New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 3, 2018 (afternoon and evening)
Nevermore, Mother Ship, The Decalogue, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement
Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fee’, Agon, Duo Concertant, Symphony in Three Movements
— by Jerry Hochman
Sometimes with ballets choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, the third, or maybe fourth, time’s the charm.
I’ve seen his 2010 ballet, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, at least three times. Initially, I thought it was a serious misfire from one of this century’s foremost ballet choreographers. I just didn’t get the point – it seemed disjointed, as if Le Corsaire had been cross-pollinated by both Swan Lake and No, No, Nanette and then choreographed by Busby Berkeley on a budget.
But I’ve also observed that sometimes you have to work on a Ratmansky piece (or it has to work on you) before you can figure out what he’s doing, because most of the time he doesn’t tell you. When the fog finally clears after repeated exposures, it’s a revelation.
So it was for me with Saturday afternoon’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, the last piece on a program that featured contemporary choreographers, the first of two New York City Ballet programs I saw that concluded the company’s Winter 2018 season. Not only were my eyes opened to Ratmansky’s intent – I think – but the ballet was graced with super performances in leading roles by Lauren Lovette and Taylor Stanley (both of whom debuted in their roles the previous night), Sara Mearns, Megan Fairchild, and Daniel Ulbricht.
Namouna, A Grand Divertissement (“Namouna”) makes a great deal of sense if one recognizes that it isn’t supposed to make a great deal of sense. Essentially, Ratmansky is using a lovely period score by Edouard Lalo for an obscure 19th Century ballet choreographed by Lucien Petipa (which premiered in 1882 and reportedly lasted for all of 15 performances), which itself was based on a now mercifully obscure European/Orientalist 1831 poem by equally obscure French poet Alfred de Musset (perhaps best known for his affair with George Sand) about a slave girl (Namouna) who falls for her owner (Hassan) as a foundation for a sort-of-combination pastiche on and homage to silly (and not so silly) 19th Century Romantic ballets. It’s a brilliant hoot that looks like (and maybe samples from) possibly every Romantic ballet you’ve seen (and probably many you haven’t), all in the context of Ratmansky’s dry-as-a-martini choreographic (and visual) wit.
Structurally, the ballet is a little like the last act of a typical Romantic story ballet (or a combination of the penultimate “dream” act and the last act) in which the hero searches for his lost dreamgirl; finds her asleep, imprisoned, or otherwise hidden by mysterious forces; and before the final romantic pas de deux, everything except the kitchen sink (and maybe a little of that) gets thrown in as divertissements, regardless of whether they have anything to do with the story or even belong in the same time period. So, here we have a hero searching for his lost love (except he’s not too sure which one she is – the Diva, the sassy 19th century version of the “It” Girl, or the snow white Ballerina Next Door – who’s watched over/ protected/ dominated by a man who’s part Rothbart, part Lankendem, part King without portfolio, part Wizard, and part Daddy. All this with a cast of thousands (actually, 26, including a phalanx of women in black Louise Brooks helmets, another in wavy white flapper wigs a la Thelma Todd (closer-cropped than Jean Harlow), and a corps of men who missed the cut for soldiers/minions of Siegfried or Solor or as background filler for Mel Brooks’s Men in Tights. And in the course of the deceptively fragmented presentation (which includes moments, devoid of meaning though they may be, that are visually stunning in their simple purity) we see knockout individual dances by each of the leads, an augmented solo by Lankendem/ Wizard/ Daddy and a killer little pas de deux for the hero and his white as snow, or swan, or sylph, dreamgirl.
Of the cast, there wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. Mearns, though she looked out of place (or out of sorts) in the evening’s previous dance, was marvelous here as the “Diva” (my description; not the program’s). Few could dance the “It Girl” like Ashley Bouder, but Fairchild did a super job with it, obviously enjoying every sybaritic moment of the “cigarette” dance (lifted, at least nominally, from the original ballet). And Ulbricht, abetted by henchpersons Erica Pereira and Abi Stafford, zoomed through his role with power, mystery, and the centrifugal/centripetal force of a spinning top (or, considering the role’s origins, like a dreidel on steroids). Stanley, as the wandering hero (nothing like the story’s Hassan) continues to dance and act in ways I hadn’t seen before this breakthrough season; and Lovette, well, danced the dreamgirl like a dreamgirl. The two of them, in the climactic pas de deux, were irresistibly (and Romantically) real.
