New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
February 3, 2022
Emanon – In Two Movements (world premiere), Bartók Ballet, The Runaway
February 5, 2022 (matinee)
Walpurgisnacht Ballet, The Unanswered Question, Moves, Slaughter on 10th Avenue
February 5, 2022 (evening)
Mozartiana, Rubies, La Valse
Judged by its two world premieres this Winter 2022 season, New York City Ballet is on a roll. I previously favorably reviewed Justin Peck’s new dance, Partita, which premiered last Thursday. One week later, NYCB presented its second world premiere. It took awhile to get there, and I still have some reservations, but overall Jamar Roberts’s Emanon – In Two Movements (hereafter simply Emanon) is a pleasurable ballet that opened Thursday evening’s program, and will open any program, with a smile.
This review will cover the three performances I saw last week, leading off with the Roberts premiere. From there I’ll jump back and forth between programs to highlight those ballets and performances I found most noteworthy.
During the course of his lengthy dancing career with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (2002-2021), Roberts turned to choreography, creating his first piece for Ailey in 2016, and by 2019 becoming that company’s Resident Choreographer, a position he currently holds. His distinguished career with Ailey notwithstanding, neo-classical ballet is not an unknown idiom to him – his background includes exposure, training, and continuing ballet exposure and experience.
Choreographically, however, ballet is a departure from his usual. Roberts choreographed a previous work for NYCB in 2020 as part of NYCB’s and Lincoln Center’s digital New World Festival called Water Rite, which included actual dancing in Lincoln Center’s reflecting pool. With Emanon, Roberts gets his choreographic feet wet on NYCB’s mainstage.
Emanon derives its name from saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s album “Emanon,” from which Roberts here excises two pieces: Pegasus and Prometheus Unbound. Shorter’s album, released in 2018, took its name from the title of a composition (Noname) by Dizzy Gillespie and Milton Shaw, but reversed the letters. Shorter’s album was accompanied by a graphic novel that reportedly (according to Wikipedia) is a “futuristic fantasy.” I’m not familiar with Shorter’s album and book, nor with the work by Gillespie and Shaw, but it’s clear to me that Roberts’s piece has nothing in common with such a theme – or, for that matter, any theme. Rather, it’s “pure dance” to Shorter’s music.
By itself, that’s not a bad thing. But Emanon initially looked too tightly bound to Shorter’s jazz composition. Moreover, I was concerned about how limited the choreographic palette appeared to be: although it was nice to look at (particularly the opening solo danced by Unity Phelan), it didn’t show much inventiveness. And to a large extent that’s the way the first part of Emanon proceeded: elementary choreography combined with being annoyingly repetitious within each subdivision into which Roberts sculpted his dance.
But as it progressed, and particularly in the ballet’s second section, those qualities became less important. The music itself, at least to one only casually familiar with jazz, sounds repetitive. But to my ear it’s akin, in a third cousin twice removed way, to the repetition in, for example, George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (from his Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, which has been absent from NYCB’s repertory far too long). So I can’t really fault Roberts for doing what the music tells him to do. And Roberts’s familiarity with the jazz idiom (he previously choreographed a piece in honor of, and to music by, John Coltrane), together with its joyous execution by the eight dancer cast (besides Phelan, the cast included Indiana Woodward, Emma Von Enck, Emily Kikta, Jonathan Fahoury, Jovani Furlan, Anthony Huxley, and Peter Walker) infuse Emanon with an independent and dominating life force.
One can pinpoint exactly when it became evident (at least to me) that Emanon morphed from being simply ok and relatively promising into a ballet with its own character and the choreographic legs to go with it: a solo by Fahoury, a member of NYCB’s corps. Here the choreography is so unusual-looking, and was so masterfully executed, that it compels a viewer to see the interesting things Roberts is doing beyond following each beat of Shorter’s music. In particular, Roberts’s architecture of the ballet – the structure and choreography of its subparts – makes the ballet look interesting regardless of the repetition and musical obedience. Emanon may not be unusually innovative or complex, but it doesn’t try to be, and it proved to be an energizing evening opener that also happens to be fun to watch.
