The Colors in Gray

Dancing in a Winter Wonderland

Hail January! The New York City Ballet packs away its Nutcracker and gets on with the business of celebrating its 50th anniversary. The enticingly packaged season groups ballets according to composers or national flavors (the January 28 French program, for example, features works to music by Gounod, Ravel, and Bizet). There's a Jerome Robbins celebration in February, and the season ends June 27, acknowledging the summer solstice with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The "Balanchine Black + White" programs feature ballets performed in practice clothes. Most of these are set to scores by 20th-century composers, and the spare attire exposes the knotty intricacies Balanchine heard in the music. The flex of a foot is unfettered by tulle, and the sudden subversive wrap of a leg around a partner's waist becomes possible. The absence of color prompts visions of the stage as a giant piano keyboard on the march, but it also brings out the blush in geometry. That is, because Balanchine's patterns are so dazzlingly clear, you can see more deeply into the ineffable meanings they harbor and into the diversity of his responses to music.

The dialogue between partners in the duet Duo Concertant captures the bittersweet tension of the one between Igor Stravinsky's piano and violin. The man hoists the woman in flying leaps, gives her a breather, and then grabs her back. Nothing like that happens in the slow, questioningly sensual duet of Agon. Here Stravinsky's voice is sparer and edgier; when the two dancers aren't parading in an homage to court dance secreted in the music, the woman is clenching her limbs around her partner, and the man is experimenting to see how far she can bend, how well she can balance. The principal pair in a third Stravinsky ballet, Symphony in Three Movements, begin side by side, politely creating a cat's cradle with their arms; later, when the male stands close behind his partner, the strange patterns they make with their heads and angling arms bind them together as irrevocably as if they were wrapping each other in cords.

In black and white, the allusions to the classical repertory become more pungent. In Agon, a man promenades his arabesquing partner while flat on his back, the inversion of Petipa principles emphasized by the tension in his arm and the altering negative space between the two. The gauzy vampires of Giselle wheel their arms in turn, sending the hapless Hilarion to drown in the lake; Symphony's space-age wilis in white leotards also wheel their arms in turn, but each gesture, as it progresses down the line, gathers in and becomes an ironic bow.

The marvelous Tombeau de Couperin, choreographed for the 1975 Ravel Festival, rings so many ingenious changes on the theme of a double square dance that, as the designs become more and more complex, you begin to see not just eight couples dancing, but images of compressing and expanding.Balanchine pulls patterns inside out like socks.

The performing in Tombeau is disappointing. The men, having to guide their partners, look focused and energetic. But too many vapid women, waving their arms unnecessarily, seem to have no goal beyond doing the right thing at the right time. They don't conceive, say, of a walk forward as an advance, a walk backward as a retreat. To this inertia, Amanda Edge is a welcome exception.

One of the aspects occasionally missing in the company's performing is phrasing— shaping a dance passage so it has punctuation and changes of emphasis, so it seems personally considered. Sébastien Marcovici, making a promising debut in Agon, still delivers every step in the same tone. It's that individual shaping that makes Wendy Whelan's dancing in Agon and the communication between her and Jock Soto so gripping. There's also lovely performing by Miranda Weese and Albert Evans in Symphony. Edward Liang and Christopher Wheeldon deliver the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee-on-speed duet in Agon with brio. I was dubious at first about Yvonne Borree and Nilas Martins in Duo Concertant. Playing serious, he sometimes gets stolid; playing light, she can look ungrounded. But they rallied, she eloquent and daring, he warming up. Dancing in black and white requires finding the shades of gray.

I'm not sure I make all the connections between volcanoes and Sarah East Johnson's work that she wants me to make. But, as her Volcano Love begins at the Kitchen, the sight of figures doing slow push-ups at will against a film of fiery eruption does suggest new life emerging from disaster. And certainly the acrobatic feats of Johnson's all-female group involve danger, even as their dynamics flow like a smooth, thick tumble of cooling lava.

Johnson may juxtapose women in cotton dresses jiving against clips of battling kangaroos and tortoises, but despite her ecological considerations, the primary image her pieces project is that of strong women acrobats recasting stunts as elegantly produced theater with dance dynamics. When Adrienne Truscott and Tanya Gagne hang from trapezes, they're as likely to form twin sculptures as they are to slip over and— gasp!— hang by their feet. On a smallish platform, finely lit by David Herrigel, Johnson plays strongwoman, even pressing Natalie Agee over her head into a sit, but what we mostly glean from this duet is a muscular lyricism, a smooth flow of difficult inversions. Johnson's high trapeze duet with Truscott contains sudden dangers, but it, too, is more about trust and intriguing designs than showing off.

In the most beautiful number, the four principal women dive through double-decker hoops in increasingly daring and witty combinations. Even constrained by the obstacles, for split seconds they exhibit the freedom of dolphins at play. My favorite film moment, screened while we're groping for our coats, shows rehearsal footage. Time and again the women crash to the floor, knock hoops over, bang into one another. Overcoming is what nature's about.

What event could more perfectly grace Danspace's 25th-anniversary Silver Series than A Celebration Service presented by Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble? Danspace honors the artists who've contributed to its history; Monk, weaving music she's composed over the years into a kind of nondenominational church service, acknowledges both her own history and the aura of Danspace's host, the beautiful old St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery.

The texts spoken by Pablo Vela and Emerald Trinket Monsod include ancient Buddhist conundrums, haiku, an Osage Indian woman's initiation song, a sentence from Martin Buber, and a 12th-century prayer by Hildegard von Bingen. The "hymn" is a song from Monk's 1976 Quarry; we all learn the melody and sing it in canon.

From the first moment, when Monk's voice floats out from the balcony, it's clear how wonderfully her music suits this space, rehallows it. Earthy yet unearthly, the notes resonate, filling the vault. When the performers form a north-south line, every other one facing east or west, and sing "Other Worlds Revealed" from the 1991 opera Atlas, their voices chime out like bells, striking the walls and sailing back. The acoustics amplify the way Monk's music often builds from a small, wordless repeating pattern to a rich, ringing texture that constantly changes its interior configuration.

Monk and her 11 marvelous colleagues never look like a chorus, but like interesting individuals in deep harmony with one another. The varied ways she arranges them in the space allows us to identify, say, Allison Easter's rich alto or the sweet ping of Thomas Bogdan's tenor. They rarely just stand and sing. The music seems to fill their bodies. In the "Celebration Dance" from The Politics of Quiet(1996), they jump and clap and saunter in a quite complicated folk dance that forms a shape-shifting mandala on the wooden floor. Opera singers Stephen Kalm and Randall Wong are now almost as free and nimble as dance-trained singers Ching Gonzalez and Janice Brenner. The delight they all take in Monk's musical theater turns performance into a devotional act.

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