Christopher Wheeldon and Nikolaj Hübbe Say Goodbye

While NYCB soldiers on

Christopher Wheeldon isn’t saying farewell to the New York City Ballet, even though he’s leaving his post as Resident Choreographer in order to focus on the company he formed last year (Morphoses/The Wheeldon Project). NYCB will simply take its place in the lineup of organizations anxious to acquire ballets by this gifted man. Spreading himself too thin will, I suspect, be an ongoing problem to surmount.

He hasn’t conceived his choreographic au revoir to the company he joined as a dancer in 1993 as a fanfare. No sounding of trumpets or bringing on of tutued hordes in homage to the magnificent dance kingdom that George Balanchine built. Instead he has created an elegant little envoy of a ballet, with flourishes of eccentricity in keeping with its title, Rococo Variations, and its music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, opus 33. It is performed by just two couples, who might be out for a decorous night on the town together. At one point, just for a second, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Giovanni Villalobos lean out to each other from behind their partners, as if for a conspiratorial exchange (“you happy with your date?”).

This is a well-dressed foursome, and neither of the women (Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin) appears worried that she may have bought the same outfit as her friend. They both look gorgeous in Holly Hynes’s delectable strapless gowns, with fancy gold trim edging the very full chocolate-brown skirts. The men sport beige tights, gold vests, and full-sleeved white shirts.

Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rococo Variations
Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rococo Variations


New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza
Through February 24

Wheeldon’s small cast is somewhat in keeping with Tchaikovsky’s scaled-down orchestra (strings, pairs of wind instruments, and two horns), but the choreography doesn’t equate a solo performer with the cello that Fred Zlotkin plays in the pit. Nor does it follow the theme-and-variations form as strictly as the music does, although in both, classical formality is perfumed by whiffs of Romanticism. Some of Wheeldon’s inventions capture the spirit of rococo design—its graceful lightness, its embellishing scrolls and curlicues and shell moifs, its playful eccentricities. The entrance of the first couple is so involved that, even though it’s repeated several times over the course of the ballet, I couldn’t parse it. Mearns stands close to the edge of the stage, slightly caved-in, pushing down on her skirt, or her flank. Danching-Waring, dipping low, ducks under her arms and slips his own through them and around her in some way. It’s almost like creating a knot in order to untangle one. Now they’re ready to join the party.

As in most of Wheeldon’s ballets, the performers often drop to the floor—not from any excess of emotion, but to deepen the trajectory of a movement phrase. And every now and them a thoroughly standard gesture is set off like a new discovery by both choreographic timing and the sensitivity of the adept young dancers. In one of the duets for Mearns and Danchig-Waring, she, poised on one toe and steadied by her partner, slowly folds her other leg down from a high extension as if the move gave her immense pleasure. Although there are fine pas de deux—slow for Mearns and Danchig Waring, fast and sprightly for Hyltin and Villalobos—and a scampy display of jumps by the two men, the picture that stays with me is that of the two couples, close together, slipping from vigorous unison into mirror-image symmetry, like an opening scallop shell, and then suddenly darting their movements in the same direction again. When the curtain comes down, they’re still doing this, and they look as if they might keep it up all night.

Choreographers like Wheeldon bring new perspectives to the company’s repertory, but the program dubbed “Balanchine’s World” reveals that that world in itself certainly doesn’t lack variety. Balanchine’s ravishing Tombeau de Couperin, created for the NYCB’s 1975 Ravel Festival, has no stars. Eight couples formed into two quadrilles charm the eye with the twinning of their meet-and-greet patterns and orderly partner changes. The stage becomes an optical delight of shifting squares, semi-circles, and diagonals. And the youthful verve of the dancers in their black and white practice clothes freshen the formality of the designs, just as Ravel respectfully unbuttons Couperin’s 18th-century manners.

The 1964 Tarantella is all verve. And flirty bravado. The rollicking music is by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, orchestrated by Hershy Kay but with a piano soloist (Susan Walters). Balanchine designed it as a showpiece for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride and whatever virtuosi could follow in their footsteps. So what if Daniel Ulbricht drops his tambourine one night and goes a little over the top in terms of exuberance? He’s still the hottest jumper in town, and Fairchild is a charmer. Balanchine knew how to get a crowd cheering.

Bugaku (1963) provokes a different sort of reaction. This bit of delicate exotica evokes not only erotic Japanese prints but the patronizing visions of 19th-century orientalism. Balanchine was inspired by performances by visiting Gagaku musicians and Bugaku performers. Although David Hay’s handsome scenery and Toshiro Mayazumi’s score refer to the ancient Japanese court form, the ballet is a ritual mating—miles away from a court dance with religious significance performed by men. Better he had called it The Deflowering.

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