There’s a chandelier in Benjamin Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini. But it’s not your usual ballroom-ballet accoutrement; instead a cluster of tiny lights hangs overhead like a very intimate gathering of fireflies. Nor is the ballet—set to Brahms’s piano variations—an evening for leisurely romance. Paganini being a violin virtuoso, many of Brahms’s more turbulent variations keep pianist Natasha Paremski’s excellent fingers dashing over the keyboard. Like the decor and the music, Millepied’s effervescent choreography presents the dancers rushing, flying, and sparkling.
The ballet world is always searching for new talent; there’s no lack of gifted choreographers interested in aligning ballet with modern or postmodern dance, but few are gifted at honoring the classical vocabulary and modeling it to great music of the past. Millepied, like the immensely talented Christopher Wheeldon, started in ballet as a youngster. He was already a well-trained teenager when he arrived here from France to enroll in the School of American Ballet. He was one of the lucky students on whom Jerome Robbins created his 1994 Two and Three Part Inventions. Once he joined the New York City Ballet, he rose through the ranks to become a principal dancer (in 2001). He still holds that position, but has been making ballets for the last seven years.
He’s on a roll. 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini premiered in 2005 as a showcase for students at SAB, his alma mater. After showing his choreography at the French Alliance’s Florence Gould Hall that same year, he assembled a pick-up company to perform works by several dancemakers at the Joyce in 2006. During the past two years, he has made a solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov, two ballets for the Paris Opera, and a version of Petrouchka for the Ballet de Génève. Presenters, producers, and funders apparently flock to him like bees to honey.
With reason. He’s very good. And smart enough to inspire confidence. Of the13 terrific dancers assembled for the two works on the Joyce program, all but one (Céline Cassone) are on loan from American Ballet Theatre, and the costumes for 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini come from NYCB’s wardrobe department.
The Brahms ballet begins like the liveliest of dance parties. Couples enter on the diagonal, the men wearing vests over their shirts-and-tights outfits, the women wearing shiny, full-skirted dresses in different colors. Right away, the guys start lifting their partners in canon, and no one just walks to a new position. They run and leap and change directions, and suddenly they’re in two opposing lines, as if for a contradanse, but that doesn’t occupy them for long. Millepied has a knack for merging and transforming patterns, and most of the steps are buoyant. There are times when each couple has its own steps, and others when they slide effortlessly into unison. To a particularly stormy musical variation, two men slide the feet of the woman between them along the floor, then swoop her upright so they can slide her again—all the while rushing to cross another trio doing the same thing.
Sarah Lane dances for Blaine Hoven, then he for her. He, a lusty fellow, has a couple of short solos—one of them a cleverly twisting skein of jumps. Isabella Boylston enters, turning stiffly on pointe to a tinkly passage of music, and Cory Stearns sweeps her into a duet. The men roister together in a clump—so close that their leaps look endangering. Then they lie down and the women pull them up to dance some more. They change partners for a waltzy section, but for the most part, Millepied shows us who’s dating who and whom each loves best. Nicole Graniero and Luis Ribagorda are a couple; so are Melissa Thomas and Tom Forster, Gemma Bond and Eric Tamm. They’re all vivid and charming, and they perform for Millepied with delighted exuberance. (Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who have been staging Antony Tudor’s works for ABT, served as ballet masters for Millepied’s project and got a well-deserved hand for their coaching at the first-night curtain call).
Millepied is musical, and he’s clever at devising choreography that entertains and excites us. However, although the steps in 28 Variations breathe, and the patterns evolve and interrupt one another pleasingly, the ballet as a whole feels as if it could stand a little air. The ear adapts to prolonged density more easily than the eye does, and there’s no rule that says choreography always has to keep pace, second for second, with the music’s fever.
The premiere, Without, is a little more relaxed, airier, less dense. Set to nine preludes, five preludes, and a nocturne by Chopin (elegantly played by Pedra Muzijevic), it is also blessed by silky, blue-gray curtains that surround all three sides of the stage. They glimmer in Brad Fields’s fine lighting, and the dancers can appear and disappear through a number of slits. In one wonderful sequence, they simply dash in and out of the openings, making them billow in the breeze of their passage. It’s the kind of breather (no pun intended) that Millepied’s work could use more of.
Millepied considers Robbins to have been a mentor; as a young dancer, he received support and encouragement from that master choreographer and absorbed ideas about dancing. Without—in part because of its Chopin piano accompaniment and women’s short, simple dresses by Marc Happel—might be an homage to Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. Alexandre Hammoudi and Maria Riccetto replace Graniero and Ribagorda and join the other couples from the previous piece (with Céline Cassone replacing Lane as Hoven’s girlfriend). One of the finest of the assorted pas de deux that crop up is the one for Riccetto and Hammoudi, maybe because Millepied creates a brief motif—one dancer, then the other ducking gently under the partner’s outstretched arm. These two also have a later, more morose duet in which Hammoudi repeatedly kneels at Riccetto’s feet, and she has to keep pulling him up
The feeling is windblown; in the most rippling, fluttery passages of music, the dancers flit like butterflies. Forster and Thomas have solos at various points—his full of big jumps, hers light and pliant—and they come together for two amorous duet. Bond and Tamm frisk and romp, even bumping hips like the couple in one variation from Robbins’s I’m Old-Fashioned. He leaves her and goes off with Thomas, and a sympathetic unseen hand (maybe his?) yanks Bond offstage after them.
Millepied tries to establish these coming-and-going dancers as a society—sometimes using a favorite device of Robbins’s: People not dancing watch those who do. He also suggests a troubled relationship between Boylston and Stearns that comes into clear focus only toward the end of the ballet. Stearns is a prince of a dancer, but Boylston, while lovely, is not as expressive as he is about their relationship. It’s hard to tell how she feels (maybe that’s why he gives up and leaves), and Millepied’s arresting ending comes as a surprise. All the others flank Boylston or stand behind her. She walks slowly along a diagonal path with her friends close around her like a large, comforting cloak.
These two ballets are more ambitious than anything Millepied has yet presented in New York. If a theater program were like a high school yearbook, his head shot would have “Will Go Far” printed beneath it.