New York City Ballet Gets a New Gem

Christopher Wheeldon has named his new work for New York City Ballet (at the State Theater through February 25) Polyphonia, as if polyphony were a nymph he adored. And indeed, as the ballet opens, eight dancers—every one moving differently—create a magnificent scintillation of limbs; their shadows, sparring on the backdrop, increase the complications. Wheeldon has set the dance to piano pieces by György Ligeti (well played by Cameron Grant and Alan Moverman), and the music for this section is an étude called Désordre. But the 29-year-old choreographer treats disorder with a classicist's restraint; it exists to point up harmony. During that opening wildness, the dancers stay evenly spaced, and fastidiously constructed counterpoint and unison lurk just ahead. A later canonic duet for Jason Fowler and Edwaard Liang brings to mind the male duet from Balanchine's Agon, but while Wheeldon's men don't chase each other through the thickets of Ligeti's polyphony quite as closely as Balanchine's men do with Stravinsky's, they too create the illusion that "follow the leader" has turned into a contest.

Wheeldon thinks in phrases; you never feel that he puts movement together step by pretty step. And he understands both Ligeti's tumultuous textures and the spare ones in which notes drop like stones into a pool. He shows off Liang and Jennie Somogyi in a waltz, Alexandra Ansanelli and Craig Hall in a delicate adagio, Jennifer Tinsley and Fowler in a burst of allegro windups. Small dissonances in the form of unballetic moves capture Ligeti's sensibility, which roughly spans the last half of the 20th century. Women touch the floor and stick one bent leg up; Jock Soto assists Wendy Whelan into an almost awkward handstand. In the final ensemble allegro, the dancers' gestures approach the gimmicky (wrists together, they twist their hands as if turning tiny steering wheels).

Darkness saturates two extraordinary duets for Whelan and Soto, and—via Mark Stanley's moody lighting—surrounds them as well. You can imagine a strong vine flexing its way around a tree, but the tree, too, is malleable and responds to that force. So while Soto is technically in charge, he is part of the uncanny flow, especially in the second and finest duet. In the silences between Ligeti's notes, Whelan slowly climbs up Soto and clamps herself to him. There's something touchingly vulnerable about this ungainly move and also something spidery, as if the two were sucking love from each other.

Family Values: Erin Cornell in Cathy Weis’s Not So Fast, Kid!
photo: Ellen Crane
Family Values: Erin Cornell in Cathy Weis’s Not So Fast, Kid!

Wheeldon is, understandably, in demand these days, when few choreographers are coming up through ballet. So far, he shows no signs of spreading himself too thin. Pray for him. We need him to grow and thrive.

In an odd, probably accidental bit of programming, Polyphonia was performed just after Jerome Robbins's 1994 2 & 3 Part Inventions—another ballet featuring four couples and a great deal of counterpoint. The juxtaposition did have its stimulating aspect. Robbins composed this work for students at the School of American Ballet when he was 77, and it's not only an uncondescending vision of youth; it has an unstrained youthful vigor. Wheeldon celebrates Ligeti's complexity; Robbins hymns J.S. Bach's luminous simplicity. The choice of dancers was elegant: Ansanelli, Rachel Rutherford, Eva Natanya, Carrie Lee Riggins, Benjamin Millepied (of the original cast), Alexander Ritter, Liang, and Jared Angle.

Another NYCB treat: a wonderful performance of Balanchine's Scotch Symphony (to Mendelssohn) with Kyra Nichols and Charles Askegard as the principal couple and Janie Taylor, Fowler, and Stephen Hanna as demi-soloists. Seldom has this gentle satire on Romantic ballet seemed so humorous. You could actually chuckle at Nichols—half village maiden guarded by a kilted clan of cousins, half the eponymous heroine of La Sylphide—sweetly tempting Askegard through a wacky courtship ritual couched in marvelous choreography.

Once, David Gordon was intrigued by the dancing possibilities of objects. This fit with a pedestrian sensibility honed during the heyday of Judson Dance Theater in the '60s. As he and his company walked and talked, they moved frames or doors or pieces of fabric in fluent, unstopping patterns. The repetitions and variations matched those in Gordon's witty wordplay. In Gordon's latest work, at Danspace St. Mark's last week, the dancers alone reshape the space, their bodies forming swinging doors and windows for others to slip through (although pieces of paper containing spoken text do get passed about in a highly musical manner).

The atmosphere is casual; people watch one another from the sidelines and enter when ready, peeling off shirts or putting new ones on. The dancers are warming up as the audience enters, and when Bach music drops into the space, and Tadej Brdnik slides into For the Love of Rehearsal, the houselights are still on. As is usual with Gordon, material from earlier pieces is recycled and renewed. Gordon and his wife, Valda Setterfield, echo a beautiful earlier duet about slipping quietly out of and back into embraces. Dialogues they originally performed here become choral extravaganzas. The in-hand scripts further formalize the very personal conversations—one of which is an old-married exchange about farting, its concomitant odor, and the polite hypocrisy of allusions to it.

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