Christopher Wheeldon's new Variations Sérieuses has a music-based name, just like the Balanchine works that grace the New York City Ballet repertory (on view at the State Theater through July 1). But Wheeldon's offering is not a set of variations to pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, and it's anything but serious. It is, in fact, something of an anomaly in NYCB's array of plotless works. It's a canny throwback to Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo days, or early Ballet Theatre views of backstage life like Antony Tudor's Gala Performance and Michael Kidd's 1945 On Stage. Critic Edwin Denby called the latter a "good old-fashioned trooper's fairytale," and that's what Wheeldon's ballet is too, although there's no love story.
The offstage behavior also seems to come from another era (a voice asking spectators to turn off their cell phones comes across as an anachronism). An extravagantly temperamental ballerina (Maria Kowroski) accidentally hurls herself into the pit instead of into the arms of a backstage "catcher." A ballet master (Stuart Capps in an over-the-top performance) can't walk without erupting into the odd cabriole. There's a dowdy, put-upon accompanist (real NYCB pianist Nancy McDill), a hardworking premier danseur (Damian Woetzel), and, of course, the lovely, modest young corps dancer (Alexandra Ansanelli), ready to step into Kowroski's role seconds before the curtain rises on the ballet within the ballet. This features a vision of sylphs in patterns that manage to be both mildly satirical and consistently interesting, just as Ian Falconer's salmon-pink costumes are both gorgeous and rather dreadful.
Part of what makes the ballet so entertaining is Falconer's decor, angled like his set for Wheeldon's Scenes de Ballet. We view this opera house from backstage left, with the backdrop and the painted audience and pretend conductor (Andrew Robertson) on skewed diagonals. The tilted "performance" is framed by sylphs scurrying into position in the wings or berating their partners, as well as various other reasonable events, like Woetzel taking a bravura bow and then collapsing heavily, waving away a corps member who offers to stretch his leg.
Wheeldon manages his overlapping scenarios shrewdly. The "crew guys"actually corps menmopping the stage gradually create an understated dance around a stage manager (Kathleen Tracey) who reveals ballerina fever whenever the spotlights she's running a check on happen to hit her. And Wheeldon knows how to pull flamboyant comedy out of Kowroski and her character; best is the moment when her dresser stands up her tutu like a big pink mountain, and the diva climbs into it from the top. Occasionally the NYCB dancers, unused to this kind of acting, slip over the line between full-out performing and caricature. (Jerome Robbins's The Concert, the closest work to this one in the repertory, is a model in terms of maintaining that precarious balance.)
What delights us, in part, is seeing familiar dancers in unfamiliar roles (who'd have cast the blooming Kowroski as a rather clumsy bitch?). It's also possible to be excited by the ballet's tinge of inappropriateness, as if Wheeldon were sneaking one behind Balanchine's back, reminding us that his heritage derives as much from Frederick Ashton and England's Royal Ballet as it does from Balanchine and this company. But the greatly gifted Wheeldon, now NYCB's artist in residence, seldom makes two pieces that look alike. Variations Sérieuses may be an adventure for him too.
At the May 10 gala, artistic director Peter Martins premiered a more echt-NYCB ballet, one with the tone of a Robbins romance rather than a Balanchine work (its performers spend moments just wandering pensively through the landscape). Set to songs by Richard Strauss (eloquently sung by Elissa Johnston), Morgen delves into an idea that Martins began exploring in his last ballet, Burleske. Three men and three women change partners in nine pas de deux, as if dreamily testing their original choices. Or maybe the first pairings were accidental; no one arrives unaccompanied. Alain Vaes's lovely set prompts us to think in terms of human relationships rather than formal exercises. Five fat pillars frame what might be an alpine vista: trees, mountains, a lake. Darci Kistler, resting to gaze, bourrées as if stitching a looping path around the columns and is stopped in a lift by Jared Angle, who appears for a gentle duet. Janie Taylor and Nilas Martins are more impetuous. Taylor, although self-absorbed, is fearless, launching herself heart-stoppingly to land arched backward over Martins's shoulder. Jenifer Ringer and Jock Soto are darker together. The choreographer's inventiveness in devising lifts and amorous maneuvers yields intriguingeven at times interestingly awkwardresults. Soto touches a hand to Ringer's cheek and somehow pulls her into an embrace by this mild contact.
We begin to analyze their conduct. Soto folds his arms around Kistler the way he did with Ringer, but the result is different, and they leave together. Angle makes Taylor's legs swing like calipers and carries her away, recklessly aloft. Between close encounters, partners rush to new spots, as if to gain a different perspective on each other. They lurk behind pillars, they stroll. Peter Martins has focused intently on filling the pas de deux with eloquent movement. He and the superbly musical dancers seem to inhale the fragrance of the Strauss songs, their yearning, their hope. Oddly, though, he sets each duet in a vacuum (the gathering of all three couples at the end seems obligatory and, in its formality, betrays the feeling that has been established). No one wanders through anyone else's duet or offers fleeting echoes or counterstatements in the background. Given the atmosphere, it seems artificial that no more than two at a time ever meet in what is clearly a place and not just a country made of music.
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