Koch Theatre, New York, NY: September 19, 2013

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet's Lauren Lovette and Craig Hall in 'Neverwhere' Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Lauren Lovette and Craig Hall in ‘Neverwhere’
Photo © Paul Kolnik

A year ago, New York City Ballet fashioned its annual Fall Gala around a star of Fashion – Valentino. The costumes that Valentino created were less significant, for the evening, than the fact that the gala honored Valentino and linked ballet with haute couture. But as Valentino dominated the evening, the Valentino costumes overwhelmed the ballets for which they were created.

In its continuing, and understandable, search for sources of funding, NYCB’s September 19 performance, its annual Fall Gala, reprised its effort to mate fashion to ballet, and possibly convert fashionistas into balletomaniacs. After all, there’s money and publicity in haute couture. The good news is that with respect to the costumes, this year’s Fall Gala was far more successful than last year’s effort, in large part because the designers, who may be well-known in the fashion industry but are not household names, clearly knew that the purpose of costumes is to enhance (or at least not detract from) the dances for which they are created. The designers were Prabat Gurung, Iris Van Herpen, and Olivier Theyskens, and, without exception, the costumes they produced were either lovely or interesting or both.

The fashion designers shared the spotlight at this year’s Gala with world premieres of three new ballets, and in this respect the Gala was somewhat less than a complete success. The three ballets, in order of presentation, were “Capricious Maneuvers” choreographed by Justin Peck (costumes by Mr. Gurung); “Neverwhere” by Benjamin Millepied (costumes by Ms. Van Herpen), and “Spectral Evidence” by Angelin Preljocaj (costumes by Mr. Theysken). In summary, Mr. Peck’s piece is a delightful hit – but it’s comfortable, and relatively
inconsequential. Mr. Millepied’s new ballet is a lot like many of Mr. Millepied’s prior ballets – predictable, at times interesting to watch but at other times missing the mark, and except for the costumes by Ms. Van Herpen and a thrilling, if antiseptic, pas de deux, nothing new. Mr. Preljocaj’s ballet is, however, a major work. The piece wears its artistry on its sleeve. It is a dark, dramatic and theatrical piece, not without significant and serious flaws, but when you have essentially a completely conceptual piece, self-indulgent excess tends to go with the territory. Notwithstanding its flaws, “Spectral Evidence” is unusual, visually interesting, and haunting, with images that sear into the memory.

Although there is nothing in the program notes to indicate it, anecdotally (Mr. Preljocaj’s motivation was referenced in an interview with the designer that was screened prior to the ballet) “Spectral Evidence” is a distillation of the notorious late 17th Century Salem Witch Trials.
[‘Spectral Evidence’ was ‘evidence’ used in Salem to convict the accused of witchcraft. Essentially, the afflicted accusers testified that they ‘saw’ the image of the person afflicting them. That’s ‘spectral evidence’. In order for the accused to have been guilty of witchcraft, the accused must have knowingly and intentionally been the instrument of the devil. In Salem, the theological/legal determination was that in order for the devil to have made use of these images, the person whose image was used had to have consented to its use, thereby proving that that person was a witch. Consequently, the ‘spectral evidence’, if believed, was sufficient to prove witchcraft.]

Similar to the artistic license exploited by Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” and the 1996 film version, there’s more going on in Mr. Preljocaj’s ballet than just an examination of spectral evidence.  Nor is it, directly, a balletic representation of mass hysteria and political/religious exigency and cowardice. Mr. Preljocaj here connects the clergy’s acceptance of the truth of the accusers’ words (and the legal sufficiency of the accusations) to sexual temptation, desire, and tormented passion. The sexuality in “Spectral Evidence” isn’t explicit, and the girls’ movement isn’t suggestive per se, but temptation as an ingredient of the girls’ accusations and the clergy’s response is: It exists in every image, and both measures and tears at the moral fabric of the clergy’s subsequent actions.

