Every year around this time, New York City Ballet honors the birth, on January 22, 1904, of its founding choreographer, George Balanchine. No vodka shots are hoisted in the theater; instead, artistic director Peter Martins presents a new ballet by way of a posthumous birthday present.
On January 23, NYCB premiered Mauro Bigonzetti’s Oltremare. The subject is obliquely fitting. Balanchine left his native Russia young, and later sailed from France, at Lincoln Kirstein’s insistence, to develop ballet in America. The 14 dancers in Oltremare file across the stage in homespun attire carrying suitcases, and for the duration of the ballet sit at the back of the stage on their luggage, as if on the deck of a ship, while various of them dash forward to
express—almost always in couples—
their hopes for the future and the backward tug of their memories. The music by Bruno Moretti, who also composed the scores
for Bigonzetti’s two previous works for NYCB (Vespro, 2002, and In Vento, 2006), embeds sounds in the orchestral texture—
the ticking of wood blocks; a ship’s bell; deep, thrumming chords—that suggest an ocean voyage. But the music also conveys interior journeys and the immigrants’ heritage—especially in the accordion playing of guest artist Will Holshouser.
Oltremare has many stirring, imaginative passages. In view of how well Bigonzetti and the dancers make us see these people, I could wish that they didn’t fall into unison quite so easily, and that they didn’t dance primarily in pairs (one exception is a lusty solo full of scissoring twists and jumps that Andrew Veyette performs electrifyingly). The style is unballetic—
no pointe shoes, steps that dig into the floor. The women’s full, heavy skirts (costumes by the choreographer and Marc Happel) swing into the air during vigorous passages. The first duet, by Georgina Pazcoguin and Jason Fowler, introduces movements that appear throughout the piece. Seldom do a woman and her partner prepare for a lift; suddenly she’s snagged on his body, hooked around him. Or she’s leaning back in his arms, her legs spread like pincers. When the whole group copies this, we might be looking at a folk dance run amok.
Touches of unhappiness appear. When Tiler Peck lies briefly supine, Amar Ramasar spirals into a beautiful, slow, despairing turn, and the assertive horns and drums subside into the voice of a harp. Anger and frustration seethe up too. Maria Kowroski repeatedly braces a foot against Tyler Angle’s chest as if to ward him off, and she begins their duet by walking on him. While holding his hand, she flips one long leg dangerously back and forth over her own arm.
Occasionally, Bigonzetti’s imagination skids out of control. Watching Angle grab Kowroski by one leg, upend her, and more or less turn her on her head, letting her skirts fly up to reveal drab bloomers, you wonder if these people are going crazy. But most of the time, virtuosity easily translates as impulsiveness born of the tedium and doubts that proliferate in a suspended world between two homes.
New ballets like Bigonzetti’s often refer to the classical vocabulary only fleetingly. Karole Armitage, who made her professional debut performing Balanchine’s ballets with the Grand Théâtre du Génève and then went on to dance with Merce Cunningham’s company, demands high arabesques and articulate feet of her dancers (and, wait, wasn’t that a gargouillade?). But she melts and twists steps into discontinuity and instability. Not for nothing is her new work, the third part of a trilogy, titled Connoisseurs of Chaos.
Her six remarkable dancers cope with a world in flux, and their movements and patterns teeter at an edge where predictability and control may slide into chaos. But as someone famously noted, chaos is the order we are not looking for. David Salle’s set design, realized by cinematographer Michael McDonough, involves a black-and-white video projection that periodically whirls like a vortex behind Clifton Taylor’s white-lit stage. It can unfurl and re-absorb beautiful, nostalgic images: a window with blowing curtains that grows until it dwarfs the dancers, a winter landscape of barren trees that they may be dreaming. Morton Feldman’s 1981 Patterns in a Chromatic Field, played live by pianist Andrew Russo and cellist Felix Fan, drips quiet notes into long silences and creates fragmentary stentorian flurries that often seem to summon the performers onto the stage. Motifs are fragile, subject to decay; a note becomes its own echo.
When loosely clustered, the dancers create the image of an organism in flux—sometimes doing the same things out of synch or facing different directions, sometimes acting on their own. Were it not for their muscularity, I’d liken their limbs to tendrils of seaweed. Their legs fly softly up; their arms spiral, often uncurling into gestures that look like denial; their bodies undulate. Stillnesses punctuate motion the way silences punctuate the music. Fragments of stories—memories maybe—surface. After Matthew Branham and Frances Chiaverini complete a long, intent duet, he leaves her crumpled on the floor, and Leonides Arpon and Mei-Hua Wang drag her to her feet—not too kindly. They’re smaller than she is, and when she leads them by their chins or pushes down on their heads, it’s easy to view them as two unruly kids. A slow duet ends with Megumi Eda supine and William Isaac squatting to survey her. When the three woman are moving seductively, and Arpon and Branham rush in and start to haul them away, Eda gestures “No!” and the men leave.
These days, dancers with extensive ballet training like members of Armitage Gone! and those in companies like NYCB are frequently called upon to transform the skills and control that they spent years developing in order to convey a semblance of spontaneity, even helplessness. In contrast, the great classical works more and more conjure up idylls of an order that’s imperiled in today’s world.