Three choreographers shower their talents on New York City Ballet
The only perplexing thing about Justin Peck’s new work for the New York City Ballet is its diacritically enriched title: ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes. In every other way, his ballet for a company in which he is both a soloist and its resident choreographer is clear, brilliant, and brave. Brave because he has set his work to the splendid score that Aaron Copland wrote for Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo (subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch)—or rather, to the orchestral suite that Copland then made of it, eliminating one of its five sections. In the course of Peck’s plotless ballet, those people familiar with the music may identify his “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz,” and “Hoe-Down,” and visions of de Mille’s cowgirl who wants to ride with the boys may flash periodically in some spectators’ minds.
But in the end, those intrusive memories don’t matter, and they dissipate like horses let loose from that decades-ago corral. Copland wrote a dramatic score, with jolts and pauses to convey riding an unbroken horse and awkward moments between people. Peck approaches the music and its ambiance in his own way—creating in formal terms the sense of racing through a big, open space; being corralled; falling and being caught; feeling despondent. When a piece of music gradually winds down, Daniel Ulbricht is ready to decelerate a multiple pirouette—one straight leg held out to the side—and end it handily.
Like de Mille, Peck focuses on the men. He cast three principal guys (Gonzalo Garcia, Andrew Veyette, and Ulbricht) plus one (Amar Ramasar) who gets the only girl on this virtual ranch (Sara Mearns). Then there’s a bare-legged, five-man posse, and a another one of six fellows in trousers. So: fifteen men to deploy. Except there were sixteen at ‘Rōdē,ō’s premiere. Veyette had injured himself in Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations the night before, and Peck made an engaging little speech before the curtain went up, explaining that he himself would do his best to dance Veyette’s role for the first part of the ballet, and Sean Suozzi would take it on for the last part. We audience members were urged to hope all would go smoothly, and it did (although, of course, Veyette was missed).
Conductor Andrews Sill and the NYCB orchestra gave the music a rousing performance. Brandon Stirling Baker lit the stage simply and effectively. Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck came up with costumes for the men that suggested outfits for a team playing some hitherto unknown sport. Mearns’ attire is more enigmatic: a skimpy lavender leotard with a short, snug, deep red velvet top. When she makes her first entrance and starts dancing, the men are standing around in small clusters, chatting. Eventually they spot her spinning and joke among themselves (the moment acknowledges de Mille without making a big deal out of it). She leaves. Ramasar looks dejected. Then the men drop face-down and beat the floor, as if they had hooves; in short order, they haul one another up and start jumping some more.
What’s evident from the start is Peck’s interest in what might, in earlier decades, be termed “plastique.” That is, among the rushings on and offstage and vigorous unison dancing, sculptural groups often form and reform. During a sweet musical passage early on, for instance, the fifteen men divide into three identical clusters of five, and twine and dip to evolve a bridge for one guy to duck low under. I worried at first that the choreography conveyed less of a sense of open space than the music did, but the rambunctiousness of Copland’s score and the lusty energy of much of the dancing weighs against that.
Peck’s choreography for the five men in shorts is extremely interesting. In the 2nd Episode (Copland’s “Corral Nocturne”) the music turns dreamy and the lighting soft. The dancers move together smoothly, supporting one another, shifting the nature of their formation. Twice, they hold hands, and Taylor Stanley (who earlier performs a bright, neat little solo) yanks them toward the front of the stage (it’s as if a whip has been cracked); they pull him back, and both times, he briefly breaks away, bending over and clutching his belly.
That feeling of comradeship pervades ‘Rōdē,ō, as does the occasional isolation of an individual. In one moment, Ulbricht, having burst into a solo, falls back and is caught by a pack of men (this maneuver becomes a motif). But they go off together, and he’s left alone for a few seconds, looking rather forlorn, like de Mille’s cowgirl. Despite the finely structured movement, whether boisterous or lyrical, the atmosphere is one of informality. Once four men sit on the edge of the stage, dangle their legs over, and check out the musicians in the pit. Once, Ramasar gazes out at us as if we’re part of the landscape, then reaches down at the front of the stage and pulls a taut rope out of the floor. His move ignites the cymbal crash that ushers in the 4th Episode and Copland’s jubilant “Hoedown.”
Peck sets his 3rd Episode duet to the “Saturday Night Waltz.” The composer based much of Rodeo on well-known cowboy tunes; his waltz polishes, caresses, and loops around “I Ride an Old Paint” in heartbreakingly beautiful ways. The duet—long at about three and a half minutes—is remarkable in the way Peck structures the love between the partners. Yes, Ramasar lifts and supports Mearns at times, but she also assists him, and they dance together as equals, ravished by the music and what it brings out in them. Here too, I missed, briefly, that sense of open spaces that Copland conveys in his music. The only space this man and woman know is just large enough to contain both of them dancing together.
The wonderful contrasting energies and rhythms of ‘Rōdē,ō’s choreography, the skill with which Peck deploys his squads, and the clarity and fullness of the performing are remarkable. As is the ballet’s relation to its score and all that clings to that great piece of music.
On February 4, Peck’s ballet was sandwiched between Alexei Ratmansky’s 2014 Pictures at an Exhibition and Christopher Wheeldon’s 2000 Mercurial Maneuvers. An all-star program that might well have charmed the late master of the house, George Balanchine. Like Rōdē,ō, Ratmansky’s ballet (whose October premiere I unaccountably missed) tells no story, but, as in Peck’s work, images of character and emotion, of comradeship and love, seethe up within and around the dances.
