BWW Dance Review: NEW YORK CITY BALLET'S 'American Composers'
The New York City Ballet's "American Composers" program, as performed on October 4th 2016, offers explorations in the work of Glass, Rogers, and Sousa. This catalogue is matched by a triumvirate of choreographers, Robbins, Martins, and Balanchine, who take inspiration from both the tangible musical structure, and the compositions' cultural resonance. The composers are represented in reverse chronological order, leading the audience farther and farther away from our present nihilistic zeitgeist to the warm innocent glow of gilded age patriotism.
The first work of the evening, "Glass Pieces," is Jerome Robbins at his most conventional. In three segments it features dancers in clinically monochrome and ballet garb, designed by Ben Benson, in front of a graph paper backdrop designed by Robbins and Ronald Bates, who also designed the lighting. In design it's apparent that Robbins understood the virtues of Glass' hypnotic repetition. Robbins recognizes the power of subtle shifts that comes through variations both consciously composed and unconsciously rendered. However, such clinical rigor is rarely delivered through the Corps de Ballet in both the Rubric and Akhnaten segments. Their reflex to add grace to a stride, and add melody to a leap, a usually helpful reflex to have as a dancer, here cloisters the movement away from Glass' clinical eye. Robbins' choreography also doesn't fully answer itself to this musical collaboration. His habitual motifs such as flexed hands with outstretched arms in full run are among the numerous movements that feel more at home in Robbins' other works and under the jazzy riffs of other composers.
In "Facades," the second segment of "Glass Pieces," many of these issues were resolved through a clearer inspiration between music and dance. Here, a line of dancers in silhouette march onstage with a near comical gait. Humor, romance, and melancholy are displayed in "Facades" through a meditative state. The selfless dedication of the corps as they march repetitively across the upstage proscenium achieves the subconscious effect that comes from fading awareness. Downstage a pas de deux is performed between Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Their movement balances on the saber thin melody line floating on the repetitious beat of the dancers. Between them there exists a dreamlike presence. Their movement exhibits all the archetypes of balletic romance, but it's committed to as though dramatic urges were a foreign entity never communicated and expendable in execution. While this would perhaps be off-putting in most pieces, over the canvas of Glass' music, such emotional haze is enrapturing.
The evening's next work "Thou Swell," choreographed by Peter Martins, features four pairs dancing to a medley of 16 songs by Richard Rogers. The setting is a glamorous ballroom with a large art deco mirror hanging from the rafters and four lit booths where the lovers sit, watch the proceedings, and enter the dance. Every piece of the performance was composed to elicit a response of whimsical golden age awe. Costumes by Peter Copping of Oscar de la Renta rode the line between timeless elegance and abstract statement. Singers Leah Horowitz and Joseph Eletto joined a band clad in white suits. With all of these elements in its favor, it's remarkable how quickly the piece wore out its welcome. The setting of the art deco ballroom did more to call to mind a highly funded high school prom or a poorly funded Atlantic City casino and the costumes suited in equal measure. Highlights from this piece were rare but Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour's slow pas de deux had some mercurial elegance, and Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar brought some much needed blood to the highly melancholic mood. Rebecca made use of her dress with the folds of its red fabric flying outwards like a bird of paradise. The women within this unforgivingly repetitive choreography rarely could hope to become more than a suitably mobile fashion display. I suppose, in this, points could be given for historical accuracy. Issues in movement aside, the work is overlong, and the overall candor of the performers too self assured. It's not an intimate world they're presenting of lovers lost in the night, but that of a graded ballroom dance floor. It's a space where romantic joy is on equal footing of plasticity with the placement of a limb.
Concluding the evening is Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes," featuring adaptations of John Philip Sousa by Hershy Kay. This work is a delight and the performers appear to know it. Balanchine, famously Russian born and expatriated to America, commits to the pageantry of America patriotism without even a hint of irony. As delivered from this immigrant and through the corps of a ballet company, "Stars and Stripes" is able to communicate a cathartic patriotism without coming off as pandering. There's today something foreign about the Americana innocence of Sousa's marches and compiled with star spangled costuming by Karinska, and an exuberant cast the piece could land as naïve but instead it radiates with our lost optimism. Erica Pereira and Savannah Lowery as the leaders of the first and second campaign respectively, enlist the audience to their sides while Balanchine's choreography takes advantage of military intricacies. Daniel Ulbricht leads the third campaign with his customary spring loaded enthusiasm. The fourth campaign features a pas de deux between Megan Fairchild as the Liberty Bell and Tyler Angle as El Capitan. Here, Balanchine's choreography is elegant and at its least militaristic. It's charming in how the Russian of the dance composition leeks out, an accent on an undaunted patriotism. "Stars and Stripes" marches ahead quickly but never leaves any moment feeling unfinished. The piece ends with the stars and stripes upstage, and in face of the election year it is a needed breath of optimistic inspiration.