Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company
New York, NY
October 17. 2007
by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter
After all the months of expectations, acres of press coverage, allusions to Diaghilev and to goals of making ballet “sexy” to those normally immune to its appeal, we finally have Morphoses -- Christopher Wheeldon’s daring leap into autonomy and independence -- in front of us in actuality. The nearly overstuffed opening program consisted of six ballets, all but one by Wheeldon; on the second, completely different, program, only two of the six works are his. What we saw was an evening of finely wrought, deeply intelligent and musically sophisticated choreography that blends homages to past masters with a brazenly contemporary attack. Wheeldon’s fascination with investigating the outer reaches of partnering possibilities can result in striking images that soar into metaphorical allusion, but also often registers as a near-obsession with mechanics. Bodies are manipulated as levers and interlocking parts, and obviously risky lifts can distract form the ongoing flow of a work. Much of the time, these sleek explorations are presented with a cool detachment, almost a high-fashion gloss.
“There Where She Loved,” which Wheeldon created for the Royal Ballet and was later performed by San Francisco Ballet, opened the evening. Alternating vocal selections by Chopin (sung by soprano Kate Vetter Cain) and Kurt Weill (sung by mezzo Shelley Waite), it at first seemed to be setting up separate but parallel worlds, but ultimately did not stake a convincing claim for its juxtapositions. In a fluid opening quintet perfumed with a hint of Robbins, Anastasia Yatsenko swooped and soared as four men (Gonzalo Garcia, Tyler Angles, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Craig Hall) held and passed her through the air. Things seemed to veer into tougher territory when Hall, looking vaguely Stanley Kowalski-like in a tank top and suspenders, slouched in a chair in between dalliances with a succession of ladies, accompanied by Weill’s biting “Surabaya-Johnny.” He soon tired of sprightly, vigorous Ashley Bouder, then turned to expansive Ashley Laracey, but their connection was transitory. Teresa Reichlen appeared, posing in arabesque on the chair so that she loomed like a proud heroine, and in her he seemed to have met his match. She brought a spark of wit and allure to what otherwise felt like a forced dramatic premise, with lots of lighting changes and abrupt separations.
Chopin’s “Spring,” the Hyltin-Garcia duet, brought a welcome sprightliness amid the lugubrious tempos of most of the songs. Playful and daring, they plunged headlong into moves such as one that had him lying on his back as she lay back on her hands, suspended above him, then flipped backwards with his gentle assist. Hyltin unspooled a series of richly secure pirouettes just before Garcia draped her over his shoulder and swept her off. It was then back to moodier territory for Weill’s “Nana’s Lied,” performed by the first section’s dancers. The men, now shirtless with suspenders, created a swing for her with their arms, then floated her horizontal figure high above their heads. One sensed Wheeldon getting caught up in the intricacies of the partnering possibilities and losing track somewhat of the bigger picture. The shapes and images were beautiful, but also static, lacking an organic drive.
Bouder displayed her winning verve and expansiveness in a solo to Chopin, then was joined by Garcia, then Laracey and Hyltin, as the music shifted to Chopin’s “Merry-Making.” Its jaunty rhythms and their spirited byplay distinctly evoked “Dances at a Gathering.” Garcia seemed to become a male counterpart to the Robbins woman who flirts with a succession of men who never stay for long. He was charmingly indecisive as they took turns attracting his attention, and the conclusion found him happily surrounded by them all.
The work closed with Maria Kowrowski, at her most statuesque, and Michael Nunn as her attentive partner, engaging in mesmerizingly slow, close partnering to Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas.” Oozing regret and lingering passion – and occasionally veering towards melodrama -- they often created striking images, but some of their sequences felt forced. Contributing to the ballet’s somewhat dutiful and stilted effect were the schematic and sometimes busy dresses, with varying shades of mauve and green throughout, as though to sustain a connection between sections. The singers performed from opposite sides of the front of the stage, while Cameron Grant was the able pianist in the pit.
Wheeldon is clearly a persuasive guy with loyal friends. For him, the officially retired Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope returned to the stage to recreate the duet from “Tryst,” a 2002 work Wheeldon made for the Royal Ballet. It was preceded by a snippet of rehearsal footage – the first of several such brief, arty begind-the-scenes films offered just before a piece began. Here, we glimpsed how in a longtime partnership such as that of Bussell and Cope, their bodies can communicate with few words, although we did see Bussell, exuding a delightful girlish glow, discuss a particular step. The duet itself was a stark, sleekly exploratory affair, with an almost futuristic veneer. Initially, Cope prowled across downstage while Bussell, making her way across upstage, seemed miles away. One they met, they engaged in fascinating but depersonalized partnering, which was heavy on the praying mantis imagery – legs starkly stretched and splayed – that Wheeldon often favors. The choreography contrasted potent verticality of these tall, long-legged dancers with a sudden affinity for the floor, across which they stretched and linked imperturbably. Both dancers have strong presences, but Bussell’s serene amplitude and innate juiciness were kept in check by the precise, meticulous moves she was given. But the duet, set to slightly creepy string-heavy score by James MacMillan, was riveting in its own insistent, insinuating way.