The obedience to its score evident in Emanon is not exceptional, particularly where the music itself is the inspiration, in whole or in part, for the dance’s choreography. Here, Roberts’s musical inspiration is jazz, but to me a particular “type” of jazz prevalent in clubs or featuring a small group of musicians, with a focus on one or two whose style and talent dominates, as Shorter does here. [I’m admittedly a jazz observer rather than a connoisseur, so save your emails.] It’s more individual; more personal; but I also think it demands greater fealty when used as a choreographic score than what I’ll call “orchestral” or “classical” jazz, which appears to me to be more of an examination of that style in a broad context, without any one musician’s instrument or style determining the nature of the composition. Take George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example.
Or Igor Stravinsky.
Which brings me, strained as the segue between the two may seem, to the performance of Rubies (the second gem of Balanchine’s Jewels) that I saw on Saturday evening. Both Emanon and Rubies are jazz-based ballets, but they’re as different as Shorter is from Stravinsky, and consequently as different as night and day. It may not be the only difference between the two ballets, but it certainly reflects the different choreographic opportunities that the respective scores provide.
There are performances of Rubies, and there are very special performances of Rubies that seem to take the dance as far as the choreography and characterization will let them. I’ve seen plenty of both. Saturday evening’s performance of Rubies, however, was from another accomplishment galaxy. It was the finest performance of Rubies that I can recall ever seeing.
The cast was led by Sterling Hyltin and Roman Mejia as the primary couple, and Mira Nadon as the “tall dancer.” As brilliant as Hyltin and Mejia were (and they were), Nadon’s performance blew the roof off the place.
There’s a center of gravity in Rubies that usually is one or the other member of the lead couple, or sometimes both. But the role of the “tall dancer” is certainly not that center of gravity.
Just promoted to Soloist, Nadon here danced with a breathtaking degree of confidence and command. Every step she took was regal. And those legs that soared skyward and that circled the stage perimeter seemed like graceful-looking tree limbs powerful enough to do serious damage to anyone who got in their way. She dominated the stage whenever she was on it without looking in any way annoyingly self-absorbed. And she gave her character not just a presence, but a raison d’etre that I’d never before seen. Other dancers in that role, I’d assumed, were there to provide the ballet with extra texture; Nadon converted the role of tall girl into the Ruby Queen.
As powerful as Nadon was, however, her performance did not detract from the performances of Hyltin and Mejia. Mejia, in a magnificent role debut, displayed a level of self-assurance and personal charisma that took that role to another level. This character was not just a sexual being (a component of the role), but a potent one who was a pursuer and a showman; at once part Romeo (actually, more Mercutio than Romeo) and part Puck. His performance was exhilarating.
I’ve seen Hyltin dance her role previously, and thought on those occasions that her character was the ballet’s focus if only because she was confident and expressive, and displayed more sensuality than any of those I saw partnering her. Perhaps it was Mejia’s energizing effect, but here Hyltin appeared far more comfortable than I recall previously, and happier playing off Mejia’s magnetism than carrying the piece’s jazzy sensuality on her own. She was no longer the center of gravity, but that was to her performance’s, and the ballet’s, benefit.
Of course, Rubies as a whole is the masterful work that it is because of Balanchine’s creativity and genius, as well as because the score enabled him to avoid being tethered to it. But there are dangers in being unusually inventive, however, which became evident in the piece on Thursday’s program that followed Emanon.
I reviewed Bartók Ballet, the first ballet that Pam Tanowitz created for NYCB, following its premiere in May, 2019. My initial take was that the ballet was uninteresting at best, and lacked entertainment value for an audience. The score (Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5) sounds undanceable, and the fact that Tanowitz tried to make something of it at all is to her credit. But it’s a step too far. Even conceding the intelligence behind it (the choreography is too purposeful to have been only a consequence of Tanowitz’s style), after a second view Bartók Ballet is far too ascetic, far too academic, and includes far too many images that appear to be without discernable purpose (including the mysterious sequential costume changes). In short, with rare exceptional moments, Bartók Ballet comes across as confusing, tedious and, well, boring.
