Suspended Animationby Susan Yung
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York City Ballet, as an organization, currently exists in a state of suspended animation between the resignation artistic director Peter Martins—accused of emotional and physical abuse of the dancers and cleared by a perhaps less than impartial arbiter—and the appointment of a successor, for whom the search is underway. Ex-dancers Jonathan Stafford, Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and current dancer/choreographer Justin Peck have been tapped to lead the company through this limbo, complicated by the fact that the programming, set a while ago by Martins, is suddenly viewed through a #MeToo filter.
A bright note is corp member Peter Walker’s second dance for the company, the premiere dance odyssey, to a score by young British composer Oliver Davis. As the work opens, pulsing colored lights are projected onto the closed curtain in time to the music’s rhythms. The curtain rises, and Adrian Danchig-Waring begins with a fluid passage, strikes an elegant pose, and repeats. Tiler Peck enters with several men who catch her gently when Danchig-Waring tosses her. She has the ability to transcend technique while being technically flawless, and thus concentrate on conveying emotion—in this case, joy. Apollonian in silhouette, Danchig-Waring is becoming more confident and free in his presentation, but his compulsion to achieve formal perfection slightly contains his energy.
Two additional couples perform featured segments. Ashley Laracey and Zachary Catazaro are both striking—she forms crisp arabesques and he makes a dashing partner, somewhat shadowing the first pair. Anthony Huxley and Devin Alberda make a captivating duo, flitting in rapid phrases with jaunty pulsing pliés, and syncopated rhythms to ride over the melody. They physically express their mindsets—one slumps his shoulders, the other does a quick moonwalk as if to lighten the anomie.
In contrast to Walker’s jazz-inflected first work from 2016, ten in seven, this commission uses a more classical ballet vocabulary. There are plenty of lifts of women by men to show that Walker can go traditional, some with creative variants (an inverted diagonal pose; a “look-ma-no-hands” with the woman facing up rather than down). But there are numerous passages in which a woman does the same fast, bounding steps as the man. Peck is notable for her preternatural speed, precision, and power, all on display here. Davis’ score bounds along with terrific momentum, and later includes a romantic piano adagio and stirring violin passages.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons was third on the bill. The witty, somewhat sprawling work is set to music by Leonid Desyatnikov, with dramatic violin and soprano lines. Ratmansky is adept at choreographing for the company’s range of physical and expressive individuals. I had not yet seen Maria Kowroski in one of the leads; she lent her role a tender empathy to complement her willowy limbs. Ratmansky’s ballets often showcase Sara Mearns’s fiery passion, as in this case, and have given Abi Stafford some of her best opportunities to shine.
The program began with Martins’s 2006 work, The Red Violin, to John Corigliano’s dramatic score. I have never found Martins’s choreography inspiring, but at the start of this dance, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. That feeling quickly dissipated with each lift or partnering sequence; many involved the woman freezing, leg held high, and being dragged by her partner. A particularly awkward sequence involves a woman dropping to one knee, assisted by a man, and popping up quickly through a series of poses. Unfortunately, at moments such as this when the man manipulated the woman like a puppet, the allegations of abuse popped into my head.
The inclusion of this piece on the program raises a larger issue concerning Martins, apart from the allegations of company abuse. In the course of four decades, Martins has created more than 80 dances for NYCB. Most are unmemorable, composed of his rote brand of ballet with some affectations thrown in, lots of repetition, and men hoisting and dragging women in often awkward poses. He has received little critical support, and yet has continued to allocate extensive resources to his own work. Everyone from dancers, musicians, production staff, and administration have had to work to mount and support these dances, season after season. This indulgence could be excused if the work so merits, but it hasn’t. It is more than the sum total of the expenses incurred by these 80+ works—audiences have had to sit through his tepid productions all these years, if only to catch a premiere by Justin Peck or a Balanchine classic. Imagine how many collective audience hours this adds up to, and it is staggering.
That said, Martins has made significant contributions to NYCB apart from his choreography to at least partly merit his tenure. He was a distinguished dancer. He has supported the work of men such as Christopher Wheeldon, Ratmansky, and Justin Peck, among others. And the Diamond Institute, founded in 1992, has fostered the talents of younger choreographers, including in recent years women such as Lauren Lovette and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The School of American Ballet has produced some incredible dancers who have subsequently filled the ranks of the company.
But now, after his exit, his presence exists solely in a few pieces in this season’s repertory, most prominently in a dozen performances of his 2007 version of Romeo + Juliet. The Spring 2018 season, which runs for six weeks starting April 24, focuses primarily on the work of Jerome Robbins. Will we see much, if any, of Martins’s work in future seasons? With the relative wealth of young choreographic talent now at work, plus the Balanchine and Robbins canon, will the core audience even care? It’s certainly a sad ending to a long story. But the NYCB dancers remain among the best in the world, and they are resilient. Right now, apart from some lurking shadows, the future is bright.
Susan Yung is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.