[pending receipt of performance photographs]

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

October 6, 2018, afternoon and evening
Pulcinella Variations, This Bitter Earth, The Runaway, Fearful Symmetries
The Exchange, In Vento, Judah, The Runaway

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet’s Fall 2018 Season continued last week with three new dances and four others by 21st Century Choreographers (translated: neither Balanchine nor Robbins). While Justin Peck’s Pulcinella Variations, Mauro Bigonzetti’s In Vento, Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth, and Peter Martins’s Fearful Symmetries are interesting and more, all but In Vento have been seen and reviewed several times previously (they premiered with NYCB in 2017, 2006, 2012, and 1990 respectively). Accordingly, the focus was on this season’s new dances, each of which premiered at NYCB’s 2018 Fall Gala (which, this year, I was unable to see).

The results are mixed, which is not unusual for a set of new dances, and which serves to reemphasize the commendable chances that the company takes year after year in its efforts to present new ballets to supplement its classic repertoire. Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange, his first piece for NYCB, was disappointing, and Gianna Reisen’s Judah, is a curious and engaging, though not entirely successful sophomore effort.  But Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway is a ballet of a different color.

Contrary to the buzz I heard following its premiere, I found The Runaway to be a landmark ballet (yes, it’s a ballet) that’s audacious and intelligent, and one of the finest, and certainly most original, creations I’ve seen this year.

Taylor Stanley in Kyle Abraham's "The Runaway" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Taylor Stanley
in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

I was prepared to dislike Abraham’s new piece because I had not been impressed with his recent efforts for his own company. And even given Taylor Stanley’s astonishing performance, I did dislike it, intensely, for maybe ⅔ of its length on first view (at Saturday’s matinee The Runaway replaced the originally announced Concerto DSCH, for no apparent or indicated reason). But then I began to understand what Abraham was trying to do – or at least came up with an explanation that made sense of it all.

One could view The Runaway as a collection of dances to various musical selections – no less, but no more. But doing so would reduce The Runaway to sound and fury signifying nothing more than that Abraham can adapt his choreographic style to ballet (or vice versa). Though that’s not an insignificant accomplishment, it leaves a bitter taste because he could have done the same thing without making the disturbing musical choices he made. And I suspect that many in the audience were impressed with The Runaway simply because Abraham choreographed to these violent and egocentric lyrics on seemingly sacred establishment ground (the DHK theater stage), because the NYCB dancers looked astonishingly good executing it, and because the costumes were brilliantly outrageous.

(l-r) Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin and Ashley Bouder in Kyle Abraham's "The Runaway" Photo by Paul Kolnik

(l-r) Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin,
and Ashley Bouder in Kyle Abraham’s
“The Runaway”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But rightly or wrongly I give Abraham credit here for more than that, based on several factors: his success in having the dance flow as seamlessly as it does notwithstanding the cacophony of music and the riot of movement that he presents, and on clues embedded in the ballet’s structure and imagery that cannot be ignored. First is the title, which is too meaningful to have been employed for no reason. More significant is the fact that Stanley’s lead character opens and closes the piece with a solo, and although he occasionally travels through the scenes in between, the solos reflect a sense of yearning and questioning and discomfort (at the beginning), and of a tortured, maybe repulsed soul (at the end). In between were the exuberant dances to a carefully curated assortment of songs with titles that include “I Am a God,” “I Love Kanye,” and “I Thought About Killing You,” most of which, frankly, I could have been perfectly happy never having heard. Lastly, the costumes, by Giles Deacon (supervised by Marc Happel) are ridiculous – quite intentionally. Dancers wear harlequinish costumes, albeit in black and white color blotches, accessorized with cones of black frizzy hair appended to their heads where pigtails might be or a shock of spiked black hair rising above a ballet bun, black fur-like accessories around their necks like lion manes, and a mass of  hair rising straight from the wearer’s neck like two-foot, tightly wound, porcupine quills where the body’s head is supposed to be. It was unreal.

And maybe it’s supposed to be. Everything in between Taylor’s opening and closing solos is, to one extent or another, a cartoonishly unreal visualization of songs that are, in their own way, equally cartoonish and which may reflect an overcompensating way of creating – or being a reflection of – an outsized and presidential ego, which itself might be an overcompensation in response to an overwhelming underlying challenge. To me, there’s no way to see them other than as mini-dreams – or mini-nightmares – even though each individual movement sequence can be isolated and appreciated for its intelligently different choreography and the brilliance of its execution.

Taylor Stanley (front) and members of New York City Ballet in Kyle Abraham's "The Runaway" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Taylor Stanley (front)
and members of New York City Ballet
in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Indeed, despite being musically and choreographically “in your face” and largely distasteful and disturbing, that’s part of what I think is Abraham’s point.  If I got it – and I’m not sure I did – The Runaway is more than just a rap ballet (hip-hop would be much too whitewashed a term for some of the music Abraham uses). It could be seen as an individual’s trying to cope with his differences (whether racial, sexual, emotional, or all combined) and finding the available alternatives that his societal circle provides to be repulsive, unhelpful and maybe shameful (at the end, Taylor strikes an overwhelmed, hopeless, despairing pose, bent over, his back to the audience, seemingly cradling his head in shame). But it could also be seen as a novel way of observing and describing an individualized “black experience” (although I don’t believe I’m competent to discuss what that experience feels like). And it also works more universally as a visualization of a person uncomfortable in his (or her) own skin, for whom there is no viable way to escape.

