After the first splashy round of the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, Stephen Baynes’s Twilight Courante and Melissa Barak’s If By Chance came as a breath of fresh air. Each is a modest work, with fewer than a dozen dancers, minimal costumes, no sets, and simple musical accompaniment. In each there is an emphasis on emotion, on relationships between men and women that are grounded in feeling rather than mere physical display. Barak has spoken of her debt to Jerome Robbins, but the late choreographer is just as much in evidence in Baynes’s piece—a sign that NYCB’s arid neoclassicism of recent years has begun to run its course.
Of the two, Baynes is the more accomplished. The resident choreographer for the Australian Ballet, he began making dances in 1986 after a four-year stint with the Stuttgart Ballet. Twilight, his first commission by an American company, reveals something of a European influence, although, curiously, it is Pina Bausch who springs to mind, not Cranko, Neumeier, or Forsythe. The music, from Handel’s keyboard suites, is based mainly on baroque dance forms, a period theme echoed in the bodices and doublets by Holly Hynes and in some of the figures of the choreography.
Twilight involves four couples in a passeggiata of chance encounters, playful courting, rapture, and unrequited passion at the witching hour before nightfall. We meet the dancers first as individuals, real people strolling across the stage, from right to left, on a horizontal that forms one of the ballet’s recurring motifs. Eventually they reappear as couples—quietly, with floor-skimming lifts, swooping turns, and partnering that grows trickier as the emotional temperature rises.
Not all the pairings are equally successful, and the emphasis on fluidity sometimes blurs the shapes and lines of the choreography. But some of the duets are beautifully realized. Baynes is the first choreographer to team the sometimes impassive Abi Stafford with Benjamin Millepied, a dancer who not only supports his partner physically but also responds to her emotionally; here, his elfin quality elicits both charm and sparkle from her. The choreography is fast, with many changes of direction and ebullient lifts and exits—a romp for young lovers. Very different is the role for Wendy Whelan. Abandoned in a quadrille of changing partners, she gazes, stricken, into the wings, lies down, then—like a ballet hero of old—conjures up the lover of her dreams. Nikolaj Hübbe is a romantic presence, full of ardor as he rouses her, lifts her, the two moving together like perfectly matched thoughts.
With its intimacies, quiet dramas, and piano accompaniment, Twilight recalls Dances at a Gathering, that greatest of Robbins’s ballets. Melissa Barak, by contrast, looks for inspiration to the choreographer of West Side Story. If By Chance is the 22-year-old Barak’s fourth ballet and, with its dramatic subtext and Shostakovich score, marks a considerable advance over last year’s Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor. Where Telemann was a plotless exercise, Barak’s new work recasts the story of Romeo and Juliet as an extended neoclassical duet with a corps of eight (four men in black and four women in white) that alternately frames and comes between the lovers.
Far more interesting than the concept is the choreography. Barak has an intuitive understanding of what makes dancers look good. For Pascale van Kipnis, she has choreographed a role tailored to the creamy movement and plangent curves, the dramatic sense and womanliness that are her strengths. As her lover, Millepied is a beam of radiant energy. In fact, Barak’s choreography for all the men, whether leaping, lifting, or flying down diagonals, is unexpectedly impressive. So, too, is the way she melds classical and character work, the heel taps and folk dance lines from Dances at a Gathering and other Robbins ballets. Finally, there is her use of space, freer and less constrained than in Telemann, with fanning lines and circles that tighten like nooses around the protagonists, and headlong rushes that carry them to each other’s arms. She borrows from Balanchine as well as Robbins—swivels in attitude that come straight from The Four Temperaments and stylized gestures that recall La Valse and Serenade. Barak is a choreographer of real promise, even if she has yet to find her own voice.
Twilight and Chance are firmly rooted in the classical idiom. Neither extends that idiom, but both use it in ways that are expressive. Unlike many Diamond Project choreographers, Baynes and Barak do not shy from emotion. In the 21st century, they seem to believe, feeling and the contemporary can happily coexist.