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BWW Review: NEW YORK CITY BALLET Shows 21st Century Choreographers

New York City Ballet, home to George Balanchine's vision of dance in America, is well known for commissioning new ballets. This devotion to innovation can result in work that runs the gamut from zestful to appalling. Case in point, the "21st Century Choreographers II" program on May 7th, 2016, which presented a hodgepodge of brilliant, ill conceived, entertaining, and "not suited to house style".

Fascinatingly, it was current resident choreographer, Justin Peck, whose work proved not suited to house style. Known for taking inspiration from his peers, it seems that in creating "Belles Lettres" Peck got caught up in showcasing the brilliant Anthony Huxley and then realized at the last moment that he still had an entire ballet to create. This rationale helps to explain the resulting mess of stock romantic movement. Mary Katrantzou's peach colored body suites with paisley prints certainly did not help to clarify the proceedings -- "Belles" was created as part of Artistic Director Peter Martins' ill advised attempt to pull in outside interest by forcing collaboration between choreographers and fashion designers, in this instance for the Fall 2014 Gala. Set to César Franck's "Solo de piano avec accompagnement de quintette á cordes", the ballet resembled a carousel of dancers who disembark as couples to perform pseudo ballroom steps -- lots of leg extensions that whip into supported pirouettes and drawn out reaches-- only without any meaningful connection to the music. Romantic ambiance filled the air, the women's hair came down, and it all signified nothing. It wasn't exactly "bad", but imagine being forced to watch a self assured teenager make love to an older man or woman and you will understand why this piece left much to be desired. Were we at an ice dancing extravaganza this would have been fine, but this is City Ballet and we've been conditioned to demand better.

Christopher Wheeldon's love affair with George Gershwin continues in "American Rhapsody", set to "Rhapsody in Blue". Featuring a recently returned from Broadway Robert Fairchild, "Rhapsody" finds Wheeldon in a theatrical mood. Far from sophisticated though engaging and entertaining, this amuse-bouche furthers the tradition that Balanchine set during his stint as a Broadway choreographer. Wheeldon gives his dancers movement that is zippy, fun, and meant to make the tired old business man perk up and smile. By and large, he succeeds though the simple flourish that tells all -- commonly found in the work of Frederick Ashton -- is not yet within his purview. Where he reigns is in constructing charged lines across the stage that sweep the viewer along for the ride, creating a clear evocation of cross country trains or horses galloping across the terrain. Janie Taylor's monochromatic costumes -- blue for the corps de ballet, red for the secondary leads, green for the main couple -- reinforce this reference to travel. They resemble nothing so much as what one would find on a chic airplane stewardess or in an episode of the 60's era cartoon, "The Jetsons".

Amar Ramasar makes an appearance as what is essentially the Donald O'Connor best pal role from "Singin' in the Rain" and proves the more engaging entertainer. Perhaps Fairchild is simply rusty after performing eight shows a week of the same material for over a year. Whatever the case, his easygoing "awe, schucks" manner, while economically charming does him little good when paired with a scene stealer like Ramasar. Oddly enough, even Fairchild's eventual meet cute with Tiler Peck (his wife in real life) proved muted. What should have been a steamy pas de deux came across as perfunctory and cool. There simply wasn't enough passion between them to justify their being together, especially after watching the elaborate series of missed connections that dominated the first half of the ballet. If anything, Fairchild had more rapport with the dancers of the corps de ballet and the dynamo Unity Phelan, who played the always game secondary female role. Might a different pairing have generated the missing pulse?

"Mothership" -- which had the distinction of featuring a not yet ready for primetime cast of apprentices and young corps members -- provided something one rarely sees at City Ballet: women whacking their legs into crotch baring tilts to the accompaniment of jazz inflected electronica music (composed by Mason Bates). Choreographed by Nicolas Blanc, this exercise in "who approved this" deployed bland unison movement that would fit right in on "So You Think You Can Dance Ballet; Vegas Edition". To write more would be cruel.

Something commonly remarked upon in the work of Alexei Ratmansky is his sense of humor. What many fail to appreciate is his masterful interweaving of games to establish mis en scéne. In "Concerto DSCH" (set to Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2") references to baseball, tag, Ring Around the Rosie, and diving into a pool of water abound. These actions of play unite the dancers as a community of youngsters who grow up, struggle, and fall in love with each other. It is the exact opposite of "Lord of Flies"; these kids turn out more than alright. With an opening that calls to mind the introduction of characters from Jerome Robbins' "Fiddler on The Roof", "DSCH" effectively declares that its players stand on their own but for each other. While it is possible that there are other dancers who might better inhabit these roles, the fully realized portrayals given by this cast prove entirely winning. The trio of dancers -- who stand out as leading tricksters of the ballet (embodied by the company's reigning technician Anthony Huxley, a never better Gonazalo Garcia, and the pitch perfect Brittany Pollack) -- along with the wonderful corps de ballet are to be applauded for keeping the action ever invigorating.

It was a special treat to see the normally melodramatic Sara Mearns apply a less grandiose approach to her role as the lead ballerina. Known for quite literally hurling herself into each part (and past her partners), in this ballet she chose to allow the wonderful Tyler Angle -- one of the best partners in the company -- to guide and woo her with a sure hand that proved attractively tender. Their pas de deux -- which included long overhead lifts, playful snatches at a retracting hand, and gentle supported hops across the stage -- represented a couple maturing before our eyes: old friends who become true lovers. There is so much occurring in this ballet, though it never feels gratuitous. Has anyone ever noticed the trio of couples in the shadows during this pas de deux? In dissemination and variation of the main pas de deux, these glorious dancers (Emily Gerrity, Daniel Applebaum, Gretchen Smith, Andrew Scordato, Lydia Wellington, and Joshua Thew) fill in the gaps of what transpires between Ms. Mearns and Mr. Angle, showing us the fights and the kiss that lead to their solid union. The entire affair is a game of catch in which the one who is running away wants to be caught and held for all time. Mr. Ratmansky makes dance that seems spontaneous and connected; as if it were happening in real time. If only all ballets could be this brilliant.

Photos by Paul Kolnik

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