BWW Review: New York City Ballet's All Christopher Wheeldon Program
New York City Ballet's "All Wheeldon" program, part of the Here/Now series on April 30, was, in most cases, a great success. Wheeldon is now a celebrity choreographer. He is followed everywhere, has received abundant awards for his ballets and Broadway productions. Together with Justin Peck and Alexander Ratmansky, all City Ballet past or present artists-in-residence, he has come to many to represent ballet's future, although what that future is remains a question mark.
Wheeldon has choreographed in all genres; his stamp is definitely Balanchine/Ashton marked, yet possessing a character of its own: witty, acerbic, contemplative, allowing dancers to exhibit not only technical skills, but dramatic inflections as well. While his ballets look easy to perform, his off center, neo-classical steps can pose problems for dancers not schooled in the Balanchine technique. (At least that is how I see it.) Luckily, all the ballets presented on the program were originally choreographed for City Ballet, so the dancers on the program showed a definite affinity for all the challenges that were presented to them.
Mercurial Manoeuvres, to the music of Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, begins like a race to the finish. So much is happening, perhaps more than the eye can take in. I have always been astounded by the opening, bursting with overabundant energy that when the pas de deux, danced by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, is introduced, we are suddenly transported 360 degrees to a world of arrested love. Here all is reflective, moody but also antsy. Just what are these two dancers contemplating? We never know since the blaring Shostakovich notes awaken us to a different reality, where everything again charges ahead to an exhilarating finale.
My only complaint with the ballet is the absence of a strong male partner in the pas de deux. Tyler Angle, excellent as always, seems stunted. He is not given much to do except partner, while soloist Harrison Ball, in a flaming red costume, explodes around the stage. I wish Wheeldon could have added some strong dramatic undercurrent to the pas de deux because, as good as it is, there is something lacking in its overall structure. It makes the ballet feel incomplete.
Polyphonia, first created for the company and danced to a short piano piece by György Ligeti, allows Wheeldon to present his appreciation of music and how it can be presented in a fashion that evokes character, yet never allows us to see beyond what is presented to us. But it is not hollow. It is punchy, full of rhythms that are contemplative, volatile, and reflective. With the exception of one pas de quatre, we are presented with couples alone in their pools of light, dancing as if exploiting the music for what is, yet nothing more. Although I have heard many people refer to it as one of Wheeldon's European ballets, I see it as very American contemporary. You can sense the moodiness as each couple explores their limbs, the range and color of the music. It is as if Wheeldon is letting them challenge him with their bodies, rather than the other way around, especially with Sara Mearns who, as always, commands the stage with her precision, wit and sheer brilliance of dancing. I don't think anyone else can match her in City Ballet's repertoire today.
Liturgy, to music of Arvo Pärt, is austere, evoking both spirituality and divinity, without actually conjuring up either one. It is at once beguiling and puzzling, because the couple seem to be stranded within themselves, unsure what personality they want to take on-human or bird-and connecting only when they are apart. Danced with solemnity and abandon by Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle, the ballet seems to get lost in its own density of meaning. It wants to soar, but as much abandon as it would like to take, Wheeldon keeps it close to the ground. And with four ballets on the program, there really was no need to present it.
American Rhapsody, danced to George Gershwin's An American in Paris, is a why ballet. It makes no sense in its musical and choreographic structures, it lingers, it finishes with a burst of sheer emptiness. I think there should be a moratorium on Gershwin ballets and musicals. Couldn't we try Vincent Youmans or Arthur Schwartz for a change? They also wrote incredible tunes. Or is it that they have been forgotten?
Photograph: Paul Kolnik