A New York Ballet Company Tackles Architecture, One From Georgia Remodels Itself

The architect Santiago Calatrava appears to be a remarkably agreeable fellow. Interviewed in the short film that precedes every NYCB performance featuring a ballet with his décor, he says he’s excited to be working with five of the seven choreographers creating works for the company’s recent “Architecture of Dance” season. Did Melissa Barak (clearly not on his wavelength) request palm trees? So be it, palm trees.

In the film, Peter Martins, NYCB’s artistic director, recalls the Tchaikovsky Festival of 1981, when George Balanchine commissioned a set from Philip Johnson and decreed that it be used for every ballet. The array of hanging, clear-plastic tubes could be moved around (although it looked like a futuristic ice palace no matter what). Martins wanted to resurrect that idea, but with a difference; the premieres by Benjamin Millepied, Wayne McGregor, Mauro Bigonzetti, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Barak, and Martins himself were scattered through the company’s spring season, and theoretically every one of them could have had a Calatrava set (Ratmansky’s ballet and McGregor’s appeared without décor).

The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Mirage"
Paul Kolnik
The New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s "Mirage"
The State Ballet of Georgia, Nina Ananiashvili in the foreground, in Alexei Ratmansky’s "Bizet Variations"
Kristi Pitsch
The State Ballet of Georgia, Nina Ananiashvili in the foreground, in Alexei Ratmansky’s "Bizet Variations"

Details

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
April 27 through June 27

Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
June 23 through 27

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I didn’t see the works choreographed by Barak or Wheeldon (his Estancia and Ratmansky’s Namouna will be performed again during NYCB’s season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 6 through 17. But of the other three new pieces with Calatrava décor, Peter Martins’s Mirage was the most intensely collaborative.

I’d have expected that. As the architect of the whole plan, he was committed to exploring its challenges fully. Calatrava’s design for Mirage is akin to those he created for Millepied’s Why am I not where you are: two huge white, fan-shaped objects, with scores of elastic cords anchoring their arching tops to their flat bases. Think semi-circular harps. Those for Martins’s work are smaller and suspended above the stage. Also, they move. Starting out side by side with the curve at the top, they tilt, invert, or join like two halves of a scallop shell; in the end they resemble a giant moth.

The accompanying Violin Concerto by Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and NYCB) is richly textured, full of incipient drama. But Martins didn’t ally himself whole-heartedly with the messages surfacing from the music’s shimmering strings, the plangent voice of the violin (the excellent soloist was Leila Josefowicz), the sudden muffled drumbeats. Instead, Calatrava’s two identical shapes spoke strongly to him of twinning, of couples, of mirror images, of inkblot tests, and he made a cool-headed paean to symmetry

The opening sets the tone—and does it strikingly. Anthony Huxley and Robert Fairchild rush in and plant themselves facing us, one in front of each suspended object. Huxley pushes his limbs around himself in interesting ways, his extreme thinness making the already sharp moves look even more incisive. Then Fairchild shows his stuff. Without moving from their spots, the two work in canon. They try a dialogue. Each man gets a partner (Erica Pereira for Huxley, Kathryn Morgan for Fairchild). Marc Happel’s sleek gray unitards with purple trim and flesh-colored cutouts give them the air of faintly sexy, super-flexible robots. As Fairchild manipulates Morgan, two of the four corps couples rush through, the men lifting their partners into airborne leaps; shortly the other two pairs soar through.

Nothing that exhilarating happens again, although it’s pleasant to see a rare diagonal line of three pairs slide from canon into unison. There are also a couple of handsome pas de deux for the handsome principal couple (the wonderful Jenny Somogyi and Jared Angle). In the second, to a dirge-like passage of Salonen’s concerto, Somogyi appears almost exhausted by her partner’s ministrations. “Do what you will with me,” she seems to be saying, as he drapes her over himself yet again.

But a statement made long ago by choreographer Doris Humphrey crawls into my brain: “Symmetry is lifeless.” There’s no question as to Martins’s proficiency, but—hooked on Calatrava—he deploys his wonderful dancers so symmetrically in space and time that the overall image of the stage is that of an austere modernist wallpaper on the move. Those people stage right mirror those stage left, maybe while a couple holds down the middle. Nothing flashes out again to disrupt that equilibrium, and even our vision of the dancers’ torqueing, slanting bodies is restrained by it.

In the end, the men all line up across the front of the stage like a paper-doll chain and twist their partners from arabesques into backbends, their legs still lifted high. Spiritually, it’s depressing. Mark Stanley’s final lighting bathes Calatrava’s construction in day-glo colors. What’s that about?

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At the gala that launched the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s 78th summer season in the Berkshires, Nina Ananiashvili finished her exquisitely poignant rendition of Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swanto applause and cheers that rocked the rustic Ted Shawn Theater. After a very short pause, the curtain went up on Kyle Abraham’s solo Inventing Pookie Jenkins. Pillow director Ella Baff’s vision of diversity couldn’t have been more fetchingly demonstrated. The great ballerina, artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, finished her solo by sinking down, encircled by her white tutu; the audience’s first sight of the young, up-and-coming African American choreographer was of him sitting on the floor, his back to the audience, framed by a long, fluffy white skirt—his chest bare, his arms slipping through the air as fluently as any swan’s. With both the Shawn’s proscenium stage and the Doris Duke Studio Theater at her disposal, Baff can continue to juggle—over the festival’s 10-week season—the traditional and the edgy in a variety of ways.

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