A Bushel & a Peck at City Ballet

Justin Peck's "Paz de la Jolla" at New York City Ballet

James writes:

If this is not turning into a golden age for classical choreography, it is at least becoming a silver age or a bronze. The recurring program of “21st Century Choreographers” at the New York City Ballet gives a welcome overview of this resurgence and highlights the company’s own role in nurturing this surprising turn of events—a surprise, given the uncertain state of contemporary composition in other performing arts.

This season’s “21st Century” program offered work by two of the brightest young stars, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck, but began squarely in the late 20th Century with Ash, a ballet by Peter Martins that premiered in 1991 at the New York State Theater, along with his Infernal Machine from 2002. Some might begrudge a Martins double-header as a case of royal prerogative for the NYCB’s Ballet Master-in-Chief. Yet I appreciated the inclusion for the clear line these two works draw from the NYCB’s founding choreography of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—and their connections to and contradictions with more contemporary work.       

Ash feels like late twentieth-century ballet, and classic Martins: cerebral, technically demanding, and spare. In its lack of narrative and its appeal to abstraction, the dance is the most Balanchine-like of the program and also the most remote in its tense counterpoint. In the late 1980s, Michael Torke, the composer for Ash, wrote a series of orchestral pieces called “Color Music.” Ash works through a similar interest in Synesthesia—the mixing of the senses—through the use of colored lighting by Mark Stanley and primary shaded costumes by Steven Rubin, which also share an unfortunate affinity to the uniforms of Star Trek. A friend commented that such a dance can be inaccessible, overly taxing on the dancers while offering little to the audience, which is perhaps true. At the same time, I found it exhilarating to watch Ashley Laracey rise above the technical demands put to her and find this ballet’s inner grace.

The story of The Infernal Machine starts out similarly obtuse. In the program, its composer, Christopher Rouse, managed to refer to a play by Jean Cocteau, a connection (or lack thereof) to the Oedipus myth, a “Perpetuum mobile,” and an orchestral tryptich—which goes a long way in saying very little. Instead, this brief, furious pas de deux of Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee mixes robotic motion and inappropriate groping to an uncertain, uncomfortable, and uncompromising end.             

Located between the two Martins was This Bitter Earth, a pas de deux with Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, with music by Dinah Washington and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, which premiered in 2012. The ballet has just about everything a contemporary audience might want from dance. Wheeldon is also everything Martins is not: deeply romantic, easily accessible, employing a narrative that is clearly discernable. Here the earth tones of the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and the dustbowl blues of Dinah Washington—interposed with a techno-beat by Max Richter—gave us a couple dancing on the edge of desperation. I am not always drawn in by the popular emotiveness of Sara Mearns, whose sense for theatricality departs from the traditional coolness of classical ballet, where emotion is conveyed through movement over physiognomy. Some have also criticized Wheeldon for the gender politics of his pairings, which admittedly at moments can become strictly ballroom. But ballet is also ready for such an infusion of red-blooded romance, for a new affection not only between the dancers but also between the stage and the audience. With Mearns perfectly cast in this role, This Bitter Earth delivered its earthly bitterness in spades.

The NYCB may have thought that by including Jeux, a dance by the London-based Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup that premiered last year, the company was giving a nod to greater gender inclusivity in its selection of choreographers. Unfortunately, this Kim is a man, and this ballet is a manly embarrassment. Drawing on the tropes of film noir, Jeux uses blindfolds and bare bulbs to affect an arch narrative about a woman betrayed. But with business casual costumes by Marc Happel, the dance rather feels like a Bear Stearns holiday party gone wrong, with coworker Craig Hall caught cheating on Sara Mearns with Lauren Lovette, and Mearns saved by the passionate embrace of Adrian Danchig-Waring as, what, the hunky janitor? Cliché piles upon cliché in this ensemble dance that ends with a giant novelty tennis ball (the “jeux”).  On my day, Mearns, blindfolded, even inadvertently knocked her head against another dancer’s leg at one point. Clearly she wished she had stuck around on that Bitter Earth rather than head to the big city.             

Finally it was time for Paz de la Jolla, the 2013 dance by NYCB dancer and resident choreographer Justin Peck, set to music by Bohuslav Martinu. I say “finally,” because here is the dance many of us had come to see: the subject of the documentary film Ballet 422 and the product of the NYCB’s astonishing wunderkind, who has already choreographed something like twenty-eight ballets—or a number equal to his current age. Peck’s humility in the face of the tradition of Balanchine and Robbins comes across palpably in Ballet 422,—and it is on display here again in his intuitive understanding for classical movement and form. Rather than fight the tide, Peck has a remarkable ability to channel a dancer’s flow, deployed in a sunny ballet inspired by his upbringing in Southern California. What begins in beachy bliss, with splendid Esther Williams-like swimsuit costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, supervised by Marc Happel, transforms into a eddying, swirling tide of abstract, fluid motion. The ensemble becomes the ocean, with arms and legs forming the patterns of rolling surf. Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar become engulfed in the waves, while a third dancer—a lifeguard?—swims out for the rescue. On the day of my performance, Georgina Pazcoguin replaced Tiler Peck in this role, which drew noticeable (and regrettable) disapproval from the audience. Pazcoguin’s gymnastic style gave a different, and not altogether uninteresting, shape to the part, even as we missed Peck’s sinuous forms. But it was the other Peck who was still on full display here—the choreographer in residence who, one hopes, never leaves his home at the New York City Ballet.                         

