New York City Ballet in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

New Horizons

New York City Ballet's New Combinations program

Performance
New York City Ballet's New Combinations program
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, March 2, 2019
Words
Faye Arthurs

I caught the final showing of the New Combinations program over the closing weekend of the New York City Ballet’s winter season. It happened to fall on one of the Art Series nights, on which discounted tickets and a mid-performance demonstration draw a young, fashionable crowd. The evening had a bustling energy. But the biggest buzz of the week was the announcement of another new combination: the appointment of Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan to the helm of the company, as artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively.

There’s a lot to like about this news. For one thing, I’m heartened by the fact that Stafford’s college degree is listed as an asset and was helpful to him in procuring his new job. Higher education has historically been scorned at the ballet—even back when I got my apprenticeship to City Ballet in 2000 there was somewhat of a stigma surrounding college. I remember Helene Alexopoulos telling me how she had to hide her schoolbooks from Mr. B. as academics were seen as a distraction, a division of loyalties, and a lack of commitment. Thankfully, that era seems to be at an end. Learning of any kind can only enrich and deepen anyone’s artistry. How that could ever have been a threatening idea to the ballet world is a regrettable aspect of its past.

I also really like the idea of a leadership duo. Hopefully a more democratic approach will foster greater opportunity and a multiplicity of voices at the ballet. Alas, there is another blight in our legacy that is having a hard time dying out: the relegation of women to supporting roles in management. Although the new appointment is a joint one of sorts, Whelan’s role is ultimately subordinate to Stafford’s. I don’t think it sends the best message to young ballet dancers to make the more senior person—one of the all-time stars of the company and the art form—the underling. Whelan may not have had the benefit of on-the-job training, but she has logged decades of teaching and coaching and developing her own side projects. Why not make it an even partnership? Michael Cooper’s New York Times article implies that the reason for this decision was that the first coequal directorship after Balanchine’s death (between Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins) “did not always go smoothly.” Well, those men were notoriously thorny. I know Jon and Wendy to be kind, professional, and exceedingly generous onstage and off. I bet they could have pulled it off.  

This is not to disparage any of Jon’s accomplishments or abilities, including his stellar track-record at the School of American Ballet. But the optics could’ve been better. This is a crucial moment in time—it is only the third changing of the guard at the company, and it caps a year of wretched press. I feel that it was a lost opportunity to make a bold statement. To be honest, I am hesitant even to voice my quibbles about the unevenness of the arrangement, but the ghost of Wendy’s dancing ultimately hovers over any New Combinations evening—she was the most choreographed-upon dancer in the company’s history—and I couldn’t get her out of my head while watching the performance.

Case in point: “Herman Schmerman.” This 1992 work by William Forsythe opened the show. I had never seen the first half of the ballet, which had not been revived since 1994. But the pas de deux that comprises the second half of the ballet—and which was choreographed on Wendy—has long been a favorite of mine. The opening section for five dancers was full of what have become campy tropes in contemporary ballet choreography: extreme off-balance play, exaggerated positions, casual sauntering around the stage on flat feet between dance passages. But people have been imitating Forsythe for a long time for a reason. He patented these ideas, and his mastery shows. The authenticity of the work kept it from feeling stale or gimmicky. That being said, I can see why the pas de deux is often excerpted—it is meatier in concept and tidier in execution than the digressive first section.

Sara Mearns in William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

I was happy to see Devin Alberda dancing wildly free in the first half. Otherwise, Sara Mearns unequivocally dominated the scene. She is a singular talent, and this is not uncommon (although Georgina Pazcoguin managed to hold her own alongside her in “The Runaway” later in the program). But she was the only one here to fully embrace the Forsythe code of pushing past—the only one with the flexibility and ferocity to match the alternating harshness and pliancy in the synthesizer-heavy score (by Thom Willems). There was something so satisfying about watching her hit and recover from a very whacked attitude back or forced-arch tendu to the electronic reverb.

