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

May 17 and 25, 2017
Jeux, The Shimmering Asphalt, Unframed, Fearful Symmetries
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Jerry Hochman

The final program in New York City Ballet’s Here/Now Festival, and the final program of the company‘s Spring 2017 Season, which I saw on May 17 and 25 respectively, demonstrate starkly why Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’s gamble was a necessity, but why also it may ultimately be doomed to fail.

Harrison Ball and New York City Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Harrison Ball and
New York City Ballet dancers
in George Balanchine’s
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The ballets in Program 10 of the Festival, though worth seeing, can’t compare with the attraction of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Granted that the two programs are balletic apples and oranges, the point is that even Balanchine at less than masterpiece level outclasses most “new” ballets. Although there undoubtedly were contemporary pieces in the Festival that an audience will want to see on any program at any time – primarily limited to many (but not all) by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Justin Peck, and others that may have special interest for a variety of reasons (e.g., Troy Schumacher’s Common Ground; Lauren Lovette’s For Clara; Peter Walker’s ten in seven; Liam Scarlett’s Funerailles; Antonin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence; and Martins’s Barber Violin Concerto and The Infernal Machine among them), the balance of the Festival programs are variants of ok, with some undoubtedly more, or less, accomplished and pleasing to an audience than others.

Program 10 is an unfortunate example. There wasn’t anything on this program that one would want to bury, but as accomplished as they may be choreographically, three of the four are so muddy that that to the extent they make sense, it may only be to their creators.

Jeux, from Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup, is beautifully choreographed, and interestingly staged. It’s obviously intended to “mean” something, but it’s so inscrutable and intellectually rigorous – obviously, intentionally so – that regardless of the quality of the choreography and execution, one can only scratch one’s head.

Teresa Reichlen and New York City Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Teresa Reichlen and
New York City Ballet dancers
in George Balanchine’s
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The original version of Jeux, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinksy to a commissioned score by Claude Debussy, premiered at Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris in 1919. That piece, although considered somewhat strange, was some sort of menage a trois in the context of a tennis game and a lost tennis ball, the search for it becoming the “cover” for ensuing relationship games between the one man and each of the two women, and the two women with each other. Despite its seemingly scandalous subject, or maybe because of it (or perhaps because it was Paris and no one cared) the piece suffered a fate worse than an adverse audience reaction – it was ignored, and it’s my understanding that Nijinksy’s original choreography is lost.

There have been subsequent reimaginings of Jeux, including a reconstruction choreographed by Millicent Hodson in 1996, supposedly based on existing snippets of contemporaneous information, which was presented by The Joffrey Ballet in 2002; a reinterpretation choreographed by Wayne Eagling for the English National Ballet in 2012; and a piece by Helen Pickett, titled Games, which Ballet West brought with it to the Joyce Theater in 2015. This last piece was a straightforward, contemporary menage a trois between a man and two women in which the “game” is not a real game that might be a metaphor for something more salacious: the title is a reference to the relationship games people play in a 21st Century urban environment, with no clumsy metaphor needed.

Sara Mearns and New York City Ballet dancers in Pontus LIdberg's "The Shimmering Asphalt" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns and
New York City Ballet dancers
in Pontus LIdberg’s
“The Shimmering Asphalt”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Brandstrup’s broad subject is also the “games people play,” but his universe is the cavern of the human mind within which the mental processes of envy, depression, attraction and obsession become cerebral hoops that must be jumped through before deciding on a mate (for the moment or longer). But, except perhaps to him, the images’ meanings are ambiguous (not sexually ambiguous – intellectually ambiguous) and insoluble. For example, why is the set a barren space that looks like an empty garage, complete with a single pillar? What purpose is the pillar intended to serve other than as a strange stage divider? Why does the piece’s protagonist, Sara Mearns, initially appear blindfolded, then without blindfolds, and the “boy with the bouncing ball,” played by Justin Peck, appear blindfolded, but only after Mearns’s blindfolds are removed?

I enjoy ballets that make me think. But Bradstrup’s Jeux is like a puzzle with no apparent solution, and the intricacies of the puzzle undermine attempts to appreciate the intelligence of its construction.

I appreciated Pontus Lidberg’s The Shimmering Asphalt more on second view than I did at its premiere in January. The movement quality appears more interesting to me now. But as Jeux is undermined by its stage presentation, The Shimmering Asphalt is by its strange subject. Although I’m not aware of any specific motivation that Lidberg may have had in creating this ballet, there is no way to look at this ballet visually – the unattractive (and, for the men, silly-looking) gray costumes, the dim lighting, the shimmering black background as it ends – as anything other than a choreographic representation of its title: shimmering asphalt.

If you’ve paid attention– or habitually walk with your head down – maybe you’ve noticed that many sidewalks seem to glitter as light plays off them (apparently many asphalt sidewalks are embedded with some type of substance or chemical that creates this effect – perhaps in some way to increase the asphalt’s safety or strength. Lidberg has attempted to bring this effect to choreographic life, or to use it as a metaphor for something more cosmic – but if the latter it’s undone by those costumes and its mundane presentation. And even if it’s considered purely abstract – the overall sense is dry and dreary, careful and complex, and ice cold.

