David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; April 29 & 30, 2014

Jerry Hochman

April 29: Les Bosquets, This Bitter Earth, Barber Violin Concerto, Herman Schmerman pas de deux, Namouna: A Grand Divertissement

April 30: Les Bosquets, Year of the Rabbit, La Stravaganza, DGV: Danse à grande vitesse

New York City Ballet in 'Les Bosquets'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in ‘Les Bosquets’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

To continue to grow artistically and attract new audiences, dance companies created largely as vehicles for their founding choreographers must expand their legacy repertoire. So when New York City Ballet opens its Spring Season with a week of ballets created by 21st century choreographers, you know that Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins is trying very hard to convince its audiences – existing and potential – not only that the company isn’t just Balanchine and Robbins anymore, but that it’s relevant.

Part of this effort has been an attempt to integrate representative contemporary artists into the theatrical atmosphere, either by directly involving them in productions (architects as set designers; haute couture designers creating costumes; pop musicians creating ballets), or by surrounding the theater space with art that is popular to Gen Xers and Millennials rather than Baby Boomers and their parents. Last season, for its second annual contemporary art series, NYCB showcased a montage of images of NYCB dancers photographed and assembled by French contemporary artist/photographer JR. The images covered most of the floor of the theater’s Grand Mezzanine, and were arranged so that the dancers’ images formed an eye – perhaps representing a new way to ‘see’ them. It was fabulous.

JR has now created a ballet. Since he has no previous choreographic experience, I anticipated that his creation would prove to be another example of pandering to an artist’s whim, perhaps with the goal of recruiting new patrons rather than crafting a dance of any artistic merit.

I was wrong. “Les Bosquets” may not be a great ballet, but it doesn’t try to be. And for what it is, it’s really not bad. Indeed, having watched it twice (it’s described as a ‘piece d’occasion’ – the ‘occasion’ being the first ballet of each evening program during the first week of NYCB’s Spring season), I see it accomplishing what dances several times its length, and possibly expense, fail to do – it says what its creator wants to say expeditiously and effectively, and then stops. It happens so fast that if you blink, you might miss it – but it doesn’t let you blink.

JR’s first installation of mounted images was in 2004, in Cité des Bosquets, a neighborhood of low income residential projects in the Paris suburb Clichy-Montfermeil. He settled in the area, photographed its residents, and attached the images to local buildings. Collectively called “Portrait of a Generation”, they formed an unintended backdrop to media coverage of rioting that took place in that area a year later.

Set to an original and vibrant score by Woodkid, “Les Bosquets” is JR’s eight-minute interpretation of the riots, focusing on the rioting itself; and the interaction between a local artist, ‘guest artist’ Lil Buck, and a journalist, NYCB soloist Lauren Lovette. The ballet’s concept and staging is attributed to JR, and ‘additional choreography’ is credited to Lil Buck (presumably for his own movement quality) and to Mr. Martins (presumably for Ms. Lovette).

In a nutshell, the piece opens, to the score’s percussive ‘call to battle’, with an army of rioters and police (who are intentionally indistinguishable from each other) running horizontally back and forth across the stage. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lovette appears stage left, dressed in white (with what appears to be a white paper tutu) and with invisible camera in hand. As she records the events, she bourées around the rioters, at times breaching the rioter/police ‘lines’. Concurrently, Lil Buck (real name Charles Riley) emerges stage right, examining, and troubled by, the devastation around him. The rioters gradually compress center stage. Intrepid reporter that she is, Ms. Lovette penetrates the mass, presumably to gain a more close-up view of the action, but she becomes trapped as the mass of bodies collapses around and onto her.