But regardless of the way the dance hits you, and even if you can’t stand the songs or Abraham’s choreographic style (which, after the fact and in context, I see as inventive and meaningful, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, different rather than nihilistic), one must see The Runaway for the dancers. Aside from Taylor, whose performance is an award-worthy tour de force, every member of the cast (Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, Jonathan Fahoury, Roman Mejia, Sebastian Villarini-Velez, and Peter Walker) seemed released from stylistic straightjackets and bursting with energy. And although one expects Bouder to deliver electrified speed (though maybe not to the “non-stop dynamo”extent she does here) and Pazcoguin to be very good overall and particularly in the piece’s rare opportunities for comic relief, seeing Mearns move around the stage like a turbo-charged engine was especially priceless.

Unfortunately, I can’t be as enthusiastic about the other two premieres. Matthew Neenan is a well-known and undeniably accomplished choreographer, having created many pieces for Pennsylvania Ballet as well as for the company he co-founded, Philadelphia’s Ballet X, which has made several recent appearances at the Joyce Theater. I usually find his dances impressive, but here he misses the mark. But for the costumes by Gareth Pugh, which bathe the stage in a red blur as the dancers, in their red costumes, sail through the choreography, The Exchange is forgettable.

The dance itself, to music by Dvorak, is at once strange, simplistic, and repetitious. The ballet’s all too obvious theme is an “exchange” between a starched group of dancers (apparently at some formal gathering, but that’s not clear) imprisoned behind red masks (like stockings) that restrict their emotional responses and close-fitting costumes that restrict their physical motion, and another group of “liberated” dancers unencumbered by restrictions either of movement or emotion. Of course, freedom is better than restraint, so eventually the “exchange” takes place during which the initial group recognizes that it’s more fun to be free, and ditches the masks – more a replacement than an exchange.

What undoes the dance, however, isn’t the simplistic theme so much as the repetitious choreography. With rare exception, most of what I recall seeing was the same or similar movement sequences repeated too many times. One image that I vividly recall is of the “masked” group seemingly plastered against the rear stage wall like sculpted wallflowers, which instantly tells you everything you need to know about what Neenan was trying to say. But one memorable image, and stunning-looking costumes, do not a ballet make. Maria Kowroski and Russell Janzen, and Tiler Peck and Joseph Gordon, respectively led the icily distant masked and free-flowing unencumbered groups.

I enjoyed Gianna Reisen’s debut piece (Composer’s Holiday), which premiered at the company’s 2017 Fall Gala, but despite substantial visual variety and interesting staging, Judah comes across more as a ballet in search of reason for being than one for which some reason might be irrelevant. I don’t think that Reisen had a particular point in mind beyond creating an interesting-looking dance, and there doesn’t have to be one. But as staged, it seems that there should be one, but it’s not there, or not sufficiently evident if it is.

To an assortment of music by John Adams (from an album titled “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” one of which is titled “Judah to Ocean”), and to mercifully non-spectacular but attractive and perfectly appropriate costumes by Alberta Ferretti, there is a vague sense here of dances at a gathering of nymphs and fauns, either celebrating … something (maybe the freedom from restriction that they enjoy) or searching or waiting for … something (there are multiple images of one or another or a pair seemingly staring out into the distance), and of a hierarchy as to which Lauren Lovette and Preston Chamblee are the apex (and the only ones wearing white), and Harrison Ball is either second in command or a rival.

The stage is dominated by a pair of multi-step platform stairways to nowhere rising from downstage left and right roughly six feet up from the floor. Individual dancers from time to time either stare out from the promontory that the top level creates (the dance opens with one man – to my recollection Ball, but I’m not certain – staring into the distance while some of the nymphs and fauns frolic below him), or as platforms upon which Lovette and Chamblee are occasionally and somewhat regally positioned. These stepped platforms might have been intended to be a substitute for the cliché images of dancers gathering in a scrum and lifting one or another over their heads for whatever reason, or, of course, they may have had no purpose at all beyond being a convenient abstract substitute for a cliff or a place of honor, but their unexplained presence is annoying.

It’s also possible that there’s more to the ballet’s title than a connection to one of Adams’s “dances:” the name “Judah” inevitably brings to mind a Biblical reference of some sort, but unless all these dancers are meant to be descendants of the Tribe of Judah standing sentinel in anticipation of invasion while dancing because, well, what else does one do when life in the wilderness is otherwise pretty dead [dead…Dead Sea… sorry], I saw nothing that would support that. Rather, if anything, I saw a little of the atmosphere of Ashton’s Sylvia. Just a little.

