Dance celebrates the music of Thomas Adès at New York City Center.
“His music moves from here to there in a way that is at heart choreographic.” Music critic and historian James M. Keller wrote those words in a program note for “Thomas Adès: Concentric Paths—Movements in Music,” the Sadler’s Wells London’s production of four dances set to Adès scores, an event in Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Watching and listening during Wayne McGregor’s Outlier, Karole Armitage’s Life Story, Alexander Whitley’s The Grit in the Oyster, and Crystal Pite’s Polaris is an absorbing experience—much of it due to the music. And Adès himself was present in the performance, conducting the first and last pieces and playing piano for the two middle ones.
In line with Keller’s observation, Adès has spoken of his process the way a choreographer might speak of composing a dance: “The moment I put a note down on paper, it starts to slide around the page. And the writhing that I could see when I look at a note under the microscope, you would see with any living thing.” Not only does the fascinating music heard at the Lincoln Center performances slide and writhe, it pounces, falls silent, soars into melody, crashes; elements within it wrangle, punch each other out, and bed down together.
The nine dancers in Company Wayne McGregor perform Outlier (2010) to Adès’s 2005 three-movement Violin Concerto (“Concentric Paths”). The title of the first movement, “Rings,” inspired Lucy Carter’s design on the backdrop: concentric shaded circles of red light, whose flaming center eventually becomes dark gray. For “Paths,” the circles give way to contiguous gray columns, as if a sheet of paper, folded into an accordion had been stretched out.
In this work, created for New York City Ballet in 2010, the dancing is not intimately involved with the music, nor is it not not involved. Given the nature of Adés’s score, the atmosphere becomes that of a dangerous playground, in which a venturesome bunch of people wearing practice clothes and no heavy makeup advance their own agendas simultaneously, connect in risky ways, and hang around to watch what’s going on. There’s no joy in this for them; McGregor bends the classical vocabulary into a gale of flying legs and arms, with the dancers’ bodies twisting through crannies of space. The hand of William Forsythe hangs over the goings-on.
James Pett dances first alone (perhaps he is the “outlier,” isolated from the others in some way, just as the violin played by Thomas Gould is a often questing individual voice).The women—as exemplified in a duet for Daniela Neugebauer and Travis Clausen-Knight—are manhandled in ingeniously violent ways; their encounters seem neither sexual nor amorous. After a crash, answering thumps , and a blackout have brought the “Rings” section to an end, and “Paths” has begun, Pett and Clausen-Knight collaborate to do even more complex and uncomfortable things with the remarkable Neugebauer.
The stage picture is highly active, busy, changeable. “Paths” is further complicated by the dancers’ shadows edging in on the backdrop. But McGregor tidies things up for “Round,” and the lights brighten significantly. Nine dancers working their tails off in three lines of three. In three trios. The other fine and interesting dancers who make all this work are Louis McMiller, Mbuelo Ndabeni, Anna Nowak, Catarina Carvalho, Alvaro Dule, and Jessica Wright.
Armitage created Life Story in 1999 for two New York City Ballet principals, Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans; premiered in London, it was first seen in New York during the Joyce Theater’s 2001 Altogether Different series. The choreographer made a daring decision in choosing for her music Adès’s 1994 setting of a 1950s freestyle poem by Tennessee Williams about himself (referred to as “you”) and a stranger in a one-night stand. The sex is over; they’re smoking and getting up to pee and telling each other their life stories, becoming increasingly tired as they do so.
I hear you wondering, “is this a workable topic for a duet?” Well, it’s certainly a strange one. And the most continuously compelling thing about this performance of it is soprano Anna Dennis, who leans indolently into the crook of the onstage piano that Adès is playing (pouncing on it at the start). Her voice and manner wonderfully capture Williams’s take-it-or-leave-it text and the exhaustion that overcomes the protagonists.
In a program mini-essay, Armitage refers to Life Story as “a hilarious and heart-wrenching portrait of two people who spend the night together, sharing only their complete absence of intimacy.” It was Armitage’s intent for the dancers to embody the score, bringing out its dramatic contrasts through their dynamics and timing. Yet never has a post-coital conversation been expressed so strenuously. That’s what gives the duet its edge of weirdness.
