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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 27, 2019
Category: review

"New Combinations" Signals an Attempt for a New Image

By Rachel Straus, Musical America
February 27, 2019

An appropriate subtitle to New York City Ballet’s “New Combinations” program—William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman (1992), Justin Peck’s Principia (2019), and Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway (2018)—might be “Just Friends.” It’s a theme the company’s team of interim directors is trying to espouse as they seek to sanitize the image sullied by director Peter Martins and principal dancer Chase Finley, now “retired” and fired, respectively. Their multiple acts of misogyny and sadism, as detailed in the press, became public knowledge last year (see Feb. 18 New Yorker. )

Peck’s Principia, seen in its February 10 premiere, serves as a primer for the new ethos. With a commissioned score by indie rock composer Sufjan Stevens, as orchestrated by Timo Andres, and under the baton of Daniel Capps, the choreography for 24 dancers features two enduring images: dancers walking hand in hand (or arm in arm), and dancers moving together with an unremitting fluidity that brings to mind ice skating. The costumes, pale gray practice clothes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, add to the ballet’s pallor. Despite the fact that Stevens’ music grows aggressive and dramatic, Peck’s choreography doesn’t budge from its message: We’re nice.

But his talent for visually inventive ensemble choreography does make Principia intermittently joyful. Alongside Stevens’ impressionist score, Peck molds six dancers into a structure, or perhaps a principia, the Latin term referring to the central buildings of a Roman fort. Standing side by side with arms upheld, six dancers became a human wall. Then this group, arranged in a circle, is comically tapped on their heads by another dancer, who calls to mind Tinkerbell with a magical wand. Rather than a warrior ready for battle emerging from the fort’s center, a smiling female springs forward. Her soft arms and spiraling phrases evoke a spring breeze. Peck’s images of fortressed walls giving way to individuals dancing freely is suggestive of new beginnings. This sentiment is also purveyed in his decision to divert from the soloist-corps division of major and minor characters. Despite its democratic symbolism, however, Principia grows soporific. It’s just too long.

One of the first acts of the NYCB interim team—Rebecca Crohn, Craig Hall, Peck, and Jonathan Stafford—was to commission a work from [onetime Musical America New Artist of the Month] Kyle Abraham. A modern dance choreographer known for addressing race and gender through a movement vocabulary injected with hip hop and pop culture references, Abraham has created a work that helps NYCB look contemporary and feel exciting. Set to Nico Muhly’s “Quiet Music” (the second movement of his 2003 Three Études for Piano), The Runaway begins with a meditative solo for Taylor Stanley, who pops and locks his arms and shoulder muscles, so that his torso appears to undulate and seize simultaneously. He also pirouettes and expresses an elegance of decorum with which ballet is historically associated. Crossing his arms, as though holding a bouquet, he appropriates the gesture memorialized by female corps dancers in Swan Lake. Suddenly, a blast of light, accompanied by a slow reveal of an acid orange cyclorama and very different music (Jay Z and Kanye West’s rap), alters the landscape, and Stanley becomes the titular Runaway.

In this new realm, Stanley finds a motley, no-nonsense crew, most notably in principal dancers Ashley Bouder, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Sara Mearns. Outfitted in Giles Deacon’s black feather and fur headdresses, they resemble punks crossed with exotic birds. Bouder wears a Tina Turner-like shimmy dress that, by virtue of its multiple layers, de-sexes her. Pazcoguin’s full skirt likewise hides her body and at the same time makes her look powerful. Like preening divas, the three women take center stage to nod and gesticulate at each other. In solos, they tear up the space. Mearns, for example, revolved the stage’s entirety twice, with exponentially increasing turns on pointe. The audience hooped and hollered.

But the audience grew dead quiet during the duet between two dancers in which Kanye West is heard talking about killing himself or, alternatively, killing “you” (the audience). This theme is dropped for another: the antics of the fashion runway. Stanley walked like a hip-swaying model in heels. The Runaway’s characters convincingly express aspects of youthful friendship; they are self-indulgent and fun-loving. Yet they exist in a darkly lit, foreboding atmosphere (lighting by Dan Scully). And we know that the Runaway and his posse are not safe, nor will they be in future.

If Abraham’s first work for NYCB (said to have been made in less than two weeks) is about the now, Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman, named after a nonsensical phrase uttered by Steve Martin’s character in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, was also of its time (the dance dates from 1992, the film from 1982). Like Abraham, Forsythe didn’t shy from showmanship choreography. The seven dancers, outfitted in Gianni Versace’s black practice clothes, perform a blaze of steps directly to us. But the work’s leads on February 10, Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, missed the aggressive snap of Forsythe’s leg-to-head kicks and gestures that say, “Show me what you can do.” The requisite competitive, ironic quality of the choreography is missing, while Thom Willem’s electronic macho score remains abysmally relentless. Those who have been successful dancing this piece have dramatized their badness. While performing well-executed steps, Peck and Angle expressed their consideration for each other. They dance as though they think the work is about being liked.

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