A wrap-up of New York City Ballet’s winter season, written by Alastair Macaulay, appeared in the NY Times a few days ago. His assessments of current dancers – both positive and negative – are mostly accurate, and he is correct that too many dancers are pigeon-holed “along the lines established by the ballerinas of Balanchine’s last decade.” The review uses Darci Kistler’s approaching retirement – during the 2010 season – as a starting point for evaluating some of the younger female dancers, but what about the men? True, Macaulay notes the company’s “gifted male dancers” while also criticizing Nilas Martins’ pitiful performances in just two ballets this season, but the rest of the article evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of many female principals and soloists. Surely a review of the season should devote equal space to critiquing the company’s men and women. I wonder what this review suggests about the value placed (or not placed) on male ballet dancers.
In fact, it was the men’s performances that were most memorable in last Saturday evening’s program, 21st Century Movement. The quadruple bill, which includes works by Jorma Elo, Peter Martins, and Christopher Wheeldon along with a new ballet by Melissa Barak, is not a particularly strong advertisement for the future of ballet. There are far better ballets in the repertoire that could have made a more significant statement about what distinguishes 20th and 21st century movement – that is, how ballet choreography has evolved and how choreographers’ contributions are redefining the art form. But in each ballet, the men brought life to the works much more so than the women. It’s unfortunate that Macaulay did not shed some light on their contributions throughout the season.
Robert Fairchild performed brilliantly in Jorma Elo’s Slice to Sharp, despite this ballet’s shortcomings. The high-speed, athletic choreography does not allow for many pauses – either for the audience to linger over a moment or for the dancers to play with timing (although Fairchild manages to stretch out some of the phrasing). This is frustrating, along with Elo’s heavy reliance on arm gestures, manipulative partnering, and the “wow” factor. Rather than highlighting subtleties of the Baroque selections from von Biber and Vivaldi, Elo crams each moment with as much lightning-quick movement as possible. The dancers are able to keep up, but only Fairchild looks inspired.
Peter Martins’ Hallelujah Junction also lacks inspiration, which becomes more noticeable as it drags on with little direction. The opening, however, is striking: two pianists (Cameron Grant and Richard Moredock), playing a score by John Adams on raised platforms upstage, appear to be floating in the darkness. To the music’s rhythmic variety, the dancers – dressed in black and white – move rapidly through Martins’ typically intricate choreography. Like many of Martins’ ballets, this work never gains momentum, but Daniel Ulbricht’s performance adds pizzazz as he elegantly soars on and off stage with effortless jumps.
Unlike Hallelujah Junction, Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres builds as it progresses – in a rather unexpected way. It begins with a brooding solo for Gonzalo Garcia, who embodies the complexities of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Opus 35. As a large corps of dancers crisscross in vertical and diagonal lines, red lighting creates an ominous atmosphere. But after a lyrical, mysterious duet for Abi Stafford and Tyler Angle – who has a much more commanding presence than Stafford – the mood drastically shifts. The corps is now playful and cheeky, but Wheeldon still infuses the movement with intricacies.
In contrast to the other works on the program, A Simple Symphony serves as a reminder that Balanchine’s influence is still significant in the 21st century. This new work by former NYCB dancer Melissa Barak includes a corps of six women along with two demi-soloists and cavaliers, and a leading couple. Set to Benjamin Britten’s score of the same title, the corps is cheerful as they frequently change formations (all very exact), while the lead dancers, Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, are moodier and romantic in their pas de deux. There is nothing unpleasant about this ballet, but the movement so precisely reflects the music that it never surprises the audience or offers something unexpected. Jared Angle is intriguing, but Mearns has yet to make this role her own. She dances with clarity and lyricism, but her performance is unmemorable when compared to her wide range of roles.
It’s unfortunate that a program devoted to the future of ballet was lackluster, but this is certainly not true of the men’s performances. They added life to these works when the choreography looked tired, and deserve more credit than they’re given.