TWO MORE NYCB PREMIERES: "LUCE NASCOSTA" AND "CALL ME BEN"

It’s been a season of new ballets and principal dancer farewells at New York City Ballet, and, between that and all the goings-on at ABT, it’s hard to keep up! I realized when meeting a blog reader yesterday at Philip Neal’s farewell performance (so nice to meet you, Vanessa!) that I hadn’t yet written about the last two premieres and people were waiting. I was going to wait until I’d seen each once again, but at least with one of them I won’t get that chance since there was a programming change.

Anyway, Maura Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta (two photos above, cast in top, Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring directly above. All photos by Paul Kolnik): I really don’t know what to think of it. The title is translated in the program notes as “Unseen Light”. The stage was very dark except for a Santiago Calatrava moon-like disc, which throughout the course of the ballet expanded into multiple discs. Everyone was in black (costumes by Marc Happel), the men in flare-legged pants and the women in tight black tops and big ruffled skirts that resembled trendy Latin ballroom costumes from a couple years back.

The dancing was at times in ensemble, at times in pairs, but the partnerships changed. It seemed that Tiler Peck and whoever she was partnered by were kind of the leaders, and Maria Kowroski and whoever was partnering her at the moment, kind of concluded the action, with everyone else in between.

The music was gorgeous – by Bruno Moretti, but I didn’t think it accompanied the choreography well at all. The music was like something you’d see in an action-packed movie, like Mission Impossible, at times dark and eerie, at times melodramatic with crescendos like you’d hear when the hero’s coming to save the day. Seriously, perfect for a big summer blockbuster. Here … dunno? And weird because they collaborated closely, the choreographer and the composer…

I thought there were some interesting moments and some original movement, but overall I didn’t feel it added up to much of a whole. My favorite part of the choreography was when all the men were dancing in ensemble. Craig Hall began this rather African-looking movement sequence, then Sean Suozzi joined him, making the movement look more balletically lyrical than African, which made it all the more interesting to me – how the same movement looked on different bodies. Then, other men began to join until it looked ritualistic and celebratory. The women had less interesting movement — one recurring theme was when the women went on pointe, their legs splayed intentionally awkwardly, and they’d hold the balance on pointe while the men kind of darted around them, like the women were frozen. In another recurring theme toward the end, the women went sliding across stage into the men’s arms. The several times Tiler Peck slid like this into Gonzalo Garcia it made a loud, slapping sound. But that didn’t happen with any of the others. I didn’t know if that was intentional or not. The whole thing had a kind of threatening vibe. At times it seemed the women were the threat to the men, at other times the opposite.

The whole thing made me think black widows in the moonlight…

I’m interested to know what others thought of this one. Any thoughts? Critics seem genuinely divided, which I find exciting – often they all hate or all love the same thing.

And the premiere before Luce was Melissa Barak’s Call Me Ben, a story ballet about Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the gangster, and his founding of the Flamingo, the first Vegas nightclub.

Robert Fairchild played / danced the part of Bugsy or Ben – the ballet sought to humanize him, focusing on the person and his ideals rather than the gangster, and it did so simply by having endearingly sympathetic Fairchild play the lead! Jenifer Ringer, who looked like a true Hollywood leading lady throughout, played his girlfriend, the one who swindles him, making other gangsters think he’s taken the money himself and fled, eventually leading them to kill him.

I thought the duets were really beautiful. Robert and Jenifer looked really good together, like a leading romantic couple in a movie. And the ballroom-y period costumes (by J. Mendel) were absolutely gorgeous. I really liked the sets, again by Calatrava, as well. More than his sets for any of the premiere ballets I’ve seen thus far this season (well, with the exception of Wheeldon’s Estancia), these seemed particularly suited for this ballet, evoking warm starry nights, palm trees, the Vegas-y climate, basically.

I think where the ballet fell apart for me was with all the speaking. Barak has said in interviews that she didn’t think she could tell the story purely through dance so she used spoken word as well. But there was too much spoken word, and the dancers were often so out of breath from dancing it took them a while to begin their lines. And that didn’t look natural. Something like this would work in a movie, obviously, where there are separate takes of each scene, but onstage with seriously exhilarating dancing, it took away from the realism. Plus, besides Vincent Paradiso, none of the male dancers really evoked gangster. Tyler Angle and Daniel Ulbricht, great as they are as dancers, just did not convince me that they were hit men. And at the end, when Ulbricht came out for his bow, it was funny but it seemed like people began their usual hearty applause then let up when they realized they didn’t really see Daniel Ulbricht. He didn’t do Daniel Ulbricht things.

And that makes me think maybe she didn’t need to have any talking. Why couldn’t Ulbricht have done his usual pyrotechnics as his expression of his character’s murderous nature?

It seems from interviews Barak has given, that she was given a score (by Jay Greenberg) that she really didn’t know what to do with, and since the score had already been commissioned she had to come up with something in a short period of time. It’s interesting how these ballets are being commissioned because when I heard Benjamin Millepied speak about his new ballet at a Guggenheim Works & Process event recently, he mentioned that he and his composer, Thierry Escaich, worked together, talking about what the music evoked and how that would be visualized, but that Calatrava designed his set for that ballet independently. So, all throughout Why Am I Not Where You Are, I was wondering whether Millepied meant for his color-clad dancers to be hailing from another world, mainly because of that space-like object of Calatrava’s. But Millepied hadn’t meant for that at all — it was just the set he got, which had nothing really to do with his ballet.

Is this how collaborations used to work in Diaghlev’s day though? I just assumed Stravinsky and Balanchine and Chagall all worked together to create a work of performance art. I mean, how else could Firebird have been created?

3 Comments

  1. I was very disappointed with LUCE NASCOSTA. The dancing was terrific and the music was fine, but, to echo your thoughts, it was more suitable for a film score, not a ballet score. Except for a few memorable images, I did not especially like the choreography and found the costumes less than flattering and the lighting too dim. I also thought that the ballet was about 20 minutes loo long. I know that assessing a ballet the first time around is risky business. Maybe it will look better on a second or third viewing. But at the moment, for me, it grades no higher than a C.

  2. I forgot to comment on CALL ME BEN. If LUCE NASCOSTA was a disappointment, then CALL ME BEN, in my opinion, came close to being a disaster. I admire Melissa Barak for having the courage to tackle this project but I’m afraid it was a mistake from the beginning. I agree that the pas de deux between Rob Fairchild and Jenifer Ringer was beautiful but from that point on, it was all downhill. The biggest mistake that was made was, as you so correctly pointed out, the inclusion of all that dialogue. If you are going to have dialogue, you need a good script and people who are trained to deliver it. The people performing CALL ME BEN are trained dancers, not actors. It was unfair to place that burden on them. The piece ended up as a hodgepodge – neither ballet, nor play, nor musical. Barak is a talented choreographer; hopefully, she will learn from this experience and not repeat her mistakes the next time out.

    I think that the best new ballets at NYCB this season have been ESTANCIA and WHY AM I NOT WHERE YOU ARE. The new Martins’ ballet opens next week and hopefully, it will join that list.

  3. Vanessa Veronica

    Tonya my love! Right backatcha, babe! Thanks for these very perceptive insights on the new works…sad I won’t get a chance to see ‘Call Me Ben’ this season, but once I get the chance to see ‘Luce Nascosta,’ I’ll be sure to tell you what I think….
    all the best xo,
    Vanessa
    P.S. It WAS a great show yesterday, wasn’t it?

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