New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 29, 2023: Copland Dance Episodes (world premiere)
February 1, 2023: Voices, Fortuitous Ash (world premiere), Everywhere We Go
New York City Ballet presented two world premieres during the second and third weeks of its Winter 2023 season: the massively hyped Copland Dance Episodes, described as Justin Peck’s first “evening-length” ballet and the first plotless evening-length ballet for NYCB since George Balanchine’s Jewels; and Fortuitous Ash, the first ballet choreographed for NYCB by Keerati Jinakunwiphat, a member of Kyle Abraham’s Company A.I.M. I’ll consider them in the order I saw them, and then briefly comment on other ballets that accompanied the latter premiere.
That Copland Dance Episodes was pushed so heavily in both social and print/online media is unfortunate – it made the company appear to be running scared that no one would see it. Peck’s new ballet didn’t need the help. Copland Dance Episodes may be NYCB’s biggest hit since Abraham’s The Runaway, although for completely different reasons.
Though it’s not without some flaws, albeit minor in context, and some subject matter criticisms that are valid but not pertinent to what Peck is doing with the Aaron Copland music that forms the backbone of the piece, Copland Dance Episodes may be Peck’s finest piece to date. It’s a ballet that might be described as epic not only because it is choreographed to epic music, but also because in a barely camouflaged way it deals with an epic subject. And it’s the kind of piece that sends NYCB audiences into a joyous frenzy – evidenced by the reception given its second cast’s performance of it last Sunday, and by reports I’ve heard of the reception audiences gave its first cast at its world premiere several days earlier.
It’s a stretch to think of Copland Dance Episodes as an evening-length ballet. It lasts roughly 75 minutes (without an intermission); another short ballet could have been inserted as an opener. But the piece is so broad in scope, so richly staged and executed, and so consistently entertaining that even if it shouldn’t be categorized as an evening-length ballet, it feels like one.
It’s also somewhat misleading to consider Copland Dance Episodes to be plotless.
This isn’t Peck’s first rodeo. In Rodeo Dance Episodes (not the piece’s original title), Peck took much of the Copland score previously choreographed by Agnes de Mille for her greatly-missed Rodeo, revised it choreographically in a way that presented a different visualization of the music, and in the process separated the music from the original ballet’s story. The resulting dance builds musically and choreographically from one segment to the next, but has little that might be considered thematic (except, perhaps, the power of male dancing) and no discernible story. In Copland Dance Episodes, Peck does the same thing – taking Copland music previously choreographed for three earlier ballets (plus an additional Copland musical component), revising it choreographically in a way that presents a different visualization of the music, but also providing the viewer with an unmistakably evolving theme and the framework for a story that’s far more atmospherically tangible than, say, choreographed visualizations derived from imagined qualities of different jewels.
There’s a common thread that runs through Copland Dance Episodes, a logical sequencing and progression from beginning to end and from scene to scene, and a story to tell even if the story is not a narrative, and even though, through the prism of current sensitivity, the story that it tells is one-sided. This common thread, its underlying theme, is what many call the “Frontier Spirit” as well as, within that context, the triumph of the Common Man (or at least the Copland music-inspired American version of the Common Man). Collaterally, as a sort of sub-theme, it’s about faith in the future, or faith in the actors’ own survival abilities, or just faith itself. Within this context it tells a story of ordinary men and women who choose to leave something known to explore something unknown, what was that era’s new frontier – which clearly, via the Copland music that Peck selected, is the American West. [Save your emails – I’ll get to what you’re thinking.] It’s akin to emigration / immigration stories, broadly told or conveyed on an individual basis, which in dance are legion – but it’s not the same.
The piece begins with the specially designed act curtain down and the NYCB Orchestra’s majestic annunciation of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” as if proclaiming to the audience that attention must be paid to what they’re about to see and what the ballet will say. As that introduction nears its end, the curtain rises to reveal what appears to be the entire thirty dancer cast in shadow and immobile – effectively, a diorama that relates an episode from the past that must not be forgotten. An excerpt from the same composition closes the ballet (with, as I recall, a slightly different diorama).
