Wheeldon and Pärt at Works & Processby Dalia Ratnikas
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, January 12
It starts in the dark, and a shear sheath of light brightens as a dancer moves her arms: first the muscular flutter of a crane, then the sharp extensions of a sundial’s shadow, then the romantic gesture of a nymph paying homage to the sunburst of her own face. As the glowing bath brightens, she seems to have a shadow who makes the same generous gestures, slivers of seconds behind. Then, they emerge from the mist of light into the wash, a woman and a man; she is pale and near nude in a sheer stocking; he is dark and sheathed in a mulberry unitard.
She bends and flexes into Art Nouveau geometries, he supports her shapes, holds her arm—now her leg—now her entire body in the air. She wears pointe shoes and her legs are razor sharp. Her entire body, in fact, is razor sharp, in miraculous opposition to the luxurious side-bend of her torso. His body is soft, as though his gestures were filtered through a Gaussian blur and projected as a hologram; he doesn’t seem present. He seems, in fact, armature, a prop to support the female’s flexions and extensions.
Thus, though Christopher Wheeldon does away with many of traditional ballet’s distracting trappings, aided by the stripped-down tone of the Works & Process series in the intimate Peter B. Lewis Theater, he clings to the art’s recherché gender relations in both Liturgy (Fratres) and After the Rain, two dances set to the soul-shattering music of Arvo Pärt. In this Pärt-inspired evening, these dances were performed to recordings, introduced, and then separated by interstitial performances of live music sans dance.
The warmth of live strings provides unfair competition for the dancers’ recorded music, and one wonders why, when such an empathetic set of musicians were available, the entire program didn’t consist of live music. The American Opera String Ensemble and soprano Caroline Worra opened the show with the Estonian composer’s L’abbé Agathon, augmented by an installation by Sophie Calle, and played Tarik O’Regan’s The Woven Child between dances (O’Regan is a composer strongly influenced by Pärt).
Wheeldon’s illustrative interpretations of Pärt’s music are far from radical, and less startling than Calle’s. To accompany L’abbé Agathon, the French filmmaker screened her mother’s deathbed. Worse than this visual intrusion was the interruption of Pärt’s rich reverberations by Calle’s voice, reading an indulgent description of her whimsical memorial—burying a portrait, a Chanel necklace, and a diamond ring at the North Pole.
There is a danger in the disclosure of the particular in the midst of collective privacy—I found myself yanked up out of my tears and plunged into the cold depths of someone unfamiliar. Can I say, without being callous, that Calle’s story means less to me, less to the strangers around me, than the rich, quivering tones of four cellos and four violas which, without words, break our hearts?
Our dancers, too—the astoundingly precise Wendy Whelan and her more ductile partners, Albert Evans and Sébastien Marcovici—ultimately create something less stirring than Pärt does. Giving life to Maxfield Parrish’s romantic apparitions certainly makes for a pretty pas de deux, but today, that fantasy is irrelevant. In fact, when it includes not only transfigured faces, but a woman’s acquiescent upturned palms as she swoons into a vulnerable backbend, her pelvis thrust yieldingly to her male partner’s, it is insidiously dangerous. Pärt’s taut music, fraught with dramatic tension, knows volumes more about love than Wheeldon’s pretty shapes.