Peter Martins, George Balanchine, and Richard Alston Play With Symmetry


In 1990, Peter Martins choreographed Fearful Symmetries, his second ballet to the music of John Adams. The title of this bracing work slid into my mind while I was watching Martins’s Naïve and Sentimental Music, his ninth setting of an Adams composition. There’s so much symmetry in the new work that when—seconds before the curtain came down on the 48-minute piece—all 26 members of the cast rushed into a single long diagonal and struck different poses, I almost fainted.

Martins obviously loves the clamor of Adams’s music, the way melodies thread through richly colored orchestrations and a propulsive beat keeps nudging along underneath. Think of hurrying along, say, Fifth Avenue, aware of the changing colors and shapes, pausing at red lights, overhearing fragments of conversation whose end you can’t predict, and listening to the sound of feet on the pavement, the unexpected ringing of a bell. The brashness, the angularity, the speed are all there in Martins’s choreography, and Naïve and Sentimental Music is crowded with steps. I don’t think he has ever been given enough credit for the ingenious moves he can devise without straying far from the classical lexicon; little quirks of footwork, unexpected twists to a conventional move arrest your eye without stopping the rush-hour passages of dancing.

But Martins doesn’t assert asymmetry and structural layering the way Adams does. The stage picture almost always seems balanced in one way or another, no matter how swift the movements are. Several times in Naïve and Sentimental Music, Martins introduces one person or couple, adds another, then another, and then two more, often drawing them into a triangular formation. He diminishes a full stage by having one pair leave at a time.

The first moments of the ballet introduce the accumulation motif charmingly. Yvonne Borree, alone onstage, dances quietly by herself in a circle of light. The music is gentle, melodic, and Borree’s filmy green dress, with its slightly awkward swag hanging from the back, moves softly. Jennifer Ringer enters wearing a darker shade of blue-green (costumes by Liliana Casabal), and Borree watches her unfold one long leg into the air. They come close to each other, side by side, and slowly move in unison. Jennie Somogyi enters, notices them, and fits herself into the harmonious pattern they’re developing. As the pace picks up and they acquire partners (Sébastien Marcovici, Philip Neal, and Adrian Danchig-Waring—all wearing dark brown sleeveless suits), I find myself harking back to this scene and wishing there were more thoughtful ones like it in the ballet, even fast-paced thoughtful ones.

Couples are a given in all of the ballet’s three sections. In the first, as Adams’s music (admirably conducted by Fayçal Karoui) peals and thunders and builds carnivals in the air, four more pairs weave in and out: Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, Abi Stafford and Andrew Veyette, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. Sometime people fly off the stage and return so soon that I think, “Why bother to go? Stick around.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that all 26 dancers are either principals or soloists, and only five of the 30 principals on the company’s roster don’t appear in the ballet. Martins parades them before us at warp speed, making some allowances for senior ballerinas like Darci Kistler, who, partnered by guest artist Stephen Hanna, figures as the centerpiece of the slower, white-costumed second movement, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard shimmer around in the foreground (Kowroski is especially lovely). When Adams introduces rippling repetitions on top of a heavy beat for the third section, Martins displays his most youthful stars, the women dressed in red, to lead the ensemble into that final startling diagonal. But he displays them the way you’d whisk a series of dim sum platters past waiting diners. This is not the occasion to get to know Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia.

To fall in love with Fairchild, Hyltin, and Peck—along with Ana Sophia Scheller—and remember what a marvelous composer George Gershwin was, you need to come back from the intermission and watch George Balanchine’s beguiling 1970 Who Cares?—with Gershwin’s music orchestrated by Hershy Kaye and set swinging by the musicians (including pianist Nancy McDill) and conductor Clotilde Otranto. The sight of sassy squads of women—with their prancing, their jutting hips, flippy kicks, and scissoring legs—yields to deft glimpses of the secondary soloists and the particular charms they bring to the stage in song after song. You worry when Sean Suozzi gets turned down by a couple of women, but, wait, here’s Ashley Laracey ready to strut through “Do, Do, Do” with him. The terrific Fairchild has three beauties to interest him, and the solos and duets that animate the last part of the ballet expand on the light-hearted courtships that have come before. Peck is irresistible as she romps amid the hot, syncopated licks of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”

Balanchine was still in Europe working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when most of these songs were written, but they were part of American popular culture by the time be arrived here in 1933. In Who Cares?, he acknowledged the musical comedies he worked on by embedding their chorus lines and carefree lovers into a plotless ballet that evoked their spirit and sleeked it into a playground for classicism.

