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Dance: The Here/ Now Festival at New York City Ballet

By Dawn Lille
arttimesjournal August 22, 2017

Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro in Polyphonia. © Paul Kolnik
Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro in Polyphonia. © Paul Kolnik

The New York City Ballet, in existence since 1948, is thought of historically as the workshop of its founding artistic director George Balanchine (1904-1983). Since his death it has gone through good and not so good times, the strength of its dancers varying and the repertoire, basically by Balanchine with many by Jerome Robbins, sometimes looking stale. In recent years there has been an attempt to encourage new choreographers from both within and without the ranks of a company that is dancing magnificently.

They have always presented the ballets of Robbins, who, prior to his death in 1998, was a rather unwilling co-director of the troupe as a result of Balanchine’s last instructions. The great Russian choreographer had brought in the great American choreographer from the beginning of the company’s existence, recognizing his extraordinary talents.

The spring season of NYCB offered a four- week long Here/Now Festival presenting 43 ballets, commissioned since 1988, by 22 choreographers. Solo evenings the first week were given to three choreographers, who, between them, created 19 of the ballets: Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. They also appeared on the mixed programs of the following weeks, with all three having a work in one performance.

New works are always a problem in ballet. How does a choreographer remain within the language of the classical idiom and still create something new and worth keeping? This is a huge challenge that often cannot be continued through multiple creations. The company also revived many works not recently danced, which was an exhausting feat for the dancers, who were a pleasure to watch.

Justin Peck was a member of the corps de ballet when he created his first work. Now a soloist, he has been the company’s resident choreographer since 2014 and the “wunderkind” of the dance world. His ballets, often for large casts that freely mix soloists, members of the corps and principles deployed in complicated, fast moving, shifting patterns attuned to the counter rhythms in the music, have attracted young audiences. His techno music is usually throbbing and the dancers move freely in movements that are thrown outward, but there is also a connection between the dancers.

His program featured four works. Creases, to a two piano score by Philip Glass, uses four couples in perky solos and duets and was the first of the 13 works he has created for the company. The Dreamers, to a quintet by Bohuslav Martinů, with annoying red-slashed costumes by Dries Van Noten, seems like a fragment of a work. New Blood is for 13 brightly clad dancers in a series of duets to Variations by Steve Reich. Everywhere We Go uses a commissioned score by Sufjan Stevens, an American singer-songwriter with whom he has created two other pieces, and is typical of the lively, multifaceted works Peck’s audience appreciates.

Taylor Stanley in In Creases © Paul Kolnik
Taylor Stanley in In Creases © Paul Kolnik

Christopher Wheeldon, born in England, began performing with the Royal Ballet, joined NYCB in 1993, became a soloist in 1998, became the first artist in residence in 2000 and a year later the first resident choreographer, at which time he stopped performing. The dance world noticed how this young man extended classicism into different shapes and spaces.

His work was in such demand that he left his post to become an international freelancer, creating works for the Royal, the Bolshoi and many others, while still returning to work in New York. He briefly had his own company, Metamorphoses, and received great acclaim for directing and choreographing An American in Paris on Broadway.

Wheeldon’s program contained four pieces, of which Polyphonia to music by Ligeti, and Liturgy, a duet to a score by Arvo Part, are deservedly popular. Polyphonia shows him unafraid to tackle the varied complexity of the music. Liturgy is an example of his lyrical approach to the duet and his ability to find relationships in abstraction, qualities also seen in a later performance of After The Rain, a work created for the retirement of the dancer Wendy Whelan, that has been set on many companies.

Alexei Ratmansky, born in St. Petersburg, trained at the Bolshoi school and danced with the Royal Winnepeg and Royal Danish ballets. After a career choreographing he was named artistic director of the Bolshoi in 2004. He left five years later and was named artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, a position he still holds. The recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he also continues to create ballets for companies all over he world.

His solo program contained two works: Russian Scenes and Namouna. The following week his newest work Odessa, premiered at the NYCB Gala and was seen on other programs.

Ratmansky is a careful, broad thinking creator, with a deep sense of the history of classicism, a grasp of richly implied narrative, a warm sense of humor and an uncanny ability to create characters – all while remaining within the classical style.

Tyler Angle and the corps in Namouna,  a Grand Divertissement © Paul Kolnik
Tyler Angle and the corps in Namouna,
a Grand Divertissement
© Paul Kolnik

Namouna, danced to a 19th century score for the Paris Opera by Edouard Lalo, is, basically, about a young man searching for his love and is filled with absurdities before the final romantic duet. The hero has three muses, or possible candidates, and a seductress who smokes. Ratmansky has alluded to using “the clichés of classical ballet” in this fun, but full, work, in which the corps wears yellow dresses and black wigs á la Louise Brooks.

Russian Seasons is a ballet for six couples to music by Leonid Desyanikov and unfolds in different “scenes,” all with a folk flavor, although one is related to the harvest and another is a fatalistic acceptance of death.

All three choreographers treat their classical heritage differently. Ratmansky retains it as much as possible, discovering and using it in the most amazing ways. Wheeldon takes some risks, remaining acutely aware of form while venturing somewhat “out of the box.” Peck is willing to go anywhere, still calling it ballet, although Robbins used sneakers before he did.

Wheeldon has spoken of the influence of Robbins, especially his humanistic approach. Peck’s absorption of Robbins is seen most clearly in his maneuvering large groups of dancers on stage, particularly entrances and exits. Ratmansky shares Robbins’ subtle feel for folk rhythms.

Someone commented that there seems to be a competition regarding who will replace Jerome Robbins as the favorite alternate choreographer. The classical ballet world needs more works of lasting value and the NYCB can use more than one choreographer to follow Robbins. There is strength and pleasure in having many. These three have years off potential creation ahead of them – Ratmansky is 48, Wheeldon is 44, Peck is 29. And there is room for more. Have a Comment? write to