Run With It

Choreographers Fling Gauntlets to New York City Ballet and Philadanco!

New York City Ballet's spring gala celebrated the 10th anniversary of the company's Diamond Project. At this tribute to fundraising fervor, spectators could guess which new ballets might be keepers while scoping the crowd for the most elaborate outfit. To reaffirm the value of the project (named for principal funder Irene Diamond), ballet master Peter Martins is reviving 15 commissioned ballets from past Diamonds, as well as offering new ones by six choreographers (on programs at the New York State Theater through June 23).

Revivals include the late Ulysses Dove's coruscating 1994 fire-and-ice quartet Red Angels, to Richard Einhorn's Maxwell's Demon, with Mary Rowell playing diabolic electric violin and Heléne Alexopoulos, Albert Evans, Wendy Whelan, and Peter Boal giving stunning performances. Martins's 1992 version of Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes gained wit from marvelous new playing-card costumes by Ian Falconer and a delicious performance by Jenifer Ringer, queen of the deck, attended by smart-footed wild cards Benjamin Millepied, Damian Woetzel, and Nikolai Hübbe.

Excitement centered around the preview of a new ballet by a fledgling choreographer, principal dancer Albert Evans. Interestingly set to short percussion works and piano pieces by John Cage, Evans's sextet builds clear, balanced spatial patterns and rhythms that counterpoint Cage's mix of sound and stillness. Evans has made a deft little ballet, featuring three duets, the richest of which stars Aesha Ash (dancing beautifully) and Sébastien Marcovici. For my taste, the choreographer makes a little much of Carla Körbes and Faye Arthurs's near contortionist splits as Stephen Hanna and Seth Orza manipulate them, yet there's no denying the ingenuity of Evans's designs.

Piano man: Benjamin Millepied in Bigonzetti's Vespro, at New York City Ballet
photo: Paul Kolnik
Piano man: Benjamin Millepied in Bigonzetti's Vespro, at New York City Ballet

Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti begins his Vespro startlingly. Millepied perches on the piano that composer Bruno Moretti is playing. As Millepied slides into a solo marked by gestures that suggest he's trying to write on air with his elbows, he occasionally plunges onto the keyboard. Each crash summons more dancers, clad in shorts and tops with geometric designs in red and black by Julius Lumsden. Countertenor Steven Rickards and saxophonist Albert Regni appear too. This first section of the music, with its intimations of Monteverdi, is the best, and a duet for Marcovici and Alexandra Ansanelli (both wonderful) involves fascinating intricacies in which he invents unusual snares with their arms (hands linked) that she is eager to slip into. When not dancing, the corps of eight clusters by the piano. Millepied is a concerned catalyst—inciting dancing (elbow gestures are big with the other men too, and people are often on the floor), pushing between the splendid Maria Kowroski and Jason Fowler in their duet, yet taken aback when Kowroski rushes at him. Mark Stanley's lighting heightens the mystery. But the ballet and music begin to feel long and aimless; both have patches that mark time and sabotage the oddities Bigonzetti has constructed.

It's moot how far a choreographer can push classicism in new directions—as did the company's lodestar, George Balanchine—without becoming a-classical. Martins upholds the neoclassical tradition in his modest and adroit Bach Concerto V(for piano and orchestra), pulling a small ensemble led by Amanda Edge and Lindy Mandradjieff into airy symmetries and asymmetries, and creating a fine duet for Jock Soto and an enraptured Darci Kistler. In The Infernal Machine (titled after Christopher Rouse's music), Martins pushes the pas de deux into dementia, challenging Soto's skills as a partner and exploiting Janie Taylor's capacity for eccentricity. Deliberately unstable, hyper-flexible, with a beguiling strangeness that brings Suzanne Farrell to mind, Taylor sometimes resembles a beautiful rag doll that Soto can drape over himself. She wilts, and he turns her condition into something new and remarkable. Martins made both these ballets as pièces d'occasion; after the gala they disappear. A generous idea, but not necessarily a good one.


The crowd screams approval when the 14 members of Philadanco! line up to bow. They're hot, and not just because many of them have sweated through four demanding works, but because they perform as if the lust for dancing has raised their spiritual temperatures. The company's early-May Joyce program, however, was more than a blast of high-octane choreography; it required a sensitivity to the styles of four contemporary black dancemakers.

Bebe Miller exploited the dancers' virtuosity, but also explored the small, fidgety gestures and nuanced behavior she specializes in. People in My Science watch a lot, as if trying to figure one another out. As Tracy Vogt attaches herself to Antonio Sisk in an explosive, tender duet, Romnee Marisa Hayes and Odara Nefertiti Jabali-Nash jump in cute, look, are looked at, and—oops—hastily disappear. In this abstract, flavorful society, two other pairs and an extra woman add to an intriguing mixture that thins and thickens, branches into a ladies' night out, or spins into counterpoint.

For reasons not apparent, Miller uses two disparate musics: La Voix Bulgare and Led Zeppelin. In Ronald K. Brown's 1999 Exotica (part of a longer work), Wumni Olaiya adds various (uncredited) artists to her own composition. The music announces a veer between spirituality and worldly zest (a concern of Brown's), as the choreographer juxtaposes a rich, lashing-out style with an equally juicy one in which wandering souls yield extravagantly to a spiritual force that arches their backs and sends their arms into the air. Suddenly Roxanne Lyst is on the floor and the magnificent Hollie Wright hovers over her like a healer. Mahalia Jackson's great rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" pours out. There are beautiful, well-crafted passages in this piece, although its overall shape is murky.

In both Miller's work and Brown's, you get a sense of the dancers as individuals (the costumes help: Natasha Guruleva for Miller, Wumni for Brown). In a version of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's 1998 Hand Singing Song, you're more aware of a clan: spunky-tough women and men lining up to give us a barrage of gestures—rhythmed with claps and spoken words—or meeting and greeting with raucous joy. This smart, sassy exploration of African American hand moves gives pride of place to the "dap"—that most elaborate of handshake variants—which jazz musicians have turned into a slippery little artwork.

Both Brown and Zollar root their styles in African dance and African American vernacular. They and Miller make dancers look loose, grounded, impulsive. Conversely, in the rousing and well-crafted Enemy Behind the Gates, Christopher Huggins, a former member of Alvin Ailey's company, builds a precise, aggressive style reminiscent of Ulysses Dove's work. No individuals on parade here. Huggins dresses all the dancers in skirted black military jackets, with trousers added for the men. The driving music is Steve Reich's. A program note says the piece is about enemies in our midst, but Huggins focuses on suspicious virtuosity and rhythmic violence, with occasional brief lyrical duets for respite. Uniqueness boils down to the height of a leap.

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