Balanchine was still in Europe working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when most of these songs were written, but they were part of American popular culture by the time be arrived here in 1933. In Who Cares?, he acknowledged the musical comedies he worked on by embedding their chorus lines and carefree lovers into a plotless ballet that evoked their spirit and sleeked it into a playground for classicism.

British choreographer Richard Alston has a refined sense of music and a gentle, insightful way of melding dancing with it. His choreography sings, and not in any loud-voiced, assertive way. He has acknowledged the influence of the great English ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton on his work and also that of Merce Cunningham, at whose New York studio he took classes in the 1970s. In his dances, you see many traveling steps that make ballet terms pop into your mind: cabriole, pas de bourrée, chassé, pas de chat, ballonné, jeté, sauté. Yet because these ease into the flow without emphasis or pressure and without classical port de bras—and because the fine, personable dancers bend and twist and spiral their torsos in ways that make their movements flower into three-dimensionality—the familiar steps seem fresh, even inventive.

This company dances barefoot, and you notice the feet; Alston’s choreography, like both Ashton’s and Cunningham’s, keeps them busy. This is particularly fetching in Shuffle It Right (2008), in which they do everything but shuffle. Peter Todd has costumed the 10 cast members for a relaxed dance party; the men wear shirts and trousers and the women differently patterned dresses (costumes by Peter Todd). The piece is set to nine wonderful recordings of Hoagy Carmichael songs, sung by the composer in that lazy, smoke-filled voice of his—sometimes while his fingers ripple over the piano keys. He stops, starts over, mutters once, “I can’t play that crap,” then does. The opening bit of dancing for tall Wayne Parsons and smaller Pierre Tapon reflects that informality.

The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Naïve and Sentimental Music."
Paul Kolnik
The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Naïve and Sentimental Music."
Amie Brown and Pierre Tappon in Richard Alston’s "Shuffle It Right"
Hugo Glendinning
Amie Brown and Pierre Tappon in Richard Alston’s "Shuffle It Right"


New York City Ballet
David B. Koch Theater
January 5 through February 28

Richard Alston Dance Company
Joyce Theater
January 4 through 10

Alston skeins patterns both buoyant and dug-in over the stage. You note contradance formations and couples snuggled close together spoon fashion, swaying in rhythm. When songs written in the 1940s, like “Don’t Forget to Say ‘No’ Baby,” allude to World War II romances, the choreography hints at the style of some of those stagedoor-canteen encounters. But Alston is not one to tell stories in his dances. Nor does he go for a lot of fancy lifts. A duet of his most often involves two people doing the same steps side by side. And all 10 personable dancers get a chance to catch your eye without breaking the flow of the choreography. Anneli Binder ends the piece with a lovely solo to “Stardust”; the lights go out on her kneeling on the floor gazing out from her memories.

Shuffle It Right is delightful—a silky, perky, neat, good-humored work. But as the evening progresses, I realize that one principle Alston didn’t absorb from Cunningham is that, while unison has its uses, having dancers do different steps at the same time not only emphasizes their individuality but enriches the stage picture. Many times in an Alston work, everyone on stage is in lockstep, and to me, that detracts from the sense of easy-going, unassertive fellowship that he wants to convey.

This is true in his 1994 Movements From Petrushka, which distills the lively, variegated crowd scene that opens Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 work for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes into dances for four men and four women that have a peasant heartiness. The music is Igor Stravinsky’s own piano distillation of parts of his original score. Instead of the forlorn puppet alone in his room, we see an awkward, contorted man (Tapon), who conveys the growing madness of Vaslav Nijinsky, the performer who created the title role. The most interesting thing about the piece is the fact that the splendid pianist Jason Ridgeway sits at his instrument centerstage in front of one, then another pared-down version of Alexandre Benois’s painted backdrops of St. Petersburg and carnival demons. The eight dancers in their white shirts and black pants frame Ridgeway or dance robustly in front of him, while Tapon lurks at the edges of the stage, clutching his head, tumbling, windmilling his arms—both the puppet and the man who played him.

Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days is not the kind of musical composition most people associate with him. He invited Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, and Suzanne Vega to create lyrics for a song or two, set the resultant words to music and recorded them with well-known performers—among them the Kronos Quartet and Linda Ronstadt. It’s almost a shock when a high tenor voice floats up from heavy beats and stentorian chords during the dance’s opening. I caught only snatches of the lyrics of the three songs Alston chose: “Open the Kingdom” (Byrne), “Changing Opinion” (Simon), and “Lightning” (Vega). Occasionally the familiar Glass structure take over—the repeating, pulsing modules that keep rising in pitch until you think the roof will fly off (at which point I flash back to Twyla Tharp’s shattering In the Upper Room and its Glass score).

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