I also revised my initial opinions of Justin Peck’s The Decalogue, which preceded Namouna on the program. It’s still a difficult ballet to like, but there’s more merit to it then I gave it credit for when it premiered in May, 2017 as part of the company’s Here and Now Festival.
The Decalogue is a ballet for ten dancers in ten segments corresponding to Sufjen Stevens’s eponymous commissioned composition. As a consequence of it being for solo piano, the piece comes across, in its totality, as being underwhelming – especially in contrast to other highly successful NYCB Peck/Stevens collaborations, Year of the Rabbit and Everywhere We Go, and following so close upon Peck’s other premiere last year, The Times Are Racing. So it’s easy to sit back, close your eyes, and awaken when it’s over. No, I didn’t do that the first time around, but by expecting something different, I failed to appreciate what was there.
A more accurate positioning of The Decalogue in the context of the Peck oeuvre I’ve seen to date is with another piano ballet, The Dreamers, a pas de deux that I thought was tightly and beautifully crafted but inconsequential, and his Belle-Lettres, not strictly a piano ballet (it was crafted to a chamber composition for piano and five strings) but one I consider a mini-masterwork and that I can’t wait to see returned to the NYCB schedule.
The Decalogue creeps up on you slowly, quietly, and creatively, with each segment distinctive. For example, after a cast-spanning opening the dance’s second segment focuses on two men – here Harrison Coll and Sean Suozzi – a fun little miniature that creates dancer mirror-images to match the mirror images in the score. Similarly, the next segment features three women – here Sara Adams, Rachel Hutsell, and Claire Kretschmar – picking up on the synchronizing, sequencing, and syncopation possibilities in the score. The piece includes the now almost obligatory male/male pairings, as well as female/male, but I don’t see this as imposing any gender agenda: any emotional connection in the segments is a consequence of bodies moving together; not much more. But that doesn’t negate the crystalline and highly complex quality of each of the ten dances, requiring intricate partnering, and quick (and constant) direction changes.
But perhaps its distinctive segments, finely crafted as they may be, combined with its low-decibel delivery, explain the continuing difficulty I have with it. I appreciate the quality of each of the dances, but there’s no sense of unity to the piece as a whole (or none readily comprehensible) aside from beginning and ending with the entire cast. Nor is The Decalogue a Peck equivalent of Dances at a Gathering: there is no gathering, and the piece doesn’t explore the personalities of the characters/dancers (and Stevens, notwithstanding his justifiable contemporary standing, isn’t Chopin). Nevertheless, The Decalogue is well-worth seeing – particularly when it’s not the closing piece on a program, which was the case when it premiered.
Benjamin Millepied’s Neverwhere, which opened Saturday afternoon’s program and which I previously saw at its premiere in 2013, doesn’t look better with age. The interesting, rubbery costumes which seemed to inhibit movement (and which made an unfortunate aural contribution to the score) have been replaced by more standard, but still futuristic-looking, black outfits that don’t look as confining. So the choreography appears freed somewhat as well. But the piece, to an appropriately titled composition by Nick Muhly (Drones and Viola), comes and goes and leaves no lingering memory – especially since the gold-colored objects embedded like sequins into the costumes when the ballet premiered seem, from my vantage point, to have disappeared along with the rubberized costumes, taking with them the intriguing reflection of light that livened the initial performance.
Neverwhere is a dark piece in which such lighting as there is (a triangular, pyramid shape rising from the stage floor up the back curtain, and an equally dim illumination of the stage floor) seems to signify something significant, but it’s not in any way explicable beyond maybe being some location in some galaxy some light years from ours. The dancing, though well executed (particularly the two pas de deux with Lovette and Preston Chamblee, and an interestingly staged and beautiful duet with Adams and Russell Janzen), doesn’t go anywhere because the choreography doesn’t take the viewer anywhere. I thought I saw a possible substantive and/or visual theme in the initial segment as Lovette seemed unable to penetrate a circle of the other dances, and subsequently the image was sort of repeated with a tighter circle and some indication of her acceptance into it, but the dance didn’t take that motif, if it was one, any further. And in the end, the dancers just depart into some further neverwhere. Emilie Gerrity and Joseph Gordon completed the highly capable cast.
