Bill T. Jones is full of surprises. Who’d imagine he’d turn Jane Bowles’s eccentrically poetic 1945 puppet play, A Quarreling Pair, into a parable in the form of a variety show about venturing from an ivory tower? He even introduces the protagonists, Harriet and Rhoda, in an “act”—a shadow play, with Leah Cox and Paul Matteson deliciously miming the genteelly squabbling sisters, while Stewart Singer and Tracy Ann Johnson voice Bowles’s text on tape.
Bjorn Amelan’s set, Janet Wong’s video design, Robert Wierzel’s lighting, and Liz Prince’s costumes provide the trappings of vaudeville—red velvet curtains, rows of little lightbulbs, silent movies—in ingeniously askew ways. George Lewis Jr. plays the interlocutor with panache, and he and his fellow composer-musicians Christopher William Lancaster and Wynne Bennett produce some wonderfully raucous music, including a striking arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” sung by Lewis.
The acts aren’t exactly what you’d expect. In her almost-striptease, Asli Bulbul pulls surprising objects from under her dress. I-Ling Liu sidles across the stage in a trailing gown, singing a Chinese song. Antonio Brown, Peter Chamberlain, and LaMichael Leonard combine acrobatics with a kick line. Maija Garcia and Shayla-Vie Jenkins make a thing out of lighting cigarettes. As “Two Fearsome Gentlemen” wearing harem pants and peculiar turbans, Brown and Matteson undulate, shake, and attempt a dog act (don’t ask). The numbers weave around Rhoda (now fully embodied by Johnson) and her futile attempts to go on the stage (not a good idea to answer phone calls from your sister in mid-song). In Mexico, she becomes the abused dresser for drag performer La Torita (a divinely over-the-top performance by Erick Montes), whose backstage viciousness is revealed via a silent movie.
Harriet’s “dream of dreaming” occasions some sweet-and-lovely dancing. And Dylan’s song is the motor for a long, calm walking journey by all the dancers, with Rhoda eventually hanging on and stumbling along. She tells Harriet that she has to live in the world and try to do some good. Harriet, home alone, offers a sisterly glass of milk to no one.
Christopher Wheeldon wants to make dance user-friendly. He introduces the program at his company’s opening night, the title of each ballet is projected, and classy rehearsal videos precede Morphoses’s two premieres. But even without this wooing, we’d surely still fall for his expert choreography and for the superb dancers he has assembled—most of them with full-time jobs in other companies. The New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski shines as the elegantly nimble linchpin of Frederick Ashton’s austere and beautiful Monotones II, with Edward Watson and Rubinald Pronk. And Wheeldon’s terrific 2001 Polyphonia is performed by Wendy Whelan (reprising her original role), Tyler Angle, Tiler Peck, Gonzalo Garcia, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Craig Hall, Teresa Reichlin, and Jason Fowler. Fifteen-year-old Stix-Brunell, who brings a moving clarity and poise to her adagio solo, is the only cast member not in NYCB.
Wheeldon’s new Commedia is set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite (played live by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Alan Pierson). The eight performers look like jazz-age Harlequins in Isabel Toledo’s white unitards studded with variously spaced black diamonds. Ruffs, skirts, gloves, and half-masks are added when appropriate. Designer Ruben Toledo creates a false inner proscenium with a translucent painting of stylized masked faces that turns different colors in Penny Jacobs’s lighting. As in Polyphonia, Wheeldon shows his mastery of form: Counterpoint slips suavely into unison, and traditional steps look unexpectedly fresh. Commedia, in tune with its score, is rife with charming, pranksome dancing. There’s a bright duet for Rory Hohenstein and Céline Cassone, who are joined by Pronk and the tall, gorgeous Drew Jacoby. When Stix-Brunell and Leanne Benjamin arrive, trios become the game of the moment. Benjamin duets with Edwaard Liang, and she and Stix-Brunell don net skirts to perform a blend of spicy flourishes and sheer happiness. The richest pas de deux, with its many odd, sweet entwinings, is beautifully danced by Benjamin and Watson (both members of Britain’s Royal Ballet).
The talented young Canadian choreographer Emily Molnar could learn a lot about phrasing from Wheeldon. She fills her Six Fold Illuminate for Morphoses with nonstop movements in a style that owes much to William Forsythe. Steps wriggle and squirm through the dancers’ bodies; their limbs flash out, their necks crane, and their shoulders roll. The four men from Commedia, plus Jacoby and Cassone, are formidable, and Molnar has created some arresting steps and an especially good solo for Pronk. But the choreography churns away atop Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, ignoring subtle shifts and developments within the ongoing pulse, until movement and music alike turn to wallpaper in the mind.