NEW ARCHITECTURE FOR NOT-SO-NEW BALLETSby Evan Namerow
Seven new ballets. Four commissioned scores. One renowned architect. This is what New York City Ballet offered over the course of its eight-week spring season, called Architecture of Dance. With nearly one new ballet every week—along with repertoire by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—it was hard to keep up. Of the four works I saw, by Mauro Bigonzetti, Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, and Wayne McGregor, none were groundbreaking but none were immediately forgettable, either. In cases where the costumes, music, or set designs shined, choreographic innovation was lacking (Ratmansky’s piece was an exception), which left me with a feeling of same old, same old.
Five of the new works (two of which I saw) featured set designs by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish-born architect making his debut as a set designer. A painter, sculptor, and engineer best known for his architectural achievements, the New Yorker has noted that his structures “don’t sit on the ground; they dance above it.” At Lincoln Center in May and June, the connection between dance and Calatrava’s work was made even more explicit.
The first of Calatrava’s designs could be seen in Benjamin Millepied’s Why am I not where you are at the company’s opening night performance on April 29th. Thierry Escaich’s lush, orchestral score accompanied the 20 dancers in what appeared to be a mysterious ballroom. Instead of displaying a chandelier, the ballet featured a gorgeous metal arch that sat delicately on the stage, with its inner spokes vibrating throughout the piece.
While the design was contemporary, the rest of the ballet was anything but. It followed a traditional romantic narrative similar to Balanchine’s La Valse. Among a sea of swirling couples wearing shades of pink, purple, and green, the white-clad Sean Suozzi desperately tried to capture the attention of Kathryn Morgan. He seemed to be invisible to all except for Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns, whose evil streak dazzled as they controlled Suozzi’s fate and adorned him with colorful coats. Just as he became immersed in the ballroom scene, the entire cast viciously stripped Morgan of her colorful tutu. Now in all white, she began a fretful search for Suozzi, who remained oblivious to her presence.
Why am I not where you are often felt maniacal and circus-like, with spotlights casting a ghostly glow on a pair of dancers before darkening and shifting elsewhere. This often disoriented the audience of Morgan’s whereabouts—as did Calatrava’s design, which allowed the dancers to remain visible as they briskly moved under the arch or behind it. Yet, the rush of movement was long-winded, the characters one-dimensional, and the story already well-known. Even Calatrava’s sleek design was not enough to bring this ballet into the 21st century.
Although Calatrava is a renowned modern architect, the most contemporary and abstract of the new ballets didn’t use his designs at all. Rather, Wayne McGregor’s Outlier used movement and the dancers’ bodies to create its own architecture.
The ballet opened with a duet for Tiler Peck and Craig Hall set against deep red concentric circles (lighting designed by McGregor and Lucy Carter) and a recorded excerpt from Cliff Martinez’s “Will She Come Back,” written for the film Solaris. The rest of the ballet, set to a frenetic, eerie score by Thomas Adès, was spare yet bold: eleven dancers in gray or beige leotards and tights—with a few in purple and black—rapidly contorted their bodies against a morphing backdrop. Arranging the dancers in solos, duets, or trios, McGregor pushed Balanchine’s neoclassical vocabulary to the limits. They isolated body parts, initiated whole sequences of movement with a jerk of the head, and curled their torsos over another’s shoulders before abruptly hanging upside down.
McGregor’s movement ideas, not music, were the catalyst for the piece. The choreography never accentuated the music, nor were the two entirely separate. But without any emotional force, the dehumanized bodies often seemed like mechanical outliers on a highly charged grid. No matter how big their dancing was—and it was certainly performed with precision and ferocity—they still looked insignificant, especially under bright light.
Outlier’s abrupt ending was unexpected, unsatisfying, and offered no sense of completion. The ballet felt disconnected and quite possibly could have been rearranged without changing its overall effect. Indeed, each artistic component—the score, lighting, and movement—was greater than the sum of its parts.