Neverwhere also suffers in comparison to Nicolas Blanc’s Mothership, which followed it on the program. Both pieces are futuristic-looking, but Mothership is considerably less pretentious. To a 2011 composition of the same name by Mason Bates, Blanc has choreographed a piece that is constantly in motion, consistently surprising, and – unless you’re completely turned off by music that’s turned on, or by choreography that’s an intriguing combination of angular, edgy, and yet somehow lyrical and highly balletic – consistently interesting to watch. And Blanc does what few relatively nascent choreographers do: he knows when, and how, to stop.
Beyond the choreography itself, I remarked following the ballet’s 2016 premiere that what made Mothership particularly exhilarating were its young NYCB dancers that comprised the 4/4 cast. That remains the case, even with some cast changes. Christina Clark, Mimi Staker, Baily Jones (a particular standout), Claire Von Enck, Ethan Fuller, Sebastian Villarini-Velez, Alec Knight, and Christopher Grant lent the piece youthful exuberance as well as the talent that goes with NYCB territory.
The Stravinsky/Balanchine program that NYCB presented on Saturday evening requires little elaboration. Three of the dances are Balanchine classics (Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements). The opening piece, Divertimento from ‘Le Baiser de la Fee’, is not in the same league, but includes some highly interesting choreography which to me attempts to replicate the “fluidly staccato” movement of flying creatures like fairies (imputed from the movement of bees or hummingbirds), and which includes a particularly moving closing image of two creatures in love with each other whose worlds can never permanently merge. Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley danced the lead roles commendably, and, in featured roles, Likolani Brown and Staker (both suddenly being given opportunities not previously provided to them) excelled.
Agon, Balanchine’s 1957 groundbreaking ballet to Stravinsky’s equally groundbreaking score, included outstanding performances from all eight dancers. Teresa Reichlen and Chase Finlay (who debuted in his role the previous week) executed the dance’s central pas de deux with remarkable strength and fluidity (and somewhat less aescetism) than I’ve seen in other casts; and Ashley Isaacs and Peter Walker were outstanding in their featured roles, both together, solo, and components in a larger group. Ashley Hod, Phelan, Coll, and Gordon completed the superb cast.
Perhaps the most noteworthy performances of the evening were by Fairchild and Janzen in Duo Concertant. I’ve often written that while I appreciate most of the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballets, I don’t love them the way I love the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaborations. But Duo Concertant is one of the exceptions. Seeing it after several years’ absence is like reconnecting with an old flame, and when the performances are as finely wrought as those by Fairchild and Janzen, it’s particularly breathtaking. Elaine Chelton and Kurt Nikkanen, the pianist and violist respectively, added immeasurably to the experience.
Symphony in Three Movements is another Balanchine/Stravinsky ballet that I love. With its combination of fluidity and angularity, of circles, lines and angles, of intense and obvious detail that never looks strained or busy, and of overwhelming future-facing power, it still impresses me as being an “Art Deco,” Chrysler Building of a ballet. Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring led the outstanding cast.
In light of tangential events, this Winter 2018 NYCB Season could have been disastrous. That it wasn’t is a tribute not only to the schedule prepared, and the development overseen by, its former Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, but also to its Interim Artistic Team: Jonathan Stafford, Justin Peck, Craig Hall, and Rebecca Krohn. As I’ve noted previously, in addition to the usual high caliber performances, it included especially breakthrough and/or extraordinary seasons by Maria Kowrosky and Taylor Stanley, and memorable efforts by Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira, and too many others to mention. And a season that began with Apollo and ended with Symphony in Three Movements is special by definition. The Spring 2018 Season, only six weeks away, includes a 2½ week celebration of Jerome Robbins on the centennial of his birth, and the return of Balanchine’s Coppelia. And it will begin with Concerto Barocco and end with The Four Temperaments. The hits just keep on coming.