New York City Ballet
“SoiréeMusicale,” “Year of the Rabbit”, “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
April 2, 2014
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright ©2014 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Dreams and fantasy have long been a part of ballet, but the triple bill the New York City Ballet presented Wednesday night showed fantasy with a contemporary twist. All three works (“Soirée Musicale,” an early work by Christopher Wheeldon; “Year of the Rabbit”, the second ballet by new wunderkind Justin Peck; and “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement” by Alexei Ratmansky) were as fresh and unpredictable as spring.
Wheeldon’s “Soirée Musicale” was made in 1998 for a School of American Ballet Workshop (the graduation performance of New York City Ballet’s school) with a new pas de deux choreographed for the current revival. To a collection of dances by Samuel Barber, including a Waltz, a Tango and a Two Step, Wheeldon has set what could be an old-style Broadway musical reinvented, full of wit, charm and surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how absolutely solid a ballet it is. Wheeldon was only 25 when he made “Soirée,” and it tips the hat to both Balanchine and Ashton, but it’s neither a junior work nor a derivative one.
The dancers are in ballroom costumes (the women in purple dresses, the men in tights, black jackets and big purple Romantic bow ties, by Holly Hynes) and swirl through a collection of gentle jokes, as when Kristen Segin and Indiana Woodward ineffectively, but determinedly, compete for the attentions of two men in the “Scottische,” or the wonderful Tango, in which a woman (Brittany Pollock) is pursued by a dozen men in various permutations, each more imaginative than the last. The high point is the new Pas de Deux, danced by Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay, full of difficult lifts and swirls that paid tribute to all of the romance of ballroom dancing and was beautifully danced. The rest of the ballet still had a bit of a workshop air because of its casting: mostly young dancers with as yet undeveloped personalities. Stock it with stars, and City Ballet would have a hit.
Wheeldon made “Soirée Musicale” when he was still dancing with the company, and NYCB’s newest choreographer, Justin Peck, is following the same path. His “Year of the Rabbit,” to a song cycle by Sufjan Stevens, orchestrated by Michael P. Atkinson that’s both very contemporary and very danceable, is so confident it’s almost scary. From the minute the curtain goes up, you know the ballet will be a good one. It’s full of controlled, nonstop movement; Peck is a terrific traffic cop, directing his dancers this way and that in a way that’s not confusing, even when one doesn’t have the vaguest idea what is going on. The movement consistently satisfies the eye.
The ballet is subtitled “Selections from the Chinese Zodiac,” and with sections such as “Year of the Rabbit,” “Year of the Boar,” etc. (with a “Year of our Lord” thrown in for good measure) but there aren’t any obvious references to Chinese astrology. Set for six principals and a corps of six couples, “Rabbit” looks like a madcap gym class. The costumes are by Peck himself (very short blue and white dresses with a gym-class flounce for the women, medium blue tights with lighter blue long-sleeved tops for the men).
The corps is an integral part of the work, not a backup group. The dancers’ patterns are often three-dimensional, and as likely to include rolling, resting on the floor or observing as dancing, but the corps is always There. “Rabbit” must be terribly taxing to perform; it’s about a half-hour of nonstop movement, yet the dancers tossed out dizzying move after dizzying move with such nonchalance that one felt as if they, and Peck, had dozens more to offer. The six soloists are first-among-equals, leading each section, but always as part of the group. All of the dancing was as strong as the choreography, but Teresa Reichlen was a standout, looking as interesting as I’ve ever seen her.
Peck quoted bits from several choreographers, as young dancemakers are wont to do (a bit of Nijinska here, or Mark Morris there) and Alexei Ratmansky’s inventive use of the corps de ballet and mastery of stage management may be an inspiration as well. Ratmansky’s “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement” (2010), set to Edouard Lalo’s music for Lucien (brother of Marius) Petipa’s 1882 ballet “Namouna,” is an hour long, seems to be populated by the entire company each in very specific costumes although the characters they are portraying are unnamed, and without a specific story, although there’s one in there somewhere. This is fantasy ballet at a new level.
The original “Namouna” was about pirates and slave girls, and although we’re definitely near the water in Ratmansky’s Grand Divertissement (why else would one of the corps wear bathing caps?) his ballet doesn’t seem to relate to that ballet in any way but musically. Unless, of course, the dancers/characters of that first "Namouna" had been locked in a theater since 1882 with absolutely nothing to do except dance that ballet over and over, perhaps joined by the characters from other ballets who wander in from time to time. Mime gets lost, new dancers take over roles not knowing what the original point was but adding wonderful things of their own – just like in real life – dancing it repeatedly, getting weirder and wonderfuly weirder, until Ratmansky comes along and lets them out and they dance it for us. Whatever is going on, one is confident that the characters know what’s what, and whenever the other corps resolutely dances on, snaking around the stage wearing bobbed, 1920s wigs as though they’re the granddaughters of the Shades, one has the sense of ballet, and life, as infinite. Or let's hedge our bets. Of course, it could just be a divertissement with whacky costumes (by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov).
What is clear dramatically is that a man (Robert Fairchild, charmingly bewildered) is bewitched by three women (at least). They woo him, they ignore him, one blows smoke in his face (literally, in a Cigarette dance that deliberately foreshadows Lifar’s from “Suite en blanc,” unless Lifar was also looking back.) Sara Mearns is stronger, both in her dancing and her personality, than any 19th century heroine would be, but in the end, she’s not interested. There is a small corps of 12 men (which some have called pirates, though with their helmets they look like knights to me--perhaps the knights from "Raymonda" desperate for something more to dance?), a pas de trois danced by two women and a man in mud brown (the Mud People? Some of the ballet does take place near, if not actually in and under, water). The Mud Man (Daniel Ulbricht) has some high-flying leaps and daredevil turns to match The Hero’s, but at the end, he shakes The Hero's hand and gives up his girl. Many of ballets’ clichés are gently and lovingly mocked (or paid homage to), including the Hero who loses his love and looks for her, unsuccessfully, for a very long time, until she appears, having been hidden in the corps. Another witty scene shows the nymphs dancing alone in what could be the Blue Grotto until they sense someone coming and, like very modern women rather than old-style ballet nymphs, run over to the side and bunch together at the entrance so they can pounce on him when he enters. There is humor throughout, but all seems natural (rather than mere site gags), suggested by the tone of the music, which is beautiful and deserves to be saved.
The dancers were absolutely wonderful, as though fully aware of the gift Ratmansky has given them. It’s a ballet that will surely stand repeated viewings.
Three recent ballets, each to good music, each with fine choreography made by intelligent minds. How often does one come away from an evening of ballet thinking that? It’s what New York City Ballet is about, though, and with this program, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins shows how one can further a tradition while remaining within it. Martins helped Wheeldon develop his gifts and is doing the same for Peck; Ratmansky was a finished artist when he came to NYCB, but Martins gave him opportunities and a wonderful lab in which to work. There aren’t many director-choreographers today of whom one could say the same.