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.

In 2004, Ananiashvili was invited by the president of her Georgian homeland to take over a company that badly needed inspiring leadership. The internationally known ballerina set to work. This is the State Ballet of Georgia’s second visit to the Pillow and its third to the U.S (there was a BAM engagement in 2008). It’s clear that Ananiashvili’s own experiences with a wide range of choreographers has influenced the direction the repertory has taken. Who’d have imagined this relatively small company would bring to Massachusetts a program consisting of three pas de deux and a solo by the great British master Frederick Ashton, a Balanchine duet, and a Jirí Kylián exercise in athletic modernism for eight women, along with Alexei Ratmansky’s delicious Bizet Variations?

It was not to be expected that the Georgian dancers would manage all these equally well, but they perform them whole-heartedly, with varying degrees of understanding. The Ashton works all require stylistic nuances. The choreographer, even when evoking 19th-century Russian ballets, gives the classical steps and gestures unexpected subtle tones and shifts of direction. At one point in the pas de deux from his Sylvia, the man lifts his ballerina off the floor in a standing position and backs up with her; suddenly she looks like a little girl, or a doll. In the dream-of-the-Orient duet from Thais, the beguiling woman with the sinuous arms bourrées across the stage; her attentive partner follows closely, occasionally hoisting her into a low leap that barely interrupts that little stitchery of steps.

Ananiashvili brings her own particular fragrance to the Thais duet—smoky but sweet, appropriate to a veiled vision. The dreamer (David Ananeli) can hardly believe his luck: to have this woman to stroke and pull in to drape against him! No wonder he pursues her, mesmerized, as she backs smoothly into the wings. The Sylvia pas de deux looks a little off-base. Anna Muradeli is all gentle sweetness (although her footwork isn’t always crisp in the demanding solo that keeps her on pointe most of the time ). Otar Khelashvili, however, has missed the modest Ashtonian tone shaping even this tutu-and-tiara number. He has a beautiful jump, but he’s too busy being noble and arrogant to display real interest in his partner. I thought it telling that, at the performance I saw, while Muradeli took her solo bow, he was smoothing his hair in preparation for his own.

Voices of Spring is a different sort of duet. Set to Johann Strauss II’s rushing swirling Frulingstimmen, it was choreographed in 1977 for Britain’s Royal Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. These two young lovers (Vasil Akhmeteli and the beguiling Lali Kandelaki) dance to the rapturous waltz—often side by side—amid fallen rose petals. She’s about to leap excitedly offstage when he retrieves her for more explosive lifts.

Jacques Offenbach’s opera La Chatte métamorphosée en femme provided the music and theme of Ashton’s little solo, La Chatte.Nino Ochiauri, in a bouffant white fur gown fit for a debutante, plays the initially proper cat-into-woman with appropriate pertness—preening on a small settee before getting down to claw its upholstery. Her only partner is a large motorized mouse that sends her into a frenzy of spins about the stage.

This is the second time I’ve seen Nino Gogua dance Balanchine’s marvelous 1972 Duo Concertant, and she’s even better than before—precise, yet bold, responsive to the music and her partner. It helps a great deal that the partner is the gentle, attentive guest artist, Sebastian Kloberg of the Royal Danish Ballet. And—what luck!—two killer musicians from Norfolk Chamber Music Festival/Yale School of Music, pianist Jeannette Fang and violinist David Southern, to play Stravinsky’s music onstage. You can sense Kloberg’s affinity to the brilliant score just from the way he stands listening beside the piano. He and Gogua perform the tricky, off-kilter steps with ease and lack of affectation. Only in the strange, suddenly poignant coda to the spicy duet—when her face is framed in a pin spot of light that only widens occasionally to show him kneeling before her—does Gogua become a little too dramatic for my taste.

The two larger group works on the program acquaint us with the company dancers in very different ways. Like all Ratmansky’s ballets in one way or another, Bizet Variations (played live by Fang on an offstage piano) turns any theater into a village, full of diversions and relationships that complicate, but never stop, the business of dancing. Ananiashvili is the undisputed queen of this gathering, and although Ochiauri and Muradeli have their own partners there’s no doubt as to which girl Ananeli and Khelashvili would like to be stepping out with. Even though Akhmeteli seems to be Ananiashvili’s preferred swain, there’s no serious rivalry between the women or the men in this happy get-together.

Interestingly, although Kylián’s 1989 Falling Angels (made for Nederland Dans Theatre) trumpets uniformity and regimentation, it tells us quite a lot about each of the eight women who perform in. The music is part one of Steve Reich’s Drumming (1970-71), and Joop Caboort’s mostly white lighting (adapted by Kees Tjebbes) lays bands on the stage. The performers wear soft, almost invisible shoes and outfits by Joke Visser that resemble black 1920s bathing suits with a velvety texture.

In this austere environment, the dancers begin simply, the way Reich’s masterful score does, its single beats impelling them to walk gradually forward. As the music begins to phase into more and more complexity, I note that Kylián announces each change of rhythm with corresponding hard-edged gestures; once he has established a new one, he doesn’t continue to mickey-mouse it, but expands the steps sparingly within its framework. The women are like strong, virtuoso typists—margins plotted, keys oiled. As they shift into a profiled formation, the choreography begins to allow now this one, now that one, to deviate briefly from the ongoing pattern.

The choreography makes repetition the business of the day, as does the music, but Kylián doesn’t attempt to achieve Reich’s increasingly dense layering of his original motif. The moments of diversity are as clearly etched as the strict unison, and the unison itself undergoes large changes. At one point, all except the temporary soloist are lying on the floor, moving their legs in synchrony. Perhaps it’s because of the amount of repetition that we see each of the women quite clearly—admiring this one’s fervent attack, that one’s softer approach.

This program that Ananiashvili has designed is unusually adventurous for a small ballet company and more than unusually tasteful. No pandering to the audience with flashiness, cuteness, or trendiness. Just strong works that challenge the dancers to emerge as sentient individuals.

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