The pas de deux, which playfully sends up balletic gender constructs, suffered from being too carefully danced. Megan LeCrone and Aaron Sanz were suitably androgynous, but they muscled through the steps rather than tossing them off. At the risk of sounding too nostalgic, I couldn’t escape the memory of Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans and their flippancy. Wendy would sail through her tricky stepover pirouettes as if she were simply cracking her hip; and Albert would strut onto the stage in his yellow skirt like he didn’t know he had just put it on. “Herman” needs looseness, zaniness. It didn’t get the laughs it usually gets, and I think it’s because they were trying too hard. The title “Herman Schmerman” comes from a throwaway Steve Martin line after all. But LeCrone and Sanz are new to their roles; perhaps with more experience they can turn earnestness into insouciance.

After the intermission there was a demonstration by current Art Series artist Shantell Martin and the choreographer Justin Peck. I love how Martin’s black and white sketches look against the wrought-iron filigree of the balconies in the David H. Koch Theater lobby, but I didn’t really need to see how they were made. However, the arthouse audience seemed to appreciate Peck’s insider peek at choreography while Martin drew at the side of the stage. Peck is charming and his passion for making dances comes across clearly. He’s also fun to watch; he can’t stand still. His gesticulations during a tangential explanation of a boxing match had more interesting movement than many dances I’ve seen. He spotlighted certain steps from his new ballet and gave them names: orange slice, Heisman trophy, the bloom. Later, when they were performed in the actual piece, I could feel the excited stirring of recognition in the spectators around me. This can only be a good thing for the company.

Principia
Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum in Justin Peck’s “Principia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Principia” proper began with Taylor Stanley and other soloists emerging from a crouching, synchronized mob. They resembled flowers swaying over windblown grasses. There was a floral theme throughout, as in a lovely section in which Daniel Applebaum would tap a group of huddled corps dancers who would then blossom open to expose one of a trio of tall female soloists—the excellent Emily Kikta, Miriam Miller, and Mira Nadon. It was a clever inversion of the Thumbelina tale. It was also exactly how Prince Siegfried looks for his beloved Odette in the clusters of swans lakeside in Act IV of “Swan Lake.” But unlike the wilted and cowering Odette, Peck’s women tore off in a flurry of powerful arabesque sissones and manège turns once exposed. How wonderful to subvert the expectation of a jilted and doomed heroine with explosive Amazons.

Peck toyed with antitheses in other sections too—particularly in a pair of solos for Tiler Peck. Ms. Peck’s first solo was to dinky music (Sufjan Stevens composed the commissioned score) but featured taffy-like pulling through positions. Later, she danced an impressive solo to adagio music that employed staccato, music-box steps like temps de cuisses.

Peck also nods directly to the NYCB canon. There was a duet for Applebaum and Roman Mejia to horn music that reminded me of Balanchine’s “Agon” as well as the men’s dance from Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia.” He also had dancers stand and intermittently watch the action, sometimes reclining—a common tool of Jerome Robbins. He frequently uses the Robbins “highlights” method in his finales—in which the cast reprises their theme steps from each section of the ballet in a medley. And the ending of “Principia” felt like a riff on the closing of Robbins’s “West Side Story Suite.” Dancers paired off and linked hands at the front of the stage until everyone formed a chorus-line chain and looked upwards as the curtain fell. 

The name “Principia” refers to Isaac Newton’s classic text about the laws of gravity and the properties of bodies in motion. It is an apt title for a ballet. It is also fitting in that the ballet felt youthful, elementary, and innocently hopeful—as do many of Peck’s works. I can’t think of another choreographer with such a rosy vision of the future, it is admirable. I imagine Peck ballets are all set during recess time on the playground of some utopian, progressive school in which everyone is a cool kid and climate change and gender fluidity are taught alongside Newtonian math. His vibe is probably exactly what City Ballet needs right now.    

Principia
Miriam Miller and New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s “Principia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway” completed the program. I hadn’t seen it before, though I’d heard raves about Taylor Stanley’s solo. Well which one? There were two, and they were glorious. In fact, I found the entire piece to be thrilling, and probably the most original and exciting work I’ve seen the company do in a long time. It shouldn’t have worked. Abraham uses rap and contemporary music by Kanye West, Jay-Z, and James Blake (among others) and also wacky costumes—including headdresses—by Giles Deacon. It is generally very hard to pull off ballet to popular music, but here, music and dress were integrated in a way that supported the dance and imbued it with meaning.

