NYCB dancers in Douglas Lee’s Lifecasting, photo by Paul Kolnik
George Balanchine is a lucky man. Every year he receives a new ballet on his birthday, January 22, from New York City Ballet. This year, the company not only honored Mr. B. on its “New Combinations” program, but also launched the Rudolf Nureyev Fund for Emerging Choreographers with a matching grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation. Nureyev never danced with NYCB; in fact, Balanchine told him, “You do not know how to dance the way we dance in our company.” However, Nureyev performed Balanchine works elsewhere, as the audience saw in some video clips before Tuesday evening’s performance. The program included works by choreographers from Russia, England, and France – the three countries most closely associated with Nureyev’s career.
The pas de deux from August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano was a pleasant opening to the performance. Abi Stafford and Gonzalo Garcia moved smoothly through the variations. They are both modest dancers, and their breezy movement quality lent itself well to Bournonville’s combinations of jumps and turns. The other pas de deux on the program, from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, was suspended between heaven and earth. To Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel for a solo piano and violin, Wendy Whelan and Sébastien Marcovici moved seamlessly and tenderly, luxuriating in each drawn-out moment. Her ethereality and his grounded quality balanced one another. Watching this heart-achingly beautiful movement made me forget that I was watching ballet in a large, indoor theater.
Balanchine’s birthday present this year was Lifecasting by Douglas Lee, a British choreographer and principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. After just one viewing, this ballet left me puzzled. It felt reminiscent of other angst-filled ballets with edgy movement and minimalist music (this piece was set to Steve Reich and Ryoji Ikeda), but was still intriguing and certainly deserves another viewing. A cluster of suspended stage lights and sleek, gold costumes created a desolate, eerie world controlled by the dancers. Robert Fairchild was explosive in his opening solo as he curved his spine and rapidly spun his arms, and Ashley Bouder approached every movement with ferocity. The series of duets, solos, and ensemble work never fully cohered, and sometimes there was so much occurring simultaneously that I had trouble taking it all in. This performance of Lifecasting did not particularly speak to me, but another one (or two or three) probably will.
Angelin Preljocaj’s La Stravaganza (photo at left by Paul Kolnik) had the opposite effect. It said too much too clearly, without allowing for any mystery. Yet, the concept was imaginative and the dancing was riveting. Six people dressed in modern-day clothing danced briskly to Vivaldi, but as a black curtain rose at the back of the stage to the sound of striking electronics, six dancers dressed in Renaissance attire appeared. Their stiffness and seriousness triggered curiosity from the modern-day dancers, and what began as tentative mingling developed into more ominous confrontations with violent undertones. Robert Fairchild, one of the “ancient” dancers, returned to his own world with Rachel Rutherford, a modern-day dancer. In the end, she re-entered her own world as an outsider, only observing from a distance. Preljocaj’s story of two worlds colliding is vivid and dramatic, but would have been just as effective – and more mysterious – without providing every detail.
The program closed with Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, set to Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. This ballet is an exercise in classicism, with sparkly tutus, a court setting, and inventive choreography rooted in classical ballet technique. Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz are relaxed, effortless technicians who breezed through the trickiest pirouettes and jumps. They are also both very musical, which made their performance a joy to watch.
The three contemporary works sandwiched between two classical ballets created a diverse program. Balanchine would be proud to see such innovative choreographers – and talented dancers – at his birthday celebration.