Justin Peck’s New Language
New York City Ballet
The Times Are Racing, The Shimmering Asphalt
Koch Theater | February 2, 2017
The rapid artistic evolution of Justin Peck continues to speed forward. His recent New York City Ballet (NYCB) premiere of The Times Are Racing may harken the pioneering sneaker dances of Jerome Robbins, which are playful, street-wise, and express the pleasures and angst of adolescence. But Peck expands on the jazzy ballet of his forebear, tosses in some inspiration from “Dance Dance Revolution” (DDR), and creates a totally new language that plucks and combines elements from ballet, musical theater/jazz, hip-hop, and jookin.
The dance begins with Sara Mearns surrounded by a cluster of dancers bent over, pulsing like a propelling jellyfish. The group scatters, regroups, and repeats, giving the feel of flash mobs that might have been chaotic in another time, but are now organized by the instantaneous, precise choreography of social media. Dan Deacon’s music features sawing and grinding strings, while the lighting (Brandon Stirling Baker) is strong and lunar. The costumes (by Humberto Leon with Marc Happel) appear to be a motley collection of casual streetwear, including coats and jackets, which are later doffed to reveal jeans, cutoffs, t-shirts, and legless bodysuits, plus sneakers. Robert Fairchild portrays a voyeur, standing on the outside looking in, at first simply watching as dancers move at him and around him, but not with him.
Soon enough, Justin Peck joins him for one of two memorable duet sequences. Dressed in tees and jeans, they perform side-by-side and with precision the same steps in the manner of DDR—from a tap sequence, through a graceful ballet port de bras or a leap, to gliding on their sneaker toes. The general movement quality is informed by gravity—low to the ground, with bent knees and flat hands. They finish the section by jumping and landing on one foot, the other leg aloft, frozen for a spell as Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar enter for the next stunning duet.
This section epitomizes the silky phrasing of the various styles Peck has hypnotically blended together. After a set of long embraces during which she stands on her toes to match Ramasar’s height, they begin to move as one creature; energy from her limbs flows into his. She flicks her foot; he taps it in response, and you imagine sparks flinting from the strikes. Suddenly he’s doing a one-armed handstand, his weight floating to the ground with her help, and vice versa. She flies around him in a split lift, landing like a cat. They then casually sink to the floor with a thud, reminding us that they’re just regular people. (These quotidian poses are scattered throughout the ballet.) Peck toys with time and tempo: they perform a phrase once, then double-time, and walk away from it as if in slow motion. Even though they click, snap, spin, and jump, there are no edges or rough landings. Using the splendid technique of his peers, Justin Peck has managed to recombine, soften, and refine the edges and roughness of street dance into an absolutely fresh style, no doubt acknowledging the recent popularity and influence of Lil Buck’s genre of jookin, from NYCB to Super Bowl ads.
Deacon’s electronic score, which ranges from simmering to cacophonous, at moments suffuses the multi-part dance with a grinding grit rarely heard at New York City Ballet. In the last section, the cast moves as one in phrases reminiscent of musical theater—all big kicks and dramatic swoops. Fairchild, alone again, bursts onstage, seemingly re-energized and purposeful. He leaps into the crowd’s midst, and they all collapse, evoking a cathartic, if exhausting, group demonstration amidst a time of myriad public protests.
The Shimmering Asphalt, the company’s first commission by Pontus Lidberg, employs a more traditional ballet vocabulary. A dancer stands alone as others furtively run on, accumulating in a line, collecting the loner. Lidberg tweaks the norm just a bit, adding a tilted torso to a run, an unorthodox shape to punctuate a common movement. Mearns dances with four men who surround her with linked arms. The group moves in tandem as if they were all floating asea. Encircling her, the men place their hands on Mearns’s ribcage, which they simultaneously press to lift her. Tiler Peck gives a felicitous solo filled with sinewy, inside-out shapes. There’s a frenetic dynamic to the phrasing—a flurry and then a pose, repeated. Lidberg creates many elegant lines and some clever, if not entirely memorable, experimentation in this company debut.
David Lang’s score features minor-key, beseeching strings and piano arpeggios. The lighting by Mark Stanley is dusky blue, emphasizing the cool tones of Rachel Quarmby-Spadaccini’s costumes, which include high-waisted skirts for the men (not particularly flattering on the taller ones). The Swedish choreographer’s use of varying height levels of movement is somewhat unusual in neo-classical ballet. In one phrase, a dancer moves through an attitude, jumps up in an “X” shape, and sinks to his knee. Lidberg has performed his work with his own company in New York, displaying innovation by incorporating film on its own and alongside dance. Here, the most notable scenic element is a barely visible projection of glimmering lights on an obsidian background that appears at the beginning and end.
The achievements of a younger generation of choreographers contrasted with the evening’s lead-off ballet, Fearful Symmetries (1990), by Peter Martins. We were reminded of his penchant for challenging the dancers—in pace and technique—to the point of discomfort, at least for this viewer. They look stressed rather than adrenalized. But Martins’s own work (apart from a two-week run this season of his sturdy Sleeping Beauty, which contains ample meaty parts for cameos by principal dancers) has been increasingly set aside to make room for younger talent. And it’s paying off immensely.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.