New York City Ballet in 'Les Bosquets'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in ‘Les Bosquets’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

When the rioters disperse (and the score calms), Ms. Lovette is on the ground apparently seriously hurt, both physically and emotionally. She struggles to gain her composure (moving somewhat like a Dying Swan in reverse), and suddenly sees Lil Buck standing by her. The sight of him scares her, and she dances away from him. But eventually she sees that he will not do her further harm, and she grows less scared of him (another ‘Swan’ reference, this time to the opening of Act II when Odette first confronts Prince Siegfried). They approach each other, before each looks up to the other from the floor, as if scrutinizing a different specimen of ‘human’ for the first time. They stand, and as they examine each other with their eyes (they never touch), communicating by the respective movement languages they speak and by reacting to what their eyes see in each other’s faces, a moving montage of their magnified arm/hand movements, facial and body images is projected, seemingly in ‘real time’, on the back of the stage wall. Then a single line of rioters/police abruptly struts across the stage horizontally, splitting the two apart and back into their separate worlds.

Lil Buck is known for his “Dying Swan” interpretation, which became an internet sensation and which, perhaps, prompted the ‘swan’ references in JR’s piece. Later, his ‘street dancer/dying swan’ act was modified to a duet with Nina Ananiashvili (called “Swan”), which they danced at a Youth America Grand Prix gala last year. I admired his movement technique, but it was a curiosity that didn’t move me. But here, Lil Buck toned down his ‘street dancer’ contortions so they looked less mannered, and more believable as communication rather than expression. Ms. Lovette danced impeccably, but there wasn’t much for her to do choreographically. Her ‘real’ function in the piece, at least at its beginning, was to look like an outsider, which, with that costume and the ballet steps took no great effort. Where the two particularly shined, however, was in their brief acting. Ms. Lovette has an innocence about her that is perfect for this role. She looked like a sacrificial swan. As I’ve previously observed, she’s a fine dancer/actor, conveying emotion full to the fingertips in everything she dances where emotion is called for, as it is here. Her terror and fear were palpable. Lil Buck was able to convey concern honestly, with a surprising (to me) depth of feeling. For the minute or two they interacted, and as they came to recognize the humanity in each other, it was quite moving.

My initial reaction to the ballet was, ‘Why did they bother?’ and that Ms. Lovette’s talents were wasted. But the more I thought about it, and after seeing it a second time, this little dance and the performances in it got to me. I admired JR’s exciting depiction, in abstract terms, of uncontrollable rioting/policing and then quickly reducing it to a personal event. I was moved by the minute or two of acting by Ms. Lovette and Lil Buck that said everything with a minimum of extraneous movement. And I got angry – because as soon as I saw Ms. Lovette emerging dazed and brutalized after having been swallowed up by the mob, it brought to mind the real-life perils of female journalists/news correspondents, and I thought particularly of a highly publicized similar ‘real’ event that happened during rioting in Cairo. I don’t know if this was in JR’s mind as he conceived the piece (or perhaps there was a similar incident, less notorious, in the 2005 Les Bosquets riots), but the message, whatever its genesis, was vividly communicated and touched a nerve. The fact that I remember the ballet and the feelings it engendered in me the next day, and probably will if anyone asks me about it a year or two from now – is one indicia of a successful production.

Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette in JR's 'Les Bosquets'. Photo  NYCB.Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette of NYCB in JR's Les Bosquets.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette in JR’s ‘Les Bosquets’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Credit should also be given for the costumes by Marc Happel, and the cinematography by Graham Willoughby, both of which enhanced the piece, and both of which were, obviously, part of JR’s vision. Each corps dancer wore a harlequin-like unitard of small black and white diamond shapes, with the size of the ‘diamonds’ and the dominant color varying from one dancer to another. The result gave the appearance of a black and white ‘wave’ of movement, even when the dancers were standing still. More significantly, (and I didn’t notice it during the performance from where I was seated in the theater, but see now, in the photograph above), the costumes in this final image form a stunning collective image of their own. As the corps dancers span the width of the stage after having separated the artist and the journalist, the costumes, collectively, form an image of ‘eyes’ (like the ‘eye’ produced by the image placement in JR’s floor installation). This image corresponds to the image  of Lil Buck’s eyes, which is one of the images briefly flashed on screen when the artist and journalist ‘see’ each other. So not only are the journalist and the artist looking at each other and, through their eyes, seeing each other as individuals, but when the piece ends, we’re looking at them, and they’re looking at us – hopefully as individuals ‘seeing’ each other as they really are. Neat.

