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

September 28, 2017
Fall Gala: The Wind Still Brings, Composer’s Holiday, Not Our Fate, Pulcinella Variations

— by Jerry Hochman

So, if New York City Ballet’s program the night before its scheduled Fall 2017 Gala wasn’t really a gala but felt like one, what does the company do for the real thing … besides herding begowned women and tuxedoed men to their seats in between cocktails and the dinner party on the theater’s festively decorated and closed off Promenade? Present a very NYCB gala-ish evening filled with world premieres, young choreographers, company dancers, and costume designers given an opportunity to shine, and a sense that the company is both rolling in donation dough and on an artistic roll. I can’t comment on the company’s financial status, although I suspect it’s far from rolling in it. As for being on a roll artistically, things are certainly looking up compared to just a few short years ago.

If there’s one dominant takeaway from this year’s gala, it’s that the company’s investment in its future is continuing to pay dividends.

None of the gala’s new pieces is at the masterpiece level – though, realistically, that’s not what NYCB galas in recent years have been about. But although flawed to varying degrees, each of the four world premiere dances has merit, and a distinctive dance “personality” that is not easily forgettable.

The most impressive dance of the evening was the most unanticipated. Gianna Reisen is a School of American Ballet graduate who now is an apprentice with Ballet Semperopera in Dresden. She participated in SAB’s Student Choreography workshop in 2014 and 2015 and in the company’s New York Choreographic Institute’s working sessions, and created her first piece of choreography for the Institute a year ago. She’s never danced with NYCB, and has never mounted a dance with costumes or on a full theater stage. But she obviously made a sufficient impression on Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins for him to decide to give her a shot, and to do so at one of the company’s most prominent events. At 18, she’s the youngest person commissioned to choreograph in NYCB’s history.

The decision paid off.

Watching Composer’s Holiday, Reisen’s creation, is the equivalent of visually ingesting a box of Cracker Jack, and finding a surprise in every eyeful. [She’s probably too young to know what Cracker Jack is.] The dance, though not particular rich choreographically, is rich visually in ways that I can’t begin to adequately describe, and displays not only Reisen’s emerging craft but also a quality of inventiveness that’s more frequently the province of dancer /choreographers with greater experience, if it’s there at all. It’s funny and intelligent and strangely festive, and, with its unexpected bursts of dry wit and targeted whimsy, is remotely (very remotely) remindful of moments from Jerome Robbins’s The Concert.

Choreographed to Lukas Foss’s frolicky Three American Pieces for Violin and Piano, the dance is episodic but tightly woven together, and brief enough to make an impression but not to overstay its welcome. And its twelve dancer cast of young members of the corps features two pairs of “new” company dancers – Christina Clark, Kennard Henson, Emma Von Enck, and Roman Mejia (an apprentice) – all of whom appear to be relishing, and taking advantage of, the opportunity. The costumes by Virgil Abloh are complementary and non-intrusive, and reflect the festive, whimsical nature of the ballet.

The piece does indeed look like Reisen has never before choreographed for a full stage. There are too many pockets of action that leave much of the stage bare. And I have no idea what, if anything, she’s intending to say with this dance, but the apparent absence (at least on first view) of some purpose is insignificant here. Challenging her dancers, entertaining her audience, and creating a non-narrative ballet that looks different and isn’t angst-ridden, iconoclastic, or egocentric, are certainly sufficiently laudable goals by themselves.

In appearance and intent, Lauren Lovette’s new piece, Not Our Fate, is just the opposite: it fills the stage, it’s serious (though not ponderous), it has a message, and it knows exactly where it’s going and it successfully gets there. It’s theme – indeed, the very progression of the dance – reflects that of an untitled poem included in the dance’s program note written by company dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell (who also dances in the piece), which ends with the three words that comprise the dance’s title.

Not Our Fate’s message is two-fold: that individual differences, racial and sexual, are not to be hidden or shunned, but to be celebrated; and that the decision to love or to hate, to hide or to be recognized as one is, is a choice. Although there are some moments of reflection, there’s little if any negativity in the piece, and no pain (at least none yet evident to me). Rather, the dance is a clarion call to let the sunshine in. And like Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing, it has the potential to be an anthem.

I like Lovette’s emerging craftsmanship – as I did with her initial NYCB choreographic effort for the company’s Fall Gala a year ago, For Clara. She has a lot of cast to work with (10 dancers), definite ideas that she’s tying to convey, and music that is difficult to choreograph to (three movements from Michael Nyman’s repetitive, pulsing Concert Suite from Prospero’s Books). The staging is interesting to watch evolve, and she squeezes considerable visual variety and incisiveness out of her theme, including a male/male duet that’s far more intelligent (and intelligently danced) than the frequently seen token pairings that pay lip service to diversity but not much more; and celebratory ensemble dances that do more than celebrate celebrating.

