Without a program, I would have confused the two premieres at the New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala. With its geometric arm motifs, calculated group patterns, and tastefully spare retro costumes, I’d have attributed “Standard Deviation” to former resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon instead of newcomer Alysa Pires. It seemed like an outgrowth of Wheeldon’s “Mercurial Manoeuvres,” from 2000. But Wheeldon’s influence could also be felt in the energetic, shifting corps patterns of Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing” closer too. In fact, his presence was more palpable in these than in his own piece, “From You Within Me,” a dance for twelve to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht.”
Wheeldon has always been a shapeshifter; his twenty-two ballets for City Ballet include abstract, neo-classical hits like “Polyphonia” and “After the Rain” as well as crowd-pleasing short-story spectacles like “Carnival of the Animals” and “Estancia.” His facility in different modes links him to George Balanchine; Wheeldon was the rare disciple who could make analogs to both “Agon” and “Stars and Stripes.” He has also created several successful full-length ballets for the Royal Ballet and elsewhere (his new “Like Water for Chocolate” will premiere in NYC at American Ballet Theater’s Gala next month). And, since 2014, he has found a second home on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for choreography for “An American in Paris” and “MJ,” both of which he also directed. This is someone with a precise command of narrative and aesthetics. But in “From You Within Me,” Wheeldon tried to do something different: he dabbled in impressionism and formlessness. It was a brave experiment, but the result was somewhat impenetrable.
He took his title from a line in Richard Dehmel’s so-so 1896 poem, “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), which also inspired Schoenberg’s beautiful 1899 sextet for strings. Wheeldon is one of many choreographers to tackle this score, but he is one of the few to reject the poem’s dramatic scenario: in the moonlight, a woman nervously confesses to her partner that she is carrying another man’s child. Surprisingly, the man responds with love and renewed commitment. Recent interpretations include Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s chic yet chilly “Verklärte Nacht” (made for a trio of dancers in 2014), which ran at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2019. Most notably, Antony Tudor made the fantastic “Pillar of Fire” for a large cast in 1942, matching the passion of Schoenberg’s strings with his steps and elevating Dehmel’s spare plot by fleshing it out with convincingly stifling small-town politics.
Though Wheeldon nixed the baby bump, his take wasn’t plotless. “From You Within Me” told the story of Sara Mearns as an outsider, unable to flow along with the river of people swirling around her. Considering that Mearns was newly back onstage after battling depression, “From You Within Me” was a charged construct. But there was something reserved about her arc. Where the poem and the music depict a profound metamorphosis, here, the main evidence of transfiguration was Mearns’s change from a reddish to a purplish unitard (the costumes were by Kylie Manning and Marc Happel) and one fleeting moment of grace—when she bourréed straight down the center of the stage to the front panel with her arms raised in supplication. Otherwise, she was aloof and inwardly focused to the tremulous strings at the beginning of the ballet, and she appeared aloof and inwardly focused when she walked offstage alone to the heavenly chords at the end.
Kylie Manning’s gorgeous scenery, however, was vividly mutable throughout. Her art examines pareidolia, the brain’s proclivity to see images in random patterns, and Mary Louise Geiger’s dynamic lighting provided numerous opportunities for the audience to experience this phenomenon. (I clearly saw a sea otter’s face in a swell at one point; I’m not sure what that says about me.) Similarly, the search for moments of purpose and connection in the otherwise nebulous group dances was the most compelling aspect of “From You Within Me.” Aaron Sanz, stepping in last-minute for Chun Wai Chan (out with Covid), was luminous, particularly in a long pas de deux with Peter Walker, which was the highlight of the ballet. To the optimistic shift in the music, they tenderly extended each other’s shapes. I wouldn’t have minded if their subplot had been expanded.
Indiana Woodward and Roman Mejia stood out in a passage full of speedy, skimming ballroom twirls. And Megan Fairchild was excellent throughout, finishing a partnered stepover pirouette and rolling through her body into a poised fifth on pointe like she was the figurehead of a ship. But aside from snippets of absorbing pas de deux and trio work, the piece meandered, bogged down with amoebalike groupwork and Mearns’s opaque journey (though it was a pleasure to watch her sustained arabesque turns). Manning’s art seemed to do the heavy lifting. Perhaps this was Wheeldon’s intent: at one point, he had the whole cast thrown into silhouette and admiring the backdrop as if at an art gallery.
Up next, Alysa Pires made a strong debut with “Standard Deviation,” to a great commissioned score by Jack Frerer. Guest conductor Tara Simoncic presided over this fascinating music, which integrated woodblocks and quacking sounds with calming piano notes and crooning reeds. Dana Osborne’s flattering mock-turtlenecked leotards and unitards were also good: they felt a little sci-fi, a little 70s. From the outset, when the corps pinged robotically around in a white square of light and Tiler Peck silkily channeled a saxophone solo, Pires’s tension between statistics and soulfulness was clear and persuasive. Jazzy music is trendy at the ballet these days and I’m all for it. Balanchine had his ballerinas play off piano cadenzas to electric effect in ballets like “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” and “Allegro Brillante.” Tiler Peck is even more suited to embody the sax than the piano, and she did what she does best to the smooth playing of guest artist Christ Hemingway. Mira Nadon and Adrian Danchig-Waring used their length and fluidity to further counteract the mathematical drills of the group, but even the corps of twelve got a chance to let loose. Pires gave them their own expressive movement, led off by the beautiful David Gabriel, who danced a slow solo while bathed in dark blue light (by Mark Stanley).
After a quartet of overlong speeches (if each person is using the phrase, “as was just mentioned,” edits are in order) Dan Deacon’s blasting pinball electronica score for “The Times Are Racing” woke everyone back up. Though Brittany Pollack was wan in the central role, Peter Walker proved an engaging hoofer and Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia smoldered in their pas de deux full of assisted breakdancing moves and slapping foot soles. Oddly enough, this Justin Peck sneaker hit, from 2017, opened with the same choreographic motif as “From You Within Me,” which was also featured in “Standard Deviation”: a team huddle out of which one dancer popped up like a prairie dog. A quartet flung their arms open wide and held them there like Mearns had in Wheeldon’s piece too. The ballets were communing with each other, as they tend to do. Through surprisingly shared vocabulary, the night began in bleak despair and ended in playful one-upmanship.