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

October 2 afternoon and October 6 evening
The Sky to Hold (world premiere), Suspended Animation (world premiere), Western Symphony

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet premiered two new dances last week that are difficult to explain and evaluate.

On first exposure to these new ballets on October 2 (they premiered at NYCB’s Fall Gala two days earlier), The Sky to Hold, choreographed by Andrea Miller and Suspended Animation by Sidra Bell, my initial reaction was negative – as was the case with everyone else I know who’s seen them. But for the costumes, lovely in the first piece and a cacophony of color and form in the second, they appeared to be forgettable. But I wanted to see a second cast in the third dance on both programs, and that gave me the opportunity to see the two premieres a second time. Maybe there was something I missed.

There was. I still have reservations about both of them, but each in a different way stimulates the eyes and tickles the brain.

Before it gets lost in the discussion of the new dances, I’ll first address that third dance on each program: Balanchine’s Western Symphony.

It’s been awhile since I last saw Western Symphony, and the years haven’t been kind to it. It’s still a delightful dance albeit not one of Balanchine’s masterpieces, but it’s beginning to look dated despite generally excellent performances and an audience reception on each night that clearly expressed the relief of the familiar.

Balanchine choreographed Western Symphony in 1954, adding stereotypical concepts of the American West to a classical ballet format. It’s tempting to describe it as a response to Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, but although there are many general themes that bring to mind similar themes in Rodeo, de Mille’s ballet premiered in 1942, and I suppose if Balanchine’s intention was to create something to rival a popular dance by a rival company, he would have done it sooner. Moreover, I’ve found nothing to indicate that this was Balanchine’s intent.

Unity Phelan in George Balanchine’s
“Western Symphony”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Choreographed to a commissioned score by Hershy Kay that is an arrangement of songs with western themes (“Red River Valley”;“ Goodnight, Ladies”; etc.) that are woven throughout the ballet, the piece has always – at least since I began attending ballet performances – been an audience favorite. In addition to reflecting Balanchine’s fascination with the American West, within its classical format it not only applies western themes and folk dance (e.g., square dance) to classical forms, it also applies classical forms and mythological imagery to western themes (for example, by bundling references to Giselle and Swan Lake, and a reference to a mythological Russian Troika or “Apollo’s Chariot” – which sits atop the Bolshoi Theater, and which Balanchine has used in other ballets – in the Adagio segment).

Now, though it’s still enjoyable to watch, it’s sort of old hat – albeit a cowboy hat.

New York City Ballet in a prior performance of
George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony”
here featuring Robert Fairchild
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The dance is currently divided into three segments (originally there were four), the last of which also segues into its conclusion. Each is structured classically, with an ensemble opening, a focus on the pair of lead dancers, and a distinct ending. The first, Allegro, opens with a brief nostalgic image of dance hall girls in front of a backdrop set that could have been purloined from TV’s “Gunsmoke” (although “Gunsmoke” didn’t begin its 20 year TV run until the following year), and then segues to a broad, exuberant dance that beckons passersby (the audience) to have a good time. Lauren King and Ask la Cour led this segment at the Saturday matinee while Ashley Laracey and Joseph Gordon, each in role debuts, did the same the following Wednesday. Both King and Laracey were appropriately and extravagantly effusive, but la Cour and Gordon left different impressions: Gordon looked straight out of cowboy central casting, while la Cour danced no less effectively, but appeared considerably more refined – a quality he brings to everything he dances.

The casts for the second section, Adagio, provided the greatest contrast. On Saturday, Lauren Lovette (who had debuted in the role the previous night) and Amar Ramasar delivered unusually nuanced portrayals of, respectively, the seductive dance hall girl / coquette and the smitten, full-of-himself cowboy, both ratcheting up the playful comedy. Their performances were priceless. On Wednesday, these roles were assumed by Ashley Bouder and Aaron Sanz. The comic nature inherent in the choreography was preserved, but those extra qualities that Lovette and Ramasar provided, the nuances that made the roles more than cardboard, were absent. Compared to Ramasar, Sanz’s portrayal was relatively one-dimensional, but that would be expected in what, for him, was a role debut. Bouder executed the choreography well, but the textured characterization that makes the role was absent: at times she was more Swanilda-ish stiff than good-natured seductress, and the change from one character component to another was done suddenly, like flicking a switch.

Roman Mejia, here as Puck
in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Photo by Erin Baiano

The final segment, Rondo, was a blast. Both Emily Kikta (in a role debut) and Unity Phelan, on Saturday and Wednesday respectively, conveyed the somewhat low-level-aloofness and haughtiness that is appropriate for the role, and provided the high-caliber execution required, but here it was the cowboys’ show, and Andrew Veyette and Roman Mejia as their respective partners danced masterfully. Even though he may not appear up to it, Veyette somehow always manages to pull out whatever required pyrotechnics there may be in a role, and he did so on Saturday. Mejia was simply extraordinary. His soaring stage leaps gobbled air, and his pirouettes were explosive. [As an aside, both Phelan and Mejia were promoted that night, Mejia to soloist and Phelan to Principal, as was Indiana Woodward. Each was well-deserved.]

