Observations from an Evening at the Ballet (NYCB 21st Century Choreographers)

This weekend I had my first evening at the ballet of the semester. Not just any ballet, of course: New York City Ballet’s 21st Century Choreographers at the David H. Koch Theatre, Saturday the 11th of October (yes, I am so cool that I spend my Saturday nights partying it up at the theatre). On the program: an established repertory piece by Peter Martins, and world premieres from Troy Schumacher, Liam Scarlett, Justin Peck, and Alexei Ratmansky. I admit that I bought the ticket specifically to see the latest from Peck and Scarlett, who are at the top of my top choreographers list, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the evening in its entirety. And, on a bittersweet note, I realized as I looked at the casting notice that this performance would mark the last time I would see Wendy Whelan dance before her official retirement from the Company next weekend (October 18th).


Enchanting was my watch word for the evening, though each piece evoked that particular descriptor in unique ways. Here are a few impressions that I managed to cobble together in the intervals.


Choreography: Peter Martins

Dancers: Ashly Isaacs, Rebecca Krohn, Teresa Reichlen, Zachary Catazaro, Chase Finlay, Russell Janzen
Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin, Ask la Cour in 'Morgen'; photo by Paul Kolnik

Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin, and Ask la Cour in ‘Morgen’; photo by Paul Kolnik

A series of pas de deux to ten songs for soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss, Morgen is presented as a series of individual relationship studies. The first three duets range from ethereal longing to whimsical delight to something darker and needier before the partnerships begin to scramble, and with them the range of romantic attachments revealed through the differences in each couple’s interactions. The pas de deux as a rule were lovely, though a practiced eye could pick out moments of uneasiness likely caused by the perpetual shifting of partners. However, there were moments of breathtaking daring and sparkling technique from both corps member Ashly Isaacs and principal Rebecca Krohn that made up for any shakiness in certain sections of the partnering.

This was one of those ballets where I found myself desperately wishing for program notes; having no background knowledge of the choreographer’s intentions and given the similarity of costumes between the men, I found myself distractedly musing over the possibility that the men were all versions of the same person, or that the women perhaps represented different types of romantic love. (After perusing the City Ballet website, I found that while this piece is meant to be an exploration of aspects of love, each individual onstage is, in fact, an individual–something it would have been nice to know going into the piece.) The partner-swapping was only made very clear in the final movement when all six dancers were finally onstage simultaneously, a lovely section I wish had come sooner. Another wish: that Martins would let the men really move instead of teasing us with the presence of beautiful male dancers like Chase Finlay and only allowing them to show their expertise in making the ballerinas look good.

Overall impression: Lovely, if long; would have been helped along by program notes.

Clearing Dawn

Choreography: Troy Schumacher

Dancers: Ashley Bouder, Claire Kretzschmar, Georgina Pazcoguin, David Prottas, Teresa Reichlen, Andrew Veyette
'Clearing Dawn'; photo Andrea Mohin

‘Clearing Dawn’; photo by Andrea Mohin

Do I understand why the piece is called Clearing Dawn? No. Do I care? Not particularly, because Schumacher’s first work for City Ballet’s main stage was the most fun to watch of the evening. The opening costume gaff had the audience chuckling appreciatively, setting the tone for a playful schoolyard romp of a ballet (an impression help on by Thom Browne’s English-chic blazers-and-vests costuming). The movement asked the dancers to work at a breakneck level of speed and intensity without sacrificing any of their clarity–something at which, as Schumacher is clearly aware, the Company excels.

[Check out an excerpt on City Ballet’s website here.]

Of course Ashley Bouder‘s name is on this ballet, and she is her usual whirlwind of technical virtuosity and playful surety of movement; one particularly memorable moment was when she casually executed a tricky series of double pique turns with constant direction changes, then added an extra revolution and a balance to the final turn before walking out of it and joining the group as though the display of her ridiculous technical prowess was just another day at the office (which, for her, it actually is). Slightly more surprising (by which I mean hardly surprising at all) was the brilliance of Georgina Pazcoguin in this piece; she matches the boys technically while maintaining a girlish cheekiness in her interactions with the other dancers onstage.

Overall impression: Great fun, shows off a group in top technical form, excited to see what Schumacher brings to the table next.


Choreography: Liam Scarlett

Dancers: Gretchen Smith and Zachary Catazaro
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in 'Funerailles'; photo Paul Kolnik

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in ‘Funerailles’; photo by Paul Kolnik

This is the most spare I have ever seen Scarlett work. Though on of my favorite things about his work is the innovative approach he takes to pas de deux, normally it is in the context of a larger whole, the balance of which displays his sound compositional skill set. Here, however, the work is distilled: one man (a vampiric embodiment of death), one woman, a solo piano upstage left–and an Alexander McQueen dress which very nearly makes the piece a pas de trois.

