Passion Spent

Christopher Wheeldon plummets into Beethoven's tumult

Almost a year ago, when the New York City Ballet premiered Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain, I felt the absence of a third movement that would tie the first to the second. However, being left with the ravishing duet for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in mind wasn't all that troublesome. With Wheeldon's ecstatically received new Klavier, I hunger for more in a different way. Now resident choreographer at NYCB, Wheeldon sets his ballet to the adagio third movement of Beethoven's "Hammer-klavier" Sonata for Piano, opus 106, and I wish that he, like Twyla Tharp before him, had tackled the whole sonata. The heaven-storming first movement, in particular, sets the mood of this late (1818) masterpiece and helps the pianist (in this case, the accomplished Cameron Grant) work up an emotional lather.

Klavier (to be performed again this Sunday) is a haunted ballet that draws the whisperings of romanticism out of Beethoven's classicism and foregrounds Wheeldon's interest in rapt pas de deux, in which a man spools a woman around his body as if she were a length of China silk. Atmosphere and choreography suggest that we're seeing the aftermath of something dire. Why else would Jean-Marc Puissant (who created the stunning set for Wheeldon's Swan Lake at the Pennsylvania Ballet) deck the backdrop with loosely hanging ropes and what looks like a fallen chandelier? Why else would the women initially wear long, translucent black coats over their also translucent dresses, and the men be dressed in see-through black shirts—first with incongruous collars and ties, later with oddly ruffled necklines? Puissant's costume designs, supervised by Holly Hynes, are almost as weirdly Dali-esque as the set.

The opening creates an elegiac yet hopeful tone. All 10 dancers walk slowly en masse toward the back of the stage, arresting their progress with sudden, individually timed turns to the front—their arms reaching out and up—and sometimes jumping before they face the rear to walk again. In echoing Beethoven's pain, they seem also to mourn the end of an era (the unsettling aftereffects of the Congress of Vienna?) and doubtfully herald a new one, in the direction of which the music's gathering chords press them. It's a pity that this feeling of community vanishes, to be reiterated only at the end of the music.

Haunted romanticism: Weese and Evans
photo: Paul Kolnik
Haunted romanticism: Weese and Evans

Details

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza
Through February 26

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As in several of his previous ballets, when dealing with passion Wheeldon displaces the ever vertical torso of the danse d'école. The dancers arch back, curl forward, twist to embrace. In the first pas de deux, Albert Evans has to be quick and bold to keep Miranda Weese, with her lovely phrasing and clear focus, evolving into tender shapes. Two simultaneous trios (Pauline Golbin, Tyler Angle, and Craig Hall; Melissa Barak, Sean Suozzi, and Andrew Veyette) also use the body lavishly. In these ingenious displays of courtly love à trois, a woman may be cresting on one man's shoulder, while another kneels to salute her, and all three collaborate to devise a twining garland of affections. At one point, the six briefly lie down to take a short rest. The pause is welcome.

The second duet is slightly more intense than the first. Sébastien Marcovici, a fine and ardent partner for Wendy Whelan, rushes about at first, swooping her along the floor. He seems always to want her in a new position, supported by a different part of his body. (Sometimes I wish they'd pause for a second.) Whelan, remarkably, conveys an illusion of complicity, even of agency, as if she were helping spin his yearning into a coherent form.

At the end, Wheeldon feeds all the dancers into well-crafted more-men-than-women before they gather again to walk away from us. Individuals still turn to the front occasionally, but now their progress into the dark reaches of the stage seems more inexorable.

The performing in Klavier shed a welcome glow after a distressingly nerveless rendering of the Balanchine-Stravinsky Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra by Darci Kistler, Charles Askegard, and the ensemble. It's inevitable that dancers take to new choreography like hungry travelers to a feast, but it's a pity to set out these two mini-marvels as a hastily prepared snack.

 
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