Joyce Theater, New York, NY; October 8, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Carla Korbes and Joshua Grant in 'Tide Harmonic'.  Photo © Angela Sterling

‘Tide Harmonic’ (here with Carla Korbes and Joshua Grant).
Photo © Angela Sterling

Performances by major companies at the Joyce Theater are welcome, but problematic. Welcome, of course, because given touring costs, producing a program in New York that requires more space or staging accoutrements can be prohibitively expensive, and having an opportunity to see a prominent company is better than not seeing it at all. But because of space limitations, such performances are usually limited to ‘small’ pieces that can be squeezed onto the Joyce stage, rather than larger ‘ensemble’ ballets. Pacific Northwest Ballet, in a welcome return to New York, opened a seven performance run at the Joyce Theater last night with such a three-dance program. But even though they carry a smaller footprint, the pieces are not insignificant, and getting close to dance and the dancers (to use Joyce Theater marketing phraseology) is a plus.

The major event of the evening was the one that closed the program – the preview premiere of “Debonair”, by New York City Ballet soloist and Resident Choreographer Justin Peck. The ballet will be given its ‘official’ world premiere in Seattle on November 7, so theoretically Mr. Peck may yet make some changes. But from what I saw, none will be necessary. Seattle audiences are in for a treat. Also notable is that many of the dancers who appeared with PNB when it was last seen in NY twenty months ago are not on this tour, but others, most of whom were not previously featured, illustrate the company’s depth.

One of the qualities that makes “Debonair” so interesting is that it looks exciting and different. The opening piece on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic” is also generally exciting to watch, but it’s more of what he does very well.

No contemporary choreographer who comes to mind has Mr. Wheeldon’s facility with the timing, the ‘theme and variations’, of sequential movement. “Tide Harmonic” (Mr. Wheeldon’s first ballet for PNB) features those essential qualities, but although it has an abstract sense of tidal flow, it’s hardly a watershed piece of work. The dominant group movement patterns include sequential phrasing propelled by repeated leg thrusts into the air and then into the floor, and by partnered aerial spins. The piece is brilliantly crafted and lovely to watch. I concede that certain repetitive images are idiosyncratic (in view of the titular theme, perhaps certain pairings were intended to represent sea creatures?), but they look more weird than inventive. Structurally, Mr. Wheeldon alters the ‘standard’ cast, duet, cast, duet, cast format by varying the dancers involved in the ‘cast’ segments and allowing overlaps at various times. But this is what one would expect him or any other skilled choreographer to do, and aside from the central pas de deux, which was wonderfully (if somewhat stoically) danced by Elizabeth Murphy and Joshua Grant, it’s all standard Wheeldon stuff – which, granted, is at a higher level than much of what’s out there.

Carla Korbes and Joshua Grant in 'Tide Harmonic'.  Photo © Angela Sterling

‘Tide Harmonic’ (here with Carla Korbes and Joshua Grant).
Photo © Angela Sterling

To be fair, “Tide Harmonic” may have been hampered in visual appearance by the small Joyce Theater space. But although a larger stage may have made the piece breathe, it wouldn’t have changed the choreography. And the score, by Jody Talbot, who created the marvelous score to Mr. Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, has none of the magic of that composition. The music is exactly as billed, starting like a musical tingling – like water dancing in the light before the tidal flow begins, and increasing in tempo, albeit still repetitive, as the flow becomes more intense (accompanied by occasional periods of calm, or the creation of currents and eddies). It even sounds like it’s being played underwater. But while the composition may sufficiently convey an abstract auditory sense of tidal flow, something gets lost in the ballet’s visualization.

While Mr. Wheeldon’s piece appeared to be primarily propelled by lower body movement (the leg thrusts, the sweeping lower-limbed lifts), the second ballet “Memory Glow” appears to be dominated by upper body movement. Choreographed by Spanish-born Alejandro Cerrudo to an assortment of disparate works that, strung together, reasonably sound like a single composition, this contemporary ballet is interesting to watch if for no other reason than that it is relatively unusual-looking. And instead of the calculated freneticism of “Tide Harmonic”, “Memory Glow”, though plotless, is a more intensely inner-directed piece, exploring relationships rather than patterns and sequential timing. Mr. Cerrudo’s professional roots with Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Hubbard Street Dance show.

