Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dancing Through the Dark: Wayne McGregor’s Outlier Premieres at New York City Ballet


There was an extraordinary world premiere at New York City Ballet Friday. And as I left the theater, everyone was talking about it – at least on the way to the subway. Words like “amazing”, “beautiful”, “moving” were heard in the crowd.

But first, Outlier.

Outlier is the second of seven new ballets in New York City Ballet’s “Architecture of Dance” spring series (the preview of the Millipied ballet at the opening gala doesn’t count) and was made by Wayne McGregor, who was appointed Resident Choreographer for The Royal Ballet in 2006, the first modern dancer to be given that post. He’s interested in sharpness and speed, the press releases say, and in the technology of the dancing body (I’m not sure what that means or how that makes him different from any other choreographer), and he has been experimenting with projecting computer generated images on the stage. There’s a lot about that information to unpack, and there’s a lot there to be both wary and welcoming of. Oh, he also choreographed the movement for the film, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” I wish I could remember that movie much less the movement.

McGregor picked an extraordinary piece of music, Thomas Adès’ “Concerto for Violin – Concentric Paths” (2005). Both the title and the music itself would seem an open door to a choreographer interested in music and visuals. The sweet, extraordinary reachings of the violin in this concerto take a circuitous and satisfying journey from a high yearning to a low resigned growl, where the instrument renews its musical strength and charges back (what a wonderful ballet it would make). The first movement alone is an astonishing cry (after some very, very quiet recorded sci-fi music by Cliff Martinez written for the film “Solaris”), and it doesn’t let go of the listener. Kurt Nikkanen, NYCB’s concertmaster, played the violin magnificently. I headed home and found it on Youtube.

The choreography begins against a changing backdrop of concentric circles, against which the dancers appear small and overwhelmed, even when they dance vigorously, storm, and jump about with jagged and jarring moves that are even interesting, and even when they are intimate with one another. McGregor seems to have responded to the music with a desperation in darkness. No matter how bright the light becomes, and occasionally it does, the dancers continue to be overwhelmed by its omnipresence and then are swallowed up by the darkness literally and metaphorically. The choreography of Outlier is a depressing response to an elegant piece of music that does exactly the opposite – that allows for rage, lament, and triumph against the dark as well as diverse, seamlessly presented, musical styles.

“Rings”, the first movement, indeed had red rings on the backdrop, and these concentric circles deepened and changed color and size throughout the piece. Once, when looking up from the dancing, I found that the design looked unfortunately like the Looney Tunes image. I half expected Bugs to lean out and chomp on his carrot. (I really didn’t want to think that.) In the second movement, “Paths”, the backdrop transformed to bars and light shifted from bright to dark, with one bar often a different color than the rest, these patterns echoing on the floor. For the third movement, “Rounds,” we were in light again before the darkness swallowed everything up.

Oh, the dancers? Yes, there were dancers. There were some lovely moments. When the piece begins, two dancers appear (Tiler Peck and Craig Hall), one walks to the other, and they begin to dance as the violin begins to sing. The partnering, while nothing spectacular, was intelligent, involved, circular, and grew intense with a hint of violence. It seemed that the dancers did not want to let go of each other. They were joined by two other couples and a frantic shift from one set of movements to another. In the second movement, the shadows of the dancers appeared on the backdrop, again marvelous, like a Platonic show. I found myself watching the shadow dancers more; they seemed to belong more to the designs and to the music. And they seemed more human.

The choreography, as I mentioned, was disjointed, jerky, plastic, suffered from a lack of continuity, and oh, let me just say it, ugly, not of itself but of the context and relationship with the dancers, music, and even the lighting. The dancing had nothing in common with the music. The women did at times seem to have some relationship to the violin, but they were outsung. It isn’t that this kind of dancing, perhaps resembling something Michael Jackson would do, has no place on a ballet stage. No, my beef here is that dancers are the point of dance, and that they should be the focal point. (Taking dancers out of dance happened a generation ago.) Sets and lighting should support what human beings do. The audience doesn’t come to see a choreographer play with toys, they come to see people dancing. What we got was something like a music video or a game show or a bad night at the rehearsal studio during a power outage. In the end, the dancers were swallowed up as they spun into darkness, where metaphorically, they had been dancing for the entire piece. For the record, they also included Ashley Bouder, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Wendy Whelan, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joaquin De Luz, Robert Fairchild, Gonzalo Garcia, Craig Hall, and Amar Ramasar.

