Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Premieres at New York City Ballet—JP & JR

Andrew Veyette & Sterling Hyltin in Everywhere We Go. Photo: Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet's recent premiere of Justin Peck's Everywhere We Go is a truly ambitious, symphonic-scale work to a 40-minute, nine-movement score by Sufjan Stevens. It confirms the building suspicion that we have ballet's latest big choreographic talent in our midst, one still in his 20s and a soloist with the company. Don't be surprised if the dancing soon takes a back seat to an onslaught of high-profile commissions.

Peck continues to push himself and the dancers. Stevens' music can be thrillingly ornate, with fluttering flutes and clarion brass and pensive piano; at times, any of these instruments provide the beat. A choreographic tendency is to match some of these breakneck time signatures to the point where the most sure-footed dancers slip just trying to keep up; the trick is to push up to that line without crossing it. Peck very deliberately slows down some passages so they look like slo-mo, a filmic device that works to concentrate our focus, such as when Theresa Reichlen floats slowly amid a whirling crowd before whipping off some fouéttés.

Peck has great skill and an affinity for geometry and patterning. He creates fresh tableaux with the 25 dancers at hand, building structures one body at a time and then diminishing them in reverse. We see circles that blossom like flowers, matrices, wedges, lines, columns, clusters. This tinkertoy tendency is complemented by artist Karl Jensen's riveting backdrop, which at first evokes an Escher image of greys and blacks, and then morphs (kaleidoscope style, only vertically) to reveal negative spaces—bowties, octagons, squares—where light shines through. 

Maria Kowroski & Robert Fairchild. Photo: Paul Kolnik
A respect for ballet's fundamentals is felt, but there are small inventions that brand it. Arms held overhead in "fifth position," but with the palms pressed together, arms straight, like a diver; or arms held straight out while spinning, Dervish style. While Sterling Hyltin is lifted, she makes the shape of a ship's prow figurehead, and another time, she is tossed to a mosh pit of men while posing like a reclining flirt. 

There are some new partner pairings: the vibrant Tiler Peck with Amar Ramasar (Stevens says he wrote a section with them in mind), Robert Fairchild with Maria Kowroski, both romantics at heart; Andrew Veyette with Hyltin, an ideally proportioned pair. And Teresa Reichlin assumes the cool lone wolf role, dancing solo or with several men or a pair of dancers. Veyette in particular seems to have blossomed in this work; he is among the most athletic of the men, and here bounds and bursts across the stage, unfettered.

Recently retired dancer Janie Taylor designed the smart costumes—white/navy striped tops and white trunks/tights for the women, and color block unitards with a pink stripe for the men. It's great to see a dancer's knowledge of functionality and style put to use, especially in a company that has in recent seasons turned to haute couture designers.

The one drawback was the piece's length. There were also several false endings when the audience thought it was over, only to have another movement begin. On the other hand, the many sections lend themselves to being excerpted.

Do I know you? Photo: Paul Kolnik
While watching Les Bosquets, the prior week's premiere by artist JR (with help from Peter Martins), a mental image recurred—Mr. Monopoly lighting a cigar with a $100 bill. The sheer lunacy of the premise—giving creative rein to a non-choreographer, enlisting more than 40 dancers for the eight-minute work, engaging whatever it took to create the individually unique costumes (by Marc Happel)... like other recent commissions, it feels like a huge amount of resources thrown at essentially a pièce d'occasion, a giant gesture of artistic hubris/audience outreach.

In any case, this artistically dodgy premise seems to have worked in terms of outreach, to an extent. Thanks to publicity about the project, chatter revolved around JR and his dance, even if it was about how he has never choreographed. (JR created the mezzanine floor mural last season, featuring the company lying in artful poses as the audience walked on top of them.) How Martins had to interpret JR's concepts into actual dance steps. About Lil Buck, a non-ballerino. About how the piece was inspired by the 2005 riots in and near Paris.

Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette. Photo: Paul Kolnik
As for the work itself, it is memorable for the impression made by the sheer number of dancers comprising two gangs, basically good vs. bad. Divided by gender, the two sides confront one another and clash, creating a chaotic mass that culminates in a human mound. Admittedly, it's a very strange sensation to see Lil Buck gliding on his sneakered toes, snaking his liquid arms, and angling his legs into diamond shapes, next to Lauren Lovette in a white crinkly (Tyvek?) tutu, moving through classical ballet shapes. It had the effect of reducing Lil Buck's very personal style to an oddity, when he has created a distinct genre of hip-hop. In one scene, the two stand face to face in front of a huge video of their alternating faces. The lighting is so dim that you can't see what they're doing (the above photo appears far lighter than the live performance), but presumably they were just staring at mimed (and smaller, real) cameras.

It's also a surprise that this work was not the performance focus of gala night, because it had the devil-may-care attitude characteristic of such fare (Justin Peck's premiere took that honor). On the one hand, it's not a bad thing that Martins has enough artistic freedom to direct resources to an untested dance collaborator, but on the other hand, it's a lot of resources. But without such experiments, true talents like Peck might not be found. 

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