An Embarrassment of Riches: All Wheeldon Program at NYCB

New York City Ballet presented its first-ever All Wheeldon program on Saturday night, opening with the highly anticipated premiere of “Les Carillons.” Wheeldon has described this piece as more classical than his usual work, and this was very much in evidence, primarily due to the Bizet score, which had all the hallmarks of grand 19th ballet music. Due to the at times strange juxtapositions present in the score—from dramatic adagio to echoes of Carmen and back again—the ballet did seem at times disjointed. In their long, strapless dresses in rich jewel tones, the women most often evoked references to classical choreography: seated on the floor in a diagonal line like the corps of a “white tutu” ballet or linking arms in beautifully simple low arabesques. There were of course, continual reminders that this was not the 19th century, beginning with the flex-footed turn that began the men’s section, and the one-armed costumes they wore. The backdrop as well, evoking abstract expressionism with blurry black shapes and lines on a white background, keeping the ballet from sliding too far into classicism.

The patterns and shifting groupings in this ballet are perhaps the most sophisticated Wheeldon has yet constructed—shifts seem to happen invisibly, without drawing attention. The fluidity of groupings helped avoid an overly structured feeling, shifting mid-pas de deux or corps section. I also enjoyed the extra attention to smaller movements: a recurring theme in which dancers circled their hands on the way down from high 5th reflected the overall feeling of circularity, and rather than seeming affected or busy.

In the first pas de deux with partner Amar Ramasar, Sara Mearns evoked the glamour of mystery of old Hollywood, later to transform into a flamboyant Kitri-type character, who would have been flicking a fan if she had one. Tiler Peck was particularly notable in a solo section, where she danced with a lovely lightness and subtlety. In repeated motif in which she stood en pointe in 4th position and rotated her legs and feet in and then out, she proved exquisite at drawing our attention to the beauty of this tiny detail. In her duet with Ana Sophia Scheller, the two were models of thrilling precision and confidence.

As the curtain rose to the discordant piano music of Ligeti and the dancers’ shadows grew large across the backdrop, I realized that “Polyphonia” was a ballet which would yield surprising pleasures from the Fourth Ring. It is a ballet about shapes, and not patterns, but looking directly down on dancers in their intimate molded pas de deux gave an entirely different impression: it was at times (fascinatingly) difficult to tell what we were looking at when two dancers were intertwined.

During her pas de deux with Gonzalo Garcia, Jennie Somogyi tore her achilles and had to limp offstage, but was later replaced by Tiler Peck. This left Mearns and Sterling Hyltin to dance the next section’s trio as a pair, which proved a fascinating contrast: Hyltin all lines and architecture and Mearns more expansive and blurry. Hyltin’s attack and crisp, clear lines in her pas de deux with Adrian Danchig-Waring made her a natural fit for the ballet’s style (I was surprised to see that this was her debut in the role). Mearns, on the other hand, found space and breath within the ballet’s architecture, particularly in the slow solo section of the sixth movement, where I found myself practically holding my breath as she quietly commanded the stage.

Wendy Whelan’s two pas de deux with Jared Angle were keen reminders of why she is such a treasured artist. Full of extreme positions, Whelan nonetheless moved through them with an understated elegance, offering up the movement to the audience, unadorned.

I had seen “DGV” danced by the Corella Ballet a few years back at City Center, but here, on a bigger stage and the speed and attack of the NYCB dancers, it took on a whole new life. The music, by Michael Nyman, brings to mind Philip Glass with its propulsive repetitions and soaring climaxes. The ballet opens on darkness, gradually revealing a pulsing corps de ballet, then the first principal couple, Theresa Reichlen and Craig Hall, and finally the striking scenery, in which seven vertical panels of marley seem bent up into tarnished sheets of metal, like urban ruins at the back of the stage.

Reichlen and Hall were excellent in the sensuous opening pas de deux, as they found their way into the music and into more extreme movement, perceptibly reacting to each other’s bodies. Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz, while tackling the second movement’s complex choreography admirably, were not as arresting as I normally find them. In Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle’s pas de deux, the choreography veered closest to the over-the-top-ness that the drama of the music tempts toward, the lifts and extreme extensions conveying only flash. In the fourth section, Peck once again stood out for her unbelievable attack, performing chaînées at an incredible pace and matching (if not exceeding) her partner Andrew Veyette in the height and speed of her jumps.

The finale is dramatic: the lighting changes so that we see only the dancers’ shapes, and a bold drum section introduces a section of percussive, synchronized movement for the entire cast. This section seems to me to presage how Wheeldon will handle one of his many new commissions: the closing ceremony of the London Olympics this summer.

Viewing three of Wheeldon’s works in succession, it struck me that he is a choreographer who agrees with Balanchine’s famous phrase, “Ballet is woman.” While “Les Carillons” began with ten men onstage, and featured a very effective male corps de ballet and one or two sequences of men dancing together (and perhaps this is progress we will see more of), it is primarily the women who are given the dancing in his ballets. Reflecting that none of the men really stood out to me tonight, I realized it was because (as others have noted) they served primarily as partners (pedestals?); there to manipulate and assist, but rarely to be present as dancers in their own right. In a sense, this works for City Ballet, where of late it has been the women who shine, but surely Wheeldon can find better ways to use striking dancers like Ramasar and Robert Fairchild.

When Wheeldon came out from the curtain to take a final bow by himself, you could feel a genuine surge of admiration from the audience. I can only hope that we will have the opportunity again soon to enjoy an entire evening of such well-crafted, satisfying ballets.

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One thought on “An Embarrassment of Riches: All Wheeldon Program at NYCB

  1. Pingback: A Spy in the House of Dance

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