|Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in A Place for Us. Photo: Paul Kolnik|
A Place for Us is a tribute to Jerome Robbins, and fittingly, Wheeldon dots his work with nods and quotes from Robbins' oeuvre, including the presence of the pianist and clarinetist (respectively, Nancy McDill and the fantastic, felicitous Richard Stoltzman playing the André Previn/Leonard Bernstein song) downstage left. The dancers begin their work in a square of light across the stage (designed by Penny Jacobus), interacting with one another in intricate ways that exude a depth of familiarity and understanding. One movement is met swiftly with a different step in reaction, like a dialogue, and followed by a parallel step done together. There's an intricacy and plasticity in their shapes; you feel that Wheeldon understands his dancers and their capabilities intensely. He is deft at experimenting in small ways that push the classical idiom slightly each time—repeating spiraling lifts in which Peck slides her shoulders onto Fairchild's back, no hands needed; in another lift, she folds her legs in geometric shapes and braces herself away from his body as he spins her in the air, like a mobile. The curtain falls while Peck is pirouetting, a bold statement about her technical prowess and the assumed continuity of the moment, and about these dancers—this company—moving forward.
I felt the dense complexity of the duet contrasted to an early work by Wheeldon which opened the gala: Soirée Musicale, to Barber, done last century (!) in 1998 for a School of American Ballet Workshop. While ambitious for a young choreographer, the ballroom effervescence, canons of movement, and debonair air felt like a sure formula for success. It did feature a good number of younger dancers, led by new principal (and youngster) Chase Finlay, in addition to Brittany Pollack, a newly promoted soloist. You can see Wheeldon's intuitive knack for gentle characterization within an essentially abstract structure, and his playfulness with quick tempos and facile dancers.
The rest of the gala program underscored this season's theme of American music: "Cool" from the West Side Story Suite, by Robbins to Bernstein; Glass Pieces by Robbins to Philip Glass; and a segment of Stars and Stripes, by Balanchine to Hershy Kay.