Two New Ballets at NYCB Glance Backward With Trick Glasses

The New York City Ballet hasn’t collaborated extensively with an architect since the 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival, when Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed for George Balanchine something resembling a glass cathedral cum ice palace that, with modifications, would serve all the ballets. But this year, the company’s New Choreography and Music Festival is billed as “Architecture of Dance,” and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed settings for five of the seven choreographers who are contributing new ballets (four of them with commissioned scores). In the short film that preceded NYCB’s opening gala, Calatrava expressed his delight at working with dance, and, indeed, some of his buildings, with their intersecting, wing-like curves, look ready to lift off.

His fan-shaped set for Benjamin Millepied’s Why am I not where you are consists of two concentric white semi-circles set on edge—one tall and almost the width of the stage, the other the size of a very large curved doorway; the elastic cords that connect them like the teeth of a giant comb vibrate delicately with the motion of the dance and shimmer notably when Mark Stanley’s lighting turns them to copper.

Get wired: Benjamin Millepied’s "Why am I not where you are," with Santiago Calatrava’s set.
Paul Kolnik
Get wired: Benjamin Millepied’s "Why am I not where you are," with Santiago Calatrava’s set.

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New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza at 63rd Street
212-721-6500
Through June 27

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The splendid commissioned score by the French composer and organist Thierry Escaich is aptly titled The Lost Dancer, and the mutter of low piano notes, soft drum beats, and high-pitched shimmer that begins it sets us up for mystery. Millepied is, I think, trying to tell a story without exactly telling a story. That is, he wants us to interpret the events and steps of his very intriguing ballet as we will. Which is fine, most of the time, but occasionally makes me want to say things like, “Wait, didn’t she just. . .?”

The scenario of Why am I notseems to hinge on the notion of who may be included in a powerful clique and who excluded from it. The excluded, without the uniform attire that denotes acceptability, become virtually invisible. In the beginning, Sean Suozzi is clearly the outsider; he may swoop around the stage performing expansive leaps and pas de chat in his opening solo, but he also lurks at the edges, and he’s unseen by a bevy of women in black net skirts with fuschia satin bodices, who waltz with men wearing green pants and somewhat bizarre jackets, irregularly patched in blue and purple (costumes by Marc Happel). Suozzi wears white, but although the woman he craves (Kathryn Morgan) doesn’t see him, she senses his presence and, eventually, ceases to back away from his touch. Gradually her metaphoric vision improves.

Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar are the devilish leaders of the sprightly pack, and bit by bit, as the ballet spins along, they contrive to slip articles of clothing on Suozzi until he’s dressed like the other men. Several times, the way the ensemble crowds around him, hoists him, manhandles him a bit, and points him (at last Mearns and Ramasar do) in conflicting directions recalls Balanchine’s Prodigal Son at the hands of the Siren’s thuggishly mischievous servants. I’m not sure why, or at what moment, the hero’s sweetheart becomes a pariah, but—this is admirably theatrical—people passing by swiftly strip off her overskirts and her bodice; you can barely see the changes amid the tumult, but suddenly she’s all in white. She rushes between two parallel lines of marching revelers, and no one sees her, not even her erstwhile lover. She’s alone onstage as the curtain comes down.

The performers are dynamite. Mearns plays the voluptuous bitch with élan, and she and dagger-sharp Ramasar make a power couple you’d rather not know. Suozzi has been catching my eye for some time, even before he was promoted to the rank of soloist; whether in a classical role or rumbling with the Jets and Sharks in Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story Suite, he has a gift for shaping a phrase and making the space around him alive. As for Morgan, she’s a buoyant delight, and her legs look as if they begin at the waist—not because they’re long but because of the expansive way she steps out with them.

Why I am not gives off whiffs of earlier Balanchine works—not just Prodigal Son, but the mad ballroom of La Valse and the seductively evil hosts of La Somnambula—as well as playing with such ballet tropes as the lone man seeking his beloved amid a flock of similarly clad beauties. Millepied has his own approach, however, to traditional steps and patterns, and it’s heartening to see a young choreographer working in his own, often striking ways with the classical vocabulary, instead of accessing modernity through a virtuosic wrangling of legs, arms, and torsos, as do some contemporary ballet choreographers.

The second new piece shown at the premiere also alludes to earlier works. And how!

Alexei Ratmansky’s extravagant new ballet Namouna, A Grand Divertissement has the air of a charmingly assembled crazy quilt—with patches cut from Petipa family remnants, Soviet ballet’s grab bag, and personal mementoes stitched brightly together. It says in a festive undertone, “Don’t think about plot. You want to see pirates? See pirates. You wonder how a ballerina in semi-disguise (a longer skirt in the same color) came to be addicted to cigarettes? Stop that!” After all, that’s what a grand divertissement of the late 19th century was all about; the tale is told, enjoy the party.

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