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February 2012

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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 8, 2012
Category: review

Ballet's Global Currency

By Rachel Straus

Like the 18th-century itinerant ballet masters who entertained and often taught aristocrats, choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor crisscross the globe, creating dances for the world’s elite ballet companies and their audiences. On Jan. 28, New York City Ballet devoted an entire evening at the former New York State Theater to the works of Wheeldon.

The homage to the 36-year-old English-born choreographer made sense. Wheeldon has created 18 dances for City Ballet. He made his first while serving as a principal. Then he became the company’s first ever artist-in-residence. In 2007, he formed a New York-based troupe called Morphoses, which featured City Ballet dancers and competed with that company’s hard-won subscription base. With the economic downtown, Wheeldon quit Morphoses and instead decided to work the international circuit. The All Wheeldon program signals the obvious: Wheeldon has become a hot ticket, near and far.

The triple bill featured a world premiere (“Les Carillons”), a company premiere (“DVG: Danse à Grand Vitesse”) and a ballet gem (“Polyphonia”), which was made in 2001. Wheeldon excels at intimate, inventive pas de deux. His first muse was City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. She appeared in, but was not the focus of, “Les Carillons,” which included seven other principals, one soloist, eight corps and two apprentices. Once again the pas de deux was Wheeldon’s primary motif, but instead of one intimate one, he created ten, all whirling about the stage simultaneously. It was an eye-catching effect. “Carillons” is big theater.

Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild in "Les Carillons." Photo by Paul Kolnik

It’s unclear why Wheeldon chose the title “Carillons.” Perhaps it’s because the word is of French derivation, and the score, by Bizet, was written by a Frenchman as incidental music for the 1872 French play “L’, ” about a spurned fiancé who commits suicide. The drama is reflected in the music, with the result that “Carillon” looked like a plotless ballet in search of a narrative. At one point, Whelan glided across the stage like a votive candle. Sara Mearns’s sensual solo was quasi-Spanish, Tyler Peck’s was insouciant. Were they supposed to represent aspects of the girl from Arles who broke her fiancé’s heart? Maybe.


The episodic nature of “Carillon,” where each section lasts mere minutes, exemplifies a troubling trend. Call it choreographic ADD. Wheeldon is not alone in having this problem. Today’s globetrotting choreographers rarely get to work with a company’s full cast, or its principal dancers, for generous blocks of time. To make matters worse, big-time choreographers are expected to make big-time ballets, and the surest way to do that is by fashioning a multitude of vignettes. In contrast, Wheeldon’s early pieces, like “Polyphonia,” resembled tone poems, using fewer dancers not all of whom were stars.

Considering these realities, “Les Carillons” is a decent enough work. But the set and costume designs, made by Jean-Marc Puissant and Mark Zappone, respectively, are not; together, they are a study in incongruity. While Zappone deconstructs the Baroque period through red and blue velvet bodices, in which the men are missing one of their sleeves, Puissant’s gray watercolor backdrop channels abstract expressionism. Wheeldon’s choreography attempts to integrate these seemingly unrelated visuals. His dancers occasionally flip their wrists like 18th-century courtiers. Then, as the cast forms shifting geometric patterns in space (like a kaleidoscope), he turns to abstraction as his stylistic core.

The evening ended with Wheeldon’s “DVG: Danse à Grand Vitesse.” Made for the Royal Ballet in 2006, it premiered within a month of “Chroma,” which earned Wayne McGregor, the other big English dance maker, his current position as the Royal’s resident choreographer. Wheeldon and McGregor’s 2006 plotless ballets share striking similarities. They both feature a futuristic set, the women’s legs are bare, the classical ballet vocabulary is distorted. Pelvises push forward. Women are lifted skyward, their limbs resembling telescopes.

Wheeldon took the dance’s title from its score by Michael Nyman, commissioned for the inauguration of the French high-speed train, the TGV. But unlike the noiseless quiet of the real thing, Nyman’s “DVG…” is overwrought and takes a severe toll on the ears. Too bad Wheeldon couldn’t modify his musical choice. The 24 dancers resemble terrestrial creatures, skimming the surface of the stage, neither bound to the floor nor truly airborne. Standout performances included Maria Kowroski and Teresa Reichlen whose muscular grace appears unearthly.

Some 40 years ago, many ballet companies boasted in-house choreographers. Their works drove the aesthetic of the company with the result that different companies danced differently. Though Wheeldon, Ratmansky and McGregor bear, or bore, the in-residence title, all three work for several different companies in the space of a year. Like big business, ballet has become a globalized affair. And like Main Street, companies’ repertoires are becoming increasingly homogenized as a result of a small group of predominately male choreographers.

What’s increasingly missing is that intimate exchange between dancer and choreographer, developed in the studio over many years of working together. Today that relationship has to be forged quickly; as a result these men’s works all move fast and furiously, emphasizing the showbiz aspect of the artform, rather than its deeper and often more compelling capacity for subjective expression, which touches on the mystery of human differences.

Musical America


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