How do you like your ballerinas? Whole or disjointed? Plain fried or all sauced up? Whichever turns choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti on this year, he clearly finds the women of the New York City Ballet delicious and wants to tickle our palates.
In Luce Nascosta, his fourth ballet for the company, which is premiering on NYCB’s “Architecture of Dance” season, he redefines the Balanchine-bred bodies of both male and female. The chicken analogy is not unconsidered. Marc Happel has imaginatively costumed the women in tight-fitting, long-sleeved black bodices that end just under their breasts and a black tutu of sorts, longer in back and with graduated tiers of ruffles that start at the hips (the men, bare-chested, wear full black pants). Bigonzetti’s favored stance for the women is wide-legged and sway-backed, one hip thrust out. And, partly because of the plumage effect of the skirts and the expanse of bare midriff, the dancers’ extravagantly arching, stretching, undulating torsos and spiky pointework suggest not only birds but ballet-trained burlesque queens pretending to be birds, preening before equally flexible mates. Or an entirely different race of humanoids.
Bigonzetti creates a distinct style for each ballet he makes. The initial pas de deux for Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia introduces this one. Every move is controlled and—except for the snaky bodies—angular and jabbing. The dancers flex their feet, crook their elbows, cock their wrists, and splay their fingers. Gonzalo and Peck strain against each other even as he supports her, as if they were individually posed statues that someone—rather too late—felt might make an attractive whole. At the back, just beginning to be visible, the other 16 dancers try out different jutting, hippy moves.
Wanting to show off individual dancers (even though they all move alike), Bigonzetti focused on pulling solos, duets, and small ensembles from the group’s entrances and exits. Oh those exits! Sometimes a cluster just walks offstage, as if those in it had better things to do; sometimes the performers back off, angled arms held up in front of them, one hand higher than the other—a recurring gesture suggesting an appeal to a higher power. Perhaps he intended to present a vision of an unsettling future world, or a dark, underworld colony going about its rites (the title translates as Unseen Light). There is effective illumination, of course (by Mark Stanley), but it often has the glow of lamplight, and the set by the much-admired architect Santiago Calatrava consists of a large suspended golden disk, which, over the course of the ballet, births several smaller ones from either side and then sucks them back in.
The choreography, while strangely fascinating, maintains a sameness of tone throughout the ballet. After a while, it becomes almost monotonous to see one woman after another take a run toward a man and skid the last few feet, at which he grabs her and gives her quick 180-degree turn; here’s a motif in love with itself. The score by Bigonzetti’s longtime collaborator, Bruno Moretti, is full of almost melodramatic shifts, but only occasionally does a whiff of narrative scent the ballet (Terese Reichlen walks in from a downstage corner, and those onstage take a look at her, raise their hands, and back away). However, this ballet is about the physical, not the emotional. Reichlen twists her long limbs and hyper-mobile torso around as if she’s test-driving this new body. Later, Jared Angle seems to have a similar mission, investigating how many off-balance positions he can jerk Peck into and out of. He positions her—bent over on pointe, with both knees hinged, and one foot well ahead of the other—and thinks about leaving her there; later, Amar Ramasar tries the same strategy with Maria Kowroski.
You can share Bigonzetti’s admiration of these superbly accomplished, up-for-anything dancers: Craig Hall and Sean Suozzi in one side-by-side male display; Christian Tworzyanski and Adrian Danchig-Waring in another; Danchig-Waring in an oozy solo; and Ashley Bouder in a similarly rippling one—looking as if she’s oiled her joints, and behaving extra-racily, with her hair in its (usually disguised) everyday coiffure of a short bob with bangs.
The program on which Luce Nascosta premiered attested to the versatility of some of these dancers: Craig Hall as a sensitive, gentle partner for Wendy Whelan in the ravishing duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain; Peck as the sweetly flirty mistress of spins in Balanchine’s Gershwin work, Who Cares?; Danchig-Waring, coolly neo-classical in Wheeldon’s ballet and, with Suozzi and others, a cocky young man-about-town in Who Cares? A choreographer can bend these dancers into just about any shape, and all it takes is an intermission for them to recalibrate themselves: Sexy poultry on a dark planet? Give me a second. . .Okay, I’m ready.
