BALLET: THE LONGEVITY OF CHOREOGRAPHY

This article is authored by ALISTAIR MACAULAY at THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ballets are written on air.

Few live longer than a year or two. Yet it’s standard practice in the ballet world to refer to new choreography as lifeblood.

Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of NEW YORK CITY BALLET, used the term in his opening night speech when introducing the company’s just ended ARCHITECTURE OF DANCE season, the series of programs featuring seven commissioned premieres.

Since few ballets have much longevity, is lifeblood to be found in the brief intensity of helping to create something that won’t be around next year? Or does lifeblood course only through those rare ballets that hang around into adulthood and enrich the repertory of other companies?

No dance organization in the world does more than NEW YORK CITY BALLET to promote new choreography (it will repeat some of the premieres during its annual Saratoga Springs season that begins this week) and a number of its premieres have been taken up elsewhere.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (2001) is the preeminent example: by 2007, Mr. Wheeldon had staged eight different productions of it around the world. Other NEW YORK CITY BALLET premieres of the last two decades have also been performed elsewhere.

In general, however, this aim for proliferation and the long term is not how ballet works.

Since many choreographers try to stretch their dancers, other artistic directors may well take a look at the latest NEW YORK CITY BALLET premiere and think, “That would be wrong for our dancers,” or “We couldn’t afford that.”

Though the 1957 BALANCHINE/STRAVINSKY AGON is danced everywhere these days, no other company tried it until it was 10 years old. So the emerging choreographer has to hope simply that he or she has made a ballet that, like Agon, will stay in the NEW YORK CITY BALLET repertory long enough for the rest of the world to catch up.

If artistic directors flew in to see ARCHITECTURE OF DANCE, “We couldn’t afford that” must have been high among their reactions to six of the premieres. (The exception was Wayne McGregor’s Outlier.)

The choreographers Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Peter Martins, Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Wheeldon all collaborated with the architect Santiago Calatrava and thereby used various elaborate scenic elements.

Alexei Ratmansky didn’t, but his Namouna, A Grand Divertissement involved a change of costume and in most cases complex headgear or wigs.

It was strange amidst this season to visit BALLET ACROSS AMERICA, the biennial series of programs at The Kennedy Center in Washington, where most companies were using a production style far closer to the standard NEW YORK CITY BALLET model: little or no scenery, minimal costumes, seldom a hint of narrative or character playing.

In Washington some reactionary voices cried out for some costumes and décor. In New York other reactionaries were crying out for less. One balletomane who follows both dance and Santiago Calatrava’s architecture remarked before the curtain rose: “Forty years of watching City Ballet and this is the first time I’ve ever come to see a set.”

What does this tell us about trends in ballet?

Questions about possibly new Diaghilevian connections of design, music and dance pile up. And is the narrative ballet making a comeback?

Ms. Barak’s Call Me Ben, Mr. Millepied’s Why Am I Not Where You Are and Mr. Wheeldon’s Estancia all had stories. Call Me Ben and Estancia had characters. Namouna heavily implied both story and characters without telling us what on earth was going on.

This preponderance of narrative values follows a winter season in which NEW YORK CITY BALLET concentrated on the full length story form. Several other new one act productions in recent years have been narratives. We may assume these are all part of a deliberate policy.

And perhaps it is a good one. The pure dance choreography of GEORGE BALANCHINE can be regarded as the supreme achievement of ballet to date without offering a sure model for other choreographers. Anyway, his plotless creations abound in many of the values that underlie narrative: emotion, suspense, conflict, drama.

Too many non Balanchine, non narrative ballets have either been entirely devoid of meaning or drama or have proposed meanings that the choreography is too misbegotten to express.

One problem, however, is that this season’s new plots were less than engrossing. Why Am I Not Where You Are is a Hoffmannesque story of an outsider who has to put on magic garments to be visible. In Estancia, city boy and country girl find love while breaking horses on the Argentine pampas. And who can remember what happens in Call Me Ben? Something to do with money and Las Vegas. All of them safe, harmless, old fashioned.

In this context Mr. McGregor’s non narrative Outlier could pass as radical. This was the most à la mode creation of ARCHITECTURE OF DANCE, with elements of anticonventional theatricality (ballerinas without makeup, usually a contradiction in terms), changes of lighting and décor and a challenging Thomas Adès score. If you hadn’t seen Mr. McGregor’s choreography before and you were a director shopping for a frisson of the new for your company back home, this is probably the only NEW YORK CITY BALLET premiere you’d consider from this season.

Mr. McGregor’s reputation preceded him at NEW YORK CITY BALLET. He is now resident choreographer at THE ROYAL BALLET. Frederic Wiseman’s recent documentary La Danse shows him making a piece for THE PARIS OPERA BALLET.

If choreography is fashion, then you need look no further.

But if choreography is to matter, it must be — even when light and entertaining — a serious expression of human energies. I don’t like the idea of Mr. McGregor’s choreography in anybody’s lifeblood because it’s so expressively empty, so preoccupied with flashy surface effects. Its dancers pushed it to the limit…and yet it makes them look small.

Mr. Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta is likewise laden with surface effects. Ms. Barak’s talking/acting Call Me Ben was embarrassingly overambitious, the kind of thing that should surely have moved an artistic director to say, “You aren’t experienced enough to handle this yet.”

Mr. Millepied’s Why Am I Not Where You Are almost entirely evaporates in the mind. If only he could make the central breakthrough to expressive seriousness, his wealth of previous stage worthy accomplishments might make him a formidable artist.

I said much the same (polished, hollow) about Mr. Martins’ choreography in the late 80s and early 90s. Last week, seeing Mr. Martins’ new Mirage a second time, I admired what he made of Chase Finlay (returning from injury to a role made for him) and Anthony Huxley – and enjoyed the way one solo phrase for Jennie Somogyi, coming down the centre line with left and right feet doing opposite tasks, seems a near quotation from Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, currently in AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE repertory.

But these and other details don’t deepen it: they just cast its general emptiness into relief.

That leaves Mr. Wheeldon’s Estancia and Mr. Ratmansky’s Namouna.

Since I’ve now heard many people find grievous fault in Estancia and declare their love for Namouna, I want to redress the balance a little. Both are agreeably old style. Estancia has an appealing expansiveness of spirit, especially in its finale. Namouna is seriously spoiled by its structure (though titled A Grand Divertissement, it’s actually a suite of divertissements with hints of plot) and the problematic length of some individual dances, which overstay their welcome.

Still, Estancia feels as if Mr. Wheeldon were trying to be unoriginal on purpose, whereas Namouna feels as if it were a world that was intensely real to Mr. Ratmansky. Namouna has further problems in parts of its choreography for Daniel Ulbricht (he’s sensational in the musicality of his fast beaten jumps but seems to shrink in his big turns) and in most of its dances for Wendy Whelan, which emphasize the disconnect between her upper and lower body in ways I can’t enjoy.

But there are passages of Namouna (at least three of the dances for the corps de ballet; the long, exhausting but exuberant solo for Sara Mearns; several stylishly purposeful incidents in Robert Fairchild’s role and others) that achieve on a level that no choreographer in ballet has come close to in years.

Exact details of movement combine space, music, light and dancers in irresistible combinations. For me, even after three viewings, these highlights don’t add up to a whole. Others have loved it at first sight.

At any rate, if you want to consider choreography as lifeblood – start here.

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