Sunday, February 4, 2024

New York Notebook, Jan/Feb 2024

Timothy Ward and Justin Lynch in De la Lumière, Entre les LampesPhoto: Steven Pisano

Molissa Fenley, Roulette

Molissa Fenley’s program, From the Light, Between the Lamps, at Roulette was most likely not intended as a glowing source of optimism to pull us back from the looming abyss of life, but it wound up working that way on Jan 31. It comprised six dances made or revised very recently—a remarkable output given her incredible decades-long career—one that seemed in doubt after a serious knee injury in 1995. The unfettered joy and experimentation revolving around simply moving the human body felt like a salve and a return to what’s essential, in addition to the ongoing creation of work by a modern pioneer.

Fenley began presenting her work in 1977, drawing attention for her cyclonic, athletic solos and punk aesthetic. She incorporated elements such as percussion and South Asian dance influences that mostly hadn’t been seen together in a New York modern dancer. Flexed feet and hands, the latter to frame the head and upper body, and explosive jumps and spins, marked her fresh style. She made the most of the Covid-imposed rules for dance with her 2020 Joyce run of her virtuosic 1988 solo, State of Darkness, featuring seven powerhouse dancers from top modern and ballet troupes. (Three of them  guested at Roulette on later dates.)

Christiana Axelsen, Molissa Fenley, Timothy Ward in Lava FieldPhoto: Art Davison

In the new program, she showed new or revised work paired with music by thought-provoking composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Perhaps most surprising is that Fenley (born in 1954) performed alongside three outstanding dancers (Christiana Axelsen, Justin Lynch, Timothy Ward). Some of the movement felt softer and more organic than her earlier work. While Fenley's work is not prone to sentimentality, at times the dancers linked hands and passed under these arches, or leaned on one another tenderly. One solo gave way to another, or dancers entered in phases, or danced on three different levels. Some scores were played live, notably the Glass New Chaconne written in 2023. The intimate environs of Roulette (an old auditorium) combined with Fenley’s sui generis modernism to evoke a golden era of dance. And while it might feel halcyon relative to the chaos of today, to remember the horrors of the late 20th-century AIDS crisis might put current mayhem in perspective.

Roman Mejia, Mira Nadon, and Chun Wai Chan in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo: Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet, Koch Theater

The same week, New York City Ballet premiered Tiler Peck’s first work for her native company, where she continues to perform as a beloved principal. She has been choreographing elsewhere for a few years, including for the Vail Festival, which has encouraged young choreographers and collaborations, unlikely as much for the scheduling involved as any artistic barriers.

For the premiere, Peck chose Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (the title for her piece), an exuberant and dramatic composition with highly modulated dynamics and heroic melodies. Her choreography has many of the qualities that distinguish her greatness as a dancer—clarity, musicality, and joy. She gave Roman Mejia a blank canvas on which to display his formidable athleticism in countless spins, jumps, and soaring leaps, at times buddy-battling with Chun Wai Chan. Besides their technical prowess, both have lots of charisma—a welcome asset in a company that can produce skilled but politely distant men. Dancing with both in turn, the e
legant and glamorous Mira Nadon sported a crimson dress (by Zac Posen), which stood out among a sea of blues and browns. A gaggle of men lifted and sailed her about, placing her gently on a row of mens’ backs. India Bradley and Emma Von Enck handled allegro passages with skill and vibrancy.

Emma Von Enck and India Bradley in Concerto for Two Pianos. Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Peck is smartly immersed in the working world of the theater. The striking curtain-up moment featured seven pairs of dancers in stark silhouette, performing snappy lifts and spins. Often, a light-hued cyc provides the needed contrast for darkly-lit dancers to highlight their shapes. (This was not the case in the evening’s closer, Odesa by Alexei Ratmansky, where the mens’ black-clad legs were hardly legible against dark backgrounds. On purpose, no doubt, but very hard to see.) The company of a community is important, as are robust solos. And hopefully Peck will have the chance to choreograph more for City Ballet, where she has worked since 2005.

Concerto followed Justin Peck’s Rotunda, created in 2020 to music by Nico Muhly, and Justin’s 19th ballet for the company. He has created dances of differing styles, including elements of street and tap, but he hews to ballet here. Many of the themes that underpin his dances are present—the group, often clustered, facing in, exploding outward to seek individual paths. A childlike playfulness, the joy in moving freely, but also moving precisely.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Odesa.Photo credit: Erin Baiano

richly-hued Odesa, to music by Leonid Desyatnikov, displays the choreographer’s skill at narrative suggestion with the barest of gestures—a woman refuses to take a man’s hand, at once conjuring all sorts of questions about their relationship. A group of men circle the stage in a softly lyrical phrase, which feels refreshingly different from the more strident, powerful vocabulary often given to men. 

In a sense, this choreographic trio of Peck, Peck, and Ratmansky represents the company’s near future, with the two men in formalized positions, and given the success of Concerto for Two Pianos, almost assuredly more to come from Tiler Peck.