Christopher Wheeldon has named his new work for New York City Ballet (at the State Theater through February 25) Polyphonia, as if polyphony were a nymph he adored. And indeed, as the ballet opens, eight dancers—every one moving differently—create a magnificent scintillation of limbs; their shadows, sparring on the backdrop, increase the complications. Wheeldon has set the dance to piano pieces by György Ligeti (well played by Cameron Grant and Alan Moverman), and the music for this section is an étude called Désordre. But the 29-year-old choreographer treats disorder with a classicist’s restraint; it exists to point up harmony. During that opening wildness, the dancers stay evenly spaced, and fastidiously constructed counterpoint and unison lurk just ahead. A later canonic duet for Jason Fowler and Edwaard Liang brings to mind the male duet from Balanchine’s Agon, but while Wheeldon’s men don’t chase each other through the thickets of Ligeti’s polyphony quite as closely as Balanchine’s men do with Stravinsky’s, they too create the illusion that “follow the leader” has turned into a contest.
Wheeldon thinks in phrases; you never feel that he puts movement together step by pretty step. And he understands both Ligeti’s tumultuous textures and the spare ones in which notes drop like stones into a pool. He shows off Liang and Jennie Somogyi in a waltz, Alexandra Ansanelli and Craig Hall in a delicate adagio, Jennifer Tinsley and Fowler in a burst of allegro windups. Small dissonances in the form of unballetic moves capture Ligeti’s sensibility, which roughly spans the last half of the 20th century. Women touch the floor and stick one bent leg up; Jock Soto assists Wendy Whelan into an almost awkward handstand. In the final ensemble allegro, the dancers’ gestures approach the gimmicky (wrists together, they twist their hands as if turning tiny steering wheels).
Darkness saturates two extraordinary duets for Whelan and Soto, and—via Mark Stanley’s moody lighting—surrounds them as well. You can imagine a strong vine flexing its way around a tree, but the tree, too, is malleable and responds to that force. So while Soto is technically in charge, he is part of the uncanny flow, especially in the second and finest duet. In the silences between Ligeti’s notes, Whelan slowly climbs up Soto and clamps herself to him. There’s something touchingly vulnerable about this ungainly move and also something spidery, as if the two were sucking love from each other.
Wheeldon is, understandably, in demand these days, when few choreographers are coming up through ballet. So far, he shows no signs of spreading himself too thin. Pray for him. We need him to grow and thrive.
In an odd, probably accidental bit of programming, Polyphonia was performed just after Jerome Robbins’s 1994 2 & 3 Part Inventions—another ballet featuring four couples and a great deal of counterpoint. The juxtaposition did have its stimulating aspect. Robbins composed this work for students at the School of American Ballet when he was 77, and it’s not only an uncondescending vision of youth; it has an unstrained youthful vigor. Wheeldon celebrates Ligeti’s complexity; Robbins hymns J.S. Bach’s luminous simplicity. The choice of dancers was elegant: Ansanelli, Rachel Rutherford, Eva Natanya, Carrie Lee Riggins, Benjamin Millepied (of the original cast), Alexander Ritter, Liang, and Jared Angle.
Another NYCB treat: a wonderful performance of Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony (to Mendelssohn) with Kyra Nichols and Charles Askegard as the principal couple and Janie Taylor, Fowler, and Stephen Hanna as demi-soloists. Seldom has this gentle satire on Romantic ballet seemed so humorous. You could actually chuckle at Nichols—half village maiden guarded by a kilted clan of cousins, half the eponymous heroine of La Sylphide—sweetly tempting Askegard through a wacky courtship ritual couched in marvelous choreography.
Once, David Gordon was intrigued by the dancing possibilities of objects. This fit with a pedestrian sensibility honed during the heyday of Judson Dance Theater in the ’60s. As he and his company walked and talked, they moved frames or doors or pieces of fabric in fluent, unstopping patterns. The repetitions and variations matched those in Gordon’s witty wordplay. In Gordon’s latest work, at Danspace St. Mark’s last week, the dancers alone reshape the space, their bodies forming swinging doors and windows for others to slip through (although pieces of paper containing spoken text do get passed about in a highly musical manner).
