Theater archives

Step to the Music


The 2002 edition of the Diamond Project, New York City Ballet’s showcase for new choreography, concluded June 23 with Miriam Mahdaviani’s In the Mi(d)st. Mahdaviani, who danced with NYCB from 1980 to 1993, has been choreographing since 1988, when she made The Newcomers to music by David Diamond. Her later works often used 20th-century music and typically employed a neoclassical idiom. In the Mi(d)st, a lackluster addition to the list, follows suit. It disappoints, in part, because of her choice of music, excerpts from pieces by Oliver Knussen and Aaron Jay Kernis that lack variety and contrast, and her unimaginative use of this music, which seldom seems to fit the choreography.

Equally disappointing is her use of space. After years of dancing Balanchine’s ballets and choreographing several of her own, she seems oblivious to the expressive potential of the stage, its different environments and dramatic pathways, unable to move 12 dancers around in clear and interesting patterns. Mi(d)st has two principal and four ensemble couples. Although the principal women wear red and the ensemble ones purple, in the dim lighting and the clutter of straight up-and-down lifts, promenades, and hand-on-the-floor penchés, it’s hard to tell the dancers apart. Only Jennie Somogyi, in her duets with James Fayette, seems able to personalize the material, give the slow developpés and ring-around-the-body lifts a sculptural volume, and convey mystery and tenderness.

Far more intriguing is Morphoses by the company’s much touted resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, morphosis (morphoses is the plural) comes from Greek and means “form, figure, or configuration” or the “change of form in animals or plants . . . during life.” Wheeldon does not explore either of these ideas in any sustained way, nor is he much interested in the permutations in the relationships among the ballet’s four dancers—Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, Alexandra Ansanelli, and Damian Woetzel. But the image of changing protoplasmic form does dominate the opening moments. The curtain rises in silence on a darkened stage, with the four lying in a cross, raising their arms as the music begins, rolling over, getting up, holding hands, bending, leaning, sinking in a circle that squishes and morphs like an amoeba. A leg shoots out, a woman is lifted; then the circle splits apart, and a bar of orange light rises on the darkened cyclorama. Although unrelated to the work as a whole, the device attests to Wheeldon’s abiding interest in stage design.

When he was 12 and a student at the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon discovered the piano études of Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti. He used a group of them in Polyphonia, his first exploration of Balanchine’s neoclassical vein, and in Continuum, another leotard ballet. In Morphoses he continues his engagement with Ligeti, although this time choosing a more complex and dissonant work, the String Quartet no. 1. The choice is not entirely successful. Despite Ligeti’s “unexpected jokes,” as Wheeldon has called them, and the richer musical texture, there is less overall variety than in the piano études, along with insistent rhythms that sometimes prompt him to come up with a step for every note. Wheeldon works from the ear, rather than from the score, the reason perhaps that he has yet to penetrate the music’s deeper structures.

In Morphoses he uses the same leading dancers as in Polyphonia. For whatever reason, he doesn’t go beyond what he did for them in the earlier piece. He remains fascinated by Whelan’s strength, flexibility, edginess, and speed, the pretzel of steel we know from so many NYCB works. Phrases and signature poses from Episodes, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and The Cage keep turning up in Morphoses, along with quotations from Polyphonia—all without irony. Wheeldon’s gift for revealing individuality is especially evident in his choreography for Ansanelli. In Polyphonia he showed us the lyrical dancer; here he emphasizes the dynamic attack, bold line, and compelling presence that make her a quintessentially modern dancer and a potentially fascinating stage personality. I look forward to seeing what other facets he and time will uncover.