The family Barber


James writes:

Last season at the Metropolitan it was “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” This season, it was “Barber of Seville.” For the holidays, the Metropolitan Opera presented an abridged, English language, “family-friendly” adaptation of this 1816 warhorse of the bel canto repertoire. Does that mean it was a Reader’s Digest Rossini? Far from it. From Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts to the “Family Saturdays” now produced by the New York City Ballet, family friendliness must not always be the enemy of music. As the Met demonstrated a decade ago with its abridged “Magic Flute,” this season’s Barber revealed that even great opera can, sometimes, go in for a trim.

With Bartlett Sher’s 2006 production shorn down from three-plus to a close-cropped “two hours and zero minutes”—you can just see the scissors coming out on that—this Barber seemed to lose little in the haircut, aside from an over-shaved overture, left bald and, in the hands of the conductor Antony Walker, rather languid. Otherwise the cuts were smart, and the blow-out extra “buffa,” with a new translation by the poet J. D. McClatchy, who also artfully took on the Met’s “Magic Flute” a decade ago.

Of course, Gioachino Rossini is, on his own, opera’s most family-friendly composer, contributing a greatest hits of childhood favorites, whether it be the theme for the “Lone Ranger” from the overture to Guillaume Tell or “The Rabbit of Seville” from, well, the present work. And perhaps Looney Tunes was not far from Sher’s mind as the cast squeezed through the bars of a metal fence as though it were rubber, or when he slowly dropped a gigantic anvil onto a breakaway pumpkin wagon at the end of the first act—an idea that clearly missed its mark by not printing “ACME” on the prop.


Then again, Looney Tunes, the Lone Ranger, and Bugs Bunny may mean little to a target audience of Millennials and Generation Z, who demand more than baby-boom sight gags to put their phones down for the two-hour run (the only device that came out for my matinee was a mom’s full-size iPad camera, which reminded me of the old anti-drug ad, “I learned it from watching you”).

The coloratura of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Rosina, who also headlined the Italian version at the Met, captivated my own mixed-age audience. The young Elliot Madore, in his debut as the barber Figaro, was especially amusing in his knowing, swashbuckling swagger, arguably having even more fun than Christopher Maltman did in the full version a year ago, although it would be hard to top Maltman’s “Largo al factotum.” Madore also showed good chemistry with Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, whose voice was clear but lacked some projection.


A passerelle, or catwalk, that wrapped around the orchestra pit presented some extra interest for the audience but potential challenges to the singers, both in vocalizing into the hall and not falling on the conductor’s baton. But a note should be said for the low-tech, period-like staging, more curtains and caster wheels than video and pyrotechnics, which only enhanced the immersive feel of the classical performance. Anyone who thinks that children only like the latest gadgets has never seen them enthralled in the analogue exoticism of a museum period room, or in this production of “Barber of Seville.” When it comes to family-friendly fare, opera can have a happy ending after all.


Martha Martha Martha


"Embattled Garden," here performed by Lorenzo Pagano, Mariya Dashkina Maddux, and Lloyd Mayor of Martha Graham Dance Company; photo Christopher Duggan

How often should we expect the Martha Graham Dance Company to perform dances by Martha Graham? I might suggest something like 75 percent of the time. Founded by Martha Graham in 1926, here is the oldest dance company in America. Tasked with preserving and transmitting the repertoire of 181 works that Graham left behind at her death in 1991 at age 96, the company now offers the only means, for the most part, of seeing the dances of our most influential American on the modern stage. Yet over the finale weekend at Jacob’s Pillow Dance in Becket, Massachusetts, the number of Grahams by Graham stood at just 25 percent. Only one in four dances on the program was a Graham original, while the remaining work consisted of new commissions that ranged from the Grahamesque to the Grahamdiloquent.    

Things started off well with Graham’s own “Embattled Garden.”  Premiered in 1958, the dance reimagines the Garden of Eden as a fiery ménage à quatre among Adam, Eve, a serpentine “Stranger,” and Lilith, Adam’s first wife in midrashic literature. Explaining the program, Ella Baff, the Pillow’s Executive and Artistic Director, here celebrating her final season as head of the festival, called the work “vintage Graham” and jokingly asked, “Who needs reality television when you have high art?” She also reminded us of Graham’s own ties to the festival, since Graham herself had once studied dance at Denishawn with the Pillow’s founders, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, whose portraits flank the barn-like stage of the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre.  