In between, choreographed to Copland’s iconic ballet scores (Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and Billy the Kid), are 22 segments, most of which flow seamlessly from one to the other. As he has done previously, Peck identifies each segment with cute titles that generally describe that segment’s choreography (and, as if by third descriptive cousin twice removed, that segment’s thematic relevance), beginning with “The Only Way Out is Through,” concluding with “One Door Opens, Another Closes,” and segments in between that mark the trajectory from Point A to Point B (e.g., “Start Your Engines,” “Tumbleweed,” “Two Birds,” “Phone Home,” “Simple Gifts,” “The Amazing Race,” and “The Split” – although I admit being befuddled by “Etch-a-sketch”).
The segments may include images of dancers running madly from one direction to the next and back and then back again; the relative emptiness and loneliness of the frontier, and experiences and common efforts by different groups, couples, or individuals. Choreographically a lot of it is developed in typical Peck fashion, but much of it also seems different – particularly the duets, which run an emotional gamut far different from what I recall in his earlier pieces, and the separation of the most significant pairings (“Two Birds” and “The Split”; and “Alone Together”- Parts 1, 2, and 3) into components seen at different points during the course of the ballet is a master-stroke that’s far more effective than if each set of duets had been danced as choreographed without interruption.
All this together creates an emotional atmosphere that reminds the viewer of accomplishments largely lost to memory; an atmosphere that stirs the spirit, soothes the soul, and buoys the heart.
At the outset I stated that I’d address some criticisms and concerns that Copland Dance Episodes might raise. I’ll deal with them at some length because they’re not insignificant.
First, the choreography can be labelled “typically Peck” and “not sufficiently complex.” Both are true. But both are without merit here.
There’s no question that much of the movement qualities in Copland Dance Episodes are evident in other Peck ballets. One only need see Peck’s Everywhere We Go, which was on the same program as the other company premiere this season, to see similarities. But similarities between dances created by the same choreographer are not unusual, and there are enough very fine Peck ballets that don’t follow the same mold: a few of many examples include Paz de la Jolla, Belles-Lettres, and Pulcinella Variations. And perhaps the most wonderfully incredible thing about Copland Dance Episodes is that it doesn’t in the least resemble Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing. Most choreographers of significance have a style that is evident from one dance to another, albeit not in every piece. Balanchine’s choreography occasionally has certain regularly-appearing hallmarks, as does choreography by other major choreographers, including Petipa, Ashton, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, with one or another critic complaining as to each choreographer that one ballet is not especially different from another. Occasionally I’ve expressed that as well. While this may be an accurate observation, it’s not a significant one. As one major critic observed, Peck is unquestionably one of the three most important choreographers of the 21st Century to date.
As for an absence of sufficient complexity, the steps and combinations that comprise Copland Dance Episodes don’t add to the canon or take ballet to a new level, don’t impress with their difficulty, and don’t require that the dancers to seemingly risk life and limb, exhaust themselves, or turn themselves into living pretzels. But that sort of observable complexity of movement, in this ballet, would not have been appropriate, and would have detracted from the ballet as a whole. Complexity becomes important within a context, particularly if there’s no other there there. As for an absence of intellectual complexity, that may be true here as well on a surface level (although the skill involved in putting the components of this ballet together is indisputable), but it too is not particularly significant. Indeed, at times being overly cerebral results in a dance that comes across as impenetrably dense or that most fatal of qualities, boring. There’s a place, if not a need, for a ballet that’s accessible, entertaining, and inspiring because of how it makes one feel. Copland Dance Episodes is one of them.
I also mentioned subject matter criticisms, of which there are an abundance.
Of course there’s another side to the story of the settling of the American West: that of the Native Americans whose land was usurped (among other tragedies). As I described above, Copland Dance Episodes is undeniably “about” the Pioneer Spirit and the settling of the American West, and the labors and triumphs of the Common Man – the American one. In somewhat of a backhanded way, one need only recognize the contribution of set designer Jeffrey Gibson to see the truth of that.