Now to the new pieces.

The two new dances can be considered just on the basis of their abstract qualities without any intent beyond painting moving pictures, and that’d be fine. But I believe both choreographers intended to tell us something. However, since neither of the pieces included program notes (which often means there’s no intent at all, or that it means whatever the viewer sees in it), deciphering that “something” is a challenge

Since I’m intrigued by intellectual puzzles, I did some post-first-performance research, and I think I’ve figured out Miller’s piece. Seeing it a second time confirmed it. [As usual, I didn’t read any previews relating to either premiere; I want to see and evaluate new dances, at least initially, as any member of the audience would.]

On first view The Sky to Hold looked like a hodgepodge of imagery and jumbled ideas (except for the gorgeous costumes by Esteban Cortazar) that had been thrown together with relatively minimal choreographic movement variety. Further, it was set to a commissioned score by Lido Pimienta, with whom I have no familiarity, which was wonderfully vivid – except for the parts that were sung. I didn’t understand a word, at times the vocalization sounded overly and annoyingly shrill, and the singer’s appearance (I didn’t realize on first viewing that she was the composer) looked unnecessarily pompous. There was a tribal / primitive slant to some parts of the score, and consequently I thought Miller’s dance was a take on The Rite of Spring – with two “chosen ones” – gone awry. But that theme didn’t play through to the end of the piece.

Nevertheless, I was convinced that this dance was more than pretty images. The dance’s title brought to mind a prayer (… my soul to keep) or nursery rhyme or similar easy-to-swallow generalized concept meant to be readily and easily understood – or just accepted as gospel. So I researched the title, finding a little love poem by Sara Teasdale (early 20th Century) that used that phrase, but it didn’t jibe with the dance. Nor did a collection of short stories called “To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu. However, the same search, but lower in the hierarchy, yielded the same words combed from within certain creation myths. Eureka.

New York City Ballet in Andrea Miller’s “The Sky to Hold”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Based on this enlightenment, and after a second view, I see The Sky to Hold as visualizing a Native American (North, South, or Central) or, broader, an indigenous people’s Creation of the World Story – one either conceived by the choreographer and composer out of whole cloth, or a synthesis of such stories known to exist.

On this second viewing I realized that I wasn’t supposed to understand the sounds I heard because they’re either from some language that I and most viewers are ignorant of, or, more likely, sounds that are precursors of language. After all, language is nothing more than a collection of sounds that have been standardized over millennia within a given population, which enable communication beyond grunts. And the prehistoric origin of language is most likely (I’m not a linguist, so hold the emails) not just a collection of random sounds, but sounds that relate to something: e.g., a sound that mimics wind, or thunder, or birds, or to that’s representative of a variety of emotions (serenity; anxiety; terror). This dovetails nicely with the rest of what I think Miller was trying to show, and I now understand what Pimienta was doing. And I suppose sounding shrill is appropriate in the context of apparent danger or panic.

Miller appears to mix two concepts – Creation of the World and Adam and Eve (i.e., the first humans) – but many creation stories combine the two. I can see the two components of the world as forces represented by corps dancers dressed differently – one group in flowing white costumes (air / sky), the other in flowing gentle earth and sea / Southwestern colors (land / sea) – attempting to create the first humans. The lead couple, played by Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley, had to have been more than just symbolic of the union of air and land / sea to form the world, so having an Adam and Eve analog fits.

All this makes the dance far more comprehensible, but there are flaws. Why was the analog-“Eve” character, if that’s what she was, born melancholy (as opposed to “Adam”, who looked bewildered and not a little spacey)? Why all the struggles that the couple endures (which may be perpetual, since here there seems no rhyme or reason for them; they just happen)? Maybe in this Creation / Adam and Eve depiction there’s an unseen third force trying to keep them apart – perhaps visualized by metallic-looking curtains that at times spanned the upstage wall and which changed color (depending on the light that illuminated them) from silvery to bronze and more, and which billowed ominously: Stormclouds? Thunder? The wrath of a Native-American Zeus? I think that aspect of it should have been presented clearer. And why interrupt the Creation story, if that’s what it is, with duets by members of the unseen “force” symbols that seemingly have nothing to do with the basic story and, if anything, indicates that these aren’t forces but “real humans” – and if that’s the case, why create more? .

Regardless of whether my interpretation is correct, once it became reasonably clear to me what Miller and the Pimienta were attempting to do, even with some relatively minor misgivings The Sky to Hold became a far more interesting dance to watch. And I enjoy dances that make me overthink.