New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in "Spectral Evidence" Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in “Spectral Evidence”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

The ballet is stunningly in its visual simplicity. There are five young women (the accusers – though they are also seen as the victims of the accusers, the point perhaps being that both accusers and accused are victims), and four men (clergymen, perhaps with other relationships to the accusers). The women wear soft white dresses designed by Mr. Theyskens. White is the color of purity – but these dresses are diaphanous and barely conceal the outline of the bodies underneath, and the garments exacerbate every alluring body movement. The backs of some of these costumes also contain patches of deep orange color. Although the purpose of these patches seemed clearly to denote some physical manifestation of impurity, they were unnecessary and distracting. Some of these shapes look like partial angel wings (as if the ‘real’ angel wing had been ripped from the girl’s skin, leaving a garish blood-orange scab), some had no discernible shape, and one looked like an orange-soiled undergarment that had been glued to the dancer’s derriere. The men are dressed in straightforward white-collared black clergymen costume.

The ballet unfolds in a series of concept scenes, with somber, portentously dark lighting permeating the stage atmosphere in each interconnected scene. There is no set, other than a series of white wood blocks that are assembled and disassembled into various shapes and moved to different locations on stage as the ballet progresses. These blocks serve as tables, inclined planes, coffins, frames, and pedestals. The accusing girls drape themselves alluringly across the blocks, like sinuous, serpentine sirens, silently spewing stories. In a series of dances, they arouse the clergymen, by their movement (not contact) seducing them both sensually and theocratically. The clergymen wrestle with the urge to respond to these girls, tormented by the attraction they feel both toward the girls and to the accusations that the girls are making. The clergymen/judges decide the fate of the accused, which is also the fate of the accusers, the girls are imprisoned inside the blocks that resemble coffins, then are burned at the stake (each girl within an upraised, open coffin, with lighting within each unit mimicking the look of flames). The image of the women within the pedestals being figuratively consumed by fire is frighteningly beautiful. In denouement, the girls descend from the pedestals/caskets to the void below (punishment for their false accusations? punishment for their witchery? punishment for their seductiveness?) as the already dim lights fade to black.

As strong as the images are, however, and for all its simplicity, the piece is plagued by wretched excess. It is unwaveringly intense – obviously too intense and too long for many fidgeting audience members. The music chosen (an assortment of pieces, or excerpts therefrom, composed by John Cage) is a hodgepodge that conveys the mood, but does so in an incoherent manner, and when the sound becomes vocalized – at times sung in different languages – the sound becomes a distraction, particularly when the words are mouthed by the clergymen dancing and emoting to it. The scenes of the clergy wresting with the morality of the situation are overdone and too remindful of generic visualized torment in other ballets done more succinctly and more successfully. And perhaps the greatest sin of all is that the choreography is lackluster. As haunting as the images are, the piece is all a series of concepts and images. But it makes you think – and I’m partial to ballets that have, or attempt to have, a significant cerebral component. That being said, the sigh of relief collectively expressed by the audience when the curtain went up on the evening’s final piece, the excerpt from Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” (exuberantly led by Maria Kowroski and Zachary Catazaro), would indicate that my partiality was not shared by the bulk of the Gala’s audience.

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild led the “Spectral Evidence” cast, with Mr. Fairchild having the primary clergyman role. Ms. Peck was one of the accusers/accused, and the two of them danced the piece’s sole pas de deux. Whether the couple is supposed to represent a somewhat altered conception of John Proctor and Abigail Williams, as represented in the Miller play (portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder in the 1996 film) is unclear. The balance of the possessed and driven cast included Megan Fairchild, Georgina Pazcoguin, Gretchen Smith, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Chase Finlay, and Amar Ramasar.

Although more inventive choreographically, Mr. Millepied’s “Neverwhere” (to “Drones and Viola” by Nico Muhly), is a less significant piece than “Spectral Evidence,” which it preceded on the program. It is plotless, with no emotional undercurrents (except for the tiniest hint provided by inventive stagecraft at the beginning of the second central pas de deux), and to me it has a sterile, antiseptic visual feel common to Mr. Millepied’s other abstract ballets. Structurally, “Neverwhere” begins with corps work and varying permutations of the six dancers in the piece, then focuses on two pas de deux, then returns to closing corps work.

