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

September 20, 2016
For Clara, The Dreamers, ten in seven, Unframed, Bal de Couture (finale)

— by Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet opened its 2016-2017 performing year Tuesday night with its fifth annual Fall Fashion Gala.

The thought of enduring another gala in which the quality on stage is secondary to the transparent quest for donor dollars, essential as that might be, was almost mind-numbing. But this gala was different. For one, the evening included four world premiere ballets. By itself, this isn’t necessarily unusual – the company has made extraordinary efforts to supplement its distinguished Balanchine/Robbins legacy repertoire with newly created ballets. What made this gala different was that three of the four premieres were created by first-time NYCB choreographers (Lauren Lovette, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Peter Walker); and that it included two by nascent in-house choreographers who have never created a ballet before for any ballet company anywhere (Lovette, a principal dancer, and Walker, a member of the corps). And what made it particularly significant was that two of the premieres were created by women.

When the program was first announced, my initial take was that it was a marketing gimmick that could easily backfire. As I’ve come to recognize with ever-increasing frequency, I should have known better. Credit must initially be given to Peter Martins, the company’s Ballet Master in Chief, whose gamble not only displays perspicacity and confidence in his dancers and their talents (he’s demonstrated that before) and a propensity to upend the status quo; it confirms that NYCB is the most vibrant ballet company in New York – and possibly beyond.

Each of these four premiere pieces is well-crafted, entertaining, and idiosyncratic, with little of the self-importance and self-indulgence that often undermine pieces created by more established choreographers. While none of them is above some measure of critical observation, in the overall scheme of things Martins’s gamble paid off.

The gala’s success isn’t limited to the choreography – the costumes created by this year’s crop of haute couture fashion designers are fine examples of design-for-dance costuming. Indeed, the evolution of the costume design aspect of the Fall Fashion Gala was demonstrated conclusively by the inclusion of the finale from Martins’s Bal de Couture (a piece d’occasion for the company’s first Fall Fashion Gala in 2012 which unfortunately has outlived its original occasion), in which the costumes by Valentino overwhelm the choreography. The costumes for the premieres enhance the choreography. And the performances – largely by NYCB’s new generation of outstanding ballet dancers – were exceptional. While highlighting any of them for special praise may be inappropriate since this was largely an ensemble evening, particular kudos to Indiana Woodward and Emily Kikta, both of whom displayed new facets of performing excellence. Each is a member of the corps, but don’t expect that rank to last much longer.

Surprisingly, the most successful pieces were those choreographed by the choreographic newcomers. The fourth premiere, by NYCB’s Resident Choreographer (and soloist) Justin Peck, though impeccably crafted and executed, was a very limited concept and limited impact pas de deux, and Lopez Ochoa’s ballet, though exciting and interesting, was almost undermined by a stated intent that the choreography failed to support.

Lovette’s piece, For Clara, opened the program.  Although she impresses as a thoroughly modern millennial, Lovette’s choice of music shows that she also has a classical/romantic heart. Robert Schumann’s Introduction and Concert-Allegro, Opus 134, was composed in 1853 as a birthday gift to his wife Clara, who subsequently performed it until Schumann’s death in 1856. The composition, which is at once wistful and florid, carries with it an emotional density that Lovette’s choreography captures (and that Susan Walter’s piano playing enhanced).

For Clara is an abstract ballet, but it has a level of purposefulness that takes it beyond being solely a depiction of bodies moving through space. The dance has been described as being possibly autobiographical, but whether that’s true is, in this case, essentially irrelevant (and contra-indicated in many ways). It’s also theoretically possible, if one overthinks (as I tend to do), that Lovette here is commenting not only on the fact that Schumann composed it “for Clara,” but also on the relationship, however one categorizes it, that evolved between Clara and Johannes Brahms (to whom Schumann dedicated the piece) after her husband’s death.

