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

May 10 and 11, 2017
Ash, Funerailles, Common Ground, Oltremare, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
Chiaroscuro, Slice to Sharp, Stabat Mater, The Decalogue (world premiere)

— by Jerry Hochman

Programs 7 and 8 of New York City Ballet’s Here/Now Festival were more typical of the quality of ballets that have been included in this series than earlier ones that focused on one contemporary choreographer. The results, a mixed bag that range from very good to why bother, expose the method behind Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’s decision to cram all these “contemporary” ballets into a series of performances to which dances by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins are not invited – not that it’s any great secret. With a handful of exceptions, none of these pieces measures up to those magnificent legacy ballets that are part of NYCB’s artistic heritage, so the best way to present them is in isolation so they don’t compete. And while some of the ballets definitely appear much more interesting and exciting without having to go toe to toe with masterpieces, the overriding problem, whether they’re on one end of the quality spectrum or another, is that most are eminently forgettable.

Of them all, Justin Peck’s world premiere, The Decalogue, is particularly disappointing. While this new ballet didn’t arrive with the over-hype that helped contribute to the disappointment that greeted Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing, it’s still Peck, and a misstep from him (or Alexei Ratmansky or Christopher Wheeldon) stands out.

But where The Most Incredible Thing was a mess, The Decalogue isn’t. It’s just remarkably underwhelming.

Peck’s choreographic career to date has been distinguished by, among other things, his ability to move large groups of dancers in new, interesting-looking, and exciting ways, and to add vibrancy and a sense of purpose – even if that purpose may not be clear – to abstract, non-narrative pieces. The Decalogue would seem to fit – it’s abstract, has a relatively large cast, and on top of it all it has a commissioned score by Sutphen Stevens, who composed the music for many of Peck’s most noteworthy and successful pieces, including Year of the Rabbit and Everywhere We Go.

But The Decalogue is as quiet as those other pieces are bold and brassy. Part of the problem is the nature of the music – instead of an orchestrated composition, the score is played by one pianist, and even one as skilled as NYCB orchestra’s Susan Walters cannot provide the weight or excitement that the composition doesn’t have. Further, despite its sizeable ten dancer cast, the piece is focused on a series of duets or solos or small groups , so Peck’s ability to move bodies around the stage isn’t really a significant factor. Most importantly, the ten dances (the ballet is a double-deca) are simply not interesting enough to want to watch. I thought that perhaps these dances arose from other thoughts that Peck had while choreographing The Dreamers, out-takes if you will, which they resemble in relative mediocrity (except, as I recall, no one here lies on the stage floor and dreams – they just reach out toward…something). In any event, the piece looks as if it had been hastily assembled and might still be a work in progress. If it’s not – maybe it should be.

The dances themselves, which are interconnected, might be able to stand on their own out of context. But even though I can see that they’re discrete, they tend to blend together in the context of the piece as a whole. Even the “group” segments had this quality of sameness. And at this point, Peck’s ingenious delivery of sequential movement has about run its course.

Aside from the low-decibel score, another major problem with The Decalogue is the costumes, which Peck designed himself. The men’s attire fits within the general two-or more color horizontal stripes of other Peck-designed abstract pieces – a solid color from the chest down, and a solid white from the chest up. But with the women’s grey unitard (or unitard-like) costumes, Peck has done the impossible – he made his ballerinas look less attractive than they are. I can understand the motivation for costumes that encourage a viewer to focus on the choreography, but these costumes draw attention because of their mediocrity, and only emphasize same quality in the ballet.

The cast performed admirably. I particularly appreciated the work by Claire Kretzchmar, Kristen Segin (who has grown significantly in confidence and stage presence in the past few seasons), and Harrison Coll.

Peck’s The Decalogue is in strong contrast to the closing piece on Thursdays night’s program,

Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, is one of several other Peck pieces performed during this Festival. It’s not one of my favorite pieces – Aaron Copland’s score is iconic, and one that is cemented in the mind with Agnes de Mille’s ballet.  Although crafting an abstract ballet around it may be a commendable idea, when I hear the music I see specific images, and not seeing them leaves a crater-sized hole.

That being said, Peck does have a knack for picking up on the airiness, if not the atmosphere, of Copland’s composition: when the music breathes, Peck’s choreography does too. And his choreography for the male cast of fifteen is undeniably smashing. As I observed in my previous review, Peck here manages to create an abstract version of Rodeo that complements, rather than replaces, the original, and in the process has produced a ballet that’s undeniably great fun to watch.

