(Photos above: top, Janie Taylor and Jared Angle in Quasi Una Fantasia, bottom, Abi Stafford and Craig Hall in Toccata. Both by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of NYCB)
Last night I went to New York City Ballet’s Spring season gala. I always love galas but they’re especially exciting when they showcase world premiere dances. In this case, there were two such premieres, along with the world premiere of a new piece of music set to one of the ballets.
First things first: I missed most of the red carpet events, unfortunately, since the program began early (so as to make time for the after-show dinner, which I am far too poor to attend). And shame on me for mismanaging time like that — that Waiting For Godot experience from two years ago was too much fun. I did get there just in time to see the paparazzi flashing away at (Sex & the City author) Candace Bushnell and (NYCB principal) Charles Askegard. Sweet Charles soon stepped aside to let his wife bask in the glory all on her own. She looked radiant. I was jealous.
Inside, I spotted filmmaker and photographer David Michalek (Wendy Whelan’s husband) but didn’t see Wendy. I also saw Irlan Silva, who really stood out in that hyper crowded lobby! He is a young, new ABT dancer from Brazil and star of the movie Only When I Dance, which I promise to blog about soon! (A LOT of people have been finding my blog lately through Google searches on him; I assume they saw the movie?…I know it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, but maybe it’s now showing in other places as well.) And I met choreographer Henning Rubsam on my way to my seat — I am seeing him at practically everything these days, which we had a little laugh about, and he gave me a little kiss on the cheek.
And of course all the non-performing NYCB dancers were sitting somewhere inside. My seat was on the side of the First Ring, and at the beginning of the intermission, I was so excited to discuss the first ballet with Philip and the other fans/ bloggers at our usual meeting place on the promenade that, the moment the curtain fell for the last time, I think I was the first person in the entire ring to spring out of my seat. On my mad dash toward the hallway, I saw Gonzalo Garcia, also sitting on my side of the ring, shoot me a bemused look, which nearly made me trip over the stairs. Perhaps it would serve me right after I announced his little stage stumble, but apparently everyone did!
Okay, so the ballets. I think I tend to focus on the pre-program events because I feel so uncomfortable writing about dances no one’s written about before and that I’ve only seen once. I don’t know how critics do it — write about something they just saw for the first time, and under such deadlines! Anyway, these are VERY first impressions, and I hope to see these ballets again in the future and better formulate my thoughts.
First on was the world premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s Quasi Una Fantasia. For people who don’t know, Millepied, 31, is a NYCB principal dancer and I think this is his second or third big commission (though he’s done shorter pas de deux on a smaller scale). I’ve seen one of his other pieces that he did for ABT, From Here on Out, about two years ago, and I liked Quasi MUCH better – -for the most part because he’d set From Here on Out to Nico Muhly music, which was gorgeous, but really overpowered the dancing. (And, now that I’m re-reading my notes from Muhly’s Guggenheim talk, I realize why. Muhly’d said he was scared it would be his last ballet commission ever, so he put EVERYTHING he had into it). And, believe me, EVERYTHING was there
Anyway, Quasi Una Fantasia is set to a piece of music (by the same name) by Henryk Gorecki, a 20th Century Polish composer whom Alex Ross places into an avant-garde, minimalist camp, along with Arvo Part. The music is intense and haunting, but still rather minimalist, and is not at all overbearing. As such, it worked well to underscore (and not overpower) the theme of the ballet. Costumes (by Marc Happel) are dark leotards covered by dark diaphonous tops bearing a patch of bright color.
I found the images created by Millepied to be very Hitchcockian. Lots of long, spindly, spidery limbs, and bird-like shapes. The recurring movement theme seems to be men lifting or holding the women in a stretch, the women spreading their arms as far out to their sides as possible, like wings, then the men turning the women to their sides so that it looks like they are flying. But the images aren’t serene. The lighting is dark, the colors are all dark, the music is dark, the limbs look almost skeletal the way they’re held out — it’s all very unsettling.