I think it more likely, however, to the extent she goes beyond the superficial connection, that Lovette here uses Clara as a reference point for any woman navigating relationships while continuing to discover and stay true to herself – which, to the extent it has a particular meaning, is ultimately what the piece is “about”. And in this sense the piece ratifies Martins’s decision to give Lovette the opportunity – it’s one of those rare ballets that presents from the point of view of an independent liberated woman who is not defined by her relationships. And in that sense, For Clara was the most refreshing piece on the program.

There is no newbie hesitation here: this is choreography full-out, matching Lovette’s execution of repertory pieces in which she dances, which I’ve described previously as being full to the fingertips. After an opening that focuses on a lone male dance, Chase Finlay, in the process of awakening self-awareness (although its central figure is a woman, Lovette’s intention is obviously to give her ballet more universal appeal), the piece quickly expands and eventually compartmentalizes seamlessly. It’s a big ballet – with five featured dancers (Emilie Gerrity, Unity Phelan, Zachary Catazaro, Woodward and Finlay), and an evenly divided twelve dance corps. The corps is utilized interestingly – although most often, either massed together or separated by gender, they reflect the score in varying examples of sequencing (she’s apparently learned a lot from Peck), Lovette occasionally surprises by cutting off the last individual or couple in a sequence and having them move differently.

The core of the piece, of course, is reserved for the leads. Although I’ll be able to see more detail in subsequent viewings, there are essentially two couples; one choreographed relationship appears stereotypically romantic, the other, accompanying a change in musical tone, more aggressive, perhaps illustrative of psychological warfare. Both duets are well choreographed and executed. The simple, clean-lined costumes by Narciso Rodriguez accentuate the movement without imposing anything onto the piece beyond tastefulness.

At its heart, however, is the role danced by Woodward, who is involved but at the same time somewhat impervious to it all. Lovette has given her particularly exciting choreography, and Woodward flies though it perfectly – and triumphantly. I’ve commented on Woodward previously, but this role yields still greater insights into her stage dynamism.

The ballet is not without flaws. Lovette cleverly sequences positioning for the corps, but even though each sequence appears different, there’s too much of it. Similarly, movements that initially appear interesting in context (e.g., windmill arm movements; the “awakening” ports de bras) become tiresome. And with the non-stop musical action visualized as non-stop visual action, there’s the perception of too much going on, resulting in a dilution of focus. Eventually, she’ll learn that less is often more. But in the overall scheme of things these are minor criticisms. For Clara is a noteworthy ballet, and a remarkable first effort.

Peter Walker, who joined the company in 2012, has created a very different ballet.

ten in seven (the title is a reference to the ten dancer cast being divided among the seven segments of the ballet) is choreographed to a commissioned score by Thomas Kikta, a classical guitarist and professor of music at Duquesne University who has collaborated with dance choreographers previously (and with Walker for last year’s SAB Winter Ball). Notwithstanding that Kikta is known for jazzy, bluesy guitar pieces, and that the seven individual segments have French subtitles, I sensed (abetted by Jason Wu’s colorful lace-overlay costumes) that the music and the choreography had a Spanish flair.

Being able to collaborate with the composer to create a ballet from scratch allows a level of flexibility and determinism not always available when choreographing to a pre-exiting composition. At the least, the music is ipso facto danceable, and is paced the way the choreographer wants it. Variety is built in. That observation is not meant to diminish the level of Walker’s accomplished here: ten in seven is an impressive piece of work, impressively staged and executed, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The seven segments are very different from each other both musically and choreographically, and each segment has a life of its own. Though not particularly complex, it’s a visually stimulating piece that grabs and doesn’t let go. And the staging – including having a quartet of musicians placed on two levels above the action, upstage left (with Kikta himself on guitar) gives the ballet an intimate, “night-clubby” feel.

