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"

Details

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
January 6 through March 1

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.

Gradually the patterns of the two groups slide out of counterpoint and subtly echo each other. The high point is a duet between Peck and Benjamin Millepied, one of the 17th-century group (Millepied wonderfully reprises his role in the original cast of 11 years ago). The two are very tender. At first, he turns her slowly with his hand on her head as if he’s trying to understand her mind. When the electronic music intrudes, however, he falls on her and rolls her into his world just as the black curtain falls on it. In the end, she reappears onstage just where she was when the ballet began and watches her friends as they twine together.

The New Combinations program also features work by another Royal Ballet alum, Christopher Wheeldon—the pas de deux from his After the Rain, which premiered on Balanchine’s birthday in 2005. Balanchine’s own 1947 Theme and Variations was chosen to represent Russia when Alexey Miroshnichenko’s premiere had to be postponed. An unannounced bonus, the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano by the 19th-century Dane Auguste Bournonville was programmed when footage was discovered of Nureyev making his American debut on the Bell Telephone Hour on January 19, 1962, dancing that duet with NYCB’s Maria Tallchief. Onscreen, the two of them are charismatic, and, as might be expected, Nureyev’s footwork is more pristine than that of young corps member Allen Peiffer, who replaces him minutes later on the stage. But Peiffer and Kathryn Morgan (substituting for Abi Stafford and Gonzalo Garcia) are adept and charming as Bournonville’s shy young lovers. With a little coaching in the dramatic timing the Danes are so good at, they could be splendid.

Sébastien Marcovici partners Wendy Whelan in Wheeldon’s beautiful duet (composed for Whelan and Jock Soto). Marcovici is an extremely poetic dancer, and he works sensitively with the marvelous Whelan in this slow blooming of a couple’s life after a long, dry spell. Wheeldon combines poise and awkwardness in very moving ways. Once when Whelan arches back from Marcovici while he has her in his arms, he sets her carefully down in a backbend and moves away; she slowly straightens her limbs and lies down. At the end, he again places her in this uncomfortable position, but this time he slides under her body, gently pulls her down on top of him, and folds his arms around her.

The dancing was not this stunning in the January 22 performance of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (composed for Ballet Theatre and usually seen at NYC as the last section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3). Garcia brings his usual warmth and vigor to the principal male role, but neither he nor Stafford (the two in place of Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild) have the confident grandeur you expect from the obvious king and queen of this world—Balanchine’s homage to his heritage and Marius Petipa’s great 19th-century ballets. More than tiaras and bejeweled tutus need to sparkle in Theme’s splendid patterns. Legs have to flash, and manners must be both elegant and nonchalant. Coming to this performance the night after Miami City Ballet’s opening, I felt a slight lack of spirit in the NYCB corps, compared to the sense of ownership and delight the MCB brings to Balanchine’s steps. When my gaze was caught by the tallest of Theme’s four demi-soloists, I realized that she was one of those few doing what I once heard called “looking out from her face.” That is, she was gazing around her with interest, spirit, and pleasure. What a happy day it would be if everyone in the company projected that onstage!

Coppelia—three-acts long and entitled to its own program during the first week of the company’s winter season—represents one of Balanchine’s few forays into re-envisioning a popular 19th-century, fairy-tale ballet. In 1974, he and Alexandra Danilova blended Petipa’s revision of Arthur St. Léon’s 1870 choreography, which they knew from their school days in St. Petersburg, with some Balanchinian inventions. The E.T.A. Hoffman story that the ballet is based on has its dark aspects, but they’re barely visible onstage. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s set for the NYCB production turns the stage into a candy-box village. Or maybe it’s a toy theater that the stage reminds me of. Balanchine spends little time creating social interactions. When the principal characters dance during the Festival of the Bells (in which many couple get married at once), everyone else retreats to the edges of the stage, sitting or standing in neat lines.

It’s all so beguilingly foolish that we don’t debate the brain power of a boy, Frantz, who mistakes a life-sized mechanical doll (the Coppelia of the title) for a real girl, or wonder how Dr. Coppelius, the inventor of this creature, unlocks the door and enters his atelier seconds after Frantz’s jealous girlfriend, Swanhilda, and her companions have tiptoed in at the end of Act I, yet only discovers them in Act II after they’ve played around with his automatons for a long time. And it hardly matters that Frantz sets his ladder and climbs to Coppelia’s balcony, but enters Act II via another window. What matters are Léo Delibes’s lovely danceable music, the handsome solos and ensemble passages (including one for a couple of dozen children), and the beautiful final pas de deux that Balanchine created to show us that Frantz and Swanhilda have decided to behave like grownups in love.

Fairchild is an endearingly spunky Swanhilda, and De Luz imbues the role of Frantz—played in 1870 by a woman in drag—with an impish and zesty masculinity. Old Dr. Coppelius isn’t an easy role. Robert La Fosse does a magnificent job of portraying his crankiness, but he also shows us a man sadly deluded by his own power. His delight when the doll he made appears to come to life (Swanhilda puts on Coppelia’s dress and replaces her in her chair) suggests a love a bit more lecherous than that of a father for a daughter. He and Fairchild convey both the comedy and the pathos of the scene in which she dances mischievously for him while he pants and hobbles around, reaching out for this miraculous beauty.

Two of the season’s 14 programs have more performances this week, eight are still to come. What a city that has such treasures in it!

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