The highlights of Bartók Ballet that stick in the mind are ones in which the dance seems to play with, and off, the score. In one brief scene within a scene, Miriam Miller moves downstage left to the stage’s apron, to where the quartet playing the piece was stationed (as was the case at the ballet’s premiere, this was Flux Ensemble), obviously taking some inspiration (or seeking direction from) the music. And later in the ballet, when Tanowitz interrupts the musical flow with a period of silence (as she does at other points during the course of the ballet), Woodward (the dance’s focal point to the extent there is one) ends the silence by leaning down on the stage floor, raising her arms, and begging (or demanding) that the music resume. But if there’s some coherent rationale to all this, I just didn’t get it. Maybe the third time, if there is one, will be the charm.
Periods of no music can have their benefits, perhaps providing choreographic opportunities that the score alone doesn’t. But with Moves, Jerome Robbins took the absence of music to a higher level, and turned what might have been a strange exercise into a satisfying intellectual curiosity. Performed on Saturday afternoon’s program, Moves connects with its audience by creating a dance puzzle of sorts: how is it that there can be movement progression, and an interesting one to boot, where there’s no music to follow, amplify, or illuminate? The solution, of course, is that even though there’s no music, there’s sound, as at various times the dancers individually or collectively stomp feet, slap thighs, touch another, or provide some other similar sound, which prompts a counting sequence enabling the execution of Robbins’s intricate choreography by all the dancers in sync. The twelve-dancer cast delivered a spirited, as well as precise, performance.
Immediately preceding Moves was a piece seemingly tacked on to the program to add additional performance time to that program. The Unanswered Question is an excerpt – the second of four movements from Balanchine’s Ivesiana, which I haven’t seen en toto since I first saw it in May, 2013 (it premiered in 1954). In my subsequent review, I observed that Ivesiana as a whole is a dense, dark, and inscrutable ballet.
The dance’s four movements, titled “Central Park in the Dark,” “The Unanswered Question,” “In the Inn,” and ‘In the Night,” are the titles of certain Ives compositions (except for the last one, which was taken from “A Set of Pieces”). One might discern a theme, if there is one, within each section and/or connecting one or more sections, but converting the four separate movements into a meaningfully coherent whole takes a considerable leap of logic. At most, there’s an overall glint of lonely, urban people seeking connections in a dismal world. But that doesn’t always work. Regardless, with The Unanswered Question stripped of its context, it might lose whatever sense of place it may have had as part of a whole, but there’s no need to wonder whether there’s a connection between it and the other components of the larger piece, and, if so, what the connection is; it’s its own dance.
Briefly, to put the absence of context in a context, Ivesiana’s opening section features a young man and a young woman who are looking for something or someone within a dark environment of subhuman urban characters. Eventually, the couple meet and slowly dance together, wary of the tortured entities they sense around them – urban spirits who quietly watch and seethe, waiting either to see what happens with the couple, or for an opportunity to destroy them because that’s what happens in the big, anonymous city.
In the second movement, these characters are gone, and the Central Park context may be also (it’s not clear). And instead of two people trying to connect, the audience sees a man searching for his ideal human (or goddess) … or being emotionally tortured by an unattainable object of desire. The corps of soulless bodies in the opening movement is here replaced by four men in dark clothing whose sole function is to present and transport, and to physically manipulate, the woman they carry (whether the woman is real or the projection of a dream is a separate question). She, while being transported, walks on air, arabesques on air, turns on air, all while oozing over, under, around and through the four men. The group is trailed by one man, shirtless, who seemingly would follow this woman to the ends of the earth. In my 2013 review, I described the woman in this movement as an angelic figure who the shirtless man appeared to be worshipping.
This second movement is the excerpt here. It lasts maybe 5-10 minutes, but it’s so visually stunning that, unlike Ivesiana as a whole, it leaves an indelible visual impression. And although the cast overall did superb work, The Unanswered Question depends for its success largely on the portrayal of the female image that is manipulated and pursued.
