Ballet at the Barricades


Christopher Wheeldon is a phenomenon in a world parched for classically oriented ballet choreographers. Thirty years old and enormously gifted, he seems to be all over the place. His ballets are everywhere in demand, and he happily pursues a variety of themes and composers. Once a dancer in Britain’s Royal Ballet, he was schooled in the work of Frederick Ashton (a choreographer hardly narrow in his tastes) and Kenneth MacMillan. Then he joined the New York City Ballet and opened himself to the repertory of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. It’s not surprising that he can move from narrative and poised wit to highly musical explorations of form and line to a tender, somewhat romantic view of dancers as people in a landscape.

Carousel (A Dance) (2002) and his new Liturgy illustrate his diversity only in a mild way (I missed his recent Morphoses when its last performance of the season was canceled). I can’t compare these two dramatically as I could his Polyphonia (2002) and Variations Sérieuses (2001). The first, to the complicated music of Gyorgy Ligeti, is a gorgeous foray into neoclassicism; the second turns selections of music by Felix Mendelssohn into a pretext for a backstage ballet, complete with temperamental diva, martinet ballet master, and an elaborate skewed set by Ian Falconer.

Carousel (A Dance) is a sweet work, nothing earthshaking, but ingenious and deeper than it first appears. From the music—Richard Rodgers’s tunes from Carousel, arranged and orchestrated by William David Brohn—Wheeldon has drawn a touching little romance for characters somewhat softer in hue than Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Damian Woetzel is only slightly tough, and Alexandra Ansanelli a beguiling innocent. Once, he seems to draw her toward him like a magician. The choreography creates a striking carousel of dancers that wheels around the protagonists, or defines two separate emotional worlds that keep them apart. Rodgers’s big waltzes spin the ballet along, with two pairs of demi-soloists and a corps of 20 looking bright and athletic inunderstated casual clothes by Holly Hynes. At one point, the ensemble returns briefly with poles and takes the carousel to a more literal level; I’d guess Wheeldon has an idea justifying this, and that the transformation is not just an effect, but it’s odd.

Liturgy is yet another duet for a favorite pair of Wheeldon’s: Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Set to Fratres for Violin, Strings, and Percussion by Arvo Pärt (whose tensile, haunting compositions have figured for years on the downtown dance scene), it begins in near darkness (lighting by Mark Stanley). Whelan gradually becomes visible, in a strange minimal outfit by Hynes that looks as if things were growing on her. The duet opens and closes with gestures like ritual sign language (a slightly irritating device that Wheeldon has used before), but in between the two slowly knot and fold around each other. What’s impressive is that she’s not simply prehensile and he something to climb and twine around; she senses his body touching hers, and there’s a tenderness in the way he lays his cheek against her as he shapes her flow toward a new height. I’m at a point where pas de deux can seem not just icons but clichés. Wheeldon seems to be exploring the form as ritual.

Whether a music-theater work of the French baroque was labeled an opera, an opera-ballet, or a tragédie lyrique, one thing is certain: It was packed with dances. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s last work, Les Boréades, is no exception. Dance music wells up at every stage of Queen Alphise’s ordeal, as—ordered by Fate to marry a descendant of the North Wind and in love with Abaris, a man of unknown parentage—she tries to stave off deciding which of two persistent brothers to wed.

The riveting production by the Paris Opera and William Christie’s magnificent early-music ensemble Les Arts Florissants responds to the ballet music with choreography by Édouard Lock, director of the Montreal-based La La La Human Steps; but director Robert Carsen’s entire concept bristles with movement ideas. The 1764 masterpiece speaks resonantly of the beauties of liberty and freedom of choice. In this production of Boréades, booted and high-heeled forces of repression stalk about in military formations, wielding umbrellas and wearing black coats that look as if they could stand by themselves (costumes and set by Michael Levine). Abaris’s friends, who hang out at the Temple of Apollo, are barefoot and dressed in becomingly ragged, skimpy white clothes. Couples frolic or lie on the floor and dreamily caress (the Paris Opera’s 41 chorus members are not the usual stolid voice-machines). When the crowd in white invades the betrothal banquet and starts chatting up and stroking the shocked black-clad conformists seated at an immense banquet table, the scene evokes the flower-power ethos of the ’60s and ’70s.

The challenges to the love of Abaris (Paul Agnew) and Alphise (Anna Maria Panzarella) are met through the changing of the seasons, wonderfully assisted by Carsen and Peter van Praet’s lighting. The suitors’ fascistic supporters remorselessly pluck the summer flowers that blanket the floor; using push brooms, they sweep autumn leaves and Apollo’s followers out of the way; and when winter comes, they march across the stage, rhythmically twirling inverted umbrellas full of snow. In the end, Apollo (baritone Nicolas Rivenq) descends, glowing, from the heavens; and when it’s discovered that Abaris is really the son of Apollo and a nymph of Borean blood, the chorus plants new flowers, everyone strips down to white, and spring rain falls. Boréas himself (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) symbolically opens his umbrella to shield the lovers.

Rameau’s music reflects all the changes of weather and mood, yet despite the dark moments in the plot, when Alphise is threatened in Boréas’s Hades-like kingdom, the singing is meltingly sweet. When Alphise tells Abaris that abdicating for love of him will not only resolve her dilemma but make her happy, you could die of pleasure. Director Carsen partially solves the problem of making the sweet choral passages believable: The black-garbed people, through body language, give the words an ironic cast.

Baroque dance style captures the music’s ornamental trills and quavers with delicately curling and flicking wrists, sudden little jumps, and soft sinkings and risings. Lock’s thoroughly contemporary choreography—probably the weirdest thing about the production—takes off on this elaborateness, but the flourishes translate as neurotic twitches. When wearing black, the 11 excellent dancers flick their shoulders, beat their feet together in the air or while they’re lying on the floor, and gesture constantly like demented cats taking a bath. The women wear pointe shoes, and the men spin them like tops. Their rigidity mirrors that of the society as a whole in its most private and obsessive aspects. When they’re wearing white, they dance the same steps slightly more voluptuously, but unlike the rest of the cast, they never take their shoes off. The ravishing music doesn’t fully free them.