitous Ash” by Keerati Jinakunwiphat. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The best moments utilized taffy-like, Thai-accented arm movements, and I would’ve been interested in a deeper exploration of the interactions between Thai and ballet port de bras. A few passages of choreography done by groups in a vertical line down center stage were cool too, as it is an unconventional formation. I also liked the set piece: a slashy, jib sail of a thing floating against a black backdrop by Dan Scully, who also did the cold but chic lighting. And the dancers all looked great. But overall, “Fortuitous Ash” had the sleek emptiness of a perfume ad, or much gala fare under previous leadership—especially because Karen Young’s bright, monochromatic unitards evoked so many glossy but hollow Peter Martins works.

Adrian Danchig-Waring, in green, and company in “Voices” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Though this groundbreaking premiere was oddly backwards looking, the rest of the program provided an auspicious glimpse of the future: the opener, “Voices” was by Alexei Ratmansky, newly appointed artist in residence, and the closer, “Everywhere We Go” was by resident choreographer and artistic advisor Justin Peck. Incidentally, both works were the sixth ballet each had made for City Ballet. “Voices,” which premiered on January 30th, 2020—the day the W.H.O. announced a global health emergency— felt particularly fresh. It is set to selections of Peter Ablinger’s “Voices and Piano,” and employs spoken recordings by female artists accompanied by piano utterances, which were played live by Stephen Gosling. Ratmansky brilliantly expresses the texture of each voice through movement. I loved how Emily Kikta, making a strong debut in the Bonnie Barnett solo, contrasted staccato technical steps with some casual skipping and resting her hands on her knees. With these moves, Ratmansky gets to the heart of a radio host’s vocal tics: the relaxed, sighing intimacy coupled with outpourings of rat-a-tat call numbers and bursts of spitfire discourse. And for Megan Fairchild’s wonderful solo to the glottal ramblings of Gjendine Slålien, a Norwegian folk singer, Ratmansky devised skimming hops on one foot, flopping floorwork, and henlike posing. Ratmansky’s matching of a voice’s timbre with a dancer’s physique or movement quality is wonderfully adept. Georgina Pazcoguin’s power and hunger for space were especially well paired with Nina Simone’s husky ambitions. She was fantastic.

“Voices” struck me as an even more feminist work this time around. A quintet of men deposit and retrieve each woman for her solo, with one man staying to do a flashy technical passage in silence. Otherwise, there are no clear beginnings or endings to the ladies’ dances. The thoughts of the women are abruptly cut off by the men who interrupt their musings, and who then steal their applause with their cheap tricks. Like throughout history, the women are properly lauded for their efforts only later, when they are trotted out for their bows. 

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The last movement, a group dance to the voice of abstract painter Agnes Martin, also had overt political inflections.  The women supported each other in difficult balances and made bold, unaided dives from arabesque to penché while staying on pointe—assertions of independence. And the linked-arm walking wheels formed by the group toed the line between military marches and daisy chain frolics. But Martin’s last spoken line is a bit of a monkey wrench: “you’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.” What a fabulous, quizzical ending to a fabulous, innovative ballet. This is a work that poses new questions with each viewing, and it is like nothing Ratmansky has done before or since. The signing of Ratmansky to the permanent roster is a real coup, and one of the most exciting developments in dance in the post-Covid era.

Indiana Woodward and Taylor Stanley in “Everywhere We Go” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

After the spiky digressions and anti-harmonies of “Voices” and “Fortuitous Ash,” Peck’s “Everywhere We Go”—with its anthemic melodies and big group migrations—was a godsend. This is one of Peck’s finest works (though I always think it would be superlative if the last, “highlights” movement were cut entirely) with some of his best concepts: the Peter Pan shadow floorwork of the opening, the L-formation of dancers that closes in on Taylor Stanley and Tiler Peck like a shrinking room, and all the happy dolphin cresting of Indiana Woodward, held aloft by Chun Wai Chan, over the tidal swells of the corps. The entire cast was great, but it was particularly exciting to see Miriam Miller looking so calm and in command of her prodigious facility in the central pas de deux.

New York City Ballet in “Everywhere We Go” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

“EWG,” with its oceanic imagery that hits up against modern and psychological themes, also played nicely with Shylight, the awesome Art Series installation in the lobby. The floating and falling white blooms on the Promenade, by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of DRIFT, an Amsterdam art collective, evoke both jellyfish and the “Waltz of the Flowers.” The DRIFT duo specializes in providing movement-based experiences based on natural phenomena using technological means. What could be a better fit for the ballet: a movement-based art form that utilizes both human bodies and artifice and prizes ephemeral, live performance over materialism? NFTs these are not. The art onstage and off at the Koch Theater right now is engaged in a complex and stimulating conversation.    

Shylight by DRIFT Studios, Artist Series 2023 at Lincoln Center. Photograph by Andy Romer