Luce Nascosta will be performed again June 18 and on the June 19 matinee.
Across the plaza at the Met, American Ballet Theatre wisely breaks its season of multi-act narrative classics by inserting occasional mixed bills. One matinee featured a revival of Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Paul Taylor’s Company B, and Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free—a nice contrast to the well-loved tutu-and-tiara works.
Tharp made Brahms-Haydn for ABT (it premiered in 2000 as Variations on a Theme by Haydn). It seems both familiar and fresh in this staging by Stacy Caddell, an alumna of NYCB as well as a former member of Twyla Tharp Dance. Tharp may have had some setbacks in her dogged pursuit of success on Broadway, but at her best, working with companies she reveres, she most often comes up with pieces that spin music and dancing together with a brilliance that few choreographers can match. Watching Brahms-Haydn, you don’t notice the mechanics of how she interweaves three principal couples, two secondary ones, and an ensemble of 16. The steps ride the music, play with it, delve into it and come up flying. Flurries of diverse, outrageously fast steps resolve into decorous unison. Symmetry appears, calms the stage down, and is then agreeably subverted. Dancers wearing Santo Loquasto’s subtly cut costumes in muted copper (the leading dancers) or pale blue (the corps) appear from nowhere and skim into Jennifer Tipton’s clear light. They’d seem to be drawn on and off the stage like moths in search of warmth if it weren’t for the integrity of the structure.
David Hallberg and Veronika Part establish the theme, with two flanking pairs slightly behind them, but almost immediately order is breached with comings and goings. Couples enter or pass through, the men bearing their partners aloft. They do this many times during the ballet, but the kind of lift keeps changing; once, the women are held in an inverted position that refers to its upright, grounded cousin: the arabesque. Anything Brahms wants to do with Haydn’s grandly assertive theme Tharp can match (but not copy exactly). And she keeps your eyes busy; interesting little adventures happen behind the main event, or even occlude it. Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes are so deep in a lovely duet (Herrera’s sense of plastique is remarkable; she molds in and out of each new position with silky ease) that a brief appearance by Hallberg and Part in a corner does nothing to distract them. Although Brahms does tickle them with a new variation that makes them twitch a bit, while a bunch of women make a rabbity foray across the back. Herrera takes off, and Gomes is still trying to grab her as she exits.
This is a very good and very musical game that Tharp is playing. Movements get copied, travel through a group; duets for Julie Kent and Sascha Radetsky and for Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreño bubble up (when has a few triple-turn fouettés looked as offhand as Murphy makes them seem?). Every featured dancer has moments of prominence and gives them resonance: Yuriko Kajiya, Craig Salstein, Sarah Lane, Carlos Lopez, Luciana Paris, and Eric Tamm.
The ABT dancers do extremely well by Taylor’s Company B, with its clever juxtaposition of the Andrews Sisters’ bubbly World War II songs and the silhouetted images of soldiers (some of the same men who’ve just been dancing boisterously) marching, shooting, falling. Salstein is terrific as the gleeful be-spectacled fellow of Oh Johnny, who has almost more admiring women than he can cope with, and Simone Messmer is poignant as the widowed girl of “There Will Never Be Another You” remembering her lover (a somewhat staid Grant DeLong). Maria Riccetto and Roddy Doble rollicked infectiously in “Pennsylvania Polka.” The matinee crowd adored Danil Simkin’s high jumps and higher spirits, although he pushed the jazziness a little.
Speaking of pushing, Ethan Stiefel gave a very strange performance as the shyest and gentlest of the three sailors in Robbins’s Fancy Free, another World War II ballet. In an excellent cast consisting of Herman Cornejo, Carreño, Stella Abrera, Murphy, and Leann Underwood, Stiefel stood out in ways both good and unfortunate. It was as if he had subjected his character to a bit too much actorly psychoanalysis. He overplayed innocence to the point of implying the kid is a fumbling yokel (just because his two buddies can keep tricking him into buying the drinks?). Gazing amorously at Murphy, he paused so long before beginning his show-off solo for the two women that conductor Charles Barker had to wait longer than usual to give the downbeat for the number. Once Stiefel and Murphy eased into dancing together, however, their tentative tenderness was both convincing and moving.
