Sexy Costumes, Swish Sets, Genius Composers, and, Oh Yeah, the World's Greatest Dancers: Two ABT World Premieres

chuck close self portrait Walker Art

I’m still in a state of sugar shock. Like when you’re having a little meal of chocolate truffles (as some of us are occasionally wont to do 🙂 ); the first couple make your blood race in a good way and you’re hyper-aware and -active, but then you have one too many and hyper-activity turns to jitters and your brain starts racing ahead of you and you have no coherent thoughts whatsoever? Anyway, too much going on last night! It was the world premiere of two new ballets: “Close To Chuck,” a collaboration between choreographer Jorma Elo, composer Philip Glass and artist Chuck Close (whose self-portrait is pictured above) in tribute to Close’s body of work. It was also the not premiere but second performance of a new ballet by NYCBallet dancer Benjamin Millepied called “From Here On Out,” set to new music by 20-something composer Nico Muhly, whom I talked about here.

These premieres are so much fun to be a part of, they’re such an event extraordinare. Practically everyone in the ballet world turns out. I’m so thankful to Apollinaire for inviting me since they were nearly sold out. We sat in front of Tobi Tobias — so fun putting a face to writing. I was hoping we’d see some other familiar dance writer names, but they must have been sitting on the other side of the theater. On our side were also NYCB ballerina Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, and some people who I recognized but couldn’t put names to, including a Paul Taylor dancer.

Okay, first things first: the evening began with another performance of choreographer Stanton Welch’s “Clear” again starring Jose Carreno, which I wrote about in my last post. Last time I saw him it was his debut in the role and I wrote that he concentrated more on the steps than the drama; this time I felt differently. I felt that he gave it much more emotion, was probably just getting the steps down the first time. I was also sitting on the right side of the theater instead of the left this time so I might have had a better view of his face. He danced it gorgeously, perfectly, emotionally, everything. I LOVE that ballet. The more I see it the more it evokes different things for me. Last night, it kind of reminded me of a more abstract version of Death in Venice, where the men, resplendent in pants that are skin-colored but have a bit of golden quality to their sheen, no shirts, have their arms and legs outstretched looking up to the heavens, as if they are both in worship and the objects of someone else’s worship (like the viewer’s). At other points, others of the men act silly and playful, covering their eyes with their hands, much like Tadzio (the older man’s muse and unrequited love interest in “Venice”), at times kind of bouncing around jovially zigzagging their heads. It goes from beautiful and poetic to cute and playful and back again, with the final pas de deux between the lead man and the ballerina ending in a beatific embrace, his head on her shoulder and her head pointed to the sky, her arm reaching upward. People have said they think the ballerina was superfluous, that Welch must have felt he needed to put her in because it was ballet. I thought about it and, though I think that ending scene is gorgeous, she was hardly in the ballet and she didn’t really seem to belong. Why not simply replace her with one of the other men, like one of the young sun-god, playfully flirty Tadzio-types, like the one danced by cute Jared Matthews? I know the ballerina on pointe has classically been the element bringing forth the poetic, but Welch’s whole point is that men in and of themelves can be so. Maybe he was afraid of it looking “gay,” or something, but, please, ballet audiences are more sophisticated than that.

Anyway, the fun thing about sitting on the right side of the theater is that it’s near the curtain, so when they pull it back and the dancers come out front for their curtain call, they’re right in front of you. Completely beyond surreal being that close to Jose. I love him so! You just want to reach out and touch… don’t worry I would never 🙂 Oh, and then at the end of intermission, before the new “Close to Chuck” began, I spotted him in the back of the orchestra section, watching. I had to force myself to turn back to the front to see the ballet. Even standing there in a plain black t-shirt, the man just melts me.

(picture from Village Voice, of Angel Corella and Julie Kent in the leads, Herman Cornejo walking in background; I cc’d picture of Jose Carreno from ABT’s website in my last post, so won’t repeat it here).

