New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 27, 2022
Partita (world premiere), Summerspace, DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse
New York City Ballet opened its Winter 2022 season on January 27, nine days later than originally scheduled, because of continuing Covid issues. As a consequence, and for whatever reason (pandemic-related lack of rehearsal time, the readiness of certain newly-promoted dancers to assume evening-length roles, or simply enlightened rescheduling), some of the programs originally scheduled were modified. That’s a good thing, even though it meant not opening the season with a Balanchine classic.
But there’s more going on with NYCB now than just a delayed season opening and a few scheduling changes. Due in large part to a series of major retirements (and with more to come), NYCB has many voids to fill, and is racing to fill them. As I wrote in my final review of its Fall 2021 season, for NYCB, these are challenging times.
I’ll elaborate on this a bit at the conclusion of this review. First, the January 27 performance itself.
NYCB has a new hit.
Partita, the latest dance from Resident Choreographer and Assistant Artistic Advisor Justin Peck, was given its world premiere at Thursday’s delayed season-opening performance. It’s a winner.
In my review of its February, 2017 premiere, I described Peck’s The Times are Racing as a visual anthem for the millennial generation; in a similar vein, Partita is a hymn for future generations.
Even before the first step was taken, it was apparent that Partita has a distinguished pedigree beyond being a product of Peck’s prolific and established choreographic talent: it is choreographed to Partita for 8 Voices, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning composition by Caroline Shaw; and it has a set by Eva LeWitt (daughter of artist Sol LeWitt, whose work, “Wall Drawing 305,” reportedly was Shaw’s inspiration), lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker, and costumes by the estimable team of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. And at this performance it was sung a cappella, as intended, by the 8-person ensemble Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy Award winning group on whom Shaw’s piece was initially crafted.
In every category save one, Partita excels. The exception is the non-descript costumes – but even here, the costumes serve their purpose by not getting in the way of what the dance has to offer.
It’s hard to know what to explore first, but I’ll start with LeWitt’s set, which is the first thing the audience sees when the curtain rises (and which prompted immediate gasps of pleasure from the audience).
The set is deceptively simple-looking but undeniably impressive and unexpectedly beautiful – with a hint of some greater significance that grows as the dance progresses. Cascading from the rafters to varying depths and horizontal positioning is a series of vertical plunges shaped like parabolic curves, each with its vertex at the base and the mirrored sides forming a tight “U” shape. Each parabolic curve is comprised of a set of multi-colored ribbons of fabric-like material. Though distinct, the multi-colored parabolas are complementary; that is, no one stands out from the others based on the colors of its component fabric ribbons. [It’s difficult to envision the full impact of the set based just on the attached photographs.] To my eye, even before I heard Shaw’s composition, the collective image brought to mind the interior of a house of worship, including a contemporary take on stained glass windows.
And then there is Shaw’s composition, and Roomful of Teeth’s flawless rendition of it. Partita for 8 Voices is divided into four parts, each given the name of a Baroque dance form: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, and Passacaglia. [While there are breaks delineating the four parts in the course of Peck’s dance, at this initial viewing I didn’t see anything resembling the specific dances (and the titles of the parts are not referenced in the program).] Shaw’s composition often sounds strange: it includes loops of atonal sounds as well as sound sequences that end prematurely, like brief heavenly accompaniments to slapstick comedy or a joke’s punchline. And the words that Roomful of Teeth sings are almost indecipherable, with individualized voices speaking different languages (or the same language in different ways), at times sounding like some intergalactic Tower of Babel. But notwithstanding the strangeness of parts of the composition, they’re gently absorbed into the whole, and the piece’s overall impact is that of a Gregorian chant, expanded and updated for a contemporary (and post-contemporary) world. It’s an astonishingly original and brilliant – and epic– piece of music.
Peck has created movement that complements and amplifies this amazing composition, visualizing the music the way that Balanchine would, and enabling the audience to “see the music” more clearly. Some may criticize Partita because it’s another Peck “sneaker ballet,” but wearing anything other than white sneakers, or wearing no shoes at all, would have taken the music backward. At times I saw nods to Robbins’s Interplay and Moves; and at times to the iconic musical A Chorus Line, but such reference points are fleeting at most. I can’t think of any Peck dance that Partita resembles – aside from the common Peck denominators of its choreographic quality and movement variety, its ability to reflect (but not limit itself to) its score, and its dramatically and ever-changing corps positioning that is a hallmark of Peck’s dances. The eight dancers move as groups or subgroups of the whole, as individualized dancers each moving his or her own way (visualizing the score’s occasionally conflicting sounds), and at times in spectacular solos, mostly for Tiler Peck, whose choreographed segments and impeccable execution pull it all together to render Partita profound rather than confusing. In addition to T. Peck, the superb cast included India Bradley, Ashley Hod, Claire Kretzschmar, Chun Wai Chan, Harrison Coll, Roman Mejia, and Taylor Stanley.
If and when I have the opportunity to see additional performances of Partita, perhaps I’ll be able to describe the choreography with greater specificity. That having been said, however, attempting to dissect Peck’s choreography would be akin to attempting to dissect Shaw’s score – a losing and purposeless battle: the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, Partita for 8 Voices is a song of joy, and Partita is a dance of joy – and of optimism in a time of uncertainty. During the curtain calls that featured the cast, Roomful of Teeth, and the creative team, the reception by the opening night audience was far more than the polite acknowledgment usually accorded a world premiere: it was a highly enthusiastic, cheering, NYCB sitting ovation.
