Sunday, September 30, 2018

NYCB's Fall Gala—Revolution in the Air

The Exchange. Photo: Paul Kolnik
By Susan Yung

In a sense, it was business as usual at NYCB’s fall fashion gala, “the most important night of our year,” as Teresa Reichlen put it in pre-show remarks at the Koch Theater on Sep 26. Somehow it felt more trite than that in the wake of the departure of Peter Martins last spring, and more recently three male principals, leaving the company in limbo both leadership-wise (currently four company members share that role) and with a shortage of tall leading men. Three new dances focused around fashion designs were hardly the headline.

Reichlen’s speech alluded to the departures: “We won’t allow talent to sway our moral standards.” There’s no dispute this is moral high ground, and yet who among them—us—are unimpeachable, morally? And yet in the face of powerful figures falling each day, the high ground seems to be the only safe spot.

Those remarks set the tone for three premieres which felt, as the evening passed, increasingly what the future will look like for new repertory for NYCB, apart from by now stalwarts Justin Peck and Chris Wheeldon. Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange seemed to pit the old against the new, or conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. atheistic, etc. In any case, a group of rule-bound people (the women in Gareth Pugh’s Martha Graham-esque long red gowns; the men in drum major reds and blacks; all wear red chiffon head covers) move in an orderly fashion, before the rebels (in short tablecloth, diagonal-drape dresses; the men in strappy harnesses and gaucho pants) move in and shake things up. The Dvorak accompanying it set a mostly solemn tone, with hints of Slavic dash.
Lauren Lovette & Preston Chamblee in Judah. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Still just 19, Gianna Reisen’s second work for NYCB, Judah, is set to John Adams’ frenetic score. Four dancers began the piece by walking onstage in front of the curtain, which then parted to reveal staircase segments on each stage side (an allusion to Apollo, intentional or not). Perhaps because Reisen is a woman who performs, sometimes on pointe (with LA Dance Project), she pushes the capabilities of NYCB’s women, who are astounding athlete-artists. An indulgent arc of piqué turns, or an arabesque “nailed” after running to a spot, or finishing a pirouette with an extended leg rather than a planted foot are examples of such ambition, rewarded. Alberta Ferretti designed the costumes—scarf-draped dresses and unitards with, oddly, silhouettes of dancers printed on them. Reisen uses the stair elements as perches and launch pads; Lauren Lovette leaps off of one into Preston Chamblee’s arms. Harrison Ball showed his power and magnetism in a featured role. Reisen packs a lot into the piece, which sometimes feels frenzied, but merits another viewing.

Taylor Stanley in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway promised to be the mystery of the program since he had never choreographed a ballet. The curtain rose to reveal Taylor Stanley (in a black and white romper, by Giles Deacon) in a solo that began and ended with him slumped over and blossoming like a flower. It perfectly showed his absolute precision, nuance, and impeccable line, and which blended ballet with Abraham’s richly varied lexicon, from break to club to voguing. Unfortunately, Deacon’s costumes for some of the other dancers, mainly the women, were baroque and overwrought; headpieces with big side extensions looked ridiculous and rendered the women unidentifiable.

Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, & Ashley Bouder in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The mixed soundtrack ranged widely from Nico Muhly to Kanye to Jay-Z, and perhaps the sound of hip-hop and rap in the Koch Theater felt like the most revolutionary thing about the night. At the same time, it adrenalized the dancers and created an interesting tension with the tradition and classicism associated with the institution and theater itself. Despite the contemporary music, the ruffles, feathers, and crinolines used by Deacon created a courtly atmosphere. Punchy solos were danced by Ashley Bouder (in a flapper mini) and Georgina Pascoguin, who shed a bulky skirt with a sassy toss reminscent of Ratmansky’s fourth wall-breaking asides. 

In some ways, Abraham’s fluid, heady mix of styles evoked William Forsythe, who has underscored the physical intelligence of dancers to transform them into incredible alien beings. In the end, Stanley resumed his bowed position alone. Fittingly, the work began and ended with him, currently one of the most exciting dancers in a temporarily depleted troupe that is facing revolution on several fronts.