Curiously, Thursday’s performance was very much like that at the ballet’s premiere in a different way. At its premiere, Peck and Sean Suozzi divided the role of Andrew Veyette, who had suffered a last minute injury. This time, Amar Ramasar suffered the injury, and Peck replaced Ramasar on short notice. He did very well – including in the pivotal pas de deux with Brittany Pollack, the dance’s token woman. But the ballet belongs more to Daniel Ulbricht than any of the other highly competent lead men (Veyette and Gonzalo Garcia). If you hadn’t already forgotten about the de Mille original, Ulbricht’s outsized performance would have done the trick.

Program 7, which culminated with Rodeo, was by far the better of the two.

Ash is one of Martins’s best pieces. The ballet, which premiered in 1991 and opened Thursday’s program, is essentially a study of dancing in counterpoint, expanded to a serviceable ballet form. But it succeeds in transforming what might have been a simple study into something joyous; a celebration of youthful vigor, ably transmitted by the always exuberant cast led by Ashly Isaacs and Taylor Stanley. And keep your eyes on Galeb Kayali, a young member of the corps who, in this and other recent performances, has repeatedly demonstrated the potential to become a significant component of NYCB’s future.

Funerailles, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, is a compelling and unusual pas de deux, with an overriding sense of Romantic drama and intensity befitting its Franz Liszt score, and a patina of decay. When I reviewed it following its 2014 premiere, I saw it as perhaps telling a story of a woman who has given up hope for whatever reason, and a man who tries to reinstill the passion in their relationship that’s now lost. Given the once elegant but now somewhat disheveled (intentionally) costumes by Sarah Burton (for Alexander McQueen), which had an 18th Century look of a couple who had been through hell, I saw a story of French Revolution couple whose lives had been ruined. I also surmised that the lead woman, played by Tiler Peck, could have been a Camille-like figure who had given up, and who her partner (Robert Fairchild) was desperately trying to save.

With one cast change, I now see it a bit differently. Jared Angle, in a role debut, replaced Fairchild, and the result is now a male partner with the same amount of determination, but with considerably less passion (which I don’t mean as a negative comment) and an overlay of stoicism and inevitability. As a consequence, the male figure became an angel of death that Peck is trying to escape from, but inexorably succumbs to. With or without my overthinking (I’d love to see it on the same program as La Valse), Funerailles is a marvelous pas de deux.

Troy Schumacher’s Common Ground, which premiered in 2015, is his best piece to date. It’s an explosion of color and movement, a connection of visual art (multiple colored costumes) and kinetic art that is fun to watch on any number of levels. The costumes by Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida have the appearance of somewhat tattered rags, but the irregularity only serves to accentuate the color flow as the seven dancers play to Schumacher’s vibrant movement. They look like color pigments in motion in addition to being hyperactive kids having a blast on some upscale canvas-surrogate playground.

Like Peck’s Rodeo, Common Ground’s presentation on Thursdays was enhanced by the choreographer’s own performance. Schumacher, recently promoted to soloist, appeared in the piece (replacing one of the legion of dances sidelined by injury this season) and danced with more excitement and abandon than I can recall previously seeing from him in anything. But the entire cast excelled – particularly Ashley Laracey, the piece’s liquid gold focal point, and the vivacious Alexa Maxwell (who could make a fortune if her spirited effervescence could be bottled and sold).

The only piece on Thursday’s program that was less than successful was Mauro Bigonzetti’s Oltremare, which I’d not previously seen. As soon as Oltremare’s initial images of dancers dressed like downtrodden “common people” crossing the stage, each carrying a dilapidated suitcase – I knew even before reading the program notes that the piece is about the emigrant/immigrant experience.  It’s that obvious.

To a commissioned score by his frequent collaborator Bruno Moretti that “sounds” Italian (the way that Mikis Theodorakis’s score for Zorba the Greek “sounds” Greek), Oltremare explores the feelings of these people who have left their homeland and everything they know to find a better life. As all the dancers assemble in a semi-circle after the initial exposition, many are brought to the forefront to perform sequences visually depicting their pain and suffering, and how daunting their task is.