When I saw The Unanswered Question in its Ivesiana context, the young woman in the first movement was played by Ashley Laracey, who had been promoted to Soloist a few months earlier. In my review, I wrote that she was extraordinarily compelling, and that this was the best work I’d seen her do. In the second movement, the role of the female vision was performed by the now-retired NYCB Principal Dancer Janie Taylor, looking like an ethereal vision, the angel I thought the character was supposed to represent. Here, the female role was performed by … Ashley Laracey, now looking as much like Taylor in this role as Taylor did herself. But Laracey’s interpretation was different (or appeared to be different based on it being taken out of context). Instead of being an angelic vision, Laracey here was a stunningly sinuous serpentine siren, tantalizing the impassioned young man while her four carriers (here appearing more like a collective incarnation of Fate) manipulated her like gelatin. Her performance was as emotionally compelling as it was in her performance as the innocent young woman in Ivesiana’s first movement nearly nine years earlier, but in a completely different way. Harrison Coll was the credibly impassioned young man who dreamed of and/or idolized her, and the four carriers deserve to be recognized for their flawless execution as well: Gilbert Bolden III, Preston Chamblee, Christopher Grant, and Alec Knight. This brief excerpt turned out to be the surprise hit of the afternoon.
In addition to Rubies, Balanchine’s genius was evident in Mozartiana, the ballet that preceded it on the Saturday evening program.
When I first saw Mozartiana (I don’t recall who danced the lead roles), I thought it too somber: instead of an homage, the celebration of an era, it looked more like an elegy; a remembrance of things lost. Then came Hyltin’s role debut, where she gave the piece the respectfully celebratory tone it deserved, and I was converted.
Saturday evening’s performance was different: sort of in between the emotional poles. But what distinguished this performance from others was the quality of all the lead performances. Tiler Peck’s characterization appeared to me to be too regal at first, but it was a benevolent regality, and she warmed somewhat as the dance progressed. More importantly, in this role debut she danced with rock-solid confidence, controlling time within the parameters of the choreography as is evident in her always extraordinary phrasing.
I’ve seen Troy Schumacher’s Gigue previously, but here he injected it with special sparkle. The pleasant surprise of this performance, however, was Harrison Ball’s execution in the penultimate “Theme et Variations” segment. Although he didn’t crack a smile to any noticeable degree, Ball’s single-minded intensity and consummate execution added special significance to this performance. The fact that it was his role debut probably impacted his demeanor, but it had a salutary effect on his technique.
Ordinarily I would not single out for praise the four young dancers from NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet who appear in Mozartiana. Here, however, they delivered a flawless performance, and deserve to be credited. The four were Oona Moon Frances, Sasha Friedman, Vera Machemer, and Olive Omelchenko.
I will not elaborate on the other dances that comprised these three programs – not because the performances were deficient in any way, but because they’re familiar. Thursday’s program concluded with Kyle Abraham’s remarkable The Runaway, which I included on my 2018 “Tops in New York Dance” list, and which is a runaway hit. On first view, it didn’t grab me immediately. In fact I intensely disliked it. But it suddenly clicked when I saw what I thought Abraham was trying to say, was impressed by the unique way in which he was saying it, and was overwhelmed by Taylor Stanley’s powerful performance (and Sara Mearns’s startling transformation). That’s still the case now. The only cast change from its premiere season was Megan LeCrone in the role originated by Ashley Bouder. It was a quality role debut.
Role debuts also marked the performance of La Valse, the concluding piece on Saturday evening’s program. Woodward’s role debut as the girl in white, the victim, the representation of purity, and likely a symbol of a doomed Austrian culture, was a memorable one, as was the role debut of Chun Wei Chan as the wizard / death figure / symbol of the force that would end Austrian cultural hegemony. Together with Joseph Gordon as Woodward’s smitten, devoted, and ultimately crushed would-be companion, this dark, troubling, and puzzling ballet was given a superlative performance.
Finally, the opening and concluding pieces on Saturday afternoon’s program disappointed, but for different reasons. Walpurgisnacht Ballet lacked the fire that I expect to see, with neither of the two leads looking like they wanted to be there (indeed, the sparkle to the performance was provided by the corps, many of whom are company apprentices, who very obviously enjoyed being there). And the afternoon’s concluding piece, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, lived up to its name, but not because of the cast. Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, abetted by Daniel Appelbaum’s sniveling Morrisone, Bolden’s Big Boss, and a cast of thousands, did their usual fine work. But it was a dead house. Even the strip-tease girl’s (Reichlen) famous upward thrusting kicks while being transported parallel to the stage floor by the Hoofer (Angle), which is always greeted with squeals of joy and loud applause, failed to engender any response whatsoever from Saturday afternoon’s audience. It was a Slaughter on Columbus Avenue.