By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK -- New York City Ballet has become the house of retrospection. Not only because of the Balanchine legacy, but also because some of its newest works are suffused with images of the past, delivering culturally conservative messages. Take Justin Peck’s third City Ballet work, Paz de la Jolla, which premiered Jan. 31 at the former New York State Theater. In an apparent salute to 1950s American pop culture, Peck, 25 and born in California at the height of the Reagan era, has created a 20-minute scenario in which a handsome boy (Amar Ramasar) meets a delicate girl (Sterling Hyltin) at the beach. They are two of 18 carefree youngsters, led by Tiler Peck in assorted iterations of blue and white bathing suits. Paz (Peace) tenders a vision of life as pleasant and banal as the 1950s beach-party films of Connie Francis and Annette Funicello.
At the Feb. 2 performance, the dancers looked like they were having a blast, attacking Peck’s complex movement phrases alongside Czech composer Bohluslav Martinu’s 1951 Sinfonietta la Jolla. Conducted here by Andrew Sills, the score sallies between thriller film soundtrack and respites of neo-romantic tenderness. Peck follows suit with his fast-footed ebullient style and kaleidoscopic massing of corps; in one section the dancers become his home state’s Pacific Ocean, surging and receding in lines along the diagonal. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s diaphanous blue unisex blouses transform the cast into luminescent waves.
But after about 15 minutes, the roller coaster ride of music and steps grows tedious. What is the point? If one believes that new work can say something significant about culture, does Paz forward the art, or does it simply provide virtuosic entertainment of well-constructed steps?
Following Peck’s Paz de la Jolla was Alexei Ratmansky’s 2008 retrospective, Concerto DSCH (about an idealized set of Soviet workers). The juxtaposition of the works emphasized their shared characteristics. Both ballets feature two women: In Concerto Ashley Bouder serves as the spitfire female and Janie Taylor the romanticized figure lifted aloft by her modern-day suitor. In Paz, Tiler Peck and Sterling Hyltin parallel those two roles, respectively. Both dances offer a rapid unfolding of events that are a bit cartoony for their cut-and-paste quality. Both follow an introspective section with a perky one, with little apparent logic for the abrupt changes in mood.
Balanchine’s Variations for a Door and a Sigh (its English translation) closed the program; the 1974 work was included in the “New Combinations” series because the company hasn’t performed the Balanchine ballet since 2001.
Despite its age, Variations was the most radical and contemporary work of the evening. For one thing, the Door (Maria Kowroski) and the Sigh (Daniel Ulbricht) are abstractions rather than cute characters. Kowroski ominously loomed in the center of stage; her black silk skirt sweeping up and behind her to create a massive door the size of the theater’s proscenium. The Door is a fearsome creature; its jaws created by switchblade legs that open and close with sharpshooter precision. Kowroski resembled a 1920s moll, with her flapper haircut, white pointe shoes, and unitard with diamond belt and collar. She moved only with the creaks, cracks, and drill sounds of Pierre Henry’s musique concrète Sonority. Lurching forward on all fours, Ulbricht, as the Sigh, didn’t stand a chance of getting past her.
Unfortunately, Ulbricht played the part for laughs, as if trying to make Balanchine’s work, which evokes the fear of the feminine, into a comedy. But his antics couldn’t destroy the work’s power; three curtain calls confirmed the choreographer’s concentrated vision (and message), and Kowroski’s steely delivery had triumphed.