Oscar Wilde’s plays bristle with epigrammatic wit, but many of his short stories, despite dollops of irony, are unashamedly romantic. “The Nightingale and the Rose” tells us that true devotion entails willing sacrifice, even loss of life. In turning the tale into a ballet, Christopher Wheeldon makes the nightingale’s climactic agony the heart of the piece. The bird impales her breast on the thorn of a withered rose tree and sings all night; her blood, flowing into the plant, generates a single crimson flower. Having dedicated her life to singing of love, the nightingale has taken pity on a young student; the girl he yearns for, his professor’s petulant daughter, has asked for a red rose.
Bright Sheng’s impressively constructed score (commissioned by the New York City Ballet) coils richly around the slender plot, but the ballet begins with the sounds of birds twittering. In the dawn glimmer provided by Mark Stanley’s lighting, the nightingale (the extraordinary Wendy Whelan) juts her knees and elbows into frail avian angles, cocks her head sharply, and forms beaks with her hands. She ends her fantastic solo with a leap into the arms of nearly invisible, black-clad men, who fly her offstage.
The pas de deux in which the student (Tyler Angle) requests the bird’s help inevitably suggests an interspecies courtship instead of the fluttering attentions of a brave creature in love with love, while the most deeply poetic passage in The Nightingale and the Rose (the choreographer’s fifteenth work for NYCB) eloquently transforms dancers into other forms of life. As James Bruckner’s animated projections of green vines crawl up the proscenium arch, Craig Hall and Seth Orza, representing the blighted red rosebush, travel in a crouched, gnarly embrace. Lifting Whelan under the watchful eye of a suspended moon, they surreptitiously pull up a sleeve here, a pant leg there, to reveal red beneath their dull purple outfits (the ingenious costumes are by Martin Pakledinaz). By the end of the nightingale’s ordeal, 14 additional men in purple are wheeling Whelan through the air with increasing vigor. The stage comes alive with burgeoning vegetation while she—its most beautiful blossom—weakens. Finally, the men cluster around her to form a giant rose, from which a single small flower emerges for the student to pluck.
The ending comes swiftly. The girl (Sara Mearns) rejects the rose, and the disillusioned student accidentally treads on it before stepping, unseeing, over the nightingale’s crumpled corpse. A tear slides from the moon’s eye.
The Nightingale and the Rose will be performed on June 20 and at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in July.