What makes “Nevermore” unusual is its ambiance. It is a dark ballet with a striking look that is a particular consequence of the lighting (by Mark Stanley) and the costumes created by Ms. Van Herpen (apparently, from the filmed introduction preceding the performance of the ballet, a former dancer). The costumes enhance the appearance and aura of the ballet. Composed of a combination black rubber-like material and fabric, the costumes look sleek and otherworldly and would appear to inhibit movement – particularly the rubber/fabric boots. But move in them the dancers did, accompanied by screeching sounds as the rubber hit the road.

Of greater significance to the ballet as a whole were gold-colored objects that looked like oversized sequins imbedded in the black costumes. These objects caught what little light there was, and made the piece look like a sequence of interrupted staccato moving images as the ‘sequins’ picked up and then lost the light – like old silent moving images or the sensation of strobe lighting. It was difficult to watch, the ‘strobe’ sensation didn’t vary throughout the piece, and the result made the dancers look like animated drones (perhaps reflecting the ‘drones’ in the title of Mr. Muhly’s composition), but to me the lighting and play of the light off the costumes made the piece visually interesting. Indeed, Mr. Millepied’s choreography picks up on that ‘strobe’ sensation (or perhaps was the impetus for it). For example, in his introduction to the second pas de deux, Sterling Hyltin and Tyler Angle assume a series of poses at different locations on stage, with each pose interrupted by darkness, giving the impression of movement in between the poses that the audience is unable to see. Nifty. But the balance of that adagio pas de deux, despite excellent performances, was not particularly exceptional choreographically. What was exceptional was the first, allegro, pas de deux. The quicksilver, staccato movement was executed to perfection by Lauren Lovette and Craig Hall, and was the highlight of the piece. Emilie Gerrity and Joseph Gordon completed the cast.

Justin Peck’s new ballet “Capricious Maneuvers,” which opened the dancing portion of the Gala, was exactly as titled. [The four ballets on the program were preceded by an opening orchestral overture – “Short Ride in A Fast Machine (Fanfare for Orchestra),” by John Adams.] Three women/two men dance capriciously, but highly entertainingly, to cello and piano accompaniment (the music, “Capriccio,” is by Lukas Foss). It’s a light, frothy piece of fluff that was a bright introduction to the evening. Enhanced with Mr. Gurung’s equally light, frothy, colorful costumes, the piece had the air of a fun afternoon in the park; dances at a more contemporary gathering. The piece may be insignificant in terms of any ‘overall message,’ but it is as welcome as a late summer breeze. My only criticism of it was that it ended too soon. Ashly Isaacs, Brittany Pollack, Kristen Segin, Taylor Stanley, and Andrew Veyette comprised the effervescent cast.

One note of extraneous criticism. Although decorated beautifully, with ersatz hot air balloons filling the vast gathering space and adding a fantasy air to the celebration, this was the least audience friendly of any of the formal Gala performances that I’ve recently attended. Most of the ‘Grand Promenade’ (mezzanine space that spans four levels of ‘ring’ seating), as well as much of the stairwell space on upper floors, was closed off, leaving little room for audience members to maneuver, and what maneuvering they were allowed to do was confining, annoying, and potentially hazardous as the exiting audience was herded through narrow walking spaces. And the evening was without any intermission – just pauses separating the overture and the four ballets. Certainly there should have been at least one. The reason for no intermission? Probably because there was no space in the building for any of the hoi polloi to mass. And since no one could leave his or her seat without risk of being barred from reentering, the restroom lines following the performance were record-breakers. Surely there’s a better way to cater to the heavy lifters and make the rest of the audience not feel like uninvited guests at someone else’s party.

That having been said, NYCB deserves to be congratulated for devoting its Gala to new choreographic directions, particularly when the ballets make you think, are unusual looking, or have significant entertainment value.