Beyond the dance’s meaning, if there is one, Mearns and Stanley were compelling as the multi-faceted first humans (if that’s what they were) or representations of the unity of sky and land / sea (if that’s what they were), even if the character components displayed didn’t make much sense. And even though it wasn’t clear why they were doing what they were doing, the dancers executing those duets added texture to the dance. Claire Kretszchmar and Sebastian Villarina-Velez, Woodward and Davide Riccardo, and India Bradley and Jonathan Fahoury (in a stunning duet) stood out. Chun Wai Chan and Devin Alberda had other featured roles, and executed well even though I don’t yet understand why their characters were there, as did the remainder of the cast (paired as they were on stage and in the program): Gretchen Smith and Maxwell Read, Emilie Gerrity and Preston Chamblee, and Baily Jones and Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara.

Notwithstanding having tickled my brain, resulting in the mental gymnastics that I’ve taken too long to discuss, what The Sky to Hold was intended to show might not matter as long as the dance looks good. After the piece concluded with “Adam and  Eve” reuniting, at least pending the next struggle, I overheard an audience-member sitting behind me stating to his companion, with enthusiasm: “That was very pretty.” In the end, that observation may be all that really matters.

New York City Ballet in Sidra Bell’s “Suspended Animation”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Suspended Animation remains a puzzlement. I appreciated Bell’s dance more on first view because, thinking it to be abstract only, it had movement qualities and variety that looked far more interesting than Miller’s dance. And since the title indicates that a visually interesting plotless dance may have been all that was intended, that’s fine. There certainly is a considerable amount of movement that is executed slowly and deliberately, as if mired in slow motion, just for the sake of depicting “suspended animation” and doing it well.

As with Miller’s piece, however, I suspected more. But I haven’t figured it out yet (if there is an it), even after a second view.

When the dance begins, one by one you see dancers emerge on stage clothed in varying degrees of weirdness. Each has a different costume and solid costume color for all of its component parts (costumes were designed by Christopher John Rogers), and gender plays no part—except to the extent it plays a part by playing no part. Grotesque tutus; arms covered in something akin to sheep wool; one dancer with a multi-colored cape that, if exposed to wind, would make the wearer fly. That having been said, there was some cohesion – all the dancers were dressed like this. There can be beauty in the absurd.

As the dance progressed, however, these same dancers (or some of them) appeared without the costume accoutrements: their costumes were colored the same, but they were just different types of basic tops and bottoms that had shown previously from beneath the earlier costumes. They were moving color blocks, for no apparent reason. And at various times during the course of the dance, one or another grouping would be stationed behind translucent scrims at each side of the stage while something was happening in full view center stage. Interesting. But if there was a point to these events beyond these characters being voyeurs, it eluded me.

At first I thought that Suspended Animation was a representation of some sort of futuristic vs. present (or future vs. future) culture clash, adjusted for differences in the speed of light or the passage of time (hence the suspended animation). But toward the end, some or all of the weird costuming and chapeau returned on the dancers who’d previously removed them, debunking that theory – unless the intent was for the dancers to represent parallel but different cultures: the same characters several thousand years apart. The mind boggles at the possibilities, and the lack of reasonable clarity.

Megan Fairchild, here with Taylor Stanley
in Peter Martins’s “Jeu de Cartes”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Suspended Animation was choreographed to four compositions (or excerpts therefrom) by a trio of composers: Nicholas Britell, Oliver Davis, and Dosia McKay. It’s divided into four sections: i) the object is to slip; ii) communion; iii) protrusion; iv) Gatherings of the future. None of these descriptions (if that’s what they were intended to be) seemed anything more than generalities that might apply to some of the stage movement and positioning – except for the final one, which dovetails somewhat with my theory. But why delineate the sections this way? And why is the final segment the only one that begins capitalized? Maybe I’ll figure it out on further views.

Regardless of its opacity, Suspended Animation is still visually unusual and compelling, and it received some excellent performances – particularly Teresa Reichlen and Peter Walker in the third section’s pas de deux, and Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley leading the final section. Other dancers, all of whom did fine work with the costumes and choreography they were given, were Kikta, Isabella LaFreniere, Megan LeCrone, Mira Nadon (looking stunning as the caped, bird-like character), Harrison Ball, Christopher Grant, Kennard Henson, and KJ Takahashi.

I’ve emphasized previously the necessity for including “new” choreography to augment NYCB’s heritage ballets: essentially, to mix the old choreographic gods with the new. Sometimes they prove valuable additions to the repertoire; sometimes they don’t. In the spring of 2019, I reviewed choreography by then “old” choreographers vs. then “new” choreographers, and described it as the “old gods and the new.” But in this case, “new” gods has a special meaning: choreography and music created by women vs. choreography created by the “old” male gods. Regardless, it pains me to be negatively judgmental when clearly so much thought and energy so obviously went into creating these dances, and where, as here, they’re so unusual. So I try hard to work through initial misgivings. It might take some effort, which is not always fruitful, but I’d urge other viewers to do the same.