Paul Taylor Tries a Phantasmagoria, Benjamin Millepied Opts for Plainspoken

The choreographers each offer a New York premiere

Up-and-coming ballet choreographers face problems that don’t afflict those in modern dance. Some spectators these days seem to be turned on primarily by choreographers, like Jorma Elo, who tie dancers’ bodies into imaginative knots. On the other hand, those who admire ballets that honor the classical traditions often fault dancemakers like Millepied for not being as marvelous as George Balanchine.

Millepied is holding his own. His ballets don’t seem as stuffed with steps as his early ones did. They breathe a little more. And he’s become expert at maneuvering groups of dancers, devising clever patterns onstage, and pulling new designs out of old ones with an element of surprise. Watching Plainspoken, you can admire his skill. Also, like Jerome Robbins, whom he considers a mentor, he likes dancers to convey a sense of community onstage. Those in Plainspoken often give one another looks, watch what’s going on, imply comradeship.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if Millepied doesn’t let us see something long enough for it to resonate. Balanchine, after all, devoted an entire section of his Ivesiana to a single powerful image: Four men carry a woman whose feet never touch the ground, while another man follows mesmerized. I don’t mean that just because the men in Plainspoken clap their hands during an early passage, they should clap a lot more later on. But my eye catches moments I want to linger over or perhaps see alluded to again. For instance, at one point, all the men invade a duet and form a tangling sculptural group with one woman (it happens so unexpectedly and is over so soon that I now can’t remember which woman it was—maybe Jennie Somogyi, maybe Sterling Hyltin).

Amy Young, Annamaria Mazzini, Laura Halzack, , and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Phantasmagoria
Yi-Chun Wu
Amy Young, Annamaria Mazzini, Laura Halzack, , and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Phantasmagoria
Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle of the New York City Ballet  in Benjamin Millepied’s Plainspoken
Paul Kolnik
Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle of the New York City Ballet in Benjamin Millepied’s Plainspoken

Details

Paul Taylor Dance Company
City Center Theater
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212
February 22 through March 6
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza
212-870-5570
January 18 through February 27

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The ballet is full of such little surprises, which is good. Amar Ramasar sits and scootches along, propelling several others in front of him, as if together they form a boat. That’s a nice image, and, while it mightn’t bear repeating as is, no echo or variant of it comes along to cement it in our minds.

Notwithstanding, Plainspokenis a very handsome ballet. The steps are interesting and not show-offy. The commissioned quartet for violin, viola, cello, and piano by David Lang is finely textured. Penny Jacobus’s lighting alters the backdrop, showing now a strip of red above a black band, now a strip of deep blue, now a larger expanse of pale sky. Karen Young’s costumes—violet tights and yellow tops for the men and short, becomingly draped violet tunics and trunks for the women—make a vivid splash.

Millepied deploys the eight superb athletes well—sensitive to their individual talents. For instance, Teresa Reichlin is a friendly tease in her duet with Justin Peck. At one point, she pushes him away, and he instantly lies down, but they dance together amicably and exit like old pals. The lovely duet for Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici is longer and full of more complex feelings. A brief episode for Hyltin, Ramasar, and Tyler Angle makes you aware of her fragility.

So what is it that we look for in ballets—beyond inventive steps and beautiful dancing and imaginative patterns? I think it’s that ineffable something that all three rub together to ignite—something that causes form to radiate with meanings that we recognize but can’t articulate. That happens fleetingly in Millepied’s ballets, and I like to imagine it’ll do so more and more.

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