Ratmansky’s choice of décor was an intriguing one, especially considering that Mussorgsky subtitled his 1874 piano suite “A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann.” Hartmann’s paintings and sketches ignited the titles and ambiances in Mussorgsky’s music—titles such as “The Old Castle” and “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” and “Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuÿle.” But the atmosphere of Ratmansky’s ballet has nothing in common with the somewhat murky realism of Hartmann’s work. Instead, Wendall K. Harrington’s video projections dissect Wassily Kandinsky’s luminous, candy-bright 1913 Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles, and the costumes by Adeline Andre allude to the artist’s shapes and palette (unfortunately, these outfits are, to my mind, both awkward and unbecoming). So a painter on whose work 20th-century Russian policy makers eventually frowned mates with a musical vision of Tsarist Russia.
While Cameron Grant, at a piano situated at the side of the stage apron, brilliantly plays Mussorgsky’s music (much lighter in spirit than the Hartman paintings that inspired it), five male dancers and five women create Ratmansky’s images. Playfulness is an ingredient from the outset. Kandinsky’s painting fills the backdrop with its twelve squares of vivid, loosely defined nested circles, and, in front of it, the dancers arrange themselves in three graded rows to watch one person toss off a brief solo before dislodging another to dance and taking his/her place in the “bleachers.” This game proceeds (to Mussorsky’s march-like “Promenade”), with the dancers watching each new soloist display some steps, until everyone has had a turn. The well-known tune and variants of it crop up between almost every named section, as if the listeners were walking from one painting to another or to another room in a museum.
As for Kandinsky’s painting, designer Harrington takes it apart with fluid ease and sets its components dancing. Now, free of the squares, one of the circles within circles becomes huge; now only a few show up; now some tiny ones drift up as if into a night sky. The background color changes, and Mark Stanley’s skillful lighting keeps the onstage patterns bright. Like the dancers, Kandinsky’s escaped shapes seem to take turns becoming prominent.
Do not look for Mussorgsky’s “unhatched chicks.” You will only see the five men (Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joseph Gordon, Garcia, and Ramasar) playing contrapuntal two-against-three games with fine athletic fervor, at the end of which, one of them (Danchig-Waring) points out something on the ground and alludes to it again while he’s dancing with Gretchen Smith; she rides him offstage. You will not envision Paris’s “Tuilleries” when Lauren Lovette dances to that racing piece of music, although she’s a flower that could grace any garden. But you might well see something of “The Gnome” in Mearns’s solo; Ratmansky’s choreography follows the dark turbulence in the music, and Mearns often covers ground slightly bent over as if seeing things on the floor and in the surrounding space.
Ratmansky’s bounty of dances shows off the performers wonderfully. Angle and Sterling Hyltin (in a role created for Wendy Whelan) are excellently paired. Hyltin is so light and fluent that when she jumps and turns, he seems to snatch her out of the air. In other duets, Garcia is paired with Lauren Lovette, and Gordon with Indiana Woodward. Ramasar plucks Mearns away from a conversational moment with Smith and Woodward for a dance to Mussorgsky’s “Baba Yaga.” Watching, you never feel, “oh, another pas de deux.” And there’s more. Four women stay close together for a few moments that suggest a folk dance, then hold hands in a chain and exit with perky little sidesteps. In one full-cast section titled “With the Dead in a Dead Language,” four couples dance simultaneously, each pair with different steps to do, and pretty soon, three male-female pairs and two same-sex pairs turn the stage into a artful version of village market square, in which one person may break away from a partnership and cut in on another one. Or maybe all the “pictures” in the exhibition have come off the walls and are dancing together.
Russian music opened the evening, and Russian music closes it. Dmitry Shostakovich finished writing his Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra in 1933, before his compositions yielded to soviet pressure and demands. Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres abounds in spirited marching (as well as slow marching in red light), and the corps de ballet dancers’ smart blue tunics with red and white trim (by Carole Divet)—plus matching long pants for the men— make them resemble enthusiastic youth groups on parade. The red panels that slowly lift at the beginning suggest the dawning of a new era, and Anthony Huxley, dressed in red and wonderfully nimble, gives the impression of not only an enthusiastic young leader, but of a revolutionary Firebird. As opposed to the ensemble’s bright, tautly organized drills (not always to music that decrees it), he sprints through space, attracting followers.
The interplay among the summoning trumpet (played by Raymond Mase), the rippling piano (played by Alan Moverman) and the string orchestra led by Sill is stunning. And Wheeldon’s maneuvering of his twelve ensemble women, four ensemble men, two bright-footed demi-soloists (Sara Adams and Kristen Segin), plus Huxley, Tiler Peck, and Jared Angle results in masterly patterns. Arresting images materialize. At one moment, Angle walks upright, while the floor-bound men creep along in a group, as if he were a hero and they his living chariot. Some of the women, lifted high, make paddling gestures with their hands. After all, there’s no war in sight. These drills could even be part of a sports festival.
Peck and Angle dance beautifully together. What I find wonderful about her is not only her pure gold technique, but the illusion she creates of willing the movements she performs. If you didn’t know that Wheeldon created them, you’d think she made them up in collaboration with her partner. And in her dreams.
It’s remarkable that all three ballets on this program not only showcase marvelously interesting dancing on the part of every cast member; they all, in various ways, introduce elements and patterns that suggest small human dramas or moments of emotion, without resorting to telling stories. The result is that the dancers, despite their exceptional skills, reveal themselves as thinking, feeling human beings.