Gibson is of Native American descent. His contribution here is the colorful and indigenous design-laden quilt that he created to be the ballet’s act curtain (the one behind the house curtain – like the familiar Chagall act curtain for Balanchine’s Firebird). The only reason for specifically having an art work by a Native American created for this piece would be to acknowledge that Copland Dance Episodes is told only from one point of view; that is, somewhere along the creative line it was determined that the Native American presence in this “American West” needed to be represented in some way.
However, if it was determined that recognition of the Native American presence was needed, what is presented here is insufficient and ineffective. Although Gibson’s curtain is beautiful and vibrantly multi-colored, not all the patterns within it appear particularly Native American (a bullseye target as the central image?), and, more importantly, it’s hoisted out of sight for the entirety of the ballet. If the goal was to recognize Native Americans in the context of this piece I think there should have been some sort of backdrop, maybe faded with component symbols briefly illuminated (something akin to the rear curtain or backdrop in Everywhere We Go) that might serve as silent recognition of past injury and a continuing presence, and that would quietly place the ballet within a larger context to make it appear at least a little more balanced.
But it also must be acknowledged that Copland Dance Episodes isn’t a diatribe; a chronicle of the American Indian Wars (aka American Frontier Wars), or a story of man’s inhumanity to man. That would have been a different ballet. This one, taking its cue from the Copland score, evokes the vast Western landscape and the pioneer spirit and those common people who, for that day and age, might have been considered America’s greatest generation. I suppose Copland music that could be used to visualize the negative aspects of that pioneer spirit might have been found, but adding such a reference so directly would have been deadly with respect to the significance of that part of American history’s tale that this ballet tells.
Nor is this ballet in any way jingoistic. It’s not a visualization of Manifest Destiny; it’s not about some sense of entitlement, and it’s not Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. Its story is less about America in general than it is about a certain group of people in it. And any sense within it of rugged individualism is trumped by the ballet’s overall sense of unity and commonality of purpose. So, although some additional recognition might have been appropriate along the lines I suggest above, anything more than that would convert Copland Dance Episodes into something it’s not.
I’ve not yet discussed the cast I saw, and they, individually and collectively, shouldn’t be given short-shrift. I can’t conceive of a different cast executing Copland Dance Episodes better.
Given the scope of the ballet, I can only focus on a few members of the cast.
The dance features two central couples. Miriam Miller and Russell Janzen (in “Two Birds” and “The Split”), and Alexa Maxwell and Jovani Furlan (in the three parts of “Alone Together”). “Two Birds” is a romantic duet that’s a set-up for the later one: it’s so sweet that its eventual decay is inevitable. This part of the duet is not so much physically romantic (although to a limited extent it is) as it is emotionally romantic – maybe a few steps beyond mutual infatuation – in the context of a recently committed couple about to embark on a journey. “The Split” is what the segment’s title implies: after the pioneering began and the couple experienced the hardships (and perhaps the danger – though that’s not alluded to in any way in the piece) that came with it, the two, to both their regrets, go their separate ways. Miller and Janzen do superb work with both segments, with the former displaying acting abilities previously kept under wraps. The duets for Maxwell and Furlan, with its component parts separated and presented in logical context, essentially is a summary of a relationship that begins, struggles, but endures. Each part has a different tone from the other parts, and each is executed flawlessly. [Maxwell has suddenly (suddenly is relative) been cast in many featured roles this season (as well as last season). It would not be at all surprising for her to be included in the next batch of company promotions – indeed, it would be surprising if she weren’t.]
The second level of featured dancers, Ashley Laracey, Unity Phelan, and Emma Von Enck, and KJ Takahashi, Sebastian Villarini-Velez, and Canaan Weber, each danced well, with Takahashi and Villarini-Velez standing out. And I must recognize the costumes, designed by Ellen Warren, a former NYCB dancer, that are simple but that quietly contribute varied and vital color to the piece.
Copland Dance Episodes is a rare combination of music and dance where each illuminates the other. Copland’s music makes the heart melt and swell concurrently, and Peck’s choreography puts it all together in a coherent and inspirational way. It’s not so much an anthem for a new generation (a phrase I used to describe Peck’s 2017 piece, The Times Are Racing) as it’s an anthem for an overlooked generation.
