All Wheeldon: “Les Carillons,” “Polyphonia,” “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 28, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright ©2012 by Michael Popkin
“Christopher Wheeldon returns to NYCB” proclaimed New York City Ballet’s mailing to its patrons this winter. The company made an evening of his ballets the highlight of its season, and only Balanchine and Robbins had been so honored. The moment was opportune: the company, founded on the premise of new work, can use his choreography and reputation right now, particularly with Alexei Ratmansky working at American Ballet Theatre. NYCB’s resources and prestige are welcome for Wheeldon after his split from Morphoses, the company he founded when he left City Ballet in 2008. But the program on stage didn’t live up to expectations. “Les Carillons,” the new ballet that opened the show, was dull, disjointed and long; and while the New York premiere of “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” and reprise of “Polyphonia” that completed the program were strong, the evening never got over its slow start.
Wheeldon’s formalist ballet made no reference to the vanished plot, but a dramatic program originally held the episodes in the score together. A ballet based on this music needed to provide an alternative, but far from presenting a unifying theme or dramatic plan, Wheeldon took his structure in the opposite direction. He used ten principal dancers in five couples, a corps de ballet the same size, and gave each couple or small ensemble a separate entrance. The dances started and ended right on the musical periods, and none had much to do with what preceded or followed. The opening march had everyone on stage, but the duet for Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar that came next was quickly followed by a pastoral quartet for Ana Sophia Scheller, Tiler Peck, Daniel Ulbricht and Gonzalo Garcia. Solos and pas de deux were added and transitions managed by sweeping large ensembles briefly across the stage from one wing to the other for no other apparent reason. The choreography for the individual dances compounded the problem by being stiff and literal, often with a step on every note in sing-song fashion and, if this wasn’t enough, often with multiple dancers doing the same steps side by side.
A duet for Robert Fairchild and Wendy Whelan brought the work briefly to life. They moved freely across the stage to a hushed passage in the strings, as he lifted her from behind to move her about in swaying motions that felt animated by a gentle breeze. After Fairchild exited, Whelan wandered the stage alone as if bereft and remained distracted when the women’s corps de ballet reentered, looking now at her feet, now into the audience or the wings, but not participating in the group. Could this be about Wheeldon’s bittersweet memories in returning to this stage, or Whelan now finding herself in a company where not a dancer remains from her younger years? Ballet is good at evoking such mysteries, but the moment vanished just as abruptly as it appeared and related to nothing else in the work. Later a pas de deux for Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski was strong, heroic and classical, but just as cut off from its surroundings.
The lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and Jean-Marc Puissant’s designs tried to pull things together by projecting colors on a backdrop that looked like an abstract expressionist drip painting. After starting out grey, the drop was saturated with a color for each scene - blue, crimson, red-brown, and mustard in succession; while at another point strong gold light was shot through from behind. Puissant’s costumes dressed the men in brown leotards, with tunics that had one arm and shoulder bare and the other clothed in wispy gauze to the wrist, and a slash of bright reflective color dividing the chest on a diagonal. The women’s cocktail dresses, also brown with slashes of color to match the men’s tunics, left the shoulders bare and extended below the knee. While both lighting and designs were sumptuous and original, the fussiness of the costumes and unending changes in light actually made the work more confusing.
If “Les Carillons” showed that a ballet doesn’t succeed without an organizing concept, the company premiere of “DGV” showed just the opposite and how brilliantly an idea can pull a work together. Made originally in 2006 for the Royal Ballet, it looked strong when Angel Corella’s company danced it in New York two years ago to recorded music and with limited resources. Danced now to live music by NYCB’s principals and corps, its central motif of travelers on a high speed train, moving at a greater speed than those outside registered to full effect. The slow time warp choreography, with each couple lost in a private world as their capsule hurtles along, showed Wheeldon to be indeed a master choreographer when the spirit moves him.
A great ballet to close an evening, every element in the piece serves a central goal. Deploying the corps de ballet at times out front and otherwise at the back of the stage, as in Robbins’ “Glass Pieces,” emphasizes the different dimensions of speed and time in the two areas. Puissant’s design of a futuristic metal structure upstage divides the two dimensions, while his sexy costumes enable the long, sweeping lines employed in the choreography to register. The drumming in the score at the end, that irrupts in double-time and then slows, approximates the visual rhythm of flashing past buildings in quick succession, or passing through a tunnel (with its compressed buffeting of sound) before emerging onto the long flats of a featureless plain. The conclusion is surprisingly lyrical as the dancers moving rhythmically against the pulsing orchestration, with a haunting melodic figure on top, reminds you of the end of Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” with its chorus of celestial voices.
Teresa Reichlen, long limbed and in a costume that suited her beautifully, was striking in the first pas de deux partnered by Craig Hall; and Kowroski and Angle again impressed in a duet that featured arresting lifts. The other couples - Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette, Ashley Bouder with Joaquin de Luz – appeared less comfortable with the choreography or perhaps just under-rehearsed; but they’ll get used to it, and the work succeeded very well even so.
“Polyphonia” – the middle ballet of the show - also got a strong rendition but was marred by a tragic mishap when Jennie Somogyi tore an Achilles tendon during her first entrance. A true child of the company, she was Marie in “The Nutcracker” at ten years old and is the only NYCB principal right now who actually trained at SAB from childhood. Peck, who was in her dressing room and knew the part, took over and did just fine. But nothing could efface the image of what had happened. The memory of the empty stage when the music continued during what should have been her solo after Somogyi limped off stays with you as a painful emptiness of the heart. Ballet indeed is the cruelest art.
Photographs by Paul Kolnik: (Top) Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild in “Les Carillons;” (Middle) Company in “Les Carillons;” (Bottom) Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski in “DGV – Danse à Grande Vitesse”