The work commenced with a solo for Stanley to meditative music by Nico Muhly played unconducted by Nancy McDill (piano) and Nicolas Danielson (violin) in the pit. Stanley moved seamlessly through rippling body isolations, upright classical ballet promenades, some pop and lock accents, and uncanny poses. The far-ranging solo was a veritable history of dance, yet it held firmly to one distinct, introspective mood. Stanley is a wonder—he turns difficult steps into matters of probing, philosophical enquiry. Technical feats are camouflaged as personal musings. When he simply stood in tendu and circled his arms in reverse port de bras it was everything. Abraham had him freeze in two uncomfortable positions: développé à la seconde plié, and tendu plié fourth with an extreme backbend. Stanley met these challenges with a calm weightiness that was incredibly moving.

Stanley’s second solo, to “Gotta Have It” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, was electrifying. More gargouillades and petit allegro ballon to rap music please! Abraham threw in some club dances in this solo and also later, when Stanley amusingly reeled in a colleague like a fish. Another show-stopping solo was danced by wunderkind Roman Mejia to Kanye’s “I Love Kanye.” In a stark spotlight, Mejia executed ridiculously hard classical steps. Kanye was the perfect accompaniment, for the confidence needed to pull off such bravura leaps and turns is precisely like the posturing swagger of rap. And it was a smart commentary on stage personae too. The contrast between Stanley’s intimate solos and Mejia’s performative one was provoking—and ideally embodied by the public/private enigma that is Kanye.

Speaking of whom, is there anyone at the ballet more Kanye than Ashley Bouder? She has the same crazy raw talent, firebrand impishness, and intoxicating audacity. Having her aggressively explode onto the stage with brisés volés and pas de couru while dressed like Sonic the Hedgehog was absolutely brilliant. Later she joined Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin for a linked-arm piqué entrance that mocked the little swans dance from “Swan Lake.” Clearly Abraham knows his ballet history, for there were several funny swanny moments sprinkled about: Mearns and Pazcoguin preened their tutus and Muppet wigs like birds at one point. And Stanley mimicked the fourth arabesque chugs from “Swan Lake’s” Act II as well.

Abraham dug around in City Ballet’s rep too, to great effect. There were many allusions to Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments”—the costumes evoked its original puffy-sleeved tutus and spiky headgear by Kurt Seligmann. Stanley’s backbend in his opening solo echoed the exit of the Melancholic soloist from “The Four T’s” too. And Peter Walker oddly epitomized the Phlegmatic man: he danced around with a spiked frond collar that was so high it left him headless and unreadable. He resembled a ficus. A duet for him and Christopher Grant to Kanye’s “I Thought About Killing You” was hysterical because it appeared to be a dialogue between a human and a houseplant. The last movement, to James Blake’s ballad “Don’t Miss It,” beautifully quoted the Robbins ballet “Opus 19/The Dreamer.” Stanley fronted the cast in a line and they performed his tendu port de bras motif in a canon rippling upstage as the lights dimmed.

The “Opus 19” reference again brought me back to thoughts of Wendy—a storied interpreter of that ballet’s lead female role. She also commissioned Kyle Abraham to choreograph for her 2013 solo project, “Restless Creature.” Justin Peck was instrumental in bringing Abraham to City Ballet, and Peck was recently named artistic adviser to the company in addition to his role as resident choreographer. He will assist Jon and Wendy in a planning capacity—all of which gives me great hope for programming in the years to come.

The last thing I want to point out is the program notes for “The Runaway.” The choreography is credited to “Kyle Abraham in collaboration with NYCB.” I love this. Really, this could be an addendum to every ballet because living, breathing, thinking human beings are the medium. They each look and move uniquely and bring specific talents, limitations, and ideas into the studio. Abraham’s acknowledgment of choreography as a somewhat communal endeavor is a welcome development—it confers such dignity upon his cast. It is also a pivot away from the tradition of viewing choreographers as sculptor artistes and dancers as mere putty. From muses Marie Taglioni and Anna Pavlova on up, this has never been the case. It is fairly easy to tell who most Balanchine ballets were choreographed on, just as the myriad pieces made for Wendy during her 30-year career with the company have a signature look. In the same way that Abraham brought in music dancers listen to outside of the theater, and incorporated movement dancers do in other venues, his respectful attribution of his dancers’ involvement in the choreographic process is radical and refreshing. May it portend a humane and inclusive era at the ballet.

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