Saturday, July 6, 2024

New York Notebook, June 2024

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. Photo: Marty Sohl


ABT performed the company premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works (2015) during its 2024 season at the Met Opera House. It was presented alongside weathered classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, and newer works such as Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate (2023). With rare exception, it’s a formula they have followed for many years; kudos to them for adding a truly contemporary ballet—actually three differing, short ballets. If only it had more choreographic appeal.

I confess that McGregor’s choreography has not spoken to me over the years. He pushes already extreme artist-athletes’ bodies in superhuman ways, often distorting a split past 180º, kicking a foot out rather than simply extending it, and having the men energetically manipulate their female partners. Rather than creating fluid phrases that read like sentences and paragraphs, his choreography can come off as a series of one-word exclamations. And that’s tough when you’re faced with a long evening to fill.

Alessandra Ferri in Woolf Works. Photo: Kyle Froman

At least the sections of Woolf varied enough to feel like three separate works. The first, I now, I then, based on Mrs. Dalloway, received the most traditional treatment. It’s set among three large, revolving, abstract wooden frames that presumably mark the protagonist’s eras. Perhaps the most significant coup of Woolf Works, and the probable connecting tissue, were the performances of longtime (“retired”) ABT principal Alessandra Ferri, now 61 and the originator of two of the three lead roles in WW, partnered by the sublime Herman Cornejo. Her abilities are ideal—chiefly, a paradigmatic ballet line and captivating expressions of vulnerability and wonder. I also caught the cast led by Gillian Murphy (with Joo Won Ahn), who, while technically crisp, exudes too much efficient capability for such a sensitive character. Perhaps the narrative is meant as a general outline for stage action, but it's somewhat impenetrable given the scant program notes.

Becomings, the second act based on Orlando, discards any narrative. Instead, we see gender fluidity and same-sex pairings, and similar courtly costumes of gold lamé worn by both women and men, until toward the end, all are in flesh-hued leotards. The movement is largely hyper-expressionistic, suiting fearless dynamo Catherine Hurlin to a tee. But the main event is the laser show (lighting design by Lucy Carter), which is probably no big deal for Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, but at the Met, with ballet, breaks literal spatial barriers. Dancers’ bodies pierce a vertical plane of light bisecting the stage, creating an electric outline. Several horizontal planes beam into the house, above our heads, while clouds are projected onto them. It brought the stage into the entire auditorium, and garnered huge applause.

Spectacular, for sure, but these bold production strokes often made the dancers look shrunken and inconsequential. Several duets or small groupings were performed at the same time, making it difficult to focus. Some small ensemble passages—the women performing a simple port de bras phrase; the men lying on their sides—provided rare satisfying choreographic moments. It made me think on how, in the classics, a duet (like the pas de deux in Swan Lake) can command the entirety of the stage, fake lake or not, and why. Tuesday, the third act based on The Waves, contrasts the independent and childless lead (Ferri/Murphy) with her sister and her children, with their oddly literal frolicking. A magnificent slo-mo film of crashing waves (film design by Ravi Deepres) hovers overhead, once again belittling the small humans below (and grabbing attention), but conveying the recurring theme of water in Woolf’s work, and all the life-giving and -taking symbolism therein.

The score by Max Richter offers little in the way of a framework, with its cinematic feel—pulsating, crescendoing, repetitive. It provides an aural parallel to McGregor’s choreography, but nearly two hours of both turns out to be a stretch. You have to credit ABT for taking a flyer on Woolf Works, but its lack of legible substance in light of the evening’s inspiration disappoints. In the context of the rest of the Met season, it at least promised a lauded, contemporary varietal, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t return.

Eran Bugge and Alex Clayton in Runes. Photo by Steven Pisano

In contrast, I saw two programs at the Joyce—Extreme Taylor. The slates offered some less mainstream or smaller scale earlier repertory by Paul Taylor alongside some chestnuts. Big Bertha is one of Taylor’s most egregiously shocking creations; a carnival automaton (Christina Lynch Markham, a notably dramatic dancer in her final run with the company) waves her wand to unleash violence and incest on a family. It exemplifies a highly dramatic subset of Taylor’s work that, without words, expresses radical societal behavior that simmers just beneath the surface—American Gothic on steroids. 

Lee Duveneck, Christina Lynch Markham, Eran Bugge, Kristin Draucker
in Big Bertha. Photo by Ron Thiele

Post Meridian (1965) and Duet (1964) are among his more rigorously modern dances, performed in color block or patterned unitards. They emphasize plastic experimentation and rigorous partnering, both examples of early Taylor choreography where there are no extra steps—models of economy and necessity. Private Domain (1969) combined spare phrasing with the simple dramatic device of downstage partitions (Alex Katz) that obstructed a viewer’s total stage picture, akin to the daily urban theater of peering into residential windows. In Runes (1975), Taylor added a layer of ritual (and fur pelts, designed under his alias), plus the timepiece of an orbiting moon. The sheer physical requirements of being a Taylor dancer hoved into view when Devon Louis, calm and solid as a tree, crossed and spun upstage bearing a woman pressed overhead.
Lisa Borres, Jessica Ferretti, Jada Pearman, Devon Louis, Lee Duveneck
in Post Meridian. Photo by Steven Pisano

Handel and Bach’s ebullient music drives both Airs (1978) and Brandenburgs (1988), respectively. Of Taylor’s “pattern” dances, the movement hews closely to the score, sometimes doubling or halving the tempo. And as lighthearted and buoyant as the dances read, they mandate incredible strength, stamina, and rehearsal drill time to appear so effortless. In particular, the corps of five men in Brandenburgs were synced like the atomic clock. Taylor’s mastery of entrances, exits and a satisfying variation in section dynamics were on full display.

Wayne McGregor has accolades in spades, but I continually wonder what I’m missing. Clearly my expectations from an evening’s work don’t overlap with Woolf Works. As his motor was the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf, I craved more narrative clues to link to her novels; longer program notes might assist, but the action onstage should be able to stand alone. More charismatic music also might provide support, and choreography to draw the focus to one primary passage on the vast stage peppered with groups. Taylor’s more intimate repertory delivered these things in a smaller setting, and from seeing his larger work on big stages, it scales up.

When I thought, “why am I watching this?” I couldn’t provide an answer during Woolf Works, other than Ferri making a hero’s return, and filling a slot with contemporary ballet. Is filling two hours too much to ask these days? One wonders where the rep goes from here, riding alongside than the old classics. 

Note: McGregor's work receives more stage time this weekend at Jacob's Pillow, performed by the Royal Ballet of London.

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