“You gotta have a gimmick,” sing the three strippers in Gypsy. Big dance companies have learned this lesson. These days, a fundraising gala has to be about a lot more than just putting it on and taking it off. No longer can New York City Ballet open its winter season with a few programs of repertory before transforming the New York State Theater into Nutcracker heaven until everyone is sugarplummed out.
This season (continuing through February 25) began with a potpourri titled Looking at Love . . . . The mysterious ellipsis might be applied to all the program’s 14-plus items, since all were excerpts, dropped with speed and efficiency into a limbo modeled by shorthand scenery and lighting, their music—the bulk of it valiantly conducted by Hugo Fiorato—sometimes forced to trail away.
If asked to program my ideal evening of “looking at love” in ballet, I’d have opted for a full mounting of George Balanchine’s ravishing Liebeslieder Waltzer. Beautifully played and sung, even fragments of it—danced by Darci Kistler and Philip Neal and more ardently by Miranda Weese and Jock Soto—are too deep to be offered as a bon bouche followed by “There’s a Place for Us” from Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story Suite. This last, without the struggle and death leading up to it, just seems saccharine.
Luckily, NYCB has a rich repertory to plumb and needn’t offer a rumpus of standard pas de deux (which are, in any case, less about looking at love than about looking at pirouettes). The gala smorgasbord gave us at least a taste of all its leading dancers (minus Peter Boal, evidently injured), its illustrious corps, and, in “The Garland Waltz” from The Sleeping Beauty, tiny beruffled girls from the School of American Ballet—little crickets who dance touchingly big, as if already trained to Balanchine’s love of far-reaching limbs.
I usually cry if Sleeping Beauty‘s “Rose Adagio” is danced well, and I shed a few tears for Margaret Tracey, radiant with birthday joy and just fragile enough in those delicate balances to get us rooting for her, as well as for Princess Aurora. Janie Taylor was deliciously silky and cool in “The Man I Love” from the Balanchine-Gershwin Who Cares, and her partner, Nilas Martins, performed as if he had absorbed lessons in American casualness from Robert La Fosse. One surprise was the life and variety that Alexandra Ansanelli brought to the doll in Balanchine’s slight charmer The Steadfast Tin Soldier, with the also excellent Tom Gold as her equally stiff suitor. Another gem brought even deeper emotions out of an essentially light situation. Kyra Nichols danced a magnificently enraptured Titania to Kipling Houston’s bumbling, ass-headed Bottom in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Balanchine’s choice of Mendelssohn’s beautiful “Rondo” for this duet generates such sweetness that even the comedy (the donkey is torn between a gorgeous woman and a mouthful of leaves) seems profound.
Tough love was represented by duets from William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman and Peter Martins’s Them Twos, stunningly danced by Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans and Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard, respectively. For belly-laugh comedy, La Fosse did a finely timed rendition of the henpecked husband of Robbins’s The Concert, stabbing in vain at his impenetrable wife (Melissa Walter).
In the rush, some performers never fully inhabited what they were doing (the marvelous Monique Meunier in Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, for instance). Still, showcasing its treasury of dancers was a pretty smart move on the company’s part. In the coming weeks, we can appreciate them in depth.
Vicky Shick calls her new work Still Lives. For all its enigmatic richness of movement and gesture, the women who dance it project stillness, like figures in a Milet Andrejevic painting—men and women in a park caught in some small, quotidian drama, yet also posed, one of them sometimes looking out at us.
The women who appeared in Shick’s piece (at the Kitchen last week) inhabit a parallel universe that is quieter and more austere than ours. From it, they too seem to contemplate us with tranquil gazes. Shick and Meg Wolfe—dressed by artist Barbara Kilpatrick in stiff, fluffy white skirts and black tops that lace up the sides like odd corsets—stand together close to the audience and sway their hips from side to side. They are seductive, but do not attempt seduction. They might be looking at their own reflections in a looping dream.
Kilpatrick’s role is important (as are those of lighting designer Stan Pressner and of Kostas Kouris, who wrote the spare traces of music). She designed the two beautiful white-wrapped female torsos that hang, nestled together, before the piece starts and are too quickly taken away. Hers are the suspended sheet that glows mottled amber behind Juliette Mapp in the work’s second section and Mapp’s crinkled silver skirt; hers the big, translucent coat with one sleeve for Shick and one for Wolfe, and the long, long pink coats in which Jodi Melnick and Margarita Guergué twine themselves and nuzzle each other. Hers, too, I suppose, the plain tables and chairs and benches and stools that appear in new arrangements after every blackout, or are moved during the second half by Shick or Wolfe, acting as discreet stagehands.
You absorb and remember the piece as a series of separate moments—strange actions performed as if they were quiet housework, or something the women know how to do and have done before. For instance, when Still Lives begins, Wolfe is lying facedown across one of the tables. Shick, her back to us, walks slowly sideways behind the table, sits in a chair at one end, thinks a minute, then pulls Wolfe’s legs to bring her closer and thinks some more. The action has no consequence yet seems monumentally important. Later Melnick pokes Mapp with a finger, poses her with a lifted leg, and lies down, while in the background, Guergué walks a narrow line.
A chiseled softness has always been part of Shick’s own luscious dancing. In Still Lives, even moments of sham social behavior (mildly extravagant meeting-and-greeting attitudes) seem restrained. Jodi Melnick’s extraordinary and nuanced flailing solo has a refined air—high emotion meticulously rendered, as if Melnick were observing it even while in its throes, like a woman written by Virginia Woolf. This lovely, suggestive artwork is succinct in its parts, a little too drawn out as a whole. To absorb it, you have to be prepared to slow down your breathing.
Shick’s performance was preceded by the first of the Kitchen’s ongoing “TV Dance” events. Wendy Perron, once a Trisha Brown dancer, asked wise questions of other smart former Trisha Brown dancers (David Thomson and Irene Hultman, who were present, and Shick, Stephen Petronio, and Lance Gries, who were not). We watched videos of them from the archives and ate a good dinner as we pondered how each came to terms with a heritage of richly complicated physicality and playful but rigorous structure. I liked Stephen Petronio’s acknowledgment, “I am the yellow journalism of release technique.”