The choreography for each of the segments is intriguing; the cross pollination between Walker and Kikta apparent. And the performances were top notch. I was particularly impressed, again, by Woodward in the third Divertissement du Blues segment, in which she demonstrated yet another side of her dancing ability, sauntering suggestively among five men (one, Sean Suozzi, in particular); by Spartak Hoxha dancing up a storm in the appropriately titled Rapide Furieux segment (credited to Arkadiy Figlin, who played the keyboard for the live quartet); and Emily Kikta and Russell Janzen in the Le son de deux segment. For Kikta, the composer’s daughter, the performance was a revelation. Usually limited to dancing “big” roles requiring a ballerina who can dominate the stage, which she does well, here she dances a romantic, emotion-filled pas de deux, and does so exquisitely.

Sandwiched between the Lovette and Walker ballets was Peck’s premiere – a pas de deux for Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar. Titled The Dreamers, the piece is tight and superbly crafted, and was given excellent performances: one would expect nothing less from any of them. But it’s relatively inconsequential – and the “dream” aspect of it (midway through the piece, the couple fall to the floor, and then one rises and dances in the other’s dream, after which their positions are reversed) is strained. Peck choreographed the piece to Bohuslav Martinu’s Piano Quintet No. 2, II, Adagio, and it appeared to me that it might have been conceived while Peck was working on his previous ballet to a Martinu composition, Paz de la Jolla, and that this was a convenient time to birth it. The costumes by Dries Van Noten were reportedly inspired by Mark Rothko’s art (“floating color blocks”). It worked – but much more for Mearns’s gorgeous multi-colored, flowing dress than for Ramasar’s more rigidly organized costume.

Lopez Ochoa’s ballet, Unframed, is a strange, complex piece. I found it extraordinarily classy, but very different from what I’d expected based on the choreographer’s stated intent.

Each of the ballets on the program was preceded by a brief film during which the choreographer and designer are seen collaborating. The film preceding Lopez Ochoa’s piece showed that the dancers would be outfitted in costumes (by Rosie Assoulin) that looked like “suits” worn in a corporate setting in which women are effectively subservient, and then the costumes would be “deconstructed” during the course of the ballet, concurrently with the deconstruction of the business relationships between genders. I expected a choreographed diatribe on workplace oppression of women, which would have been fine (the diatribe, not the oppression).

The choreography displays women as sexual objects, true enough. But there’s no sense of imposed obligation here – no sense of subservience. The women are depicted as being equally as powerful as the men – although the manner in which that power is secured is significantly different. Be that as it may (and I suspect repeated viewings may clarify my observations), Unframed is compelling on multiple levels.

Lopez Ochoa has curated a broad assortment of music, each of which carries distinctive emotional baggage into each of the ballet’s six segments. Unlike many other such agglomerations of disparate compositional styles, this one works well.

The dancers initially appear in modified “suits,” except that the women wear short skirts. (The costumes are similar to those created two years ago for Troy Schumacher’s Clearing Dawn, but they’re considerably more sensuous.) As the dance progresses, the characters are “unframed” from their corporate suits: the upper part of the costume is discarded (deconstructed?), leaving the men in pants, shirtless, and the women wearing bikini-like black tops, with bottoms to match. As the piece further develops, the women let their hair down. Perhaps this was intended as a commentary on Balanchine’s occasional similar emphasis on female sensuality, but here the result is a depiction of sexual power, not romantic sensuality. In any event, from the beginning, the sexes are equally powerful – the men by strength (or perceived entitlement); the women by allure.

This is another big ballet – five featured women (Jacqueline Bologna, Sterling Hyltin, Lauren King, Tiler Peck, Alexa Maxell (replacing Brittany Pollack); five lead men (Jared Angle, Tyler Angle, Preston Chamblee, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Daniel Ulbricht); and a corps of eight women – with the choreographic responsibility fairly evenly divided among the leads. But the ballet’s central focus is the brilliantly danced pas de deux for Hyltin and Danchig- Waring.

New York City Ballet has a long and distinguished history of presenting choreographic game changers. Tuesday night’s program took game-changing to a different level – by keeping most of the choreographic opportunities in-house, and by presenting two ballets with roles and themes created by women, and reflecting a women’s point of view. This alone provided more than the usual cause for gala celebration.