Fancy Free is an amazing little ballet—both for Robbins’s scenario and choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s tightly fitting, wonderfully ingenious score. Made during 1943 and 1944, when sailors by the thousand were shipping out to fight in World War II, you’d think its characters might seem dated, but they still ring true, and every step they do tells us something about them and the human impulses that are as familiar to us as the day before yesterday.
Alvin Ailey’s Mary Lou’s Mass premiered in 1971, 11 years after his epochal Revelations. As the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company’s punctilious restaging by Masazumi Chaya for its BAM season reveals, the work is longer and larger in scale than the original small-cast Revelations. However, the movement vocabulary is, like Rev’s, more related to Ailey’s training in Lester Horton’s modern dance technique than to the ballet influences that later crept in. Hinged-at-the-knee, backward falls; big, sailing turns; and long, tilted balances with one leg held high—all these mingle with the strides and struts that align the dancing with composer-pianist Mary Lou Williams’s gorgeously variegated jazz-and-gospel Mass.
Ailey structured the work’s many short sections to make the Mass visible—Kyrie, Gloria, Act of Contrition, Scripture reading, the whole kaboodle. This congregation moves in synchrony, and its symmetrical formations—often with the priest at its center—suggest church architecture, while some group patterns set in motion the lines a choir stands in. However, A. Christina Giannini designed costumes that, though elegantly and subtly designed, are fit for a tropical revue. The priest (Amos J. Machanic Jr. in the cast I saw) wears a full, dark cassock with a purple stole, but most of the time, the other six men wear pants and loose shirts of pink or pink with beige, while the women are garbed in long blue skirts with strapless yellow overdresses. When they whirl back and forth across the stage, they look like bright-plumaged birds.
It’s not only the costumes that evoke musical numbers, despite the many gestures of prayer and worship. Much of the time, the dancers face front and aim their dancing at the audience. But there’s another aspect to the simple patterning and vivid colors. The stage brings to mind folk paintings of rituals—every figure and pose legible.
Solos stand for personal utterance. Briana Reed, clad in white, dances the Lord’s Prayer to sweet music, straining upward from the floor like the male soloist in Revelations’s “I Want To Be Ready.” And the biblical tale of Lazarus and the rich man is enacted wittily. Once resurrected, poor Lazarus (Antonio Douthit) becomes full of his own holiness, wearing it like a prize-winning costume, and refusing (for a while anyway) to pardon the groveling, burning-in-hell rich man (Yannick Lebrun) who’d refused him food and shelter.
The company dances powerfully, as always, although at the performance I attended, I was surprised to see, especially during the jubilant hosannas of the “Sanctus,” some of the women focusing on doing the steps fully, but not feeling the rapture. Praise god for Hope Boykin!
If you want a work infused with spirituality that also displays every dancer in it as a radiant individual, you need to see Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit, which is performed between Mary Lou’s Mass and Revelations on the AAADC’s Program A at BAM. This piece, which premiered on the company’s December-January season, is one of Brown’s finest. It’s set to what could be termed an eclectic selection of music by Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead, and War, but its consistency of feeling and design anchors them all.
The choreography, as in all Brown’s works, is grounded in the earthy, springy, rhythmically sophisticated styles of African dance, with moves more akin to contemporary Western dance fully absorbed and transformed. The nine performers, wearing variously cut white costumes with blue shading, enter one by one on a diagonal, feeding into a simple, richly designed pattern and exiting when they reach the corner. Clifton Taylor’s lighting accentuates their progress beautifully. Only two remain when a new element enters: again, one by one, people dance across the back of the stage, come forward, cross the front, and exit. As it accumulates, we see all the strands at once.
Brown has mastered compositional strategies that were of less interest to Ailey. In Dancing Spirit, he gives us contrapuntal groups and passages in which every person on stage is moving in a private celebration. The dancers rarely focus on the audience, which increases the sense of a community ritual. In this work, it’s not just the occasional prominent figure (like Matthew Rushing) that you marvel at, or the soloist (the beautiful Constance Stamatiou). You see them all—Reed, Boykin, Douthit, Rosalyn Deshauteurs, Guillermo Asca, Glenn Allen Sims, and Abdur-Rahim Jackson—in ways you’ve never quite seen them before. The projected planetary globe that gradually swims out of darkness on the backdrop is not more glowing.