The artist David Salle, who has frequently collaborated with Armitage, has dressed dancers Ruka Hatua-Saar and Emily Wagner in selective dishabille; he has his trousers on but rolled up; she’s wearing a blouse and underpants. Wagner—tall, leggy, highly bendable, and on pointe—has wound her red hair into two buns, the way a dancer playing a dog might do. The huskier Hatua-Saar handles her with good humor and the kind of interest that their exchanges of personal histories might engender. She is pert. He is forthright. She dances intricately and energetically, often with his intricate and energetic assistance, and one or the other of the two may also convey a bit of the pique or sullenness expressed in Williams’s laconic poem (printed in the program). A couple of times, he bends over and she sits perkily on his back, as if that’s what he’s there for. By the end, they’re both drooping, falling asleep as Dennis’s voice softens. However, they summon up the energy to spin offstage. In opposite directions, of course.
After two dances that show the human body as a complicated mechanism, better at expressing wayward, sometimes competing goals, Whitley’s 2014 The Grit in the Oyster (a commission by Sadler’s Wells London) is something of a relief, in that the movement that he has created for a trio of dancers is texturally simpler, less dense. The music he chose is Adès’s fine Piano Quintet (2000), and it’s a treat to have the musicians of the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook. Jonathan Moerschel, Eric Byer) onstage along with the composer.
In his program essay, Whitley has listed in part the qualities that drew him to this music as the interplay between “searching melodies and driving rhythms, chaotic dissonance and tender harmony.” He also found in an interview Adès’s reference to F as a “fetish note” in the score (presumably akin to the irritating grain of sand around which the oyster willy-nilly creates a pearl).
While the instruments of the ensemble begin by chasing one around, Antonette Dayrit embarks on a solo. The steps are big and open; she may drop to the floor and rise again within a movement phrase. Lighting designer Lee Curran offers her a private pool of radiance. But this is a trio, in which Dayrit, Natalie Allen, and Wayne Parsons embrace, scrimmage, and streak along the floor. They also pause at times—for instance, staring in the same offstage direction, then moving calmly toward and away from that focal point, while the piano and violin go crazy. It may be their moments of stillness amid their turns and falls that distinguish The Grit in the Oyster from the two previous works, or maybe it’s such intimations of tenderness as Dayrit helping her colleagues to rise from the floor by placing the palms of her hands beneath their cheeks.
Although the rhythms and textures of the choreography are more even than those in Adès’s marvelous Piano Quintet, Whitley does create a sense of three people journeying together through a thorny landscape in the same way that the music, cast in sonata form, makes its sure way, sampling earlier musical styles as it goes.
For Pite’s Polaris, (also a Sadler’s Wells London commission), Adès again takes to the orchestra pit to conduct his 2010 piece of the same name. Just as well. Six diverse dancers (Shay Kuebler, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Spenser Theberge, and Tiffany Tregarthen) are all but overcome by sixty-six students from the Dance Department of New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
The title, of course, refers to the North Star—a fixed point around which the stars revolve and the magnetic point on which sailors fix their compasses. Keller’s progam essay refers to Adès’s “magnetic series” from which the melodies of this piece derive and to the “anchoring pitch” to which they return “as if magnetized.” Pite has created that magnetism and that power in thrilling ways. Her use of mass recalls the “movement choirs” of laymen that Rudolf Laban devised in Germany in the 1920s. In her program note, she says she finds that “a flock of swarm of humans aligned in their task is both chilling and beautiful; the collective body has enormous power.”
The huge, black-clad crowd of dancers pulses and throbs; a cluster, magnetized, is gradually pulled out into a heaving line, drawn offstage and yanked back again. This in mysterious light in front of a misty, indecipherable landscape (Pite has revealed its source: Jay Gower Taylor’s photographs of a lake at dawn set on end on a textured surface).
Walking crawling, rushing, the ensemble builds itself into hills and valleys. The dancers form chains and cause movement to ripple along them. Racing into a pyramidal cluster at the back, they become the train of a gigantic skirt or a gush of black oil. Over and over, a single impulse travels through the group. Once, they crouch, their heads to the floor, their slightly bent arms spread low to either side, and with stiff hands vibrate their pressed-together fingers against the surface to create a muted tempest of tapping amid the cataclysmic storms and pockets of quiet in Adès’s music.
Members of the smaller group of six may be suddenly marooned—for two men to dance briefly, or all six, or a man and a women—before they are again submerged by the re-entering tide of black-clad figures (Linda Chow has costumed all the performers alike in gleaming black coveralls). But Pite does not present them as heroes; they are selective forces—planets, who knows. . . . or, if you wish, simply as the individuals who rise to brief prominence in a society magnetized into action by shared beliefs. To me, the choreography conveys forces of nature on the move—a human, time-lapse image of lava flowing, earthquakes surging, continents dividing.