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IMPRESSIONS: New York City Ballet’s Spring 2019 Season — Week One

IMPRESSIONS: New York City Ballet’s Spring 2019 Season — Week One
Henning Rübsam

By Henning Rübsam
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Published on May 6, 2019
Matthew Neenan's "The Exchange"; Photo by Paul Kolnik

April 23, 24, 25, 2019

Two programs named “21st Century Choreographers” (I and II, respectively) made up the first week of New York City Ballet’s spring season that opened on April 23rd. The freshly appointed director Jonathan Stafford and his associate Wendy Whelan obviously want to point toward the future. Just in time for the season the company reinstated principal dancer Amar Ramasar, after letting him go last September over accusations of misconduct. While his name could not be found in Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s program, the roster included him again by Thursday.

While the upsetting, tawdry nature of past incidents at NYCB have been covered extensively, it is important to remember that the art of ballet can carry on more positive, enlightening discussions. Therefore, I looked forward to revisiting Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s Oltremare. According to him it “explores the feelings of people who have left their homeland on a quest for a better life in a far new land.” Most US-Americans are descendants of immigrants and to afford them a look at Oltremare which translates to “beyond the sea” could, in the best of all possible worlds, make a statement that dance can surpass nostalgia and that timely programming matters.

A man dips a woman, both in mint-green costumes
Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH; Photo by Paul Kolnik

A procession of people with suitcases in hand slowly travels across the stage. They sit and rest for a moment, then keep walking until out of sight. Eventually they reappear to form a half circle with their suitcases. The stage space within the suitcase crescent in the back and the proscenium in the front becomes a makeshift theater in the round that could be interpreted as a new world, between audience and the performers, who both watch action and drama unfold from all angles.

However, the dance sections within Oltremare are performed very much to the audience, and the frontal focus reads as a demonstrative attempt to show feelings rather than share an authentic experience. Frequent collaborator Bruno Moretti’s music colors this Bigonzetti work from 2008 in melancholic hues. In one moment, dancers crouch and sing a brief humming melody that they seem to remember from their native land. It touches me.

The work alternates between duets and group sections that often involve the whole ensemble dancing in unison. Brittany Pollack in a maroon dress (stepping in for Tiler Peck) commands the stage in her duet with Peter Walker. Georgina Pazcoguin jumps on Andrew Veyette’s back; she stretches and points in a direction that—depending on how the “theater” is oriented—could be read as a sign to return to Europe or as a prompt to go west. Two men start a folk inspired dance and quickly two women join in the fun. Is the simplicity of unison a choice to convey the genuine nature of the common man?

A woman has her foot on a man's chest; both have their arms extended in a V
Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Oltremare; Photo by Paul Kolnik

Veyette takes over the stage and whirls faster than any dervish. Long-limbed Maria Kowrowski steps on a sitting Tyler Angle and places her feet on his knees. Can you tell it is an uncomfortable relationship? The two navigate through inventive partnering that happens to be cloying for a reason. Their emotional dependency comes through in an arresting image where she extends her leg while he holds her and covers her face with one hand.

While the three main duets are of slightly different nature, they do not vary enough to make the work remarkable. Were the only immigrants male—female couples? Where are families and a pair of brothers to break up the look of the corps of a ballet company?

Bigonzetti is too conventional in his choice of partners and groupings and the costume design does not differentiate between social classes. It takes greater finesse to create a believable and moving picture of the diverse reality of immigrants.

At the end of the ballet the men each drag the woman assigned to them across the floor by her ankles. Then stationary, the men continue to manipulate the women around by their ankles and turn them counterclockwise on the floor. With the women as their hostages, the men keep standing. I have no explanation for this abuse.

A smiling woman is in fourth position en pointe, her wrists flexed
Brittany Pollack in William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman; Photo by Paul Kolnik

The strongest work in these 21st century evenings happens to be the 20th century outlier Herman Schmerman, created in 1992 for the company by William Forsythe. With music by Thom Willems, exceptionally understated costumes by Gianni Versace, lighting by Mark Stanley, the work —staged by Noah Gelber—is the one that looks the most contemporary.

Divided into two main sections, it starts out as a quintet for Sara Mearns, Unity Phelan, Ms. Pollack, Devin Alberda, and Harrison Ball. Determined walks and casual runs intersperse dancing that sets accents by a point shoe audibly tapping the floor. Limbs perform sequences of angular bends and hyperextended stretches between intricate fast footwork that uses all the ingredients of ballet vocabulary. Dancers perform piqué and chaîné turns, pas de bourée, and pas de chat with steely strength and quicksilver speed. Nothing looks dainty.

Sandwiched between the familiar, I glimpse the female dancers balancing en pointe while extending a leg off the center of gravity. I delight in these displays of strength when dancers maintain a position while one of their limbs wants to pull them out of it. Such actions suspend commonly used timing. The playful tease of held balances, the lusciousness of sweeping arms and pliable upper bodies are suddenly offset by a rapid direction change. Jumps, leaps and hops, as well as occasional partnering help accentuate the off-center lines. Attitudes front and back propel the dancer in the desired direction. Arms divide the space in patterns that seems to be a heady mixture of classical ballet positions and semaphore.

In the second section, soloists Megan LeCrone and Aaron Sanz (stepping in for Peck and Angle) take on a mammoth pas de deux and slice the air in every direction. Clad in black, just like the dancers in the quintet, LeCrone elongates balances with mischievous delight. She flexes and points her feet with such determination that I cannot take my eyes off her. She coils her body and suddenly releases her energy with lightning force. Sanz feels the whiplash but remains a steady partner.

A group of men toss another man high in the air
New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes; Photo by Paul Kolnik

LeCrone leaves the stage and Sanz performs a short solo that takes him to the floor and on his feet again. As he wanders off, she returns in a yellow skirt and gets to grab a solo moment to herself  just in time for him to reappear bare-chested and sporting a yellow skirt as well.

The classical structure of the pas de deux is thus kept in place: duet, male variation, female variation, duet (coda). While the form and formalism is apparent in structure and vocabulary, the execution transcends it. Yellow skirts question gender dynamics and bring lightness to the proceedings. Forsythe cleverly plays with form and gender in a humorous way and in the meantime opens up possibilities for the future of dance.

Compared to the vintage Forsythe work, the more recent dances by Alexei Ratmansky look like a throwback to a Stalinist Soviet aesthetic. Interestingly it is Justin Peck’s new interpretation of Americana that deserves attention. Testosterone electrifies the stage in his Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes to music by Aaron Copland played by the New York City Ballet Orchestra with glee under the baton of Andrew Litton.

I hope to be able to return to this fine work as well as to Matthew Neenan’s beautifully luscious yet somehow overburdened The Exchange in a future review.

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