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Indiana Woodward in “Emanon - In Two Movements” by Jamar Roberts. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Visionary Voices

Jamar Roberts' debut at New York City Ballet

Performance
New York City Ballet: Visionary Voices, with choreography by Jamar Roberts, Pam Tanowitz, and Kyle Abraham
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 2022
Words
Faye Arthurs

New York City Ballet’s Visionary Voices program featured one world premiere, Jamar Roberts’s “Emanon—In Two Movements,” and two recent additions to the repertory: Pam Tanowitz’s “Bartók Ballet” from 2019 and Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway” from 2018. It was a surprise that the newest piece felt like it was the oldest, but that wasn’t a bad thing. Rather, it was delightfully unexpected that the most overt Balanchine ode I’ve seen in a while came from the resident choreographer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

My last review covered Roberts’s retirement from performing with the Ailey company, and his sinewy, despairing premiere for that troupe: “Holding Space.” “Emanon” could not have been more of an about-face. It operated in a world of lavender and light. The shifting mauve tones of the cyclorama and the costumes made it seem as if we in the audience were wearing rose-tinted glasses in addition—and existential counterpoint—to our Covid masks. (Brandon Stirling Baker did the lighting and set for “Emanon” as well as the lighting design for “Holding Space.”)

Roberts’s choreography proclaimed that everything was rosy too. Beautiful Unity Phelan ran confidently onto the stage and strutted down the center line before commencing a pretty, pointework-dense solo. She both picked out and skated over Wayne Shorter’s jazzy lines. Roberts set “Emanon” to two movements from Shorter’s jazz album of the same name, “Prometheus Unbound” and “Pegasus.” Ballet and jazz music are not frequent bedfellows, but jazz dance movements are often employed in ballet choreography—especially at City Ballet, the home of “Rubies” and “Agon.” So it was surprising again that Roberts’s “Emanon” was so properly balletic. I noted several passages that echoed one of Balanchine’s most classical works: “Allegro Brillante.” At one point, Indiana Woodward did a split jump sequence straight from “Stars and Stripes.” The women’s mid-length skirts in various purples and the men’s sleek vests (by Roberts’s AADT colleague Jermaine Terry) also evoked “Allegro” and other uber-classical Balanchine works like “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”—but with a slightly sci-fi tweak.      

Anthony Huxley in the world premiere of Jamar Roberts’ “Emanon – In Two Movements.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

But the Balanchine work cited most often by “Emanon” was the Gershwin crowd-pleaser “Who Cares?”. In fact, “Emanon” felt like “WC?” distilled into suite form—with the jazz quartet instead of the full orchestra, and a pared down cast of 8 equals instead of a hierarchical horde of 24. “Emanon” had many steps that riffed on “WC?” staples: corkscrewing fan kicks to fourth position as in the “I’ve Got Rhythm” finale, flat-footed clunks to arabesque á la the “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” solo, and an arabesque spin lift that could slot right into “The Man I Love” pas de deux. Roberts also had unison dances for the four women and the four men, as in the opening movements of “WC?” And the piece built to a big finale step for the whole group, though Roberts effectively employed the same fractured unison system he used in “Holding Space” as Shorter’s “Pegasus” polyphonically fragmented before coming back together at the end.

Overall, “Emanon” was pleasing and relaxing. It is the kind of work you can settle in for and let wash over you. I don’t mean that it was simple, however. The musicality of the steps was nuanced and complex, which made for Roberts’s strongest nod to Balanchine. I particularly liked the repeated swivel turns to tendu taps in the women’s dance that made it seem like the ladies’ toe pointes were hitting the drum kit. Roberts has a keen understanding of fabric and movement as well. When the group turned and abruptly stopped in 6th position at the close of the piece, the women’s dresses dangled and recoiled with the reverberations of the fading cymbals.

New York City Ballet in the world premiere of Jamar Roberts’ “Emanon – In Two Movements.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

But though the dancing and the dancers were lovely, Roberts missed the mark slightly on the pacing. “Emanon” felt too much like a run-on sentence; it was operating on one busy level almost the entire time. This was due in part to the noodly nature of the jazz music, and I suspect that’s why more choreographers don’t employ it. There was only one choreographic and musical downshift of gears in “Emanon”—a funky passage for Jonathan Fahoury to Shorter’s saxophone solo at the beginning of “Pegasus”—and it was the best part of the ballet. Fahoury was fantastic in a dance I could envision Roberts doing himself. Fahoury resembled a rag doll as he moved through fluid isolations to Shorter’s lonely warbling, maybe Petroushka the sad clown. He crunched his torso forward over a straight leg with a flexed foot several times, making me think of Shaggy’s slumping walk from Scooby Doo.

This solo was a standout in an otherwise conventionally pretty ballet. But the fact that such aesthetically dreamy pointework and petit battu came from Roberts was exciting in itself; the man certainly has range. Also, “Emanon” is “noname” backwards, and I wonder if that freed him up style-wise, liberating him from expectations and permitting him to play at a different game. I can’t wait to see in which direction he goes next. And since “Emanon” was followed by Tanowitz’s surplus of formal invention, it made for the perfect appetizer.

