“Les Bosquets,” “This Bitter Earth,” “Barber Violin Concerto,” “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux,” “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
April 29, 2014
by Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Popkin
Photo © Paul Kolnik
Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette in “Les Bosquets”
When Tom Wolfe coined the term “Radical Chic” in his 1970 essay of the same title, he couldn’t have anticipated the balletic turn that phenomenon would take. New York City Ballet opened its spring season last week with “Les Bosquets,” an eight-minute-long ballet conceived by the Parisian conceptual artist and photographer JR, and limply realized in dance by Peter Martins. Evidently hoping to establish credentials as a hip cultural institution, this newest NYCB work took the 1995 riots in Paris as its ostensible subject. Choreographed by Martins, it was just another meaningless ballet.
To spice up the occasion even more, the company imported Lil Buck – the celebrated Memphis Jooker – to dance opposite company phenom Lauren Lovette. Lit in the company’s signature highly contrasting and slick style by Mark Stanley and costumed by Marc Happel – who dressed the corps de ballet in leotards with a checked patterns, following a JR concept that made them collectively look like a newspaper photo – the ballet had three parts and a coda, to a score by a young composer named Woodkid.
Surging waves of drums and horns opened as a corps de ballet of forty charged across the stage to start a battle between the company’s men and women. According to the program note, it was meant to suggest a confrontation between rioters and police. Meanwhile Lovette wandered amongst the antagonists in a gorgeous white tutu. Lil Buck, also all in white, entered for a brief solo full of fluid arms and sinuous turns before the battling factions closed once again to an elegant combat that ended with them stomping the ballerina and leaving her nearly lifeless on the floor.
Photo © Paul Kolnik
NYCB in “Les Bosquets”
Lovette struggled to rise (to crinkly noises made by her photo paper tutu) as the orchestra dropped into a quiet, repetitive, adagio theme for piano and violin. The whole orchestra then took up the piano theme as Buck reentered for the duet that became the ballet’s denouement. Squaring off in the middle of the stage, the two dancers traded riffs. Lovette showed Buck ballet moves such as swivel pirouettes with her arms held high; he rendered them back in Jookin’ vocabulary circling the stage on his knees.
At the penultimate moment, a close-up cinema projection broke out (that’s the only word for it) behind the couple and filled the entire rear of the theater. First we saw the two dancers’ faces (hers anguished, his innocent), then their hands and feet trading moves. Conceived and directed by JR, it was in beautiful photographic contrast, a grainy black and white: you had to choose whether to look at the stage or look at the film. But if you watched the stage, the two leads briefly confronted each other. Lovette went to the floor, kneeling with one pointed foot tendu front like Princess Aurora before Prince Desiré in “Sleeping Beauty.” She then rose and briefly touched Buck’s shoulder, the only time the two had physical contact during the piece. The corps de ballet reentered in a silent line separating the two dancers, looking solemnly out at the audience as the curtain fell. A pair of silently staring eyes was encoded in the newsprint costumes, when massed in line this way.
Photo © Paul Kolnik
NYCB in “Les Bosquets”
The entire enterprise would have been merely trite had it not also been so shallow and obscure. While the program noted that the work depicted “JR’s interpretation of the riots, where an artist and a journalist first confront and then discover each other against a backdrop of . . . chaos [,]” it was anybody’s guess which dancer portrayed which character and what the action meant. Encoding a subversion of the overt message, Martins even used blocking for the opening fight that irresistibly recalled the battle between the toy soldiers and mice in “The Nutcracker.” It’s all child’s play, the subtext suggested. Meanwhile the dancing consisted of Martins’ operating in his most generic style of facile steps before falling back on his usual structural tics, such as having a classical dancer do a ballet step and a modern dancer then repeat it in another idiom. We got a full dose of that later on the program in his “Barber Violin Concerto.” Meanwhile, the audience for “Bosquets” didn’t learn a thing about the subject or the artists. Promised a radical theme, they got an opportunistic serving of white bread and circus.
One can give JR the benefit of the doubt with respect to the work’s intentions, but not Martins who implied in an interview before the piece that it was intended solely to bring the elusive “young” audience into the house. JR’s hyper enlarged images of disaffected Parisian youth, hanging on the housing projects during the 1995 riots (and why weren’t those images used here?), like his close ups of Palestinians and Israelis in another of his celebrated photo projects, celebrated the individuality and human beauty of his subjects in opposition to the collective animosity of social groups and the dehumanizing cycle of a politics of oppression and vendetta. But in the hands of Martins and company it was just cynical marketing. The project (like his appliqué life size photos of the company dancers for last winter’s season) offered JR New York celebrity, but only of the shallowest kind; and in this case on a stage named for David H. Koch.
The rest the program, entitled “21st Century Choreographers,” consisted of a potpourri of NYCB commissions extending from 1988 to the present. A joy to behold was Wendy Whelan’s return to dance Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth” after a year’s absence due hip surgery. Her elegant, feminine grace instantly reminded us of what we’d been missing. Tyler Angle partnered her beautifully, repeatedly leaning her into gentle balances that displayed Whelan’s unique blend of vulnerability and radiant strength.
Debuts by Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar in William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux” were not as successful. Neither dancer is particularly centered in the core of their body. Yet the choreography in much of this work demands that the core be kept perfectly solid while the limbs are manipulated independently, as if the dancers are half human, half marionette. The humor at the end of the piece when the man re-enters in a skirt was also flat, as Ramasar didn’t achieve the camp touch that Albert Evans once brought to it.
“Barber Violin Concerto” likewise got an indifferent performance as Sara Mearns and Ask la Cour (as the classical couple) and Megan Fairchild with Jared Angle (as the American moderns) appeared tentative, back on stage again in their first appearances of the spring.
After the sole intermission, a musically sensitive performance of Ratmansky’s “Namouna” gave a lift to the rest of the show, with Robert Fairchild in the lead supported by most of the ballet’s original cast. The exceptions were Sterling Hyltin in the female lead originally done by Whelan and Ashley Bouder dancing Jenifer Ringer’s great role of “La Cigarette.” If it didn’t fully erase the bad impression left by the cynical opening, an honest work of art revived us.
copyright © 2014 by Michael Popkin