Balanchine Gets a Happy-Birthday Ballet

Every year on George Balanchine’s birthday, January 22, the New York City Ballet honors him by commissioning at least one new work. This year, the celebratory “New Combinations” program also inaugurates NYCB’s Rudolf Nureyev Fund for Emerging Choreographers (established in part with a matching grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation). Although Balanchine politely declined Nureyev’s request to dance with NYCB (at that point the defector from the USSR was too much the prince both onstage and off), Nureyev danced in the master’s ballets elsewhere and presented them during his tenure as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. “New Combinations” (which has additional performances Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evening, February 2) features work by choreographers from three countries associated with Nureyev’s career: Russia, where he was born and trained; Great Britain, where he danced with the Royal Ballet for a number of years; and France, where he ended his productive days.

The birthday ballet, Lifecasting, comes from Douglas Lee; he trained in London’s Royal Ballet School, has an impressive background as a dancer and choreographer with the Stuttgart Ballet, and has made pieces for other companies as well. How grateful Balanchine might have been to receive the gift is, of course, moot. Possibly the music it’s set to—Ryogi Ikeda’s opus 1 (for 9 strings) and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet—would have interested him, especially the driving rhythms of the latter. And there’s no doubt that Lee stretched 11 NYCB dancers—both literally and figuratively.

The title comes from the sculpture technique of making molds of human body parts. Lee’s note in the program mentions that he drew on “the dancers’ individual movement dynamics,” but that aspect of the work is hard to see because the choreography is so much about making shapes. The curtain rises on what might well be a museum. A bouquet of spotlights hangs above one side of the stage. The performers, scattered around the area, are frozen in position. One woman lies stiffly on her side like a toppled statue. Another, grasping her partner’s hand, slants away from him, arrested, perhaps, in mid-fall. Suddenly a man (Robert Fairchild) comes to sinuous life. He stretches and nudges his way his way into movements that are decidedly unclassical in their impetus. You’re aware of his neck craning, his back rippling, his shoulders pulling him awry. Yet as the others rouse themselves, and begin to walk around, Sterling Hyltin strikes a picture-perfect arabesque.

New York City Ballet in Douglas Lee’s "Lifecasting"
Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in Douglas Lee’s "Lifecasting"

One procedure of Lee’s that may also have come from sculpture is that of modeling clay. Over the course of the dance, the women (Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Ashley Bouder, and Georgina Pazcoguin) are manipulated slowly and obsessively—especially Gilliland and Kowroski, whose fabulously long limbs are ideal for cats-cradle enthusiasts. At one point, as I remember, almost all the men (in total: Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Craig Hall, Antonio Carmena, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Christian Tworzyanski) latch onto Gilliland and cooperate in winding her into extravagant positions.

Mark Stanley’s lighting brightens dramatically when Reich’s music begins and the dancers leap as well as tangle. There’s some weird and fascinating stuff for Hall and Bouder (do the bangs that almost cover her eyes embolden her even more than usual?). The plot—if you can call it that—also takes a weird twist. A trench the width of the stage opens up at the back, and while Ramasar and then Danchig-Waring (a dancer who gets more and more interesting) work over Kowroski, others partially submerge themselves or sit on the edge of the trench and dangle their legs in it. A swimming hole? An entry to a nether world they may have come from? Who are these people? In the end, they’re rolling over the floor, and in a split second the plain backdrop falls in a heap and the lights go out. I think I need to see this enigmatic ballet again.

Coincidentally, Angelin Preljocaj’s La Stravaganza, a 1997 Diamond Project commission, has several things in common with Lifecasting. It too is mysterious, suggests a parallel world, and alludes to artwork. However, individual volition plays a far larger role, the women don’t wear pointe shoes, and virtuosity is de-emphasized. Although the ballet has its longueurs, and some of the various electronic compositions by Evelyn Ficarra, Serge Morand, Robert Normandeau, and Ake Parmerud make me imagine colossal plumbing disorders, it can also be mesmerizing.

The music by the above composers is interspersed with portions of a Vivaldi concerto and excerpts from two of the 18th-century composer’s beautiful religious works. The two kinds of accompaniment delineate two separate, interpenetrating worlds. A woman (Tiler Peck) threads her way through a cluster; she’s part of, and yet not part of, an agreeable little society of six who dance to Vivaldi. We first hear birdcalls and a woman’s recorded voice saying, “I remember” in French. That’s not much of a clue to Preljocaj’s time trip. Another group of six is revealed when a black curtain rises on a frozen-in-time-and-space group wearing 17th-century clothes—escapees from a Flemish painting maybe. At first they’re stiff, as if they haven’t moved in a long time, and their repeated gestures—such as sowing grain—have a mechanical quality. But later, when they dance in pairs, the men are rough with their partners—far less tender than the people in the contemporary scene off to the side in a corridor of light, the women rubbing their faces and hands gently over their quietly standing men.

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