Emily Kikta and Indiana Woodward in Pam Tanowitz’ “Bartók Ballet.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Bartók Ballet” is wonderfully thought-provoking, but it too has problems with pacing. It is an endless drip of deconstructivist innovation. It starts strong, with Emily Kikta and Indiana Woodward immediately piquing interest with contrapuntal pony chugs to the furious opening of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, played live at the corner of the stage by the FLUX Quartet. (Kikta and Woodward, both excellent, had a busy night.) Tanowitz grabs our attention right away and keeps it for a spell. It peaks when her strong cast of ten gathers for some sort of communal proceeding. They follow the commands of the tiny but powerful Woodward in the center, who lifts up 1 or 2 fingers to signal different step sequences. Is she a band leader or a cult leader? The dancers often mazurka, stomp their feet, and flick their legs at their butts in a folksy way. It feels like some dour village ritual, and Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” came to mind.

But the dance drags after a while, though there are some good mini dramas scattered about. I found myself eagerly waiting to see how many times Devin Alberda would slap Kikta’s raised hand as he hopped around on one leg next to her seated figure. And just when the piece gets really weedy, Miriam Miller slowly breaks the fourth wall and poses next to the musicians on the proscenium—a balletic pinup ready for her closeup. But when one errant, holdover “Nutcracker” snowflake drifted down from the rafters to the stage it was much too exciting. (Though it was an intrusion I bet Tanowitz would love). “Bartók Ballet” is overlong, but Tanowitz can make Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” fly by. Maybe it could go even weirder? I kept imagining some of those beehive rock huts from the Irish coast scattered about the stage.  

Kennard Henson, Miriam Miller, and Company in Pam Tanowitz’ “Bartók Ballet.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

“Bartók Ballet” is not Tanowitz’s most absorbing piece, but it is conceptually meaty and I’m glad that City Ballet has kept it in rotation. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that Kyle Abraham’s smash hit “The Runaway” closed the program, for Abraham has a stipulation in his contract demanding that the work of a female choreographer run with his ballets or else they cannot be shown. Beyond this noble gesture, perhaps it was just deemed a good entrée in the well-balanced meal that was Visionary Voices. Whatever the cause, it is great news that City Ballet has acquired two more Tanowitz pieces for the spring season.

“The Runaway” closed the evening, a decadent dessert. This piece still amazes me, four years after its premiere. The range of influences and components is staggering: rap, high fashion, club dancing, contemplative piano, drag queens, Bournonville batterie, Petipa, palm fronds, the circus, Nijinsky, Balanchine, and Robbins are just a few. I can’t tell which is more impressive: Abraham’s feats of creation or curation. Given that separate white and black “Swan Lake” programs are running this season, it is interesting to watch Abraham portray every dancer in his stellar cast as a combination of both the pure Odette and the evil Odile—and not just because they are costumed by Giles Deacon in ostentatious black and white tutus and feathers. A recurrent kneeling pose combined demure, swanny arms gracefully crossed at the wrist with an ironic, erect head and a slightly retracted neck. These swans be sassy! Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Megan LeCrone (who was terrific subbing in for Ashley Bouder as the angry blackbird) hammed up their preening and sashaying—all while tossing off difficult technical challenges. With this trio, Abraham shows how even the most flagrantly rebellious dancers (as Pazcoguin endearingly brands herself online and in print) are also bunhead workaholics and meticulous craftsmen.

Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

More thrilling yet is how Abraham leans into that complexity and breezily connects ballet, in all its prim and proper glory, from its courtly provenance and the megalomania of ancient French kings to Kanye West’s present-day narcissism. Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Roman Mejia especially demonstrated this trajectory. They were topless, with puffy micro breeches, spiky black feathers over Elizabethan ruff collars, and wrist tufts. They were simultaneously jesters, poodles, and Chippendales. When Villarini-Velez landed a trick and the lighting went black and blue with him in a bright halo, it was a WWF moment. And their bravura ballet steps map easily onto the audacity of Kanye’s public persona. Mejia’s dazzling solo to Kanye’s “I Love Kanye” posited how rap’s spitfire wordplay, and the odd hiccup in vocal timing, is akin to the teensiest flourishes and transitions of the lower legs beating in petit allegro.  

And perhaps because of the “Swan Lake” spotlight this time around, certain rap lyrics kept popping out at me as evoking classical ballet’s timeworn tropes. As Kanye repeated “Now this will be a beautiful death” over and over, it occurred to me that that was yet another commonality between swan queens, sylphs, and notorious gangsters. In the end, the only quibble I had with the Visionary Voices program was its title. Abraham, Roberts, and Tanowitz—two Black men and one woman—are indeed new voices in the conservative realm of ballet. But rather than prophesying the future, their works here examined the creation myths of the house—Balanchine’s musicality and technique—as well as the totemic themes and history of ballet itself. Revisionary Voices is more apt, for they collectively brought a fresh, illuminating lens to the NYCB and its legacy, thereby contributing to the enlightenment of the audience and the revivification of the art.