There is an unmistakable “vintage” quality to vintage Graham. Today Graham dances can seem arch and overly expressionistic. Graham’s father studied mental disease, which might explain the epileptic quality to her movement that gets mixed in with long periods of stasis. Often, only some of the dancers are in motion on stage while the others strike a pose from the sidelines. Her music wasn’t always by the great Aaron Copland, either. For “Embattled Garden,” the bombastic score by Carlos Surinach is more MGM than Mahler. Its performance at the Pillow was made even worse by the recording, which sounded like a warped, out-of-circulation LP. (Without a live orchestra, dance in general needs to be mindful of the overamplification of recorded music.)

Despite these shortcomings, the set by Isamu Noguchi, unearthed from the Graham vault, was something else entirely that set the tone for the performance overall—a bold, tactile wonder unlike anything else now seen in dance. It was unmistakable Noguchi, just as this was unmistakable Graham—dance that seeks out the “communication and contemplation” (Noguchi’s words) between person and object. Color plays a bold role in the performance’s overall expression, something unfortunately missing from the black-and-white recordings that exist of Graham on stage, intensifying the mood and placing the work in an otherworldly, mythological light.

For this full effect we must see Graham in person, and at the Pillow, which I saw over a Saturday matinee, her Company delivered. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch as the haughty Lilith and Lloyd Knight as the slithery Stranger descend from Noguchi’s tree to vex Abdiel Jacobsen’s self-flagellating Adam while making a woman out of Mariya Dashkina Maddux’s Eve. “Martha always wanted to leave behind a legend, not a biography,” wrote Graham biographer Agnes de Mille. Here is a Graham legend of Biblical proportion.


Martha Graham Dance Company in "Depak Ine"; photo Christopher Duggan

Regrettably the next dance up, “Depak Ine,” choreographed just last year by Nacho Duato, attempted to take on its own “essential systems of being—of life, death, decomposition, and rebirth,” but lacked Graham’s modernist rigor. Instead we got smoke machines and mood lighting set to a techno beat. Mouth-pulling and other forms of pseudo-lunacy dominate this ponderous cirque du fou that only picks up at the eventual “rebirth” of dancer Ying Xin, who for a lifetime, it seems, had lain dead on stage.

Ben Schultz and PeiJu Chien-Pott of Martha Graham Dance Company in "AXE"; photo Morah Geist

The third dance, “AXE,” by Mats Ek, was a light pas de deux with more pas than deux, and almost worked. Commissioned by the Festival, the dance begins with the rear curtain opening to reveal what appears to be a wooden backdrop but is, in fact, the back wall of the Shawn Theatre. Pillow stagehands humorously deposit a pile of wood mid-stage—a task that would be prohibitively expensive should this ever be performed in New York under the work rules of Local One. Dancer Ben Schultz then gathers some big rounds from the pile, rolls over a chopping-block stump, lifts up his axe, and for the rest of the performance beautifully splits the rounds into wedges. The action of this dancer performing a manual labor recalls the history of the Pillow itself, as Shawn’s dancers helped build the original campus. Among the chopping, PeiJu Chien-Pott appears as a fluttering moth or woodsprite perilously unnoticed by the woodsplitter. The setup is great, but the engagement between the two never comes together—or splits apart like the wood under that axe.

Abdiel Jacobsen of Martha Graham Dance Company in "Echo"; photo Christopher Duggan

The final piece, “Echo” by Andonis Foniadakis, also from 2014, was the most successful of the program’s contemporary offerings. Foniadakis plays off the classical myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection, by using two male dancers, on my day danced by Lloyd Mayor and Lorenzo Pagano, as a mirrored pair. Pagano was especially engaging as the reflection, smirking and at times reaching out to Mayor’s Narcissus as though pulling him into the water. I found their engagement to be more memorable than the relationship between Narcissus and Echo, danced by Chien-Pott as the nymph who loves him but can only repeat what he says. Yet the corps was brilliantly deployed as blue ripples, spinning out Narcissus’s watery reflection in flowing skirts by Anastasios Sofroniou. 

It could be argued that each of these three contemporary dances, based in myth, had a Graham-like component, but should they all be shown at the expense of Graham herself? After Graham’s death, the Graham Company went through a very public legal battle to gain control of her dances from her designated heir, nearly going out of business in the process. It would be a shame to think it was all destined for the Company vault. Under the direction of Janet Eilber since 2005, the Graham Company has followed what has become conventional wisdom in arts administration by actively pursuing new work. One may think Graham doesn’t fully translate to the world of contemporary dance. Without seeing more of her work on stage, we might never know otherwise.    


Ted Shawn Theatre; photo Christopher Duggan