New York City Ballet Fall Gala
Koch Theater | September 20, 2016
New York City Ballet (NYCB)’s recent tradition of holding a fall fashion gala has evolved from a somewhat crass leveraging of the influential world of haute couture into a fuller consideration of the conceptual possibilities of fashion as explored through dance. In the recent gala, this shift was brought into high relief by the juxtaposition of the season’s most interesting premiere—Unframed, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, with costumes by Rosie Assoulin—with a section from Bal de Couture by Peter Martins, costumed by Valentino, from the first fashion gala in 2012.
As we learn through a short film (one precedes each dance), Ochoa collaborated closely with the Brooklyn-based designer Assoulin, who tweaks pieces into sculptural shapes and subverts clothing traditions. A navy business suit with white piping was the basis for the costumes, worn shirtless by the men, and was adapted into flaring halter dresses for the women. As the dance progresses, layers are removed, until they are down to their Calvins. In the film, Ochoa says that the idea of power threads through the dance; it is reflected at moments when the women tug down their costumes as if asserting themselves, or shoot brazen looks at their partners. Ochoa works these sociopolitical implications of clothing into the narrative subtext. The result is far above the “let’s play dress-up” attitude of earlier fashion gala commissions (notably Bal de Couture).
Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle pair up in Unframed, carving dense, looping lines full of spins and lifts that emphasize trust and ceding control. Daniel Ulbricht dances among eight women, bounding through the grand and petit allegro at which he excels. Sterling Hyltin, blonde mane loose, is partnered by the sculpted Adrian Danchig-Waring; both sport underwear-style pieces. Free of the earlier business-like attire, they are more intimate with one another and unfettered in their physicality. Ochoa’s curated medley of music, including Elgar and Vasks, allows for emotional and dynamic breadth.
NYCB corps member Peter Walker choreographed ten in seven to jazzy music by Thomas Kikta. The composer and three musicians play seated atop a platform whose structure the dancers hang from or burst out of. (Kikta is father to Emily Kikta, a featured dancer in the work.) Jason Wu, who often layers sheer fabrics to provide depth and mystery, designed the sporty costumes of black lace over neon colors. The pieces are cleverly seamed on the bias to spiral around the body’s curves. For the most part, the women wear soft slippers—the better to give them grounded traction. Walker’s style is crisp, athletic, and decisive, well suited to his peers’ athleticism, exemplified in Taylor Stanley’s sleek divertissement with Ashly Isaacs and Rachel Hutsell. Indiana Woodward and Sean Suozzi dance amid four men; Emily Kikta (en pointe) and Russell Janzen perform a romantic duet, and Spartak Hoxha—a revelation—springs through a terrific solo, slicing, darting, and whipping his limbs. Walker not only captures the boundless energy simmering through the company’s dancers, but also creates money-shot tableaus and irresistible rhythms.
Two women choreographed commissions for this program, a relatively big deal, as they are the first women to contribute to the fashion project in its five years. In addition to Ochoa is principal Lauren Lovette, whose For Clara is set to Schumann, with costumes by Narciso Rodriguez—a designer fluent in deceptively simple shapes and draping. Here we have warm, pale tones, plus black, scarf-skirted dresses for the women, and tights for the shirtless men. Five lead dancers are supported by twelve corps members. Emilie Gerrity’s magnetic solo carves a quick line of chainés and fierce leaps. Lovette intersperses lyrical phrases with bold moves, including a sault de chat, grand jetés with a bent back leg, and spread eagle jumps. There are also gasp-inducing lifts in which the man tosses the women, legs split, high in the air. In her partnering phrases, Lovette heightens the degree of difficulty (I might have expected a reduction in risk); as a leading principal dancer, she certainly knows the limits and the potential for extending them.
Justin Peck contributed The Dreamers, a duet for Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar set to music by Bohuslav Martinu. The costumes speak to the importance of color and pattern to their designer, Dries Van Noten—for her, a boldly printed A-line shift; and for him, a gun holster-style harness over rote shirt and pants. In the introductory video, Peck notes that he allows the dancers to be themselves rather than portray characters. Indeed, the dramatic presences of these two principals are among the most charismatic and alluring, in addition to the personal flair with which they imbue every move. While the piece isn’t revolutionary in the scope of the young Peck’s already impressive oeuvre, it’s a chance to work on a smaller scale and focus on one partnership.
It appears that Peter Martins added the finale of his own Bal de Couture relatively late, as it didn’t appear on the program on NYCB’s website. Its emphasis on gloss and boilerplate ballet merely highlighted the numerous choreographers—including, yes, women!—more deserving of the resources required to create these choice commissions. But this season’s slate revealed the fashion gala project’s gradual evolution toward substance, and not just surface.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.