The atmosphere is casual; people watch one another from the sidelines and enter when ready, peeling off shirts or putting new ones on. The dancers are warming up as the audience enters, and when Bach music drops into the space, and Tadej Brdnik slides into For the Love of Rehearsal, the houselights are still on. As is usual with Gordon, material from earlier pieces is recycled and renewed. Gordon and his wife, Valda Setterfield, echo a beautiful earlier duet about slipping quietly out of and back into embraces. Dialogues they originally performed here become choral extravaganzas. The in-hand scripts further formalize the very personal conversations—one of which is an old-married exchange about farting, its concomitant odor, and the polite hypocrisy of allusions to it.
In For the Love of Rehearsal, Brdnik’s solo segues into a duet with Scott Cunningham. The movement is variegated and engrossing, blending quotidian ease with dancerly flow. Brdnik is as velvety as a lion, Cunningham tauter and less impulsive. They make a good momentary Fred and Ginger. Karen Graham has a fine, assertive solo—Spanishy, almost.
Gordon’s ensuing FAMILY$DEATH@ART. COMedy alternates dancing and talking. There are some lovely parts, like a trio for Graham, Brdnik, and Cunningham, in which one is always watching two; and a square dance that runs away from its formation. Most of the music, especially that by Conlon Nancarrow, underscores the feeling of a current that diverts but never halts. In the funny, tender pull and catch and duck-under of the dance, the performers—including Tricia Brouk, Krista Miller, and Christopher Morgan—are warmly themselves. But this family of dancers also stands in some way for the Gordon-Setterfield family. And when the two we know as Valda and David sway in baby steps toward us, his arm around her shoulders, it’s as if all the gorgeously organized confusion falls away, leaving us with these two people, this one journey through life.
It’s not often that audience members get to dunk the choreographer into a tank of sharks. Cathy Weis, perched above a large screen tank showing sharks cruising around her projected, patently unreal legs, tries to provoke us enough to get us out of our seats; to accept the balls urged on us by Scott Heron and his sidekick, fifth-grader Zane Frazer; and to hurl them at a target. Hit the target and Weis disappears from her perch, while her image appears on another screen that fills the Kitchen’s back wall, swimming amid a froth of bubbles and ripples and her own filmy garment (no sharks in sight).
Weis’s show last week featured, typically, technology mixed with funky wit, as if she wanted to belie the complexities of telecommunications and video. Much of the video equipment is on wheelable carts. In the 1996 Face the Face, Jennifer Monson not only dances near a camera that throws distorted and rainbow-streaked images of parts of her body on the backdrop; she detaches a monitor and rolls beneath its glow. In Weis’s engaging new duet, A Bad Spot Hurts Like Mad, the choreographer, onstage in a ruffled blue dress, also appears on the screen, via some magic of feedback, in a series of five diminishing selves. When Heron, in lace cuffs and ruffle-fronted shirt, says, “Helen left me. She has gone back to the ’30s,” you want to call out, “Farther than that, Buster!” Heron and Weis dance onstage together in deranged ballroom style. He also moves within her giant projected hand or segmented arm, and as she wheels the media cart away, her face is captured on a translucent disk he carries: a cameo for the 21st century.
In Weis’s ambitious new piece, Not So Fast, Kid!, the media don’t blend cohesively. The program tells us that the on-screen dancers shown in jerky computer motion via the Internet are actually performing live in Skopje, Macedonia (at what is, for them, three in the morning). We gather that this “family” has some relation to a cartoon family on the screen (animation design by Phil Marden), and to a “family” before us (Erin Cornell, Frazer, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Ishmael Houston-Jones), and that the strange little tale about a necessary, goading pebble in a shoe has some bearing on what we see (Marden shows us a foot and an aggressive pebble). Various intriguing images materialize, but the work never emerges full-blown from its magical means.