All of the things I have come to expect from Scarlett’s work were present: the aforementioned beautiful creativity in the construction of the duet, a sensitive musicality, his dark sense of drama, his penchant for lingering over mesmerizing images. I was particularly impressed by the way he managed to keep the action interesting and arresting with only two dancers present and his application of stillness at key moments. While not my favorite of his works, it was by no means a poor show, my only real complaint being the moments where Gretchen Smith’s gorgeous ankle length dress concealed some of the intricacy of the partnering that would have been lovely to see.

Overall impression: Not a revelation, but beautiful to watch nonetheless.


Choreography: Justin Peck

Dancers: Lauren Lovette, Jared Angle, Ashley Laracey, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Brittany Pollack, Taylor Stanley, Rebecca Krohn, Tyler Angle, Anthony Huxley

Take Peck’s signature cleverness, geometric organization of bodies in space, and unpredictable movement aesthetic, add a sweeping score and an air of Regency romance, and you have Belles-Lettres. It’s everything you would expect sitting down to a Justin Peck ballet, but re-contextualized so that everything is fresh. The cheekiness makes you smile instead of chuckle; the daring elicits awe, not shock. The opening alone, with its kaleidoscopic imagery, is worthy of quite a bit more study than a single viewing affords. Compositionally the work is as well constructed as anything; the motif development is skillfully handled and the repeated sections are anything but unnecessary. Overall, the effect is one of breathless wonder.

'Belles-Lettres'; photo by Paul Kolnik

‘Belles-Lettres’; photo by Paul Kolnik

Alongside the Ratmansky (below), this was easily the best-danced piece of the night. Anthony Huxley as the male soloist deserves a shout-out for a frankly ridiculous level of cleanliness that served as a welcome reminder to the audience of what City Ballet’s men are capable of.

Overall impression: ‘Year of the Rabbit’ is still my favorite, but brilliant (as per usual) with an unexpected tenderness. How long until Peck’s next premiere?

Pictures at an Exhibition

Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky

Dancers: Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Gretchen Smith, Abi Stafford, Wendy Whelan, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Gonzalo Garcia, Joseph Gordon, Amar Ramasar
"Pictures at an Exhibition"; photo by Paul Kolnik

“Pictures at an Exhibition”; photo by Paul Kolnik

I have never quite understood the fuss about Alexei Ratmansky. The limited exposure that I had previously had to his work gave me impressions of enjoyably danceable movement and an interesting musicality, and yet…I just didn’t get it.

And then this piece happened.

Composition? Flawless. Musicality? Interesting, precise, and made all the more clear by the solo piano accompaniment (Modest Mussorgsky’s music performed by Cameron Grant). Movement? Classical with a twist, tailor-made to each dancer without losing the unifying center that holds the piece together. To the backdrop of a progressively de/reconstructed image of Wassily Kandinsky’s Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles, the five principal pairs that comprise the ensemble come together and break apart in ways that demonstrate an investigation of the various aspects of the abstract painting and how they work together, even as the painting illuminates and inspires the relationships between the dancers themselves.

Among the men, Amar Ramasar was decidedly a standout, a massive grin taking over his face as he danced as though he were having the time of his life. Tiler Peck got to show off her youthful exuberance and technical virtuosity, Sara Mearns her strong yet ethereal spirit (even in her purposely awkward solo in the second movement), yet of the women it was Wendy Whelan who shone brightest.

Emerging from the ensemble in the fourth movement, entitled The Old Castle, Whelan and Jared Angle dance a pas de deux that slowed time to an absolute halt. Utterly tender with each other and wholly self-aware, they danced quietly, as though for themselves and each other. It was impossible to forget that this was the last time Whelan would perform this brand new ballet, that in a single week she would be giving her last performance as the veteran ballerina of City Ballet. This audience member, for one, fought back tears for the entirety of the duet and, at the close of this single movement, the audience applause was as enthusiastic as it had been for any completed piece of the evening. Throughout the ballet, Wendy was her calm, collected self, the mature voice in a pool of relative youth. Ratmansky gave many small moments to the veteran ballerina in the yellow shift throughout the piece, and rightly so, as it allowed Whelan to anchor the dancers around her and leant the space a sense of gravity, of weight and immediacy.

Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, 'Pictures at an Exhibition'; photo by Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’; photo by Paul Kolnik

The audience knew they were witnessing one of the last evenings of grace Whelan has left to bestow on the Company; at curtain calls, it was very clear that no one was leaving until she had taken a solo bow, despite this being an ensemble piece. When she was finally pulled onstage to take one, it was by none other than Alexei Ratmansky himself–and of course she immediately gestured for her colleagues to join her onstage for the final bow of the evening.


Overall impression: The best Ratmansky piece I have ever seen, my experience of which was delightfully heightened by the incomparable Wendy Whelan.




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