There are two main pairs of dancers — one Jared Angle and Janie Taylor, the other Sebastien Marcovici and Rebecca Krohn — and an ensemble. About halfway through a third pair emerges — danced by Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck. The whole dance was mainly abstract but there was kind of a Balanchinian “story” there, but you really had to look for it. Janie is kind of a weak, wounded bird who tends to keep falling out of Jared’s arms and crumbling. (Ever since I saw Christopher Wheeldon’s Nightingale and the Rose I’ve thought of how Janie would look in the kind of vulnerable creature with broken wings role and so I’m glad Millepied chose her for that part). Rebecca Krohn, by contrast, is a stronger, healthier creature, and she seems to keep looking back at Janie, worried but not really helping either. I was thinking, and someone else during intermission commented, that there needed to be more disparity between those roles to better show the contrast between weak and strong, healthy and broken.
Eventually, Janie leads the group, the dancers all in a “flock” with their backs to the audience; they all perform the same repeated movement theme — flying straight ahead, then veering to the sides. It was definitely intentionally dark but I wanted Millepied to go a bit further and really make it haunting, like Hitchcock. If you’ve ever been to Northern England, you know how crazed those birds can be. They wake you up in the middle of the night and at first you think, oh birds, nature, pretty. But then they start sounding like ravenous beasts and when you see them flying together in a pattern they just look like a big black cloud that can descend on you at any moment. If that’s the mood he was going for, I think he should go more all-out, make them more frightening. Or maybe the dancers were holding back out of nerves. Janie was weak and broken but I wasn’t sure if Jared was trying to save her or didn’t care about her. He was more like her physical support than a character. And Sebastien seemed passionate and loving toward Rebecca but I wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be doing to him. And the third couple — Amar and Tiler — they danced very well together, but I didn’t really know what they were doing there, what their role was.
I have to see it again though! Maybe I’ll figure it all out.
Second on was Toccata, by 35-year-old Czech dancer Jiri Bubenicek, with music (and costumes) by his twin brother, Otto Bubenicek. Both are dancers, and have danced with the Hamburg Ballet in Germany, among other companies. The music was very intriguing. At times (such as the beginning few phrases) there’d be no music at all. Slowly, stage lights revealed two pianos at the back of the stage (set up as in Martins’ Hallelujah Junction), and, later, in the far corners of the back of the stage, two string instruments — a violin and a cello (I think — I was sitting on the side and didn’t see the last instrument until after the ballet when the musicians took their bows). There were many repetitive patterns, first with piano keys, that reminded me a lot of Philip Glass, particularly the piano section of his In the Upper Room. Except Bubenicek would double the keys, so that it would sound like a stutter. It was like Glass stuttering. At times, one of the stringed instruments would, seemingly from out of nowhere, sound, the violinist rapidly slashing the bow back and forth over the same group of strings. It created a jarring, foreboding sound.
There were seven dancers in all — Abi Stafford, Craig Hall, Robert Fairchild, Georgina Pazcoguin, Brittany Pollack, David Prottas, and Andrew Scordato. There was a little Balanchinian “story” here too, although, again, it was mainly abstract and you had to look for any narrative meaning. Dancers would break into couples, but someone would always seem to be left alone. It may be the Glass and what that particular piece of music has always evoked to me, but I saw a theme of loneliness here. Craig tries to comfort Abi but she shuns him. He seems hurt. Robert dances alone, seemingly sorrowful. And Robert is such an incredible mover. He can create a gem out of anything, particularly, like David Hallberg, abstract dances. I don’t have to have any idea of what he is trying to convey and, like David, I can just watch him forever. The way he bends, he is so flexible, like rubber. Like a male Wendy Whelan. At one point he and Craig dance side-by-side and it’s so interesting to see the way they move so differently. Craig is so strong and powerful, so grounded and solid, and Robert is all breadth and elasticity.
At the end, three couples form and David Prottas, dressed in black, is now left alone. He runs around stage, darting around the three pairs as if searching for something.
Again, I must see this more times and will report back.
The evening ended with a little film produced by Kristin Sloan, about the making of new costumes for Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, and then that ballet was danced in those shiny, sparkling new costumes (the audience collectively gasped when the curtain rose), with the smallish Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild in the leads, neither of whom missed a step in that insanely quick-footed ending.