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October 2015

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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 14, 2015
Category: review

City Ballet Scores a Triumph with New Works

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–New York City Ballet commissioned five ballets this season and four of them are compelling. It’s rare for City Ballet, or for that matter any dance company, to present new works that are overwhelmingly impressive. So there was much to celebrate on October 10 at the former New York State Theater when pieces by Robert Binet (Canada), Kim Brandstrup (Denmark), as well Justin Peck, Troy Schumacher, and Myles Thatcher (United States), highlighted City Ballet’s remarkable dancers in familiar and new ways.

Common Ground Photo by Paul Kolnik

Common Ground
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The liveliest and most complete work is Common Ground by City Ballet corps dancer Troy Schumacher, set to a commissioned score by Ellis Ludwig-Leone. (The team also collaborated on last year’s All That We See.) The new work clearly demonstrates their facileness with sharing ideas: as a motif in the score gets passed from one instrument to another, a dancer takes on a new movement phrase, changes direction, or skyrockets through space soon to be joined, led, or ceded by another dancer.

We never know which of Schumacher’s seven non-stop moving performers is going to become the next proverbial baton-holder of Ludwig-Leone’s next motif, and that unpredictability prevents any hint of gimmickry. What’s more, the shift from one instrument and dancer to another most often occurs when the dancers are airborne. It’s as though the air—way above the earth—becomes the titular Common Ground. Marques’ Almeida (a fashion house) has costumed the dancers in psychedelic commedia dell’arte-style lightweight, uneven fabrics that, at first glace, looked kind of hokey. In the end though, they work well, adding to the sense of joyful play as the dancers swoop across the stage like exotic birds on invisible jet streams. The most gravity- defying of the group were Amar Ramasar, Anthony Huxley, Ashley Laracey, and Alexa Maxwell, but everyone was fantastic. The choreography spurred them on, and when they lay down (literally) at the ballet’s end, they looked like triumphant, exhausted Olympian tag-team sprinters.

Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux is an homage to Valslav Nijinsky’s Jeux (1913), a lost dance theater work that is said to have been about a menagé à trois. In the new Jeux, which also uses Debussy’s score of the same name (performed by Elaine Chelton, pianist), 14 dancers appear in cocktail attire on a dimly lit stage; principal Sara Mearns is blindfolded and spun around by her man (Amar Ramasar) for a jeux—game(s)—of hide and seek. But as she travels through film noir- like scenes (lighting design by Jean Kalman), extending her arms and grabbing at objects she cannot see, it becomes clear that she is being played, by Ramasar, who begins to dance erotically with Sterling Hyltin. Mearns, meanwhile ends up in her own game, dancing with a working-class type (Adrian Danchig-Waring), who in t-shirt, jeans, is clearly not part of the world inhabited by her fellow party-goers (costumes Marc Happel). He is playing with a basketball, which, in the end, Mearns (free of her blindfold), tosses into the wings. She then blindfolds her new man and mounts him, the vulnerable-looking Mearns makes the muscular Danchig-Waring into her object of desire. Since gender bending (as a plot device) is rarely seen at City Ballet, Jeux felt revelatory.

Robert Binet’s The Blue of Distance proves that titles matter. That the “distance” is indeed permeated by “blue” is reflected not only in the ballet’s overriding quality of mysteriousness, but also in its use of the full depth of the stage (rare for chamber ballets such as this one). With just seven dancers traversing a hundred-plus feet, the choreographic environment comes to resemble a vast ocean. The dancers become dream figures, separated into worlds of their own. The visual remoteness among them, in conjunction with Ravel’s surging and receding score (Oiseaux tristes and Une Barque sur l’Océan), is heightened by Binet’s minimal choreography: female dancers pop up and sail through the air, thanks to the strong arms of their partners. Their distressed white tutus (designs by Hanako Maeda) froth against the blue vista. The couples come directly at us, like the white peaks of a cresting wave. Toward the end of the ballet, and very close to the audience, Sara Mearns jumps on to her pointes three times with straight closed legs. She resembles a skipping stone, calling to mind the now gone summer beach days. Binet’s The Blue of Distance captures nature’s energies, both large and small, without excess.

Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker in New Blood  Photo be Paul Kolnik

Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker in New Blood
Photo be Paul Kolnik

After intermission, Justin Peck’s New Blood, set to Steve Reich (Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings), champions abundance in a breathless, nonstop world of hyper activity. This choreographer is currently making the most difficult duets in the business. The work is impressive to watch, but not particularly thought-provoking. The 14 performers—including principal dancer Ashley Bouder in her element as the diva of virtuosic speed—prove that they are some of ballet’s coolest athletes, matching with brio the relentless pulse of Reich’s constantly surging score. Unitards by Humberto Leon (of fashion house Kenzo) slice the dancers’ torsos into modernist geometric shapes that are colored in hues from mustard yellow to canary blue. The whole ballet shouts, “look at me!”

Particularly as compared to the rest of the program, Polaris, set to the Allegramente movement of William Walton’s D minor piano quartet, is woefully short on ideas. It is short, here featuring principal dancer Tyler Peck, apparently instructed to look beseechingly at the audience. For this viewer, it came to signify a wish for us to help her get through the banality of her experience.


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