And although I may be seeing things in Partita that aren’t there, the score and the dance, as well as the set, deliver a message beyond the obvious. LeWinn’s set pulls its distinct but complementary colors into a singular whole and provides a spiritual physical context. Shaw’s composition, though hymn-like in its entirety, arrives at that point after absorbing a variety of musical reference points that ultimately come together in perfect harmony. Peck’s Partita, reflecting the score, molds disparate types of movement that seemingly cannot coexist into a coherent whole. The production’s sense of ultimate, enduring, and conflict-less universality is a utopian vision, one that endures in the mind long after the relatively brief dance ends.
The remaining two pieces on Thursday night’s program have been reviewed here previously and require no new elaboration.
Summerspace is one of Merce Cunningham’s more accessible dances. That is, it has a context beyond bodies moving in space, it attempts to convey a concrete (albeit simple) idea, and, thanks to Robert Rauschenberg’s set and costumes, it looks pretty. The dance’s score, by Morton Feldman, together with the set and costumes, place this dance in a colorful, ideal park-like environment, with the cast being its camouflaged inhabitants (the costumes blend into the backdrop). Although there may be a couple of forest animals thrown in, these park players primarily are birds that pose and preen and chirp and hop and court other birds, and then pose, chirp and hop some more. That’s it.
The dance’s simplicity belies its choreographic difficulty: e.g., poses held for a seeming eternity; distinctive hops during which the male “birds” hop on one leg, bringing that leg back up to their torsos between each hop.
Ashley Laracey delivered a superb role debut, repeatedly posing in awkward-looking positions as if frozen in space; Adrian Danchig-Waring and Sebastian Villarini-Velez were the hopping birds, each impossibly lifting their working leg up and down without falling on their beaks; and Danchig-Waring’s head cocks looked both funny and realistic. Sara Adams (a convincing sparrow), Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara (also in a role debut), and Emilie Gerrity completed the avian cast.
I’ve described Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse as a contemporary ballet masterpiece on several occasions, and Thursday’s performance only reinforced that impression. Abetted by Jennifer Tipton’s masterful lighting, sets and costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant, and particularly by Michael Nyman’s score, DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse is ultra-modern looking, highly inventive, and ceaselessly exciting to watch.
At this performance, the four lead couples were Isabella LaFreniere and Jovani Furlan, Megan Fairchild and Villarini-Velez, Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, and Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan. Except for Fairchild and Angle, all were role debuts. And all, role debuts or not, were spectacular.
LaFreniere is an imposing ballerina and an exceptional stage presence who manages to be commanding without being dominating, and her debut here was particularly impressive. If this train had a figurehead, like a ship, it would be her. Fairchild here continued her remarkable evolution, executing clean and fast and with flawless precision. Nadon danced with her usual brilliance (there is nothing that she dances that doesn’t look good), and Chan appeared to be an equally brilliant partner for her.
But Mearns and Angle, who danced the ballet’s central pas de deux, were a step above everyone else. Angle has had considerable experience in his role, exquisitely partnering whomever he was assigned. But Mearns’s performance was a fabulous surprise: instead of her frequent mannerisms and at times annoying emotional distance, here Mearns simply danced with thrilling perfection. Her performance was magnificent, even more impressive considering that it was her role debut. Sixteen members of the corps completed the cast.
The presence of LaFreniere and Nadon here in featured roles, while not surprising, highlights the changes taking place at NYCB that I mentioned at the outset of this review.
Toward the end of its Fall 2021 season, promotions were announced for three of its dancers: Unity Phelan and Indiana Woodward from Soloist to Principal, and Mejia from member of the Corps to Soloist. These promotions were not unexpected.
What was unexpected was another set of promotions, each from being a member of the Corp to Soloist, announced just before the Winter 2022 season opening: Preston Chamblee, Hod, Emily Kikta, LaFreniere, Miriam Miller, Nadon, and Emma Von Enck.
None of the promoted dancers are “new.” For those privileged to have attended NYCB performances over the years, they’re well-earned and, aside from the announcement’s timing, come as no surprise (well, except for Von Enck, which was also well-deserved, but a big surprise). [In my review of NYCB’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” just a month ago, I observed that “Emma Von Enck has emerged post-pandemic as a member of the corps who is clearly on the way up.” It’s nice to be right.]
But what the promotions amount to, driven in large part by necessity, is a sea change to the company’s public face – for now, and for years to come.
The necessity comes from the retirement of four Principal Dancers during its Fall 2021 season (Abi Stafford, Lauren Lovette, Ask la Cour, and Maria Kowroski), and one Soloist (Lauren King). This is to be followed by the retirements of Principals Gonzalo Garcia and Teresa Reichlen (just announced) during the current season, and of Amar Ramasar during the Spring 2022 season. It’s likely that there will be more retirements, as yet unannounced, either this year or next.
What this means, besides the obvious new casting opportunities, is that NYCB’s audience will have to adjust to seeing dancers with little apparent track record (at least to those who don’t regularly attend NYCB performances): new faces in roles formerly the province of the company’s established stars. [Long ago I addressed the common belief that NYCB is a company without “stars.” It’s not true.]
But there’s another side to this development. While Peter Martins was the company’s Ballet Master in Chief, highly promising dancers – including some relatively new to the corps – were routinely assigned featured (including some major) roles. This process not only nurtured promising dancers; it enabled the company to evolve and grow seamlessly and relatively painlessly. During this period, NYCB was the most exciting ballet company in New York. When the current artistic regime assumed control, the company reverted to more stodgy, safe casting, featuring long-established dancers in major roles that they’ve danced many times before and who audiences have seen many times before.
It remains to be seen how quickly audiences, and critics, adjust to NYCB’s new reality, but inevitably they will. More importantly, based on these status changes and some casting decisions already evident in future programs this season, NYCB is becoming exciting again!