British choreographer Richard Alston has a refined sense of music and a gentle, insightful way of melding dancing with it. His choreography sings, and not in any loud-voiced, assertive way. He has acknowledged the influence of the great English ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton on his work and also that of Merce Cunningham, at whose New York studio he took classes in the 1970s. In his dances, you see many traveling steps that make ballet terms pop into your mind: cabriole, pas de bourrée, chassé, pas de chat, ballonné, jeté, sauté. Yet because these ease into the flow without emphasis or pressure and without classical port de bras—and because the fine, personable dancers bend and twist and spiral their torsos in ways that make their movements flower into three-dimensionality—the familiar steps seem fresh, even inventive.

This company dances barefoot, and you notice the feet; Alston’s choreography, like both Ashton’s and Cunningham’s, keeps them busy. This is particularly fetching in Shuffle It Right (2008), in which they do everything but shuffle. Peter Todd has costumed the 10 cast members for a relaxed dance party; the men wear shirts and trousers and the women differently patterned dresses (costumes by Peter Todd). The piece is set to nine wonderful recordings of Hoagy Carmichael songs, sung by the composer in that lazy, smoke-filled voice of his—sometimes while his fingers ripple over the piano keys. He stops, starts over, mutters once, “I can’t play that crap,” then does. The opening bit of dancing for tall Wayne Parsons and smaller Pierre Tapon reflects that informality.

Alston skeins patterns both buoyant and dug-in over the stage. You note contradance formations and couples snuggled close together spoon fashion, swaying in rhythm. When songs written in the 1940s, like “Don’t Forget to Say ‘No’ Baby,” allude to World War II romances, the choreography hints at the style of some of those stagedoor-canteen encounters. But Alston is not one to tell stories in his dances. Nor does he go for a lot of fancy lifts. A duet of his most often involves two people doing the same steps side by side. And all 10 personable dancers get a chance to catch your eye without breaking the flow of the choreography. Anneli Binder ends the piece with a lovely solo to “Stardust”; the lights go out on her kneeling on the floor gazing out from her memories.

Shuffle It Right is delightful—a silky, perky, neat, good-humored work. But as the evening progresses, I realize that one principle Alston didn’t absorb from Cunningham is that, while unison has its uses, having dancers do different steps at the same time not only emphasizes their individuality but enriches the stage picture. Many times in an Alston work, everyone on stage is in lockstep, and to me, that detracts from the sense of easy-going, unassertive fellowship that he wants to convey.

This is true in his 1994 Movements From Petrushka, which distills the lively, variegated crowd scene that opens Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 work for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes into dances for four men and four women that have a peasant heartiness. The music is Igor Stravinsky’s own piano distillation of parts of his original score. Instead of the forlorn puppet alone in his room, we see an awkward, contorted man (Tapon), who conveys the growing madness of Vaslav Nijinsky, the performer who created the title role. The most interesting thing about the piece is the fact that the splendid pianist Jason Ridgeway sits at his instrument centerstage in front of one, then another pared-down version of Alexandre Benois’s painted backdrops of St. Petersburg and carnival demons. The eight dancers in their white shirts and black pants frame Ridgeway or dance robustly in front of him, while Tapon lurks at the edges of the stage, clutching his head, tumbling, windmilling his arms—both the puppet and the man who played him.

Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days is not the kind of musical composition most people associate with him. He invited Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, and Suzanne Vega to create lyrics for a song or two, set the resultant words to music and recorded them with well-known performers—among them the Kronos Quartet and Linda Ronstadt. It’s almost a shock when a high tenor voice floats up from heavy beats and stentorian chords during the dance’s opening. I caught only snatches of the lyrics of the three songs Alston chose: “Open the Kingdom” (Byrne), “Changing Opinion” (Simon), and “Lightning” (Vega). Occasionally the familiar Glass structure take over—the repeating, pulsing modules that keep rising in pitch until you think the roof will fly off (at which point I flash back to Twyla Tharp’s shattering In the Upper Room and its Glass score).

Alston’s many buoyant or skimming steps mate with linear patterns that break apart and reassemble. Again, unison rules, and it’s a sudden pleasure when, in “Changing Opinion” (the section led by Hannah Kidd and Parsons), dancers erupt into individual bursts of movement for a few seconds. The performers are splendid. Sonja Peedo and Andres de Blust-Mommaerts stand out in the first section, and Tapon in the third. In that last part, Binder, Charlotte Eatock, and Genevieve Watson form a lively trio to driving music, encircling de Blust-Mommaerts as he jumps amid them.

The musicality and well-wrought designs of the choreography, as well as the verve and the unaffected manners of the dancers, make Alston a master in his native land. His work is a welcome relief here from some of the sex-charged violence on view these days, and I’m happy watching his dances. Only occasionally do I mutter under my breath, “Let the patterns splinter!” “Let the dancers break out!” “Make the stage a less tidy world just for a moment.” “Go ahead, break my heart.”

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