In September, 2011, writing about a NYCB performance at which the Jerome Robbins Award was given to those company dancers who had worked directly with Robbins, I observed that the evening provided the opportunity to see a timeline of ballerinas, and of performing excellence, from NYCB’s past and present, and into its future. Two of the ballerinas who performed that night were Ms. Lovette, who had been with the company the shortest period of time and who was a representative of the future, and Wendy Whelan, the ballerina who had been with the company the longest. So when Ms. Whelan followed Ms. Lovette on April 29, it was déjà vu all over again.

With Tyler Angle, Ms. Whelan danced “This Bitter Earth”, a pas de deux excerpted from “Five Movements, Three Repeats” by Christopher Wheeldon, that they premiered during the Fall 2012 ‘Valentino Gala’. I enjoyed the piece a great deal then (much more than the complete ballet, which I saw later), and still do. It’s a hauntingly evocative dance, and Ms. Whelan, who has announced her retirement next fall, is still able to deliver a performance of understated emotional intensity.

Choreographed for NYCB in 1992 by William Forsythe and seen relatively infrequently since, the pas de deux from “Herman Schmerman”, is a strange ‘battle of the sexes’ piece. It’s all lines and angles and staccato arm movements, but it’s not overly didactic, either thematically or stylistically, and it has a sense of humor that is at once subtle and broadly painted. Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar, in role debuts, made the artificial-looking movement look both believable as movement quality and interesting to watch.

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” still doesn’t hold together as a complete ballet – it’s more like some third act of a story ballet where the story isn’t particularly clear. But when considered as a series of semi-related divertissements with little connection to each other or to some unseen larger ballet, it’s fun to watch (though self-indulgently long), and a brilliant display of the choreographer’s wickedly dry sense of humor.

Cynics might say that Mr. Martins put the program together so that his “Barber Violin Concerto” would be the best of the night – but  it was, and the more I see it, the more I enjoy it. This ‘battle’ between classical ballet and modern dance isn’t as contrived-looking as it sounds. On the contrary, as it progresses from its exposition of the two dance styles, to feigned competition between them, and then to an amusingly vibrant display of frustration as the couples change partners, the dance meshes seamlessly. Mr. Martins has played with choreographing different styles of dance before, and purists might complain that he doesn’t get the style he’s mining right, but this isn’t a display of orthodox ‘modern dance’ style (whatever that is) – it’s highly enjoyable dance entertainment.

As one half of the ‘modern dance’ couple (with Jared Angle), Megan Fairchild was as extraordinarily accomplished and vivacious as she was previously in this role – it’s one of her finest, and even if nothing else on the program was worth seeing (which is not the case), seeing her performance alone would have been worth the price of admission. Sara Mearns, who with Ask la Cour formed the ballet pair, was technically flawless as usual, but she made her role look more tragic than necessary.

Besides “Les Bosquets,” the April 30 program was marked by repeat performances of “Year of the Rabbit”, “La Stravaganza”, “DGV: Danse à grande vitesse”. Mr. Wheeldon’s ‘DGV’ continues to impress as a contemporary ballet of remarkable dynamism, befitting a dance inspired by music that was inspired by France’s superfast railroad train, and Angelin Preljocaj’s “La Stravaganza” continues to disappoint as a curious, but purposeless, concept dance. Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” remains as refreshing to watch as it was when it debuted. Indeed, my only criticism of this delightful abstract ballet is that it ends too soon. This performance was notable for two role debuts: Ms. Lovette assumed the role previously danced by Janie Taylor, who is now retired, and Tiler Peck danced the role previously performed by Ashley Bouder. Both executed to their usual high standards, but Ms. Lovette, with the more choreographically complex assignment, continues to display remarkable accomplishment and versatility.