By the time this is posted, the Winter, 2023 run of Copland Dance Episodes will likely have ended (or soon will). It will be performed again next season. Based on the enthusiastic filled houses for its performances to date, if you’re interested, get your tickets early.
Based on the company’s second world premiere, choreographer Keerati Jinakunwiphat shows promise, but Fortuitous Ash misses the mark for many of the reasons I mentioned in the context of Peck’s piece: the dance is too dense to understand, but too portentous to conclude that there’s nothing about it to understand.
I’m admittedly guilty of trying to find themes in dances that don’t exist or are not what was intended, and it’s certainly possible that Jinakunwiphat had no specific meaning in mind in creating this ballet. But with a title like Fortuitous Ash, a score that’s part deadly dull, part bombastic, and part apocalyptic, and a set consisting of a backdrop with a painted or projected image that is as striking and riveting as it is inscrutable (not specifically credited, although I suspect it was created by Dan Scully, who is credited for scenery and lighting design), it must be about something.
That dramatic backdrop image (which is sufficiently puzzling to become a distraction) appears to picture a either a tiny opening to light or the eye of an all-powerful deity looking through the clouds as if examining what he/she has done or determining what his/her next action might be – or a combination of both, resulting in an extensive level of possible themes or venues and placing an overthinker’s brain into overdrive.
For the ballet’s accompanying score, Jinakunwiphat here uses excerpts from two compositions by Chinese-born American Du Yun: “Run in a Graveyard” and “Air Glow.” Du Yun is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, was nominated for a Grammy, and has accumulated a seemingly endless collection of accolades. Reportedly she’s a master of a potpourri of musical genres, although I’d not previously heard of her (which puts her in very good company). The compositions used here are excerpts from “Run in a Graveyard” and “Air Glow.”
As I watched the dance evolve, I considered several possible themes and/or venues: a colony of humanoid aliens in outer space with occupants exploring their surroundings and themselves; something of a tribal-like vision of life after Adam and Eve; people trapped in some cave-like environment (a la Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE) or survivors of some apocalyptic event (like “On the Beach”); a representation of the observer-deity’s creation (or recreation) of life; or a choreographed version of “Night of the Living Dead.” In the end, I landed on a combination of them all (with the exception of that outer space colony and life after Original Sin). That is, that Fortuitous Ash is intended to be some visualization of the recreation of life after whatever it was that came before had largely turned the living into ashes, with survivors wandering aimlessly until the spark of life was reignited.
I arrived at this conclusion based on several factors: the “ash” of the ballet’s title being symbolic of death, the title of the first excerpted composition (“Run in a Graveyard”) as well as that composition’s musical characteristics (foghorn-like sounds presented at various pitches like wails of the dead), and the cacophonic noise that ended the first composition (or that began the second) representing the ashes of death just happening to be in the right place at the right time to be “ignited” by the penetration of light and/or the action of the deity (or both) that delivered the spark of life.
All this overthinking, however, is an exercise in futility because what I saw of Jinakunwiphat’s choreography neither supports nor refutes any of the various thematic possibilities. Instead, the nine dancers (five female/four male), augmented by Karen Young’s simple but expressive costumes, seem to wander, come together in subsets (by my recollection mostly in pairs), or occasionally gather in an aimless group with or without accompanying frenzy. Some of the choreography executed by Mira Nadon’s character looked particularly compelling even though I had no clue as to what was supposed to be represented (maybe some effort to claim leadership of the group), and the nuts and bolts of the individual choreographic episodes (e.g., those for Quinn Starner and Kennedy Targosz) are unusual-looking in a sterile sort of way, but my recollection of the bulk of the somewhat slinky / twisty/ strange movement is that, overall, it doesn’t amount to much.