Equally edgy, angular movement was evident in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light). According to an interview with Bigonzetti in the program, the piece was inspired by the dancers’ “character, personality, and humanity.” Having worked with the company since 2002, he aimed “to pull out something different from them, to show their sensibilities.” Yet most of the movement in this dark, abstract piece for 18 dancers didn’t illustrate their distinct personalities, but rather made them look very much alike.
Under Mark Stanley’s dimmed lighting and Calatrava’s design of golden discs that slowly expanded and contracted, the dancers frequently arched their backs, severely jutted out their hips and splayed their ribs, showed spidery hands, and entangled their limbs with others. Maria Kowroski slithered between Amar Ramasar’s legs and quickly folded her torso around his back; Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle fiercely carved through the space with their legs and arms; Teresa Reichlen pierced the air between Adrian Danchig-Waring’s lifted leg and arm, causing him to break his stretch and tumble into a flowing series of spins. Though the dancing was superb, it was undermined by Bruno Moretti’s melodramatic score, which sounded more like an orchestration for a Hollywood film than a ballet. One moment was sullen and delicate, the next overbearing and menacing. More enjoyable were the sections that occurred in silence.
Bigonzetti said, “When you don’t know the dancers you’re working with, you work with just the muscles.” Luce Nascosta suggested that he doesn’t know them very well or didn’t provide them with an opportunity to truly show their personalities, and with Marc Happel’s elegant costumes—flowing pants for the men and chic ruffled skirts with sheer midriff-bearing tops for the women—there was plenty of muscle on display.
While McGregor’s Outlier and Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta found inspiration in the present, Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement looked to the past. Set to Édouard Lalo’s 19th century score for the French ballet Namouna, Ratmansky’s nearly hour-long work was bursting at the seams with colors, clichés, and mime, but also nuance, wit, and complexity. It was certainly rich and impressive, but also tiring and overwhelming. The ballet cohered as it progressed, but its opening images were most perplexing, mainly leaving me wondering, “Where on earth—or perhaps not on earth—does this piece take place?”
A flock of women in yellow pleated dresses and black headpieces that resembled helmets opened the ballet with flapping arms and grandiose style. Along with a corps of men, they flitted in and out of the ballet—at one point all playing tiny cymbals, elsewhere puffing on cigarettes—while the main action belonged to Robert Fairchild as an ardent sailor rushing after three women (Sara Mearns, Jenifer Ringer, and Wendy Whelan). They vied for his attention in various ways, with Ringer playing dead to demand his interest, and Mearns showing flair in a remarkably powerful solo. But Whelan, portraying the modest one, eventually won his heart. At the ballet’s close, the corps lifted them into the air as they dramatically kissed.
Daniel Ulbricht served as a jester along with the petite Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford. Their adorable trios included some of the most nuanced pointe work and jumps in the ballet. It was light and humorous, yet refreshingly stylized. The same can be said for many of Fairchild’s encounters with the women. He never simply chased after them with runs, but rather with a brilliant combination of intricate jumps and turns. Ratmansky excelled at portraying both humor and longing through movement, and Fairchild was an ideal choice for this role. The blend of over-the-top drama and smart humor, along with utterly bizarre costumes (the jesting trio wore futuristic, bronze leotards with matching caps, while the three women wore flat tutus and headpieces that looked like enlarged brains) begged the question: Is Namouna a light mockery of dramatic story ballets or a serious exploration, employing wit and charm, that simultaneously critiques the traditional format? Probably a bit of both, but Ratmansky’s work—the most polished and triumphant of the four reviewed here—was too exhausting and filling to view again anytime soon.
It will be telling to see which of the new works New York City Ballet will perform during its fall season at Lincoln Center. Which were crowd-pleasers and which received critical acclaim? More importantly, which (if any) will endure the test of time and remain in the company’s repertoire for years to come? We will have to wait and see.
Namerow devotes her time to dance writing, environmental activism, and exploring the outdoors.