New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 23, 2014
Fall Gala: “Morgen”; “This Bitter Earth”; “Clearing Dawn” (Schumacher World Premiere)
“Funerailles” (Scarlett World Premiere); “Belles-Lettres” (Peck World Premiere)
-- by Jerry Hochman
New York City Ballet’s Fall 2014 Season began last night with its annual Fall Gala – the company’s seasonal effort to celebrate itself, to secure additional donations from upscale patrons, and to throw a knockout-looking party/dinner where these patrons can hobnob with knockout-looking dancers, while the hoi polloi squeezes through narrow passageways to get to their nosebleed seats. Sort of NYCB’s version of Upstairs/Downstairs. This year’s gala also continued NYCB’s focus on fashion, integrating haute couture with ballet costume design – each of the pieces on the program was costumed by a well-known contemporary fashion designer. The only difference from immediate past seasons is that this year’s ‘red carpet’ was purple, and encompassed much of the Lincoln Center plaza rather than just the DHK Theater outside wall.
But a Gala that’s catered to the well-heeled downstairs crowd and that’s an extension of Fashion Week is not a surprise, and is somewhat of a necessity. That the program also included superb dancing isn’t a surprise either: as I’ve observed previously, NYCB’s dancers, particularly its young principals and soloists, are performing at an extraordinarily high level. What was a pleasant surprise is that last night’s Gala consisted entirely of skillfully created and executed pieces by contemporary choreographers, and included two flat out fabulous world premieres : Justin Peck’s “Belles-Lettres” and Liam Scarlett’s” Funerailles.” Troy Schumacher’s “Clearing Dawn” was lighter and less complex than the other pieces on the program, and though it was a nice introduction to his choreography, it suffered by being on the same program with the other premieres.
“Belles-Lettres” is yet another triumph for Mr. Peck, a company soloist (who demonstrated his partnering skills earlier in the evening in Mr. Martins’s “Morgen”) and its newly appointed Resident Choreographer. The ballet is complex on choreographic and intellectual levels, thrilling to watch evolve, lovely to look at, and endlessly entertaining. It’s Mr. Peck’s tightest piece to date, and – even given the justifiable success of his “Year of the Rabbit” (2012) and last season’s “Everywhere We Go”-- his best work. So far.
Mr. Peck’s choice of title could not have been accidental. Belles-Lettres is a term used to describe a particularly artistic form of writing that is particularly beautiful and/or pleasing, and is often associated with writing that sings of poetry and romance. The term also brings to mind the phrase “belle epoque,” descriptive of a period in Europe from the early 1870s to the beginning of World War I characterized by peace and prosperity, and a golden age of the arts. The piece’s accompanying score is an untitled chamber music composition, “Solo de piano avec accompagnement de quintette à cordes en mi majeur,” Opus 10, by Cesar Franck, a Belgian/French composer of the late Romantic and ‘Belle Epoque’ musical eras, which shows both Romantic influences (Franck was reportedly influenced by Franz Liszt, among others) and a ‘cyclic form’, a manner of repeating themes during the course of a work, that characterized his later pieces. The music is both passionate and lyrical, as is Mr. Peck’s ballet, which is very much of the same period. “Belles-Lettres” is an Art Nouveau ballet.
The Romantic/Art Nouveau/Belle Epoque feeling is given additional emphasis by the Victorian/French lacy designs on the costumes by Mary Katrantzou. The dresses on the ballerinas look like they were lifted from lithographs of the era (Alphonse Mucha in particular) – they’re lovely. (The same approach for the men didn’t work as well – they’re darker and come across as lazy, mottled mosaics, and looked more clownish than Klimptish.)
And there’s a theme to “Belle-Lettres’ that sort of fits this stylistic background. Greek revival architecture was a dominant style in the late nineteenth century, but a fascination with Greek culture during the belle epoque period wasn’t limited to architecture. (Curiously, in his later years, Franck composed a symphonic poem, “Psyche,” based on the Greek myth). In his ballet, the underlying theme is somewhat Dionysian, a celebration of affection, love and passion, with a central controlling Cupid/Eros-like character who gives the gift of affection, love and passion to the couples. This is not a cutesy ‘Don Q’ Amor, but a feisty god/spirit who gives his gifts freely, at one point transmitting his gift by fingertip touching, with the couples responding as if blessed.
But whether there’s a conscious style, or conscious theme, is not critical to appreciating Mr. Peck’s ballet. It works as a beautiful plotless piece, held together by passion and the Puck-like character around which everything else happens. Mr. Peck begins his ballet with his four couples, Lauren Lovette and Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey and Adrian Danchig-Waring, Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley, and Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle, dancing in circular celebration, surrounding a central figure, Anthony Huxley. At one point they sit and each dancer raises a leg and they touch their feet together as if they were collectively lighting a central torch. The image is repeated later. In the interim, the couples dance together, separately, around Mr. Huxley or with him, in varying patterns and shapes. There is no way to describe what Mr. Peck has accomplished here that does it justice – it sounds repetitive, but nothing is repetitious. It looks different from moment to moment, and Mr. Peck pulls patterns and repeating images out of nowhere, as if from thin air, utilizing every corner of the stage. It is a delicate, passionate, visual feast, culminating with the women returning to the stage with their hair down, ready to move to the next stage in the celebration. No one dancer stood out from the other couples – they all were top notch – except for Mr. Huxley, whose strengths as an extraordinarily capable solo dancer are utilized perfectly in this piece. Susan Walters was the accomplished piano soloist.