Second on was the “Close to Chuck.” A disclaimer: I always get more out of a piece the more I go see it — I see all kinds of things I missed on first glance — so these are only my initial afterimages after viewing it only once. I have to say the costumes (by Ralph Rucci) and backdrop (various stages of a painting of Mr. Close’s Self Portrait pictured up top of this post) were so stunning, my focus was largely there. In future performances, I’ll pay more attention to the actual dancing 🙂 The audience was abuzz. As the curtain lifted to reveal several people — Marcelo front and center, Herman to his left in back (this after Jose, both on stage and in audience is where my “truffles” were starting to go into overload…) — all covered neck to foot in shiny black, the bottom portion of the costume a long wide skirt for both men and women, the audience gasped in unison. As a curtain against the back wall lifted to reveal a sparsely filled-in black and white rudimentary etching of the portrait, a single person walked around stage, whipping off each dancer’s vest. The men were now shirtless, the women wearing black mesh leotards with a large black cross down the front and back. Everyone wore handless black gloves that started at the wrist, ended at the elbow. The costumes were very reminiscient to me of those used in Nacho Duato’s “Castrati” which I recently blogged about. They were very medieval, religious, but in a retro vogue way, not authentic like in the Duato. The long skirts for the men made Marcelo and Herman — two of the dance world’s most manly dancers– all the more striking, and ironically more rather than less virile, especially with the gloves which looked similar to the leather arm gear in Castrati.

Marcelo walked over to Julie Kent, dancing the lead ballerina here, examined various parts of her body — or perhaps measured her — his movements very rigid and staccato, almost unsettlingly so. After a short pas de deux, everyone left the stage, and the back curtain lowered back down over the painting. The dancers then re-emerged now without the skirts. The women wore simply the leotards, the men these biker-ish looking pants, all black but a darker more textured inky black lining the inner leg, a lighter, more diaphonous black lining the outer leg. A thick piece of elastic hugged the waist, and in front there was a long horizontal rectangular cut-out between the waist and pelvis which I found sexy and suggestive, albeit rather odd. The women were on pointe and then men wore either black ballet slippers or possibly jazz shoes — I couldn’t really tell, but it looked like there was a very small heel. The back curtain drew up again to reveal another black and white version of the portrait, but this one more filled-in than the previous. The work was being created.

Movement — both partnering and solo — was intentionally stiff, rigid, and awkward, but with hints of fluidity, very much like that I described in Elo’s just-premiered piece “Brake the Eyes.” In fact at one point, Marcelo performed the same exact movement pattern as the ballerina in “Brake” as his body was seemingly divided into two, the left half held stiff and bent, the right arm making flowing, wavy watery movements, as if half of his body was struggling to break free from the other. In “Brake,” I interpreted this to be half classical ballet, half puppet and thought of it as some kind of statement on the world of classical ballet. With Marcelo performing the same movement (and it looked very different on Marcelo’s huge body as compared to the petit ballerina’s), I thought of it more as the artist trying to break free of constraints or, in Close’s case, the limitations of his own body.

I don’t know a huge amount about Close, but I do know he was a promising youngish artist when struck with an aneurysm, which rendered his arms and legs nearly useless. He then developed a new kind of painting method, by which he would photograph his subject, then employ others to put various computerized graphs over the photo, over which he would, using an arm brace, paint in the little graphic squares, making a colorful complex portrait that was almost industrial-looking if viewed from up close, but poetic if viewed from afar. I felt like Marcelo symbolized the artist / subject (since Close was both) and both his personal struggles and his work process; a lot of the movement evoked the artistic struggle to create.

The dancers again left the stage, the curtain fell and rose again, this time revealing a colored, fully-painted portrait, very majestic.

Marcelo was the perfect body for Elo to create this piece on. With his large bone-structure, every awkward movement he made, a hip jutting out due to intentionally uneven weight distribution, a shoulder asymmetrically hung down, made the awkwardness of his body contortions all the more obvious. At one point, he almost looked like Billy Crudup’s Elephant Man that played on Broadway several years ago (Crudup, by the way, wore no makeup or prosthetics in that play; rather the way he moved his own normal body in such a distorted, awkward manner illustrted both the burden he bore from the disfigurement and how beautiful he was underneath it all). In the final segment of the ballet, the dancing becomes more mellifluous. The work is created, beauty triumphs. I’ll be seeing this ballet again at least one more time before the season ends, so I will likely, well definitely, get more out of it, and will report back when I do.