The dance has a cast of thousands – well, eighteen, and the variety of movement succeeds in moving things along in a visually interesting ways, even if it’s unclear that the ballet is anything more than that. In addition to Lovette, Chamblee and Ball, Sara Adams, Megan LeCrone, and Indiana Woodward led the engaging cast that serves to reemphasize that, still, NYCB is blessed with an embarrassment of riches.

Of the remaining dances I saw on both Saturday programs, each has considerable merit. In Vento is the third piece by Bigonzetti, with music by his frequent collaborator Bruno  Moretti, that I’ve seen, and it’s by far the best. [The others were Oltremare and Vespro.] It’s an interesting, compelling piece, which I suspect was considerably more unusual when it premiered than it seems now – there’s a sense that by now this sort of thing has been done many times. Nevertheless, the images of dancers emerging out from (or into) the darkened upstage wall / curtain into an atmosphere only slightly less opaque, within which they move as if illuminated shadows (lighting by the always masterful but often under-recognized Mark Stanley) seemingly as visualizations of emotions that pass through the lead dancer’s mind as if carried through his memory by wind (“In Vento” means “in the wind”).

With the dancers clad in black mesh and black toe shoes (the bare-chested men wearing black tights), and with the shadowy ambiance, In Vento looks other-worldly. The piece is not without overt sexual imagery (women are repeatedly lifted and, with their legs spread, rotated 360 degrees sideways in front of the men who lift them), but here the images serve a purpose and are less exploitative than my description sounds. Andrew Veyette was the tormented soul, either dreaming or reliving or simply observing the images that blow through the dance, and Maria Kowroski and Russell Janzen carried the laboring dancing oar. Olivia Boisson, Laine Habony, Sarah Villwock, Gilbert Bolden III, Lars Nelson, Villarini-Velez and Walker, at times moving as a group of windswept leafy branches (in the form of chains moving out of sync with each other), and at times dancing in subgroupings, executed superbly.

Members of New York City Ballet in a prior performance of Peter Martins's "Fearful Symmetries" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Members of New York City Ballet
in a prior performance
of Peter Martins’s “Fearful Symmetries”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Also executing superbly were those dancers having their role debuts in Fearful Symmetries. I’ve observed previously that contemporaneous opinions as to Martins’s skills as a choreographer appear to have been prejudiced by his not being Balanchine. Seen with fresh eyes, a significant number of his pieces, though not at the masterpiece level, are not at all without ingenuity or quality craftsmanship. Fearful Symmetries is one of them, and the piece had the advantage of superlative performances from Emilie Gerrity and Chamblee (in role debuts), Kristen Segin and Troy Schumacher (and it was nice to see Segin’s sparking stage presence again following her recovery from an injury), and (also in role debuts) a particularly liquid and commanding Miriam Miller (as I overheard one person sitting near me say to another after the dance ended, “Who is that ballerina with the long legs”) and Alec Knight.

In another unannounced program change, Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour replaced the originally scheduled Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth. Both Reichlen and la Cour debuted in these roles the previous night.

Christopher Wheeldon's "This Bitter Earth," here in a prior performance with Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle Photo by Paul Kolnik

Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth,”
here in a prior performance
with Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle
Photo by Paul Kolnik

I saw This Bitter Earth at its NYCB premiere in 2012, consider it one of Wheeldon’s finest and most moving dances, and am forever locked into the masterful performance then given by Wendy Whelan, who infused her portrayal with the emotion and the gravitas essential to match, and illuminate, the recorded performance of the song by Dinah Washington. Reichlen, a wonderfully accomplished dancer always compelling to watch, executed Wheeldon’s steps magnificently, but her relatively stoic visage (but for a few moments toward the dance’s end) didn’t fit the emotional bitterness and triumphant resignation that the role demands. La Cour’s role didn’t require the same emotional investment, and his execution was first rate.

Member of New York City Ballet in a prior performance of Justin Peck’s "Pulcinella Variations" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Member of New York City Ballet
in a prior performance
of Justin Peck’s “Pulcinella Variations”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Finally, Justin Peck’s Pulcinella Variations, which premiered at NYCB’s Fall Gala a year ago, is unlike the standard operating Peck piece in every conceivable way except craft-worthiness.  It looks retro. Featuring an eye-filling assortment of costumes by Tsumori Chisato, the ballet is Peck at his most classical in form. Maybe that’s off-putting to some, but it’s a clever piece of work that’s not only well-crafted, but a lot of fun to watch. Claire Kretzschmar, Unity Phelan, Brittany Pollack (back from Carousel on Broadway), Lydia Wellington, Mearns, Daniel Applebaum, Sean Suozzi, Gordon and Janzen comprised the cast. Suozzi and Kretszchmar were particularly thrilling to watch, and Gordon continues to excel as circumstances have compelled him to assume a lead or featured role in an unusually large number of dances this season. But I’ve been noticing, as at times was evident here, that he tends to be slightly ahead of the music. The result makes him look a bit like a hyperactive puppy, but under the circumstances that’s not necessarily bad.

The season continues into its last week with repertory programs, culminating in Joaquin De Luz’s farewell on October 14.