The staging of “Memory Glow” is arresting, with a dark aura. Around a semi-circle of lit floor lanterns spanning the mid stage area, pairs of dancers, clad in grey, stand in relative darkness. Then one pair separates and moves downstage and explores their connection with no emotional gloss, primarily with staccato arm movements that frame their upper bodies, before eventually returning to the semi-circle. This pattern continues in various permutations throughout the piece – sometimes in pairs, sometimes solo or in same sex combinations, sometimes with more than one couple involved. And through it all the staging is sufficiently varied to maintain interest – including having dancers materialize and disappear through ‘hidden’ openings in the dark back scrim.

As “Tide Harmonic” relied on speed and precision, “Memory Glow” relied on emotion – internalized as that emotion may generally be expressed. But at times the dancing became somewhat more effusive, and the relationships between the dancers more complex. An example is the sequence performed by Angelica Generosa and James Moore and the corps of supporting men (Steven Loch, Matthew Renko, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson), including neatly-executed transfers from man to man. Ms. Generosa is a particularly engaging dancer with a fine command of emotional nuance, and she almost singlehandedly added light to this dark ballet. The other two couples, Leah Merchant and Charles McCall, and Ms. Murphy and Raphael Bouchard, danced their roles superbly as well.

Jerome Tisserand and Carla Korbes in 'Debonair'.  Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

Jerome Tisserand and Carla Korbes in ‘Debonair’.
Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

It’s difficult to find anything “Debonair” about Mr. Peck’s piece, other than the fluid, lyrical costumes on the women (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung). The title connotes a degree of sophistication, which, although the choreography is certainly sophisticated, is not the point of the ballet.

The piece is choreographed to “Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1,” a 1948 composition by George Antheil. The score is bright and airy, with themes of the American West flowing through it. With the delicate power of sonically dominating violins, the music felt like wind singing through mountains. At times, it sounded somewhat remindful of Aaron Copland, though not quite as grand.

This western flavor and fresh-air quality is reflected in Mr. Peck’s dance. Indeed, from time to time the ballet kindled memories of Mr. Wheeldon’s “Estancia”, which he choreographed for NYCB several years ago. The pieces aren’t at all alike – this is not the South American pampas; and “Debonair” is a much smaller, more focused dance. But its sense of airiness and freedom is similar. And recognizing this air of freshness and freedom, I also recognized what may be the meaning behind the ballet’s title. Perhaps it’s a play on the word ‘debonair’. I’m not a linguist, but ‘debonair’ likely derived as a contraction of ‘de bon air’ – the beautiful air, the carefree spirit. In this sense, rather than one of sophistication, “Debonair” as a title fits the ballet perfectly.

Since it still has not ‘officially’ premiered, I’ll describe the ballet only briefly. It’s an abstract piece, although relationships are a core matter. It opens with six men spread across the stage as if awaiting an arrival. They’re soon joined by one woman, then more. In typical Peck style, the movement isn’t predictable. Just when you think he’s about to repeat a phrase, he doesn’t; and he seems to pull patterns out of thin air. Although this is a relatively large cast (six pairs of dancers), and might benefit from a larger stage, that is not as much an issue here as it was in “Tide Harmonic”. And the lengthy central pas de deux, danced exquisitely by Carla Korbes (in what may be her final role in New York, since she recently announced what, for audiences, is her premature retirement) and Mr. Tisserand, is a portrayal of a multi-faceted relationship. It’s not passionate as much as emotionally complex and choreographically analytical.

But Ms. Korbes and Mr. Tisserand were not the only performances that lit up this ballet. Each of the dancers is given an opportunity to shine, to a greater or lesser degree. Ms. Mullin and Mr. Bouchard, Brittany Reid and Mr. Moore were the ‘second tier’ lead couples, and Jahna Frantziskonis Ms. Generosa, and Ms. Merchant, sometimes solo and sometimes partnered by Mr. Suddarth, Mr. Thomson, an Eric Hipolito, Jr., were particularly sparkly in less featured roles.

If the piece, as it now stands, can be criticized in any way, it’s that, compared to the Wheeldon ballet that opened the program, it looks less polished. But to me this is part of the charm of Mr. Peck’s choreography in general and of “Debonair” in particular. It’s a little rough-looking, but it has a freshness to it – like fresh air.