Meanwhile, the real core of the ballet lay under the dancers’ feet: The orchestra under Fayçal Karoui direction did masterful work. The lighting, designed by McGregor and Lucy Carter, was fun but not interesting enough; I know because by its constant changing, it forced me to look at it and not the dancers. The lack of makeup and the colorless costuming (mostly gray, gray, gray, some black, and lighter tops for the women) pushed the dancers further into anonymity. The picture accompanying this piece is solely about the dancers; consequently, they look much more interesting than McGregor let them appear on stage. The naked leg and thigh muscles of the men, by the way, reminded me of the NYCB ads for the season, but in context, there was no joy in being human here. Being human was incidental; indeed, the human condition an outlier. Oh, let’s change ballets and dance.

The sun always shines over Cortege Hongrois. It’s set in happy ballet land, where there’s a court, happy peasant types to provide character dancing, and something of a grand finale to a grand ballet. The heart of the piece lies in its variations for two women and the pas de deux which has everything a classic pas de deux should have: luminescent regals, swelling music, and eloquent partnering.

Gwyneth Miller danced her music box variation with a pleasing air and a sense of humor about her wonderfully strong feet. Ana Sophia Scheller danced as clear as crystal, her body a match for the music, absolutely lovely, and well rewarded with abundant applause.

Jonathan Stafford was capable in his variations for the pas de deux; Sara Mearns seemed to be having an off night. Her dancing lacked line and any sense of the fun (I had the same feeling watching the czardas), and it was distant from the music. Still, there’s no denying her strong technique and musicality, and even on an off night, one can’t discount her gifts. It’s really easy to turn this work into kitsch; to avoid that, the dancers go at it heart and soul, and I’ve seen them do just that, just not on Friday. Don’t they know Cortege Hongrois is fun? It used to be the piece where dancers charged across the floor and often fell. That energy complements the sweetness of the ballet. No one fell on Friday. I guess that’s good.

All the ballets on Friday had to do with light, which haunts us humans. We keep returning to it, reaching for it, even after it abandons us to the dark. We continue to have hope that it will return. And for the first ballet --

Oh, the world premiere? You thought it was Outlier? Well, yes, but there was another one.

The people leaving the theater were talking about it: “The first ballet was amazing!” “The first ballet was wonderful!” “Oh, that first ballet!”

The first ballet on the program was Serenade, and I don’t remember seeing it so well danced, so richly performed, so clear, so heart and soul and human, and so moving. It was just one of those performances that people remember in a season and that you’re grateful you were present for. Even the tulle skirts fell as if rehearsed into beautiful shapes around the dancers’ legs. Here, too, is desperation in darkness, frantic flinging across the stage, reaching for the light. But the piece moves, it has impetus, and it has dancers. One step and leap and, with exuberance and vitality, dancers are halfway across the floor. That energy is Balanchine’s America. The cast, particularly Jenifer Ringer and a truly exuberant dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, had us literally gasping in happiness. You can sense a great ballet getting a great performance; the audience stops breathing as individuals. We all shared one heart watching Serenade, and it was in our throats. (Yes, I am speaking metaphorically.) Outlier, which followed this in the program, had no chance.

Serenade is the miracle ballet, Balanchine’s first in America, its first performance (1934) in a backyard (okay, the Warburg estate) in the rain. City Ballet audiences cherish Serenade, its themes of grief, loss, and hope in the light, the light nurturing that impossible art called ballet. Me, I tear up at the first chords of the Tchaikovsky. And after seeing it, a little girl about eight years old charged up the aisle, her arms flying. For her, it was a world premiere, and it was one smashing success.

They’re dancing Balanchine’s work beautifully over at NYCB: They should advertise that. Earlier in the week I saw Concerto Barocco, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements, all excitingly danced. This company is indeed a gift to New York.

I didn’t hear much talk about Outlier as I headed up the street, sauntering slowly to the subway. The talk was all about Serenade. The rain had come and gone, and we moved into the night with hope for the light.

Serenade: Music by Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (Serenade for Strings), Choreography by George Balanchine, Costumes by Karinska; Original Lighting by Ronald Bates, Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: March 1, 1935, American Ballet, Adelphi Theater, New York. NYCB premiere: October 18, 1948, City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Outlier: Music by Thomas Adès, Choreography by Wayne McGregor, Set by Wayne McGregor and Lucy Carter, Costumes by Moritz Junge, Lighting by Lucy Carter, Solo violinist: Kurt Nikkanen. Additional performances can be seen on May 18 at 7:30 PM and on May 20 and 21 at 8 PM.

Cortege Hongrois: Music by Alexander Glazounov (from Raymonda), choreography by George Balanchine, Décor and Costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Premiere May 17, 1973, New York State Theater.

The New York City Ballet spring season goes through June 27 and features seven new ballets and four commissioned scores in its “Architecture of Dance” theme at the Koch Theater. Tickets are available at the theater’s box office and through the company’s engaging Web site, www.nycballet.com.

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of "Songs From the Balanchine Repertory." Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (www.whohavethepower.com). Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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