New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 25, 2017
Mercurial Manoeuvres, Polyphonia, Liturgy, American Rhapsody

Jerry Hochman

The centerpiece of New York City Ballet’s 2017 Spring season, and of the entire 2016-2017 year’s programming, is its Here/Now Festival: four weeks devoted to contemporary ballet, with neither a Balanchine nor a Robbins in sight. It’s a gutsy move by Artistic Director Peter Martins. And it began Tuesday night, with the first of ten different programs comprising 43 ballets created by 22 different choreographers.

Although there will be two world premieres during its run, the festival is not about premieres. Indeed, more world premieres are scheduled during the company’s newly announced Fall 2017 Season than during this Festival. Rather, the Festival is about showcasing the output of living choreographers who have created ballets that NYCB has presented within the past 30 or so years. But since most of these pieces are known quantities, what the Festival is also about is packaging them in an attempt to change NYCB’s performance focus, and, more importantly, that of its audience, toward a more contemporary repertory – a change that will carry over into next year’s seasons as well. In other words, at least through next spring, NYCB’s bread and butter ballets will not dominate its schedule.

This is risky business. These contemporary ballets have new ingredients, new combinations, new (relatively) choreographic faces, but they generally don’t measure up to the legacy masterpieces in NYCB’s repertory. Although Martins trumpets that creating new ballets is something that Balanchine mandated and that NYCB has been doing for the past thirty years, and a continuing effort that not only is a necessity but that Martins is particularly and justifiably proud of, the batting average for these new ballets is not particularly high (and if one carves out pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Justin Peck, even less so). More significantly, unless the new pieces are seasonal premieres or have gotten rave reviews, the ballet-going public appears to be perfectly happy returning to the masterpieces again and again, year after year, like comfort food.

New York City Ballet dancers in Christopher Wheeldon's "American Rhapsody" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
in Christopher Wheeldon’s
“American Rhapsody”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

However, if Monday’s Festival opening night is an indication, these ballets are more than palate cleansers sandwiched between Balanchine and Robbins classics. Many, if not masterpieces, are quite good. They also serve to further highlight the depth of this company – but then, that depth is evident with any program. And given the opening night performances, it’s apparent that the company is in mid-season form, and cooking on all four burners.

The first three of these programs are dedicated to one choreographer, each having a force in NYCB’s efforts to promote contemporary choreography, and two having been the company’s designated Artist in Residence/Resident Choreographer. This opening program was comprised of four dances by its first: Wheeldon. Overall, it was a fine beginning, and demonstrates that many of the dances scheduled are destinations by themselves. But it also hints at an apparent trajectory that’s unsettling:  the early-created dances on the program are far superior to the most recent one.

Mercurial Manoeuvres is the last of three pieces Wheeldon choreographed for NYCB while he was still a member of the company: it premiered in 2000. It’s striking to look at both for its choreography and its staging, and is one of the more abstractly dramatic, and at the same time accessible, of the contemporary ballets in the Festival.

Choreographed to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (the same piece that Ratmansky later used in the third prong of his Shostakovich Trilogy for American Ballet Theatre), Mercurial Manoeuvres is a big, imposing ballet, but in a sense of dreaming big rather than being pretentious or ostentatious. Being early Wheeldon, the focus doesn’t seem so much on charting a new choreographic course as showing command of what he learned from NYCB’s Balanchine repertory, and updating it for a millennial sensibility.

New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Christopher Wheeldon's "Mercurial Manoeuvres" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in
Christopher Wheeldon’s
“Mercurial Manoeuvres”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

As heretical as it may sound, to me the best abstract ballets tell some story, even if there’s no specific story to tell. With or without emotional gloss, the choreography creates dramatic tension and an ambience that’s pervasive. Mercurial Manoeuvres does that, transporting the viewer to some alternative universe in which unpredictable – mercurial – but thoroughly appropriate dramatic energy is expressed that tells some unknown and unknowable story. In this ballet, this mercurial movement quality is created from necessity – the composition shifts gears as well, beginning somewhat portentous, and ending curiously blissful – the musical personality change reflecting Shostakovich’s method of describing and coping with his political and social environment.

