Peter Martins, who did his first choreography while a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, clearly believes, as Balanchine did, in developing in-house talent. Dancers with the company aesthetic trained into their muscles are likely to produce pieces that slip gracefully into the repertory. The May 4 NYCB gala premiered ballets by five choreographers who have been, or are, company members: Albert Evans, Edwaard Liang, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon, and Martins himself. All the works are respectable, some considerably better than that. And all show how well the choreographers know and cherish the dancers who perform for them.
Three of the new ballets are pas de deux, and Martins’s trio is full of duets. Seen on one program, they’re a lesson in the aesthetics of the genre. Many contemporary ballet pas de deux enchant you, but later you can’t remember what made one different from another. Inevitably, a man and a woman meet. In Evans’s Broken Promise, a beautiful female in sparkly white (Ashley Bouder ) bourrées into Stephen Hanna’s dark-lit life; in Liang’s Distant Cries, Wendy Whelan is dancing alone (again in semi-darkness) when Peter Boal joins her; in Martins’s Tala Gaisma, a wandering hero (Jared Angle substituting for the injured Jock Soto) comes upon three enigmatic nymphs at play (Darci Kistler, Sofiane Sylve, and Miranda Weese). The protagonists of Millepied’s Double Aria, Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour, begin as entwined sihouettes.
As at the conclusion of most pas de deux, couples embrace or part. After stylistically jarring back somersaults, Evans’s pair finish embraced on the floor; Liang’s heroine ends as she began, alone; in Millepied’s work, the lights fade out with Kowroski in flight on la Cour’s shoulder as he slowly turns. You expect Martin’s ballet to end in a way that Balanchine and quite a few 19th-century choreographers might have chosen: the wandering man collapsed on the floor while the three women gaze at him. Martins (whose ballet evokes Balanchine’s Apollo at times and goes on a little longer than feels necessary) opts for an ending he’s used before: The man, raised up by the women, lays them down around him. So much for nymphs.
In these new duets, we see what we expect to see: men spinning women around, holding them up while they cast their legs into the air, tenderly assisting them into beautiful—and sometimes undreamed-of—positions, twining them like valuable necklaces around their manly bodies. Pas de deux are often metaphors for rapture, yearning, or rape. Evans’s Broken Promise, set to an edgy clarinet quintet by Matthew Fuerst, lacks a strong central premise, but has some imaginative partnering (Hanna, recently made a principal dancer, has blossomed into one). Millepied, who sets his ballet to Daniel Ott’s virtuoso piece for solo violin (played onstage by Timothy Fain), understands the value of repetition and of pauses (in one memorable moment, la Cour simply walks arounds the stage with Kowroski sitting on his shoulder), and skillfully moves two long bodies into some extravagant, emotionally charged plastiques. Liang’s Distant Cries, set to an adagio from Tomaso Albinoni’s oboe concerto (soloist, Randall Wolfgang), both partakes of the music’s melancholy sweetness and plays off its baroque formality. The choreography for the ravishing Whelan (in an loose-fitting, oddly becoming dress) mingles physical perfection with an awkwardness that suggests her inner state. Boal lifts her, and her feet stiffen and flex in the air. Martins’s ballet, choreographed to a concerto for violin and strings by Peteris Vask (soloist Kurt Nikkanen), involves three in passing duets. Sylve is softly frisky and sexy with Angle; Kistler mild and gentle; Weese fast and a bit aggressive. The women are all splendid, and Angle has risen magnificently to the challenge of replacing Soto, who retires from the company this spring and whose dramatic strength is built into the choreography.
The season’s fifth premiere is a lively eye-catching spectacle without a strong center: Wheeldon’s take on Gershwin’s An American in Paris and on Gene Kelly’s film ballet set to it. Adrianne Lobel’s four drops represent not Impressionist canvases come to life, as in the movie, but lopsided visions of Paris by the painter-hero (Damian Woetzel is daubing at one with a brush when the curtain rises) and, since Natasha Katz’s skillful lighting can penetrates these paintings, Wheeldon creates the vibrant, orderly bustle of 1950s Paris in layers—in front of and behind a given drop. Twenty-eight NYCB dancers turn themselves, via Holly Hynes’s brilliantly designed and colored costumes, into beatniks in berets (there’s a nice turn for new soloist Carla Körbes and six guys), fashionable ladies and their men, a couple of tourists, a diva, a whore, a gendarme, a bike racer, a nun with three small pupils, and so on. The ballet is very cinematic. You don’t really focus on steps, and no lengthy “numbers” stop the seemingly impromptu gatherings and the pedestrian flow, although there’s a sweet, bluesy little duet under Lobel’s handsome painted bridge for Woetzel and Jenifer Ringer as the girl he keeps bumping into and losing. Wheeldon finds many clever choreographic strategies for engulfing her in the crowd and taunting Woetzel with women, none of them Ringer. Like the heroes of Romantic ballet, he’s alone at the end with his memories. He hasn’t dreamed bevies of spectral women, though; he’s dreamed a whole fantasy city.
Just prior to the gala, an epochal ballet made its NYCB debut: Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz, made in 1958 for his short-lived company, Ballets: U.S.A. Set to a commissioned score by Robert Prince, with backdrops by Ben Shahn, it premiered at Italy’s first Spoleto Festival in 1958, astounding a public to whom the words jazz and ballet were antithetical, and who had rarely seen classically trained dancers wearing sneakers and egging on another on in dance contests that looked spontaneous. The NYCB audience seems equally thrilled to see young NYCB dancers (all but one corps members) slouching, casual, loose and weighted in their moves. These are the kids of West Side Story with slightly better manners and only friendly rivalry, delineated through terrifically designed choreography. A scene in which a flirtatious woman gets more than she bargained for from a predatory bunch of guys and a slow, poignant duet in place for a couple (interracial, as in the original cast, and eloquently performed by Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall) provide the thought provoking moments. The other sections are bright, inventive, and bumptious, and under the direction of Edward Verso (who did the sensitive restaging) and the NYCB ballet masters, the dancers project the naturalness that Robbins so prized.