À La Française (Spring Gala)
“Mes Oiseaux,” “Two Hearts,” “Symphony in C”
New York City Ballet
The David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
May 10, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
The theme was French at New York City Ballet’s spring gala. With the atrium of the theater decorated as a flowery parterre for the after-the-performance fête, the program featured a pair of new ballets by Peter Martins and Benjamin Millepied before an evening-ending performance of “Symphony in C,” originally made for the Paris Opera. Each of the new ballets was based on French music and both were half an hour long. Millepied’s was a provocative neo-Romantic composition based on a new score from Nico Muhly commissioned for the occasion. But the challenge from the younger man evoked Martins’ best work in some time and his ballet was the evening’s better.
Although a modest work, Martins’ heart was in the ballet and its interest was in what he showed about the dancers. Dark and of middle size, Lovette (a graduate of SAB in 2009 and company member the following year) was the classical dancer with poetic lines, breathtaking extensions and exquisite pointes. A major talent, she’s already been cast in Robbins’ “2 and 3 Part Inventions,” Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” and Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons.” Her dancing flowed to the music; she’s centered, strong in the core of her body, fully shapes and finishes every step and pose, and carries her arabesque from her hips and up into her back with a line nearly as dramatic as Sara Mearns. Isaacs (from the same class at SAB) is also dark but was less familiar before this ballet. She’s jazzier, more of a turner and jumper, very physical and you can imagine her dancing in Spanish character. Martins gave her a series of fast double turns with the hips pushed to one side and arms flying to the other, segueing into triple pirouettes with an arm extended high.
Claire Kretzschmar, the youngest of the trio (she graduated SAB in 2010 and joined the company last summer), is another type that’s fascinated Martins over the years. Blond and flexible, with perfect turn out, her all-American features, while delicately feminine, are also boyish and gamine. With Stanley, Martins gave her the kind of taffy-pull adagio that he would have once given to Heather Watts, only on Kretzschmar the choreography was softened and more lyrical. With balance and aplomb, she danced in extreme positions but remained pure. Draped over Stanley’s knee in backbends as he moved her from one inventive pose into another, she displayed the nonchalance of a dancer warming up on the floor before class.
Besides partnering all the women, Stanley (SAB 2009) got an adagio solo of his own that displayed his blend of lyricism, sculptural mass and line, as well as his athletic, even acrobatic, strength. One passage had him retreating upstage in handstands where he had repeatedly to pivot and slowly balance on one arm while turning over to the rear, and he managed to look classical while doing this. Like Lovette, he’s had enough roles (including the lead in “Square Dance”) to be known to the audience, yet the new ballet was tailored to express his individuality.
Millepied’s ballet, following after a brief pause, contrasted strongly. Named “Two Hearts” for the tragic Scotch-Irish folk ballade that ends it, the music was episodic: first a section with orchestration like Debussy and a lovely melodic figure low down in the strings and horns; then a pizzicato middle dominated by the woodwinds; and finally the Appalachian style folk song at the conclusion. Sung by Dawn Landes in a nasal twang and beginning unexpectedly after twenty-five minutes of fully orchestral score, the ballad is mournful: a story of doomed love where a maiden, abandoned by her lover, goes to his wedding and provokes a murder and suicide. A briar and rose grow intertwined on the lovers’ graves and thus the “Two Hearts” of the title. But right up to the moment the ballet turns Byronic and fatal, Millepied’s choreography is formalist. It’s a typical abstract NYCB ballet interpreting music, and there’s no idea that the dancers are anything but themselves.
Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle were the principal couple, supported by six couples in the corps. The ballet opened with Angle supported by the men in an attractive petit allegro with intricate batterie. Peck and the women had a similar entrance before she and Angle danced a quiet pas de deux. In the scenes that quickly followed the men and women had separate entrances and the dancers stopped and started their movements in freeze frame poses to the pizzicato part of the score. The folk ballad arrived suddenly. But oddly, while the song intoned its story of hopeless love and death (“Is this your bride, Lord Thomas . . . etc.”) the choreography turned sexy instead of emotional. Alone together on stage, Angle first lifted Peck in pas de chats that had her knees spread apart, before balancing her in extensions where she reached for the flies while arching her back. The dancers seemed to swim in ether, remaining calm and dissociative in material that strongly recalled a pas de deux for a commission Millepied made for American Ballet Theatre, “Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once.”
The costumes by Kate and Laura Mulleavy (of Rodarte) were loose white dresses to the knee for the women and white trousers and shirts for the men. All had bold black vertical bars and crossing lines as accents. Peck and Angle changed to tighter, more revealing costumes for the concluding scene, she to a leotard that left her legs bare and had the sides cut away, he to a black shirt with a horizontal white bar. Roderick Murray’s design repeatedly projected a wide circle of light onto the stage from above to create a round dance space surrounded by mystery.
“Two Hearts” adds emotional content to the profusion of physical and choreographic ideas Millepied’s always had. Yet for all his facility in dance making, he’s not been able to provide interest for the audience’s hearts or minds and the emotional ending he wanted here misfired. The ballad scene was disconnected from what preceded it and curiously realized in its own terms.
Closing the evening, the new costumes by Marc Happel for “Symphony in C” that were the subject of publicity before the gala were indeed attractive, following the lines of Karinska’s beautiful originals but updating them by making them sleeker and more schematic, eliminating the frills and adding glitz. But it was a shock to see a company that had just danced Martins and Millepied launch into Balanchine’s 1947 classicism without transition. The ballet also started out in ragged fashion, as former music director (and Frenchman) Fayçal Karoui set the tempi too fast in the pit and Megan Fairchild was too small for the principal role in the first movement. But the performance gathered momentum as it proceeded. Sara Mearns was emotionally moving along with Jonathan Stafford in the second movement and Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz bounded through the third with élan. Tiler Peck and Adrian Danchig-Waring led a rousing conclusion.
Photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet: (Top) Taylor Stanley and Claire Kretzschmar in Peter Martins' "Mes Oiseaux" - (Bottom) Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck in Benjamin Millepied's "Two Hearts"