Although they’re nothing like each other, Mr. Scarlett’s “Funerailles” and Mr. Peck’s “Belles-Lettres” have a common thread – passion. Choreographed to “Funerailles” from “Harmonies poetiques et religieuses” by Franz Liszt, the ballet, a duet for Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild to a piano solo vibrantly played by Elaine Chelton, the piece takes awhile to get going, but once it does, it’s memorable. I had an immediate sense that this was a couple that had been through hell – perhaps this was happening in the wake of the failed French Revolution, after hope had long disappeared, and the couple was spent, tired and resigned. The costumes, by Sarah Burton, were of that era – a long frilly gown in black with gold trim for Ms. Peck that looked not so much dressy and opulent as tattered and now superfluous. Parts of it looked empty, as if the fabric had been torn off. Mr. Fairchild was outfitted in a late 18th/early 19th century jacket, also black with gold trim, which also looked somewhat disheveled, as if it had seen better days, and he wore no underlying shirt – as if it had been lost somewhere during the revolution and its aftermath. Another way to look at the couple is as if she were a ‘Camille’ figure, who had given up, and who her partner was desperately trying to keep alive. (It sounds somewhat like Manon in the Bayou, but the choreography is very different, and there's no stage set.) Regardless, it’s a pas de deux of heartache and passionate desperation; a ‘flames of Paris’ after the revolution was over, or after the ball was done.
Again, however, and as with Mr. Peck’s piece, whether there is a ‘theme’ doesn’t really matter. Mr. Scarlett creates characters who evolve throughout the course of the duet, from people left with nothing, to Mr. Fairchild’s efforts to revive and rekindle whatever passion there used to be, to Ms. Peck’s awakening and eventual return of passion, to her recognition of the futility of it all, to Mr. Fairchild’s refusal to accept her resignation, as he carries her off. The choreography and partnering are intricate and spell-binding, and Ms. Peck and Mr. Fairchild provided another demonstration of why they are two of the finest dancers of their generation anywhere.
Mr. Schumacher’s piece is playful and cute, but of little consequence. Six dancers, Ashley Bouder, Claire Kretzschmar, Georgina Pazcoguin, David Protas, Teresa Reichlen, and Andrew Veyette, first appear unidentifiable, covered by oversized coats (from my vantage point they looked like thick, nondescript school graduation gowns), and move about the stage like sedated bears. Then suddenly this outer garb is lifted up to the ceiling – a nifty bit of stagecraft – revealing the dancers as ‘kids’ – college kids, perhaps – dressed in ridiculous outfits (vertically striped short cheerleader-like skirts for the women, short pants for the men, all in varying shades of grey, and each with a jacket that looked like the upper half of a drab business suit). The costumes, by Thom Browne, contributed to the ‘school uniform’ sense, and were definitely eye-catching, but in a way that made them look more curious than appealing. It appeared to me that these ‘kids’, after their formal ‘gowns’ were lifted, were figuratively letting their hair down and being themselves. But it was all rather pointless and dull -- except for a brief but wonderful solo for Mr. Veyette (at a point when the music, by Judd Greenstein, seemed particularly derivative of Philip Glass, and the choreography an attempt to outdo Twyla Tharp). But this was Mr. Schumacher’s company debut as a choreographer, and even if it lacked a sense of importance, it displayed underlying competence and promise.
The evening opened with Mr. Martins’s “Morgen,” a revival of his 2001 ballet for three women and three men (Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Ask la Cour, Amar Ramasar, and Mr. Peck). The dancers are paired off, but there are nine segments of waltzes by Richard Strauss, and the dancers change partners, never dancing a segment with the same partner twice, until the coda. To me this is of no significance – the couples are not pairs, just representative of couples, each dancing intricately, and wickedly choreographed duets. I had not previously seen “Morgen,” and to me it’s one of Mr. Martins’s finer pieces, displaying not only his underappreciated choreographic skill, but also showing his dancers off to advantage. And the costumes, by Carolina Herrera, were the most successful of the night – each appropriately evocative of the passionate romanticism of the Strauss music and the equally romantic moonlit pillared portico designed by Alain Vaes. To me, the super partnering by the men was the glue that held this piece together, but the ballerinas got to show off. Ms. Kowroski still has an extension that goes on for miles, and a delivery that maintains its intensity despite facial emotional vacancy. Ms. Mearns was vibrant and lovely, with a smoldering passion that could light fires. And Ms Hyltin is lighter than air, with a spine made of a rubber band rather than vertebrae, and she doesn't so much dance as flies. Her performance added that quality of controlled bravado and breathtaking excitement to her usual impressive expressionism, executing leaps that defy gravity and anatomy, and which make her consistently appear to be dancing larger than life.
The program included a repeat performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth,” an excerpt from a larger ballet: “Five Movements, Three Repeats.” I thought it was a brilliant, gripping piece when I first saw it (at the ‘Valentino Gala’ several seasons ago), and still do, and it is one of those rare pas de deux that looks better on its own than it does within the larger piece. But I suspect it wasn’t added to the program just because it’s another excellent example of contemporary choreography. It was again performed exquisitely by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle, - and this is Ms. Whelan’s final season with NYCB. Not including Ms. Whelan on the program would have been unthinkable, and this piece is a fine vehicle for her. The thunderous applause for her at the piece’s conclusion is just the first of many that will follow her performances this season.
edited 9/29 to eliminate a couple of egregious typos
Last edited by balletomaniac on Mon Sep 29, 2014 2:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.