But its strength is also a weakness. Just as the piece knows where it’s going, so does the audience: it’s very transparent, and very predictable. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but predictability can lead to ennui, despite the tempestuous movement on stage. And Not Our Fate is as relentless as the excerpted Nyman composition – although the theme is manifested in different ways and with different types of couplings (or not), it’s all good, it’s all joy, and this is the way life should be. In short, its message is pounded home – although I suppose those for whom the theme particularly resonates will probably admire the fact that it does exactly that.

Not Our Fate is a noble effort, but might have been more effective if pared down a bit, and more emotionally balanced (though perhaps repeat viewings will show that that’s already there). The black and white costumes by Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim don’t stand out, but they’re not supposed to, and they don’t detract from the choreography or the theme. Taylor Stanley, Preston Chamblee, Ask la Cour, Lars Nelson, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, Sara Adams, Laine Habony, Sarah Villwock, and Sell were all outstanding.

The evening opened with Troy Schumacher’s The Wind Still Brings. There’s no explanation for the title in the program note, and it doesn’t correspond to the title of the composition used (excerpts from William Walton’s Piano Quartet in D minor). Overall, and possibly because this is one of Schumacher’s less stylistically rigid and most accessible pieces, I found it quite enjoyable – to a point.

The nub of the ballet, which is abstract with brief moments of emotional gloss, occurs when the ensemble dances that provide the piece’s framework end, and the 14 dancer cast (or most of them) fall to the floor stretched horizontally across the stage, and one by one a dancer lies next to another, they rise and begin a duet, and the process continues (at times with two pairs on stage at the same time, as I recall). This isn’t all there is to the piece – there are the aforementioned ensemble segments and occasional featured solos and segments involving smaller groups, but the “fallen to the floor, being joined, and rising up” part is dominant. The images are lovely, and the choreography is as well. But after awhile it goes on too long without seeming to go anywhere, as if Schumacher fell a little too much in love with his own concept.

I don’t know what he intended with this piece, if anything, besides creating a lovely-looking ballet, but I think Schumacher intended more than that. I’ll posit a couple of my own ideas. Given the piece’s title, and the visual motif I’ve mentioned, perhaps he intended to conceptualize fallen leaves, and provide a sense of how they move when the “musical wind” moves them. But then, the blue-dominant multicolor and multi-form costumes by Jonathan Saunders (which enhance the piece a great deal) don’t fit this idea, and there’s more to the choreography than the appearance of dancing leaves. The other thought is that Schumacher’s intent might be very similar to Lovette’s (particularly given the fact that certain male dances wear dress-like outfits, and the dancers seem to interact happily at random, and couplings vary. Then again, it just might be a purely pretty abstraction.

What is clear, however, is that the dancers, all members of the corps, deliver compellingly impressive, and gorgeous, execution throughout. Without minimizing the efforts of any of them, I particularly noticed Ashley Hod, Claire Kretzschmar (always so joyful), Meagan Mann, Aaron Sanz, and Peter Walker. And keep your eyes open for a newcomer (so new that her photo isn’t yet on the company website), Eliza Blutt. Based solely on her limited but magnetic appearance in this piece, she’s a dancer to watch.

Audiences expect a dance by Justin Peck to be good, and different, and are disappointed when it’s not. Pulcinella Variations, choreographed to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, is not a disappointment, but it might be disappointing to those who always expect Peck to produce the unexpected. But although it’s the most classically formed dance that I can recall from him, Pulcinella Variations is different, and though not “great Peck,” it’s quite good. Peck infuses the classic form (corresponding to the classic structure of the composition) with sufficient originality to make it clearly 21st century classism (as Stravinsky’s music, notwithstanding its form, has a contemporary sound and feel).

After an opening ensemble dance by the cast of nine (this is the only one of the ballets on the program dominated by more experienced company dancers), the piece proceeds through eight solo or duet variations before concluding again with the full company. The opening Serenata, performed by Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, is classical and ponderous, and I started sinking into my seat. But it’s a set up for the vibrant variations that follow, each of which, to one extent or another, is sensationally choreographed and executed. I most admired Sterling Hyltin’s Scherzino, which was a welcome jolt after the banality of the initial variation, Indiana Woodward’s effervescent and crystalline Allegretto which followed, and Anthony Huxley’s Tarantella, but they were all wonderful.

Equally wonderful are the elaborately designed and colored costumes by Tsumori Chisato. Unlike the costumes for the gala’s other pieces, these not only add even more vibrancy to the dance, they stand on their own as works of design art. They’re all basically similar 21st century updates of costumes out of Commedia dell’arte, but each costume is unique, youthful despite its historical antecedents, and outrageously alive.

And in a way, that description also encapsulates the evening. As with other recent galas, this Fall Gala showed where the company is going more than where it’s been. And with the improving quality and fresh air that these pieces and the company’s young dancers represent, the dough may indeed roll in.