Last Wednesday evening, in the final week of its winter season, New York City Ballet presented an array of pieces that spanned from 1957 to 2010. Plainspoken, Benjamin Millepied’s most recent ballet for the company (which premiered last year) featured four male-female couples in duets that all centered on a push-pull, yes-no dynamic set to a commissioned piano and string quartet by David Lang. The repertory notes state that, according to Millepied, the ballet “was inspired by each dancer’s personality. After all, they are my friends and colleagues.” Although their uniqueness might be apparent to a good friend, it all blends together into a rather voiceless array of vignettes. Plainspoken has some structurally rich moments, like when Sterling Hyltin is tossed at lightning speed among three men. But the disconnect between movement and music is frustrating. Rather than playing with or echoing the music, it looks like Millepied chose to ignore it, which is unfortunate – the music on its own is intriguing, complex, and full of nuance.
After listening to such complexity, it would seem like a waltz such as that heard in Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie would be matched with straightforward movement. But no. In the leading roles, the gorgeously lyrical Tiler Peck played with Glinka’s waltz so as to bring out each subtlety. Her suspended balances practically stretched the music beyond its limits. Joaquin de Luz was a generous partner, but Tiler’s lush movement was the highlight throughout this brief gem of a ballet.
In Square Dance (1957), Balanchine joined American folk dance with classical ballet set to music by Vivaldi and Corelli. He believed that the two types of dance had common roots, and compositionally, this piece does indeed show their similarities through classical movement arranged in spatial patterns that resemble those of square dancing. Megan Fairchild’s sunny performance reflected the mood of this piece. Anthony Huxley debuted in his role with quiet intensity and lovely expression in his introspective solo. His performance was thoughtful and precise – both good qualities for a role that doesn’t require ostentation.
No matter how many times I watch Jerome Robbins’ 1983 work Glass Pieces, I always find something new and intriguing. The urban setting is filled with brightly costumed pedestrians crossing through the space on very precise paths. Watching the specificity of a particular dancer’s walk – the way his or her shoulders move or the slight bobbing of their heads – is fascinating, but so is re-focusing your eyes so as to zoom out and watch the entire scene as an organized yet chaotic engine. The rhythmic force of Philip Glass’s score propels these bodies forward through the streetscape on what could very well be their rush hour commute.
In the second, meditative section, Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall pierce the space with otherworldly poise while a row of women in silhouette sway back and forth in a repetition of minimalist movement. There is a striking contrast between sharp, sudden gestures and more delicate, lush partnering between the pair, and they always keep audiences guessing what will come next. The forceful percussion that follows this section is accompanied by a corps of men who travel as a pack. They stomp and slap their hands into the floor before the stage is flooded by a corps of women. As the music increasingly gains momentum and feels on the verge of spinning out of control, the dancers charge forward in a flurry of movement before abruptly coming to a halt. The final image of the dancers in silhouette, fingers spread and arms lifted overhead, is unforgettable.