New York City Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Unframed" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Unframed”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Unframed, which premiered last September, is another dance which, like Jeux, has considerable intelligence behind it as well as an intended meaning. But figuring out what she’s trying to say is a chore best abandoned. Given its title, Lopez Ochoa is obviously referencing the release of something or someone from presumably inhibiting boundaries. My understanding is that her intent here is to portray the release of people/dancers from the restrictions of their dull, soulless urban corporate environments into a state (mental or physical) where they’re free to be who they are. That’s fine, even if it’s not a particularly unusual subject. But in visual translation, all that’s happening is that the piece is divided into two basic segments in which initially the dancers are limited to movement that’s obviously tightly circumscribed and dull, but later they’re able to dance with relative abandon, to discard their constricting suit jackets, and, literally, to let their hair down. And when the piece ends, fluorescent lighting that has the dual function of representing a corporate office and as a “frame” of sorts to keep the dancers confined within it is lifted up and out of the way, presumably releasing the ballet’s inhabitants from their emotional and physical corporate confines. Frankly, there’s nothing in the piece that makes me care.

By far the most accessible of Program 10’s ballets, and to my eye the most successful in terms of doing what it sets out to do, was Martins’s Fearful Symmetries. As was the case when I last saw it in February (following the premiere of the Lidberg piece), it was a pleasure to watch because of the John Adams score’s buoyancy, the costumes’ vibrancy, Martins’s choreography that reflects both without intending to do much more, and the cast’s glowing execution.

New York City Ballet dancers Claire Kretzschmar and Zachary Catazaro in Peter Martins's "Fearful Symmetries" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancers
Claire Kretzschmar and Zachary Catazaro
in Peter Martins’s “Fearful Symmetries”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The problem with all these pieces, whether one considers them successful or not, is that there’s nothing particularly memorable about any of them. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid seeing them again, neither would I look forward to it. Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, which closed out NYCB’s Spring 2017 season, is a ballet that one can see any number of times, and look forward to seeing still more times. Again, Dream is not the same type of ballet as those on Program 10. The point is the desire to see it, versus being uninterested.

Dream is one of those pieces that is relatively cast-proof. That’s not to say that the particular dancers are irrelevant – just that I’ve never seen Balanchine’s Dream danced less than admirably. At Thursday’s performance, I had the opportunity to see Ashley Laracey and Brittany Pollack once again as Hermia and Helena respectively, and Peter Walker’s Demetrius and Aaron Sanz’s Lysander for the first time. All four did fine work. Newly promoted principal Russell Janzen, in his debut as Titania’s Cavalier, danced it as if it had been in his repertoire for years – immaculately. Harrison Ball, newly promoted to soloist, provided a very interesting take on Puck. This Puck wasn’t the comic that many others try to be (although he certainly included a sufficient number of comedic moments). This was a more serious, determined Puck. I’m not sure which I prefer, but Ball’s interpretation made me think and reconsider what I’ve seen previously accepted as gospel for the role.

New York City Ballet dancer Harrison Ball in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet dancer
Harrison Ball in George Balanchine’s
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The evening’s highlights were Teresa Reichlen’s Titania, which I’ve previously seen, Ashley Hod’s Hippolyta, which I had not, and Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay’s second act pas de deux, which, somehow, I also had not previously seen. Reichlen has an elusive, chameleon-like persona that can seem to change at the drop of a hat – a quality, of course, that’s common to highly successful dancers. Here, although the character allows a somewhat aloof demeanor appropriate for fairy royalty, her Titania displayed remarkable warmth and radiance, that quality of being genuine, in addition to the requisite regality. Regardless of the personality she exudes, however, her execution – particularly evident here in her duets with Janzen and Gonzalo Garcia’s Oberon – is always top flight.

Hod’s Hippolyta, her debut in the role, was a revelation. Although obviously an exceptionally strong dancer, Hod comes across as having less natural gravitas than one would expect in this role. But her lighter quality added an appearance of elegance that I don’t recall sensing previously, making the role more than a one-dimensional Amazon warrior queen.

Hyltin’s pas de deux performance, abetted by Finlay’s attentive and competent partnering, was utterly breathtaking. If Reichlen’s aura here was like porcelain in motion, Hyltin’s was like smoothly flowing honey.

Looking back on this past season, Martins clearly faces a problem – one not uncommon to artistic directors who want to lead their company in new directions without abandoning the legacy ballets that continue to deliver both status and willing audiences: how best to merge them. I don’t think that force-feeding contemporary ballets as in this season’s Here/Now Festival is the way to do it, intriguing marketing concept though it was. For one, the Festival’s title implies “present” contemporary – but many of the ballets presented are several decades old, and have been part of NYCB’s repertory for at least that long. There’s little here that’s “here” and “now.” More importantly – again with exceptions – the ten programs had little to distinguish them beyond being choreographed by living choreographers, and few of them are ballets that one would go out of his/her way to see. At best – again aside from those particularly successful pieces by Wheeldon, Ratmansky and Peck – they’re dances one wouldn’t mind seeing again; or that one wouldn’t care to see again unless they were included on an otherwise stellar program. [There’s another category – those one would go out of his/her way to avoid seeing, but Martins curated the Festival offerings so that this category wasn’t represented.]

But sandwiching them between classics doesn’t work for the same reason – although there’s a better chance that it would encourage otherwise reluctant audiences to see them. So maybe it’s best to provide individual programs during a season dedicated to “contemporary” ballets – which, notwithstanding this festival, is the direction Martins appears to be going. Regardless, with the legacy ballets to rely on, and a company rich with dancers of the highest caliber, as far as conundrums go, it’s a relatively enviable one.