But the piece suffers as well. I’ve seen it all before – including the parade of suitcases at the outset, but I’ll accept arguendo that Bigonzetti’s ballet, created in 2008, might have been the first to use that image. The much greater problem is the choreography. We get the anguish of leaving one’s home and culture on some quest across the sea (“oltremare”), but the strain is particularly evident on the women in the piece. This might be understandable, but one of the ways Bigonzetti displays it is to show these women repeatedly being lifted, facing the audience with their backs to their companions’ fronts, their thighs spread-eagled and their lower legs flexed). These sexual images have no point that makes any sense, unless Bigonzetti is saying that the one thing on these peoples’ minds – or all they have left of their previous life – is sex or the desire for it. I don’t doubt that the position is intended to metaphorically express some different emotion, but its purposefulness and repetition through much of the piece doesn’t encourage any different evaluation. Even worse, as the piece ends, the men truss their companions like lassoed calves, hoisting them up and dragging them against their will to their futures.

The 14 dancer cast performed flawlessly. By far the best parts of the piece were the exhaustingly emotive pas de deux with Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, and Tiler Peck and Peter Walker, and the mid-ballet change of focus in which the entire group dances to folk-inspired music from the home country (presumably Italy). But despite the cast’s efforts, the piece is considerably less moving that it should have been. Oltremare’s heart may have been in the right place, but little else is.

Friday’s program was not nearly as successful as Thursday’s overall, even discounting The Decalogue. Chiaroscuro, by Lynn Taylor Corbett, and Jorma Elo’s Slice to Sharp, are very different ballets. But presented on the same program, and consecutively, make them seem more similar than they are because the music for each is Baroque or Baroque-related, and they’re non-narrative pieces in which the meaning, if there is one (and I think both are intended to have one) is at least, to me, indecipherable.

Taylor-Corbett’s dance is interesting, but more for its unusual “set” than anything else. Created by Michael Zansky, the artwork set consists of five raised panels against the rear curtain, hanging as if they’re stained glass windows in some strange cathedral (a church of heavenly angst?). [Indeed, at times the piece’s protagonist, Veyette, is positioned as if he were an uplifted Christ figure in a stereotypical “crucified” position.] But at the center of each of the panels there is what appears to be a poster-like representation of a bird. Just a bird. Perched, not flying. With the dramatic interplay of light and dark (chiaroscuro), these panels must mean something – especially as the center one is specifically illuminated as the piece ends, but I haven’t the vaguest idea what. Aside from the dynamite performance by Veyette, the rest of the piece makes little sense and has even less visual appeal.

Elo’s dance is a blur of movement. Primarily but not exclusively a series of duets, the piece puts the NYCB dancers though their paces, moving primarily angularly at a fiendish pace. They get the job done admirably, but the dance doesn’t go anywhere or mean anything. Even considered as pure movement, it’s noteworthy only to the extent it shows the dancers working their tails off for no particular reason to choreography that looks forced and purposeless.

After these two pieces, Martins’s Stabat Mater came as a relief – at least for the first five or ten minutes. To a composition by 18th century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Martins has crafted a lovely, lilting work for three couples: Sterling Hyltin and Jared Angle, Isaacs and Joseph Gordon, and Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay.

The costumes by Alain Vaes are perplexing. The women wear simple but elegant flowing wispy dresses (not togas) that evoke images on Greco/Roman friezes and urns – or on various cable TV series set during those periods. On the other hand, the men wore two-piece costumes that appear more rural, and evoke a different time period entirely. The 1998 piece was dedicated by Martins to Stanley Williams (former SAB teacher who was also Martins’s mentor at the Royal Danish Ballet, who had recently passed away), so perhaps the “different worlds” appearance has something to do with him. Otherwise, if there’s any purpose to this dichotomy, it escaped me.

But temporal gender costume differences aside, the beginning of the piece looks gorgeous, albeit not particularly complicated, with the women being lifted upward and back like ethereal heavenly bodies. [All the while I’m thinking that the notion I expressed several months ago – of a NYCB Giselle – might not be so farfetched.]

But the dancers soon retreat to a set (also by Vaes) consisting of a cut-out section of some Greco-Roman temple-like structure. Each couple, and then different pairings or multiples, descend from the temple ruins, dance a little, and then retreats back. After awhile, it looks a little like Dances at a Greco-Roman Gathering. But here, instead of the “idle” dancers watching the others, they’re staring into space. Staring into space looking for or pondering what? The meaning of existence? Where have all the flowers gone? Where has Stanley Williams or Pergolesi (who died after composing the piece – at age 26) gone? As beautiful as it looked at the outset, Stabat Mater overstayed its welcome.

But maybe this as another example of Martins’s method – his was the most memorable piece on an otherwise unmemorable program.

NYCB’s Here/Now Festival continues through this coming week.