Last night at American Ballet Theater was the world premiere of a new ballet, Citizen, by Lauri Stallings. Stallings definitely knows how to hold an audience’s attention by creating spectacle, and I’m hoping ABT sends me some photos soon, because there was a lot to see. In the meantime, I will describe.
First, big kudos to ABT for putting on something so completely contemporary, so experimental. The company has a reputation for being a bit conservative and I’m not sure you could get farther from Swan Lake or Don Quixote!
(David Hallberg, photo from ABT)
So, the curtain was raised to the sound of falling rain. The background was open — it looked like walling was removed — to reveal pipes and such. The back stage doors were fully visible to the audience, and, at points, people dressed in plainclothes walked in and out. David Hallberg was heavily made up and dressed in a bright, richly textured-looking corset, over a skin-toned mesh undershirt and skin-tight resplendent silver tights that stopped at the knees. The costumes were really brilliant (and on more than one level this dance reminded me of Jorma Elo. In terms of the movement, it reminded me of his Brake The Eyes, my favorite of his works, and in terms of the marvelous costumes, it reminded me of his Close to Chuck, his last commission for ABT.)
Blaine Hoven was dressed in hippy-style, flared-bottom silvery pants and a mesh top with a shiny white satin-looking tie. Paloma Herrera, the main ballerina, wore sequined halter top and short shorts. Of the two other ballerinas in the piece — Isabella Boylston and Nicola Curry — one wore a ratty, netted dress, and the other a ruffled white top and I think short sequined pants. Everything was in greys, silvers, and whites. The elaborate costuming (by April McCoy) — suggesting heavily made-up veneers, false masks that we all put on perhaps — made for a stark contrast with the completely open, mundane setting.
Honestly, I found the costumes so stunning, I need to see this dance again; I paid too much attention up front to the clothes and too little to the movement!
Soon, music began — stringed instruments creating an atmosphere of sad nostalgia. The dancers moved robotically, or like puppets, like they were being controlled from above, perhaps like some citizens are? Movement was intentionally awkward, arms jutted out elbow-first, legs flicked out by the knee, pelvises stuck up and out as a dancer bent over, and at points they would walk in short staccato Charlie Chaplinesque steps, with turned-out feet, like clowns. At one point, Paloma bourreed on her tip-toes toward David, resembling the doll in The Nutcracker. Not a real ballerina, a toy version. At times they’d make circular patterns above their heads with their arms, ballet-like, but the movement was anything but fluid. They were all more like dancer dolls, false replicas.
At one point, all the people working in the wings — technicians, the sound gals — came out, dressed in regular streetclothes. They just kind of stood behind the dancers, looking out at the audience. The violins stopped and the lights went on, shining out on us. But the dancers didn’t seem to be breaking “the fourth wall” — they kept going on with their thing; it was only the technicians who confronted the audience, returning our gaze. I couldn’t tell if the technicians were supposed to be participants in the actual dance, or if their presence was supposed to suggest this was a dress rehearsal — “all the world’s a stage” – like, or all the world’s a dress rehearsal, rather. Soon, the lights went down again, the techies left, people walked back out the back stage door, and the sound of raindrops resumed as before, this time with glitter falling from the sky. “The show” resumed.
Robotic as the dancers moved, they were also very human, or trying to be, struggling to seek connection. David would walk his Charlie Chaplin walks toward Paloma, but she’d dart away; he’d put his nose to her face as if trying to know her by taking in her smell, like a dog. But struggle as they did, there was never a real connection. This movement, this following one another, seeking one another out, continued to the end, when Paloma crawled away from the rest of the crowd, toward the front of the stage, and made her way practically to the edge of the orchestra pit. The curtain slowly fell, and right before it landed on her, a hand reached out and pulled her back in. So, maybe they did connect in the end.
It did make me think of the world we, as citizens, inhabit. How much our actions are controlled by others, even in a (so-called) democracy. How much of our actions and the faces we put on are false, but how we’re still fundamentally human and yearning for connection.
I’m not sure if this is what she was getting at, but I’d love to hear others’ takes! It’s showing again this weekend and next.
The program was nicely varied: in addition to the Stallings, were Tharp’s sassy, frolicking Baker’s Dozen, Tudor’s sadly beautiful Leaves are Fading, and Theme and Variations, Balanchine’s super-charged homage to Imperial Russia replete with majestic Tchaikovsky, glittery tutus and tiaras, and brilliant, high-jumping twisty turns.
If anyone sees the Stallings, let me know what you think.