The program gives the premiere date for William Forsythe’s “Slingerland Pas de Deux” as April 2000, although Forsythe created a full work titled “Slingerland” in 1989. The duet performed here by Wendy Whelan and Edwaard Liang is more of a conversation than the tug-of-war that many Forsythe duets resemble. Costumed simply in cream-colored costumes, with hers a soft tiny pancake tutu, they navigated through odd twists and angles with a touch of courtliness. The soft glow in which they were bathed made them seem like inhabitants of a distant, intriguing world we were privy to glimpse.
The program’s first of two works Wheeldon created specifically for Morphoses this year, “Prokofiev Pas De Deux, placed Tina Pereira and Nehemiah Kish, from the National Ballet of Canada, in Narciso Rodriguez’s simple yet elegant white costumes in front of a pearly cyclorama, and had them entwine and unfold in leisurely calm to the lyrical second movement of the composer’s second violin concerto – the polar opposite of the swiftly paced, nervously jagged middle movement of his first violin concerto. She has an innate warmth and plushness that stand out from the more elongated, on-the-edge attack of the NYCB women who dominate the Morphoses roster. He is lanky and rangy, and up to the partnering challenges the duet poses, which include one lift in which he fluidly twists her up and onto his shoulders, and another where he carried her upended body all the way across the stage, her head perilously aimed at the floor. The duet had moments of beauty but was marked by a certain deliberateness that kept it from fully taking flight, despite many lovely fleeting images, such as Pereira’s delicate backward bourrées, as she beckoned him offstage at the end.
The major new work is “Fools’ Paradise,” set to a 30-minute score by Joby Talbot, a contemporary British composer. Wheeldon asked him to orchestrate music he had composed for a silent film, and the result is richly evocative yet never overbearing, marked by shimmering strings. Primarily the ballet presents three couples and a trio, although the alliances tend to shift, and the program does not identify any pairings. It unfolds on its own gently paced, exploratory terms, keeping one off guard and often upending expectations.
At the start, Garcia and Hall emerge from a cone of smoky light upstage center, their slowly turning mirrored arabesques seeming to open the way for Whelan to enter. Ash, who is dancing with astounding power and gleaming precision, joined to form a quartet. Whelan and Hall’s extended duet explores both beauty and strangeness as he upends her and she falls back trustingly into his arms. These two seem poised to form a terrific partnership, based on this work and their recent performance of the “After the Rain” duet.
Ash and Garcia spring into invigorating action as the music perks up. Their movement opens out and fills the space, while the first couple’s was more restrictive and closed-in. Reichlen, Angle and Danchig-Waring joined in as the extended first movement, which was dominated by prowling, stealthy configurations, progressed. Kowrowski and Liang led off the second movement, which gradually built to a full-cast vigorous display before giving way to a recapitulation of its opening moments. This is a dense, intriguing work that invites further viewings; it was a lot to take in at the end of so full an evening. The shimmering petals (or leaves?) that frequently rained down from above were a consistent, but rather puzzling element. The costuming, by Rodriquez, was extremely simple and functional, in shade of beige – tights for the men, unitards with barely-visible belts and diagonal markings for the women.
Wheeldon also tossed into the program, like a frothy bouquet, the charming divertissement he made for the Metropolitan Opera’s “La Gioconda” last year. In the midst of all the sleek, moody, introspective work, its pointedly old-fashioned stance (fancy, shiny costumes! Music so familiar that some in the audience inevitably, giggled at the start) that may have been comforting to some, but was perhaps intended to point up the then-versus-now of what Morphoses is all about. Framed and amplified by the crisp, wittily brisk and decorative ensemble of eight women, Bouder bounded through it with more eagerness and expansiveness, but less old-world charm and elegant phrasing, than Letizia Giuliani, who originated the role, while the seemingly tireless Garcia delivered sensational pirouettes and other bravura with a gracious modesty.
Kudos to Wheeldon (and City Center) for providing live music throughout the program. Rob Fisher, a familiar and much-admired conductor in the world of musical theater (and a major component in the success of City Center’s Encores series) conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Morphoses is certainly staking its claim as a major, highly welcome and worthy new venture. If anything, it came across on this opening night as rarefied and highly refined, thankfully not making any overtly pandering gestures to wow that ever-in-demand “new audience” so many ballet companies seek (remember the Joffrey and “Billboards?” That was supposed to bring in the youth crowd in droves.) The company’s initial incarnation already has a lot to offer. In time, with less pressure and – one hopes – a regular performance schedule -- it will probably loosen up and take more chances.
Top: "Fools' Paradise." Photo: Erin Baiano
Bottom: Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope in "Tryst." Photo: Erin Baiano