Reviving the Grande Dame
The January 2009 Premiere of Douglas Lee’s Lifecasting at the New York City Ballet
There’s something grand about the New York City Ballet, but there’s also something musty, even though the twinkling ceiling is spotlessly clean. Perhaps it’s the mothballed fur coats wrapped around half the audience, or the French pastry costumes of the prole-ish corps de ballets, who wave their stiff arms in concentric semicircles, heralding the principal dancers with paste-up smiles. Most likely, it’s the time-warped choreography: immobile torsos, port de bras like railroad tracks, a brigade of dancers doing the exact same thing at the exact same time in a circle, or a half-circle, or a row, with the most important action happening center-stage: the beautiful, helpless woman turned in circles by the dashing, high-jumping man, with five seconds for applause after every hyperbolic flourish. It’s exhausting.
I don’t doubt that much of the fusty audience at Lifecasting’s premiere found Douglas Lee’s astonishing new ballet to be disturbingly “modern,” but the British choreographer, hailing from the Stuttgart Ballet, where he is a principal dancer as well as a choreographer, mesmerizes us in a time-warp of his own. With eleven dancers wrapped tightly in Klimt lamé, he stages an urgent, powered spectacle reminiscent of German Expressionist paintings: a stylized angst revealed in terrified eyes, attenuated limbs, balanced asymmetry.
But if this delicious nightmare comes to us from the paintings of 1918, so far as NYCB’s repertory is concerned, Lee’s work is quite contemporary. Pointe shoes preserve the leg’s dramatic line, but torsos have a Cunningham mobility. There are more pas-de-troix than pas-de-deux, searing combinations of bodies that tangle in and out of each other, girls solemnly swung between two men, legs jackknifed with the intimation of something illicit.
Lee rarely, if ever, places any action center-stage, using space as equitably as he uses bodies—it is almost impossible to distinguish rank between dancers. To highlight solos by the extraordinary Robert Fairchild, who dances like a raging phantom made simultaneously of steam and steel, Lee places a group of dancers on one side of the stage, the soloist on the other. Bodies not dancing lie on the floor, arching their backs to create ecstatic silhouettes before rising again to action, or linger upstage on a hidden staircase, from which they can step back up into the apricot light.
This light comes from the stage’s only scenery, certain to baffle traditionalists: a sensual cluster of pregnant pods, bulbous grapes. These surreal, blind eyeballs, glowing warmly in pointed directions, are mounted on a pole far up stage right, and at key moments glide up or down, gently modifying their incubating glow. The music, too, all strings, from Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Reich, though surprisingly melodic for ears accustomed to contemporary composers, wears on those with more antique sensibilities, for it has no dramatic highs and lows, no invitations to grandiosity or fanfare or climax: only a steady seething, an almost tangible web in which the bodies sometimes stick, against which they sometimes fight.
Lifecasting is an artistic process in which a sculptor makes a mold from a live model, then fills that mold with molten material; when the material cools and hardens, the husk can be peeled away to reveal the statue. Lee chose this title because he created this work literally on the bodies of these particular dancers. When he arrived in New York, invited by NYCB’s Emerging Choreographer’s program, he hadn’t choreographed a phrase; he watched the dancers in class, chose the eleven that appealed to him most, and began to create Lifecasting by watching them, obsessively recording rehearsals to keep watching them when they were not there.
Perhaps this is why Lee’s creation is so emotive, so genuine, so visceral: dancers accustomed to posing prettily were at last invited to express something internal, or try on the body of a stalking feline predator, a struggling sub-aqueous snake. In spite of his embracing of a ninety-year-old vamping aesthetic, Lee promises that there is indeed a future for ballet, on a fast trajectory away from pomp, priss, and paint-by-number emotions.