Every once in a while, the New York City Ballet gets dolled up, as if to say to its loving audience, “Haven’t we all had enough of tights and T-shirts and little tunics for a while? Hang the expense!” Peter Martins’s Thou Swell is the company’s spring glamourfest. Opening this week at the New York State Theater, it previewed at the winter season’s opening gala, way back before the Sugarplum Fairy took over the world.
At the gala, Thou Swell was one of three ballets celebrating the show tunes of Richard Rodgers (Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel [A Dance] returns in February). A Rodgers medley, orchestrated by Don Sebesky and arranged by Glen Kelly, features an onstage jazz trio (Nick Archer, John Beal, and Paul Pizzuto) and two singers (Debbie Gravitte and Jonathan Dokuchitz), as well as the orchestra under guest conductor Paul Gemignani. Robin Wagner’s silvery art deco nightclub backs the scene with a huge tilted mirror and gives the performers little flights of steps for sauntering up to their tables and strolling down to dance to the sweet, embraceable tunes.
There’s some byplay involving four moderately busy waiters and four little waitresses who pose like pinup girls and hold their hands up like serving trays. At one point, Nilas Martins takes over at the keyboard. The principal players enter gradually, alone or in couples. The women (Maria Kowroski, Jenifer Ringer, Darci Kistler, and Yvonne Borree) wear satin evening coats in black and white with a touch of red, and take them off to reveal equally gorgeous gowns (by Julius Lumsden, supervised by Holly Hynes). They’re here to dance; they may sit and nurse cocktails, but they’re clearly biding their time. The choreographer allows each pair a little turn and a display of gracious manners before delving into richer, more involved duets—long and lyrically abandoned for Ringer and James Fayette to “My Heart Stood Still,” quick and happily flirtatious for Martins and Borree to “This Can’t Be Love.” Kistler and Jock Soto are tender, Kowroski and Charles Askegard twiningly passionate. In between duets, people stroll and drink and flirt. The men swarm around Ringer. The guys dance up and down the steps, and Kowroski loves them for it. And they all take a spin on the floor, reprising their favorite moments from this good-looking night on the town.
Peter Boal, one of NYCB’s most poetic classical dancers, is equally at ease in dramatic roles, such as the leads in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Robbins’s Opus 19: The Dreamer. Having danced a solo Wendy Perron made for him in 1993, he’s now moonlighting, not just in showy pas de deux, but in the realm of postmodern dance. His new take-a-giant-step program, “Peter Boal: Solos” (part of the Joyce’s “Altogether Different” series), features a premiere by Perron—and a wonderful one. Boal could go onstage and transform classwork into a dance—the equivalent of Ralph Fiennes reading the telephone book—but it helps to have sensitive choreography.
Most solos that are not about display seem to be about journeys. In Perron’s The Man and His Echo, this illusion is reinforced by “Tuesday Night in Memphis” from John Lurie’s score for the movie Mystery Train. Boal, in a silky, dark suit by Mark Zappone, begins jogging easily in place, and although he spreads out in bigger moves, he often pulls back to running, slogging, prancing, or dropping into a little heel-clicking step that evokes folk ballets he’s performed. He leaps once with an arm stretched up as if reaching for the golden ring. When he lies on the floor, we hear the sweet voices of very small children (his own), talking to “Daddy.” Perron structures the piece beautifully—so that you experience it with the remarkable performer.
Albert Evans, like Boal a principal dancer at NYCB, has a lot of choreographic talent, and he creates compelling images in One Body, which has a delicate but darkish score by John Kennedy (with, I think, a countertenor singing in English) and a couple of hanging black panels for Boal, in white leotards, to vanish behind. This device gives the solo the feel of a series of forays that yield to a more extended dance passage.
The choreography doesn’t seem to have a consistent throughline in terms of structure and style. Why does Boal poke his head out from behind a panel in a clichéd comedy move amid graver appearances and disappearances? Why is a pirouette with standard preparation wedged between more original inventions? When, at the end, Boal kneels in a circle of light, arms outspread, you want to think, “Mission accomplished,” but instead think, “?”
Boal performs Molissa Fenley’s Waiting for Rain (set to Robert Ashley’s “Van Cao’s Meditation”) in front of a luminous set, with panels by Roy Fowler that suggest Chinese landscape painting. Lighting designer David Moodey turns the framing backdrop different colors as the dance progresses. Fenley’s journeys always suggest tasks or ordeals, because they are long (this one lasts 24 minutes) and pauses are rare (and stunning). It’s like hiking up a mountain and admiring the wildflowers and snowy peaks on the go. Boal, who has danced Fenley works before, is superb—not only at capturing the essence of her muscular style, with its traveling feet and arms that constantly carve space, but at modulating its dynamics. He filters all three solos so powerfully through his own sensibility that he seems to be thinking them up as he goes.
In Cynthia Oliver’s AfroSocialiteLifeDiva (at Dance Theater Workshop January 23 and 24 and February 1 and 2), genealogy is sliced up and reconfigured in entrancing, sometimes confusing ways. That the grandmother, mother, and full-of-herself, bad-ass daughter of an African American family are played—sometimes jointly—by three black women, one white one, and a Hawaiian helps both distance the subject and intensify it. As they dance juicy, outflung phrases, they also sing and talk—sometimes like a Greek chorus, sometimes bandying “she” and “I” about until the mother lives in the daughter, and the concept of observer and observed quakes like jelly.
The women—handsomely dressed by Adrienne Wood, performing under Erin Tapley’s vivid paintings of female generations to excellent understated music composed and played live by Jason Finkelman, Geoff Gersh, and Charles Cohen—are marvelous. I love to watch Renee Redding-Jones and Blossom Leilani, reeling in and out of poses like friendly sisters, merging like mother and child-to-come. Love to note the different ways the women attack movement and words: Leilani lean and precise, Cynthia Bueschel poised and sturdy in her steps, Maria Earle joyously lusty, Oliver with flyaway gestures and complications, and Redding-Jones with matter-of-fact power. When they double-image a character, that character becomes all the richer.
Oliver’s text is both witty and sentimental. Perhaps because of her pursuit of obliqueness, some lines evoke hallowed generalities about birth, death, and not-too-bad family life. At other times, as during a tirade by Redding-Jones—now the tough, new-generation woman (“I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Norfolk, Virginia!”)—specificity emerges, shaking its fists and swinging its hips.