Friday, January 5, 2018

#MeToo, from a viewer's standpoint

Andrew Veyette and Sterling Hyltin in Everywhere We Go, by Justin Peck. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The fallout of #MeToo has been surprisingly swift, with no end in sight. It seems that there have been abuses in every field, wherever power is there to wield. The seemingly genteel world of dance has not been immune, most prominently with the resignation of Peter Martins at NYCB. Past accusations of spousal abuse are public knowledge, but the list of aggressions to dancers and students lengthens each day, not to mention the DWI's that Martins has received, including last week's.

I don't mean to diminish the charges brought to light in recent weeks, which are shocking to hear about, much less live through. But I bring up another sort of abuse of power that has simmered throughout the two decades I've been watching NYCB, and that is from a viewer's standpoint—the commandeering of resources by Martins to create new work for NYCB over the years, and the continuing imposition of that repertory on audiences despite lack of critical support. 

The company's website says he has made over 80 dances, most for NYCB, in four decades. Add up all the hours of time, and bags of money, invested in the creation and presentation of these dances, and no doubt it would be staggering. Dancers, rehearsal directors, composers, musicians, set/costume designers/fabricators, administration to support it all. But audience time as well, for not only do ticket buyers pay a premium price for their seats, but their time is valuableespecially in New York where there are dozens of dance events a week from which to choose.

A few of his dances hold up to scrutiny, including his first, Calcium Light Night. But nearly all of Martins' choreography that I've seen is unremarkable, roughly in the manner of Balanchine, but with passages of absolutely rote ballet that any competent teacher might put together in ballet class as an exercise. Some of it is truly pointless. I've often felt angry after being forced to sit through his dances if I wanted to see works by some of the other far more talented choreographers in repertory. It's like he's flaunting his power at the world—"I don't care if it's any good, or if you like it; I'm the one in power and I can do what I want." When no one stops him, why shouldn't he?
The Wind Still Brings, by Troy Schumacher. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Another kind of arrogance is seen in, perversely, his blind belief that NYCB's nonpareil dancers are able to perform too many steps, joined together clumsily, done too fast, and come out unscathed. As often as not, they fail. Why make these top-notch dancers look foolish? Is it a kind of challenge to them from Martins, like "bet you can't do this"? He himself was an accomplished principal, so perhaps he is measuring everyone against his own skills. I also recall silently cursing the ubiquitous partnering where a man lugs a woman around, flipping her in various ways. Of course Martins is not alone in this tendency, but when the choreography is so consistently tepid, these things tend to stick out even more.

With the advent of the Fashion Galas, begun in 2012, lavish costumes were created by Valentino and numerous other name designers. Certainly these galas have raised enormous amounts, but the expenses have likely been proportionately high. They have been notable events, but in a certain sense, the dance took a back seat to the fashion (although less so in recent years with the recruitment of emerging designers).

In the near past, with the emergence of such talented choreographers as Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and Peck, the number of Martins dances in season repertory has seemed to dwindle. However, he has not been above inserting an existing work of his on a program before eagerly anticipated commissions by younger choreographers, even at the last minute. You got the sense that he knew he had a captive audience that had no choice but to sit through Bal de Couture once more to see Justin Peck's latest work.

Martins had plenty of merits to be allowed to remain in his post for so long. He is to be credited for fostering the talents of the men above, as well as founding the Diamond Institute in 1992 to develop younger choreographers. Commissions have included a number of women recently, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Lauren Lovette, and Gianna Reisen. The technique has remained at a high level, with a whole new generation of accomplished principals emerging in the last decade. The company looks fantastic in repertory by Peck and Ratmansky, who craft interesting and challenging movement without making the dancers look as if they can't handle it. As a long chapter in this illustrious company comes to a close, we look forward to the future, which has in a sense already begun. 

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