David Koch Theater, New York, NY; January 31, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in "Acheron"

Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Acheron”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Last night New York City Ballet unveiled another program of dances in its Winter 2014 season, this one under the rubrick ‘New Combinations’. The centerpiece of the program was the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s first NYCB piece: “Acheron.”

In summary, “Acheron” is not as bad as I suspect some critics may say, but it’s not particularly good either. Be that as it may, and regardless of one’s reaction to the piece’s dreary tone and sexual images, “Acheron” is worth seeing for the performances alone. Led by Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle, Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar, the dancers executed Mr. Scarlett’s choreography brilliantly. But aside from the partnering demonstration by the three lead couples, the choreography was repetitious, the partnering stuffed with show-off tricks, and, worst, the piece looks patently misogynistic.

I say ‘looks’ rather than ‘is’ because I think establishing an absolute difference between men and women was a necessary precondition to the inescapable intent of the piece. Consequently, perhaps, what looks like misogyny may just be a reflection of ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’, rather than any inherent bias against women. On the other hand, when the relationships on display are so obviously male-dominant/female-submissive, a misogynistic tone is difficult to ignore.

Divorced from any plotted undertone, the dance is an abstract work of some, but not overwhelming, interest, with staging that segues seamlessly from one focus of attention to another, showcasing the intricate partnering. It’s not nearly as successful as “Viscera,” a fabulous abstract piece which Mr. Scarlett choreographed in January, 2012 for Miami City Ballet. But although it’s also a plotless piece, in “Acheron” Mr. Scarlett has a clear choreographic point of view.

Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle in "Acheron" Photo © Paul Kolnik

Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle in “Acheron”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

The piece is without program notes, so Mr. Scarlett’s intent must be gleaned solely from what one sees on stage, and perhaps from the ballet’s title. Acheron is a river in northern Greece, one of the mythological rivers of the Underworld known as the ‘river of woe’. In Greek mythology, Acheron was the god of pain, who was turned into a river as punishment for giving aid and comfort to the Titans in their war with Zeus.

To a score by Francis Poulenc (“Concerto in G for Organ, Strings, and Timpani” – the same piece used by Glen Tetley in “Voluntaries”) that provides an ominous, otherworldly undercurrent combined with a somewhat diabolical feigned gloss of giddiness, Scarlett creates a dark atmosphere of love and lust as a series of ‘combat a deux’, with the men as the powerful and dominating aggressors and the women as willing and compliant partners but with emotional needs that their partners do not understand. Consequently, instead of being a source of harmony, the relationships are a source of unresolved, and unresolvable, discord.

Accordingly, if the piece is ‘about’ anything (and simplistic as it sounds), it’s ‘about’ pain – the pain that is an inevitable consequence of sexual relationships between men and women whose mutual and seemingly contradictory expectations can never be fulfilled. Of course, “Acheron” can also be seen as a visualization of a voyage to the Underworld, but that would be even more simplistic (and, ultimately, would beg the question why it is portrayed as it is).

Through all the couplings presented (the cast has three sets of featured couples, and five corps pairs) there is one lone man who does not attach to a partner. At times he sprints across the stage like a sort of underworld Puck surveying a midsummer night’s nightmare; at other times he’s just a lone spirit unencumbered by the painful physical/emotional attachments that surround him. But whether he’s above the fray and a happy survivor, or safe and free and miserably alone, is not clearly expressed. On first view, it appears more likely to me that this lone man, danced by Anthony Huxley with his typical (and this time appropriate) lack of connection, is intended to be a survivor.  That is, because he’s alone, he avoids being swept along the River of Acheron to Hades.

The costumes, created by Mr. Scarlett, reflect the aggressive/submissive tone of the piece. The men are shirtless, with tights that begin around the waist in deep, muted color (which looks purple in the dim light) which changes to light grey down the abdomen to the thighs, and then to a mud-like grey. It’s a virile, powerful, but dangerous-looking appearance – they looks somewhat like satyrs preying on young and vulnerable female does who are costumed in leotards and tights, with short ballet skirts. And the piece is bathed in muted light, to me resembling light in a cave.

The piece opens with the full (or nearly full) complement of dancers in shadow and apparently (from what I could see) unattached. In silence, one male (Mr. Angle) grabs another (Ms. Krohn), and they dance together while other couples pair off and leave the stage, some of whom return and join, and eventually replace, the first highlighted couple. I thought of ‘rape of the Sabine women’, but although there is male aggressiveness, there’s no violence, and the women are compliant and enjoy the physical attention. But they want an emotional attachment, a demand to which the men are either resistant or clueless. So neither partner in any of the pairings is satisfied.

Choreographically the piece is filled with sweeping lifts and deep arabesques that happen over and over again with numbing repetitiveness. The coupled duets include complex partnering transitions and novel-looking (sometimes death-defying-looking) overhead balances and sudden drops toward the stage floor – in one of which Mr. Angle lifts Ms. Krohn, turns her 180 degrees, and holds her upright over his head by the calves of her crossed legs. Nifty. And a little scary-looking.  But it’s more form than substance.

The execution by the dancers looked flawless – and considering the partnering complexity, it had to be. The three couples were marvelous. Without denigrating in any way the performance of the other lead dancers, Mr. Angle and Ms. Krohn (who is already having a remarkable season) were particularly impressive, as was Ms. Mearns, whose natural pathos, in the form of confused-looking failure to connect emotionally with her partner, added texture to the piece.

The Poulenc score was executed brilliantly by the NYCB Orchestra, under the baton of Clotilde Otranto; Michael Hey played the solo organ. I cannot recall hearing a more dynamic, exciting live rendition of this composition.

“Acheron” is an interesting effort, but one that gets overwhelmed by Mr. Scarlett’s apparent foundational precondition. The piece does not contain the kind of mindless self-indulgence and cheap, puerile, exploitative sexuality expressed in Demis Volpi’s highly offensive ”Private Light,” which American Ballet Theatre premiered during its Fall, 2011 season and which promptly and mercifully disappeared from its repertoire. But “Acheron” does include emphatic, albeit ersatz, ‘pawing’ by the men, the women’s enjoyment of this unsolicited physical attention, and the dominant/submissive overtones. Consequently, some will doubtless find “Acheron” similarly offensive, but on a more refined artistic level. Regardless, the performances save the piece, and it should be seen for that reason.

If the dancers in “Acheron” can be considered as being ‘possessed’ – possessed by the need (and inability) to be sexually and emotionally fulfilled, the entire evening can be seen as reflections on ‘possession’, demonic or otherwise. The program began with repeat performances of Mario Bigonzetti’s “Vespro,” which premiered in 2002, and Angelin Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence,” which premiered last season. I’ve reviewed both previously. In the former, Andrew Veyette repeated his extraordinary performance as the spirit of the center-stage piano, ably embellished by Maria Kowroski and Mr. Angle, Ms. Bouder and Gonzalo Garcia, and the 4/4 corps who were the expressions of his compositions.  Although the dancing can be exhilarating to watch, the piece itself is disappointing. The commissioned score by Bruno Moretti was finely performed by Alan Moverman on piano, Ed Joffe on soprano saxophone, and mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle.

Mr. Preljocaj’s piece remains an intriguing and exciting take on the possessed souls – the young girls who were the accusers and the clergy who ultimately accepted the girls’ claims — at the center of the Salem Witch trials.  But it still appears overbaked, suffering from the excesses that I’ve previously described – less of the same would have been an improvement. The entire cast, led by Tiler Peck and a once-again remarkable Robert Fairchild, gave a memorable performance.