I tend to overthink, and see things in a piece that pulls me in that others may not, and that may not be there. But as I see it the title’s “mercurial” reference is not solely a reference to unpredictable movement.

The piece opens as if inviting the audience into some other-worldly temple to witness the private rites within. The stage is bracketed by rafter-floor blue translucent curtain panels, four or five on each side, and there’s a red backdrop. Shortly thereafter, the panels (which, together with the backdrop, change color as the piece progresses, like the changing colors in a sunset unfiltered by atmosphere in some alien sky on some alien planet perhaps closer to the sun’s light than Earth) are lifted halfway above the floor, creating a massive triangular entry space that directs the eye inexorably to a god-like central figure standing at its upstage apex, costumed in red, at first looking like some Greco-Roman statue. Almost immediately this figure, Harrison Ball (in a smashing role debut) begins to move as if at warp speed (like Mercury?), essentially inviting supplicants to join him. This they do, first with Sara Adams and Kristen Segin, then with a cadre of 12 women and 4 men who sweep across the stage from one direction, then from the other, as if executing some ritualistic martial manoeuvres.

There’s drama here in the interaction between Ball’s character and the others, and between the groups. Though I can’t decipher exactly what it is, it’s there.

And it continues when Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle enter, and eventually dance one of Wheeldon’s most sublime pas de deux. This isn’t a romantic pas de deux – though in some ways it is. And it’s not a pas de deux filled with technical pyrotechnics, though it’s certainly technically challenging. It’s an encounter that’s illuminated from within, and punctuated with complex partnering and soaring movement that means something, that has a purpose beyond an interesting series of combinations that create interesting-looking images of bodies movies in space. Peck and Angle (T-squared, as someone denominated them) executed exquisitely, both injecting atmosphere and drama and purpose; telling a story that’s not there.

When Shostakovich’s concerto assumes its second, seemingly contradictory, personality, Wheeldon converts his ballet into a rapid-fire, almost humorous, tour de force: mercurial manoeuvres indeed.

New York City Ballet dancers Taylor Stanley and Brittany Pollack in Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
Taylor Stanley and Brittany Pollack
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Polyphonia, which premiered the following year, is the first piece that Wheeldon created as the company’s Artist in Residence after retiring from dancing, and it’s a very different piece of work. To ten piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, primarily excerpts from larger compositions, the dancers, clad in purple (it’s tempting to consider Polyphonia a Wheeldon purple and white ballet), perform ten related but distinct dances, tied together by Ligeti’s, and Wheeldon’s, overall style. Here, it’s not “simply” a ballet reflecting consummate craftsmanship and stage-spanning visual control with a powerful central pas de deux, as in Mercurial Movements; it’s more narrowly focused on discrete pairs or multiples dancing to discrete pieces of music. As each musical excerpt sounds different, the choreography looks different. Nothing new there. But that’s not what makes Polyphonia the breakthrough piece that it was acclaimed following its premiere to be: it’s the chance-taking; the innovation; and the asceticism.

The ballet was enhanced by superb performances, not the least of which was provided by Unity Phelan in a role debut. Phelan is in many ways the stereotypically ideal Balanchine ballerina. She has a definite stage presence, but, as she demonstrated here, doesn’t dominate the choreography – she merely executes it to perfection with a combination of speed and grace and elasticity, never missing a transition or punctuation even when stretched, literally, to the limit, at one point taking the audience’s breath away. [I noticed Taylor Stanley saluting her during the curtain call, and her low-key acknowledgment: she knew she’d nailed it.] Her performance was enhanced by the steely efforts of her partner Zachary Catazaro. It was his role debut as well, and this was one of his best outings, displaying characteristic, and enviable NYCB partnering skill.

Also in a debut, Sterling Hyltin’s role isn’t quite as spectacular, but as is always the case with her, was delivered perfectly. She was capably partnered by Gonzalo Garcia. Brittany Pollack and Stanley, and Sara Mearns and Chase Finlay, completed the cast.

