The prankish title of Christopher Wheeldon’s new Shambards is, like the ballet itself, enigmatic—a pentimento through which we glimpse other images and ideas. Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose impressive Piano Concerto No. 2 forms the score for the ballet, acknowledges the influence of “Scotland 1941,” Edwin Muir’s tough, bitter poem that laments the passing of Scotland’s ancient, fiercely independent days and dismisses Robert Burns and Walter Scott as “sham bards of a sham nation.” That “1941” means something too, so Celtic tunes (and, once, a souring waltz evocative of Richard Strauss) bubble up through what sounds at times like a maelstrom or approaching battle, and turn cloudy or dissonant in its grip. The fine pianist Cameron Grant contends with the orchestral tempest.
Wheeldon attempts, I think, what Balanchine achieved in ballets like Serenade: a non-narrative work through which wisps of possible tales emerge to rap at the gate of our collective unconscious. He begins brilliantly, with one chain of women and one of men facing us, then splits them into couples, sets partners pushing and pulling, pits lines against circles. In this rapid dancing—limbs shooting out, bodies twisting—the stage emits movement the way a mirror revolving in light flashes beams. The first hint of buried lore comes when four men briefly hold up their curved arms in traditional Highland dance position and prick out something resembling sword-dance steps—over the bodies of supine women. Later, reinforced by musical motifs, more bursts of sharp-footed, balleticized Scottish steps surface like memories.
Two principal couples in Shambards might almost be skewed reflections of each other. The duet for Ask la Cour and Carla Körbes in the ballet’s first section is slow and intense, with Körbes miraculously pliant and yielding in her partner’s arms. They’re undisturbed when harsh-stepping files of men and women flank them, but keep glancing apprehensively skyward. The second couple, Miranda Weese and Jock Soto, enters echoing Körbes and la Cour’s exiting walk. Michael Nagle’s beautiful backdrop, bathed in Mark Stanley’s excellent lighting, has suggested a misty green-blue glade with a glowing spot of what might be open sky in the distance; now it turns red, with a fire at its center. The partnering is complex, extravagant, yet almost dreamlike. Weese draws out the arching, curving positions Soto bends her into until her gestures seem to float. There’s more than a hint of brutality: Soto rolls Weese around, lifts her high, then lets her slip to the floor, where she lies twisted, and the lights go out. In the back of my mind, I hear one of those bloody old ballads in which a jealous lover kills his sweetheart. Or do I hear bombers overhead? Maybe Wheeldon hears both.
The last section begins like a festival. Holly Hynes has added fringed red skirts to the eight corps women’s attractive tan tops and purple velvet trunks. Two volatile men (Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht) advance toward us, slapping their thighs, but then burst into stunning pyrotechnics—more when Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild join them. In the midst of the celebration, Soto and Weese fit themselves briefly into the pattern and resume their doomed duet. This time, after she drops, he drags her slowly upstage between soldierly ranks of dancers. The piano has a fit, and the curtain falls.
There are a few muddy moments in the first movement, and almost too much mystery in the Weese-Soto relationship, but there’s nothing sham about the stunning dancing Wheeldon and his cast give us.
Lar Lubovitch actually calls his new work Pentimento, but although it celebrates the 35th anniversary of the company he no longer exactly has, it doesn’t anthologize earlier dances. (How could it? Since the 1980s, Lubovitch has choreographed for Broadway musicals, plays, ice shows, and ballet companies worldwide.) Instead, helped by Jack Mehler’s lighting and scrims dividing the space of Washington Square Methodist Church into two zones, it builds the illusion that we are looking into layers of dances. Richard Woodbury’s score dredges music from Bach to calliope tunes into his electronic stew. For the second and most compelling section, we look through the dancing in two spaces and see a small, still audience watching it and us. As in Lubovitch’s marvelous Men’s Stories (2000), which took place in the gorgeous former synagogue known as the Orensanz Center, this church’s own history gives additional resonance.
Pentimento celebrates approaches to movement and patterning that recall classic Lubovitch works. In the beginning and end, the eight dancers are a seething, slowly evolving cluster in which some rise, some fall, others swirl about into lifts. The performers swoop around the stage in the exalted, curving, luscious dancing with which Lubovitch enthralled audiences in the 1970s.
Now that lovely vocabulary strikes me as overly simple and almost generic in terms of movement invention. But the second section heats up the imagination and the senses. Jason McDole and Ryan Lawrence dance the same aggressively athletic solo for the two different audiences. Sometimes they meet or wrangle in the space closest to us, while behind them, in grayer light, the remaining six performers execute quiet, shadowy folk dances. There are also fine solos for Roger C. Jeffrey and Scott Rink in the last spry section before the dancers fold back into their timeless weaving and twining.