Oh, almost forgot: the curtain call was fantastic. Not only was Elo there (the choreographer usually takes a bow at the premiere), but Mr. Close came out onstage too! He was wheeled out in the most artful wheelchair. Instead of the regular four wheels on the floor, this one had its wheels stacked, two top two bottom, so it was like he was riding a permanent wheelie, making his height far above everyone else’s. Marcelo ran over and gave him a hug, as he’d done seconds earlier with Elo. Marcelo is happiness 😀

The third ballet of the evening was the other new one, Millepied’s abstract “From Here On Out,” with original music by Nico Muhly. I’m sure that I’ll get more out of this ballet upon my second and possibly third viewing of it this season as well, but my initial thoughts are that the music far outshone the choreography. Muhly is a genius, make no doubt about it. After I’d seen Muhly speak about the project at the Guggenheim, I’d joked that I was excited to “hear” the ballet. Well, that’s exactly why you should go. I don’t know much about music but there were so many different kinds of instruments, I think a xylophone even, mixed with computerized sound to miraculous effect. And the way the percussion or horns would build into a crescendo then subside, then build again when you’re not expecting it, like a wonderful surprise. The music was enchanting, there was so much going on, it’s just a feast for the ears. I just felt that the genius of the choreography didn’t match that of the music. Which is not at all to say it wasn’t still interesting, it just didn’t take my breath away.

It may partly be that the choreography just didn’t start out strong enough. It opens with several dancers, all wearing purple unitards bearing various cut-outs — one on the side of the waist, another on the opposite hip, for the men over one breast — all standing in a huddle, simply shifting weight one foot to the other. There’s some partnering, then ensemble work, and eventually a pas de deux between a man and a woman takes place. For the most part this duet doesn’t do much for me save for a few longing stretches and holds. (Go here to see one of my favorite shapes from that duet performed by Marcelo and Paloma Herrera.) From there, the ballet builds up a bit then ends on a stronger note: several women get whisked up and carried off into the wings. It’s a rather lovely end. I just wish it had the same momentum throughout. But as I said, I’ll be seeing it some more this week, so will report back on what further viewings yield.

Until then, I just discovered that Muhly actually has a blog! Go here to read a cute post about his freaking out at the last minute over a note. Go here for a Times article about a couple of things ahead in the coming week for ABT (a revival of a piece by Antony Tudor and Tharp Tharp Tharp!), and go here for the rest of the season schedule and tix. Only one week left 🙁


  1. Hi Tonya, nice post. Did you see David’s performance in Meadow with Stella Abrera? I’m interested in how it went, I heard it was gorgeous (but that’s not surprising at all considering this is David =) ). Was it that performance in which he also filled in for Max and danced Ballo with Michele?

  2. Thanks Cathy! I saw Marcelo and Julie in Meadow, but I think I’m seeing David and Stella in it later this week. I think — I get confused about who all I’m seeing in what! I only saw David dance Bello with Gillian and Max dance it with Michele; I didn’t know that David filled in for Max in another performance. Max and Michele looked good together, by the way — she was nearly as tall as he was standing with her heels to the floor, but when she went up on pointe it didn’t look odd; so their heights worked together.

  3. Tonya,

    Loved the review. You should do one of these for the NYTimes Mag. You be a writergyrl.

  4. Thanks SanderO!!! I would love to write for a cool magazine. Although, hehe, something about the way I wrote this post — perhaps the combination of “whipping” the vests off in the Elo and the remark about Stanton Welch should not be afraid to look “gay”, maybe just the mention of all the cute male dancers … anyway, when I logged on this morning I had all these pingbacks from these various gay sites who picked up the post for their syndicated feeds. So perhaps I have a future writing for a gay glossy hehehhhehehe….

  5. You're right, those are some sexy costumes. Nice review!

  6. You're right, those are some sexy costumes. Nice review!

Comments are closed