New York City Ballet dancers Sara Mearns and Chase Finlay in Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
Sara Mearns and Chase Finlay
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Two years after Polyphonia, Wheeldon created Liturgy, a pas de deux to Arvo Part’s Fratres for Violin, Strings and Percussion. In one or another of its many versions, Fratres has been often used as a dance inspiration and accompaniment, the inherent spirituality of Part’s music often restated a bit too literally. Here, however, Wheeldon has taken a slightly different tack. It’s still prayerful and somewhat mystical, but it’s less overt, and considerably more complex. I see it as an almost Talmudic exploration, a search for meaning, within the context of some sort of religious expression. The piece begins and ends with images of bodies in reverential contemplation (perhaps prayer), but the heart of the piece is the exploration, the journey that gets them from point A to point B, with an increasing sense of awe and wonder.

The piece is as powerful as it is complex, and it was given masterful performances by Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle.

Fast forward to 2016, and things change. The centerpiece of last spring’s gala, American Rhapsody has all the ingredients to be one of Wheeldon’s best. Fresh from his groundbreaking and award winning (deservedly) Broadway baby, An American in Paris, one anticipated a further example of the New York side of Wheeldon’s creativity. But its premiere, with Robert Fairchild (on a break from that show) and Peck, fell flat, betrayed by being both too literal to Gershwin’s iconic score (Rhapsody in Blue, the original title of which was American Rhapsody) and more generically American than New York. Some things have changed for the better, but not enough to make a difference in the critical evaluation.

For one, the garish, color-clash costumes apparently have been toned down. If that’s the case and not my imagination, it’s a significant improvement. The set, which impressed me as an oversized sea urchin, seems to have been toned down as well. Maybe it’s my imagination, maybe it’s a reflection of the costume changes, or maybe it’s a lighting modification. It’s better – but it still looks like a sea urchin on steroids, albeit now with more of an overall blue tint.

New York City Ballet dancers Unity Phelan and Amar Ramasar in Christopher Wheeldon's  "American Rhapsody"   Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
Unity Phelan and Amar Ramasar
in Christopher Wheeldon’s
“American Rhapsody”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But I didn’t notice any significant difference in the choreography. It still appears too bound to the score, too lacking in a sense of place, and too diffuse. Although the one significant cast change improved things to an extent, it isn’t enough.

A year ago, I wrote that Phelan’s performance in the piece was a career-maker. It’s nice to be prescient (she was recently promoted to soloist), but it’s even nicer to see her excel yet again – as did her partner, the always exciting and reliable Amar Ramasar. In role debuts, Lauren Lovette and Russell Janzen replaced Peck and Fairchild. The change is beneficial, if for no other reason than that the baggage (in a positive sense) that both original cast members brought was too dominating. Janzen here is more restrained – though no less ebullient, and I like the difference. Lovette’s debut began brilliantly, and the emotionally connective moments when she shared a dance sequence with Phelan were priceless.

But something happened in the central pas de deux: the sense of joy disappeared just when it should have been at its zenith. While Janzen was smiling appropriately (not as brashly Boaday as Fairchild, but more engaging), Lovette’s demeanor was somewhat stony. It’s possible that this is the way that Peck played it at the piece’s premiere – I don’t recall. If so, it’s the way it’s supposed to be – though I can’t fathom why. More likely, it reflected a measure of uncertainty (she and Janzen had not been paired before), or perhaps there was some distraction (a minor injury?) that forced her to concentrate more than usual. Maybe it’s just one of those rare instances of being a bit less than perfect; just as this ballet is Wheeldon at less than his best.

Be that as it may, unlike the Balanchine and Robbins masterpieces, contemporary ballet is not comfort food, at least not yet. It remains to be seen whether Martins’s force-feeding contemporary ballets to NYCB’s audiences will ultimately bear fruit. Given his recent successes, I wouldn’t bet against him.