From 2001 to 2008, Christopher Wheeldon was New York City Ballet’s first-ever resident choreographer, providing him with a home for creating dances (not to mention a company of talented dancers) and offering NYCB new work from the man that many considered a promising heir to Balanchine. Though Wheeldon departed in 2008 to start his own company, Morphoses, he returned to NYCB often. On January 28th and February 4th, the company honored him with an all-Wheeldon program.
This is the first time that NYCB has created such a program, but it has popped up elsewhere in the past. Miller Theatre presented three of his works (all set to music by Gyorgy Ligeti) in 2005. Each ballet on that program was fascinating on its own, but when placed side by side, certain choreographic habits became apparent. NYCB’s program suffered in a similar way: by the third ballet, there was repetition in his choice of movement and shapes. Angular arms that carve through space and women held aloft with spread limbs make frequent appearances in his work. Last week’s program was further proof of this, and it revealed Wheeldon’s limitations – making each piece look less striking on a Wheeldon triple bill.
Les Carillons, a world premiere this season, is chock-full of movement – particularly arm gestures – that seemed detached from the music. The endless footwork and changing formations were too excessive for Georges Bizet’s regal score. Although the choreography tapped into the principal women’s individual strengths (Tiler Peck’s musicality, Sara Mearns’ lyricism and supple back, and Maria Kowroski’s long limbs), the ballet suffered from a “more is better” mentality and appeared thematically disjointed. Wearing brown costumes with a hint of color, the corps of ten swept on and off the stage between solos and duets for the principals in a dizzying rush of movement.
Even though Les Carillons felt chaotic, it looked rather calm compared to DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, a 2006 work for The Royal Ballet that was making its NYCB premiere. Set to Michael Nyman’s propulsive but eventually repetitive score, which was created to commemorate the 1993 inauguration of the north European train line known as TGV, twenty-four dancers were on a journey of their own that rushed from one place to the next. Jean-Marc Puissant’s thin sheets of metal peeled upward from the stage, creating a sense of motion. Arms and legs carving through space; bodies suspended in geometric shapes; and countless lifting of women overhead – the dancers’ lightning-quick bodies were part of DGV’s powerful but frustratingly busy engine.
Sandwiched between the two works – a smart choice – was the spare and haunting Polyphonia, to a piano score by Ligeti. With architecturally rich movement set within an environment that shifted from tense to meditative, the ballet looked as inventive as it did when it premiered in 2001. The four couples, in simple purple costumes, are sublime. Sara Mearns was poignant in her slow duet with Craig Hall, and Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia’s waltz was quietly profound. Wendy Whelan, performing in the role she originated, was otherworldly. In her second pas de deux with Jared Angle, the final image of Whelan rotating overhead and crawling underneath one of Angle’s legs to end in a sitting position, was chilling. She looked so at home in the choreography, filling every shape and line with spectacular dimensionality. On a program with two large-scale, fast-moving works, Polyphonia is even more gratifying for its minimalism and severe beauty.