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New York City Ballet in “Partita” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Regeneration

Justin Peck's premiere, “Partita” for New York City Ballet

Performance
New York City Ballet: New Combinations
Place
David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, January 27, 2022
Words
Candice Thompson

The curtain rose on New York City Ballet’s winter season on January 27, 2022, to a delightful showpiece of a set, designed by Eva LeWitt. Made for “Partita,” Justin Peck’s latest premiere, LeWitt’s colorful ribbons of fabric floated down from overhead, spanning wing to wing, the vibrant color palette creating circles of varying sizes. The dancers appeared in a tight clump center stage under these floating orbs, which hovered over their dance like so many moons. 

As the guest vocalists of the group Roomful of Teeth began singing the first section of Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013), the dancers responded in kind: stepping to the side, swiveling around, and walking forward through the center of the group, at the a cappella prompting of “to the side, to the side, to the side,” “and around,” and, ”through the middle.” After shifting their formation with these pedestrian moves, the eight dancers  quickly melted into a flowing tableaux, their bodies furling and unfurling in an overlapping fashion like the growing layers of voices. The vocabulary soon revealed a repeating motif: a partnered attitude side, both knee and ankle flexed, eyes gazing over the foot and into the distance. When two more people attached on and took up the same pose, it instantly brought iconic Balanchine poses to mind, even though the dancers were clad in sneakers like a Robbins’s work.

Peck’s vocabulary throughout was highly gestural in terms of ports de bras—moving between wild and spontaneous bursts and a subdued cool—with a grounded quality in the lower body that lent a natural ease. The music, like so much of Philip Glass’s work, seemed made for dance. The patterns held as much choreographic weight as the steps themselves and several sequences made use of canon in ways that mirrored the polyphonic music. In a gorgeous moment near the end of the first section, dancers stepped forward into a passe, arms stretched wide, only to be pulled upstage one by one in an undulating wave.

India Bradley, left, and Claire Kretzschmar in “Partita” by Justin Peck, Photograph by Erin Baiano

Two duets followed; the first between two women, India Bradley and Claire Kretzschmar, and later between two men, Harrison Coll and Taylor Stanley, were both rich visual studies. Bradley and Kretzschmar initiated movement from manipulating each other’s bodies, creating many sculptural moments. Like fraternal twins, they were not identical but closely resembled each other and the long notes of  “oooh” and “aaah.” A smooth and supple quality balanced out the sharper angles they used to frame each other’s faces, all bent elbows and wrists. As their small supports of one another became more bold, Kretzschmar stepped into a lunge, allowing Bradley to extend her leg a la seconde in an exquisite balance. Coll and Stanley shook things up their percussive dance, all jumps and jitters, unfolding spontaneously like a fit of hiccups. Their bodies seemed to move of their own possession, every which way and then some. Their direct interpretation of the singers in the pit showed the immense and impressive range of both.

Tiler Peck and Chun Wei Chan in “Partita” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Not to be outdone, Tiler Peck embarked on a solo even more attuned to the music—her body simply a new voice to behold. With her signature style—that is at once lush and sprightly—she shifted her weight around as nonchalantly as flipping a coin. The circular motion of the choreography began to seem more obvious, a sweeping compass marking circles small and large, set in motion by the suggestive set and looping music. Later on, in a pas de deux with Peck and Chun Wai Chan, complete with more traditional partnering and lifts, the build up of so many rotating arms became a bit more heavy-handed and tiresome. But relief came almost immediately in the form of the largest pattern of the dance: a stage-size circle, traced by a rotating diameter of dancers in a line, arms outstretched.

Near the end of the fourth section a cacophony of voices talking over one another piled up; the atmosphere becoming more chaotic as the group of dancers gesticulated, winding their arms up faster and faster. A collective sigh rang out as the voices sang “Aaaaaahhhhhh!” initiating a new phrase that was just as quickly cut off, the dancers fading back on a diagonal into the wings as the curtain fell.

Adrian Danchig-Waring, Ashley Laracey, Emilie Gerrity in “Summerspace” by Merce Cunningham. Photograph by Erin Baiano

After such a loose-limbed work—showcasing a more human side of the dancers that Peck has honed as resident choreographer of NYCB, a position he has held since 2014— Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace” (1958) felt almost uncomfortably contained and even worse, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” (2006) was stuffed full of relentlessly awkward partnering. And yet, the technically brilliant cast of “Summerspace,” including standouts Ashley Laracey and Adrian Danchig-Waring, made the most of it. Their quiet power fostered a singular focus that carried them through twenty minutes of demanding modern choreography: dégagés that lifted ever skyward; one leg balances that only resolved by floating up to relevé; and leaps that required one to completely stick the landing. All of it on repeat. And while Morton Feldman’s score and Robert Rauschenberg’s painted backdrop and matching unitards were as pleasing as ever, something continued to unsettle me about the perfection of it all; later on, it seemed to me that perhaps the homogenous aesthetic only made me more aware of the lack of diversity onstage. In recent times, some of the most riveting performances of Cunningham’s work have come from seeing an eclectic group of individuals onstage like in 2019’s “Night of 100 Solos,” which included many dancers of color. While such a uniform look has long been the goal of corps de ballet and ensembles, we are now in an era where it is cause for suspicion. Even more so when the program is showcasing the work of three white men.

Mira Nadon and Chun Wei Chan in “DGV: Danse à Grand Vitesse” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Finally, “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” ran on like a frantic coda. While I found the ensemble and principals in fine form, Wheeldon’s choreography afforded them little to work with in terms of transitions, stacking one pyrotechnic on top of another. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle brought more breath to their pas de deux, allowing one a chance to take in the unusual curves of Jean-Marc Puissant’s metallic sculpture framing their bodies. And later, newly promoted soloist Mira Nadon, dancing with Chun Wai Chan, brought me back willingly into the frenzy, when she raced onstage with her infectious energy and keen attention to phrasing. It was clear to me then that Chan, with his fresh yet refined way of moving, was underutilized in Peck’s work. I look forward to following the development of both Nadon and Chan as they move deeper into the repertory. With all of the recent departures among the principal ranks, it is clear that NYCB is in an exciting state of renewal. And though the performance of these works did not leave me with any profound feeling, they did achieve the first major goal of live art—they left me wanting to experience more.