The other dancers in the piece were Emilie Gerrity, Ashley Hod, Chun Wai Chan, Harrison Coll, KJ Takahachi, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez – each of whom is an accomplished, powerful dancer. That I recall little of what they did is unusual, so it may well be that by focusing on the distracting backdrop image and the qualities of the score and trying to make sense of both that I missed some significant segments of choreography – though I doubt it. Nevertheless, for these reasons my opinion of Fortuitous Ash on first view is subject to revision,
The dances that bracketed Fortuitous Ash on Wednesday’s program have been reviewed previously, so I’ll spend little time on them.
Ratmansky’s Voices remains a puzzlement. Following its premiere, I wrote that the vocal excerpts that accompany each of the six dance segments could barely be deciphered. Since, logically, the content of these vocal excerpts may have been important if for no other reason than to understand Ratmansky’s choreography for each specific segment, I thought perhaps this inability to clearly hear the words was a consequence of my position in the theater. This time I sat on the opposite side of the house, but the outcome was the same.
Consequently, it seems obvious that these spoken excerpts (upon which echoing music by Peter Ablinger is applied – here with live piano accompaniment by Stephen Gosling) cannot be considered something the audience is supposed to understand. Rather, they’re symbols of a distinctly female presence and perspective in contemporary ballet that contrasts with, and is more interesting than, the existing male dominance in classical ballet (though whether that’s true is a different issue). Thus, following each segment danced by a ballerina in contemporary (and far more interestingly-choreographed) ballet style, a gaggle of male dancers escorts her offstage, with one of them executing some bravura sequence from classical ballet (in the process garnering all the audience applause), after which the next ballerina is escorted onto the stage by another group of men, who then exit, leaving her to dancer her solo. This process repeats until the final segment. But this final segment is performed by the entire company – which seems to render the above analysis inapplicable. Sigh.
In some cases, Ratmansky’s dances don’t reveal their true meaning until they’ve been seen several times. Voices may be one such dance. At this point in time, however, it serves as an example, in relationship to the Peck premiere, of inventively complex choreography that goes nowhere and that, for all its unquestionable quality, is relatively inaccessible.
Be that as it may, the ten-dancer cast (Megan Fairchild, Emily Kikta, Alexa Maxwell, Georgina Pazcoguin, Unity Phelan, Gilbert Bolden III, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joseph Gordon, Roman Mejia, and Andrew Veyette) each delivered polished performances, with Kikta (in the opening solo) particularly impressive in her role debut.
Everywhere We Go remains the bundle of energy and interest that it was at its 2014 premiere, and at this performance was executed well by its extensive cast (though one or two “connections” between a dancer falling to the floor and another slowing her fall as she descended were cut way too close for comfort).
After another week of repertory, NYCB’s Winter2023 season will conclude with two weeks of performances of Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty.
One final comment. Every winter season for the past ten years, NYCB has presented an artwork installation created by contemporary visual artists that relates in some way to ballet. This year’s representative of the series may be the most pertinent, and engaging, of them all.
A product of an experimental art studio in Amsterdam called “DRIFT,” the lighting display as presented in other venues is titled “Shylights.” The team of DRIFT artists here – Lonneke Gordijn and and Ralph Nauta – have placed such Shylights in a ballet context, and in doing so have created a ballet of light.
This Shylight construction consists of roughly fifteen “lamps” that hang from the rafters of the Koch Theater Promenade, that descend and rise and spread open and close seemingly at random, each at seemingly independent of another, but each also seemingly acting in concert with each other. The “lamps” fold up and out of the way when they reach the ceiling, but on their way downward they open like flowers to display lampshade-like enclosures. If you give it some time and examine it long enough, you don’t see lamps moving up and down in measured sequences, but ballerinas in tutus moving into position, then suddenly changing position and reassembling magically in a different array. That is, the artwork creates balletic movement distilled to its essence; a luminous neo-classicism that’s fits perfectly in the house that Balanchine built. Of course, the display comes equipped with musical accompaniment.
If you attend any of NYCB’s winter programs, or even if you don’t, it’s worth the price of a ticket just to watch this show. Unless the display is made permanent (which, unlike the prior art installations, may not be difficult to do), see it before the end of this Winter 2023 season, when it disappears into the wings.