Last year, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company tried to prove that “Ballet=Sexy” in an attempt to overturn the belief that ballet is all about tutus and dying swans. After watching Wednesday evening’s gala performance at City Center, it was unclear if that’s still Christopher Wheeldon’s goal for the company. True, there were no swans or tutus in the performance, but the program, which included two works by Wheeldon, one by Frederick Ashton, and one by Canadian choreographer Emily Molnar, was lackluster. Setting aside the high expectations for Wheeldon (he’s probably the most sought-after ballet choreographer in the world), the performance wasn’t even a breath of fresh air.
In the opening of Polyphonia, a 2001 piece that Wheeldon created for New York City Ballet, four couples moved at lightning speed to the dauntingly chaotic score by Gyorgy Ligeti. The pace slowed for two duets danced by Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle, allowing them to more thoroughly and vividly explore edgy, dimensional shapes and lines in a dimly lit, moodier setting. Elsewhere in the piece, Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia performed a flowing waltz in which Garcia swept Peck offstage in a horizontal lift across his shoulder. This image – an unusual and refreshing one in ballet – is repeated at the end of Polyphonia. All of the dancers but one – 15-year-old Beatriz Stix-Brunell, who presented herself well and shows potential – were from New York City Ballet. I’ve seen stronger performances of Polyphonia, but the dancers’ occasional hesitancy might have been due to the stage’s slippery floor or smaller size (compared to the vast NY State Theater stage), causing the dancers to restrain their characteristically expansive movement.
Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan in Polyphonia, photo by Erin Baiano
Mr. Wheeldon has cited Frederick Ashton as one of his choreographic influences, so it wasn’t surprising to see Ashton’s Monotones II, a 1966 work to Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, on the program. Two men and one woman (Rubinald Pronk, Edward Watson, and Maria Kowroski), dressed in white unitards and headpieces that looked like swimming caps topped with sparkly pom-poms, contrasted unfolding extensions with their ability to interweave their limbs and dance as one. Perhaps Monotones II made a statement when it was first performed in the 60s at The Royal Ballet, but at City Center, the piece looked dated and out of place on a program that was otherwise very contemporary. Additionally, it lacked the otherworldly mood that would have beautifully accompanied Satie’s serene score.
Emily Molnar’s Six Fold Illuminate, set to Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, was an opportunity for the dancers to rush about and suddenly stop short, twitch, or burst into another spastic phrase of movement. Reich’s score is rhythmically fascinating but very repetitive, and like many other ballets to minimalist scores, the ballet chugged along without ever amounting to anything. In spite of the shifting pools of light, the qualities of the perpetually kinetic movement never really changed. The dancers, however, were all superb. Drew Jacoby stood out for her commanding presence, Rubinald Pronk was fully in touch with the music, and Céline Cassone captivated the audience with her intense focus and edginess.
Edward Watson, Drew Jacoby, and Rubinald Pronk in Six Fold Illuminate, photo by Erin Baiano
Most disappointing was Wheeldon’s new work, Commedia, to Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, which was originally a commission for the Ballets Russes. The set design by Ruben Toledo showed several masks that lit up and changed colors throughout the ballet. After the opening section, the eight men and women removed their colorful capes and masks to reveal white unitards with black diamond patterns, reminding me of some of the costumes from Peter Martin’s Jeu de Cartes (also to Stravinsky). A series of duets, solos, and pas de deux followed that were neither choreographically compelling nor light-heartedly comedic, as I imagine they were trying to be. Stix-Brunell infused the piece with her youthful energy, and although the entire cast was strong, there was a spark missing from their dancing. This, along with the lack of coherence among the various sections of the ballet, resulted in a flat performance. No choreographer can create a masterpiece every time, but it was disheartening to see Wheeldon’s newest ballet pale in comparison to the beautifully complex Polyphonia.
Dancers in Wheeldon’s Commedia, photo by Erin Baiano
Short videos shown before two of the ballets should have enhanced the audience’s understanding of the rehearsal process by offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the dancers and choreographer at work, but they only highlighted Benjamin Pierce’s adept use at special effects. Before Molnar’s Six Fold Illuminate, a video showed the choreographer counting the music while special effects blurred another dancer’s spinning turns across the floor. Molnar then addressed the cast – all looking tired and rather bored – about the importance of intention and clarity. Before Commedia, even more effects were used to show two dancers and their mirror image rehearsing an excerpt from the piece. Including videos in a dance program is a great idea, but the end result should allow the audience to feel closer to – instead of further from – the creation of a ballet.