I have never been in Philip Johnson’s immense second-floor lobby in the New York State Theater when it was empty of audience members. I’m not familiar with the grids marked on its floor. Before the pandemic, it was a place where friends and colleagues chatted, compared notes, and maybe bought drinks during intermissions of the New York City Ballet’s performances. (I usually remembered not to leave empty glasses on the pediment of one of Elie Nadelman’s two gigantic white sculptures).
Today I’ve been there virtually, the lobby’s vast space diminished to fit my laptop’s screen. Miles away from New York City, I’m watching Kyle Abraham’s new When We Fell, filmed in black and white by director Abraham, Ryan Marie Helfant, and their crew. The eight dancers are about the height of my little finger’s top joint, so you’ll forgive me if I misapply their names. In alphabetical order, they are India Bradley, Jonathan Fahoury, Christopher Grant, Claire Kretschmar, Lauren Lovette, Taylor Stanley, KJ Takahashi, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez.
They’ve been rehearsing this ballet—the third that Abraham has made for the company—up at Kaatsbaan in Tivoli, New York and are now back on their home turf, even if they’re not on the NYST stage. The black-and-white images may refer to the snowy winter days during which When We Fell was created and when getting from their rooms to Kaatsbaan’s theater, where they took class and rehearsed, involved bundling up.
The filmed dancers enter the NYST lobby gradually and slowly, as if they were waking up to dancing. As if to take another’s hand to support oneself on pointe were a kind of compact. Music accompanies the piece’s three sections: Morton Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos, Jason Moran’s “All Hammers and Chairs” from his album The Armory Concert, and Nico Muhly’s “Falling Berceuse,” performed by Stephen Gosling.
In the dark, before the spare piano music sounds, we hear what might be a storm, and Kretzschmer enters the space, seemingly from behind us. How careful she is, as if afraid of waking a sleeping giant! Joining her, Stanley is equally precise and careful, although he adds a jump. They fall into unison without fanfare, but may face in dissimilar directions. You begin to notice what makes Abraham’s choreography differ from, say, Balanchine’s. The dancers’ legs articulate the expected ballet vocabulary, but their hips and shoulders often move in subtly sinuous ways.
Fahoury, joining, stirs up quiet counterpoint. When someone “leaves,” he or she disappears from the screen. But when Bradley and Villarini-Velez enter, Fahoury and Takahashi sit and watch them. A cameraman decides to give us a brief overhead shot. When a fifth person (Lovette, I believe) appears, Abraham delivers three dancers in unison versus a pair.
Now (I think this is the work’s second section), the music roars as if a wind is stirring. Grant is attuned to the marble floor. Sinuous though he is, he kneels, sits, confronts the camera. And like the others, he places his limbs carefully, as if considering their impact.
I like the way Abraham accumulates steps the way he accumulates people. Suddenly the choreographic texture thickens and speeds up. Two men leap into sight, a woman zips by with piqué turns, while a man stands with his back to us. Two guys holding hands turn. Another one makes an enormous jump.
In the end, the space shrinks to a pool of light on the floor (the stage floor). In it, Lovette and Stanley embrace, as do their shadows. These two now seem like equals. They face each other holding hands and both lift a leg into arabesque (since when did raising a leg look like a greeting?). They are embracing when their circle of light shrinks into blackness. Our last sight, if I remember correctly is of the dark, empty New York State Theater. All we see are the necklaces of lights studding the balconies and that immense ball of a chandelier that long ago could rise and descend.
If you watch Abraham’s ballet on the New York City Ballet’s site, you may notice that you have the opportunity to watch another film and listen to these dancers and watch them rehearse. You don’t usually see Stanley with glasses, a mustache, and a beard. Villarini-Velez’s hair is a great deal longer than usual. You probably didn’t know that one of them had a dog who attended rehearsals. More importantly, they and Abraham tell us what it’s like to build a ballet in this way. Regularly tested for a virus, wearing masks at times, they’re doing what they do best, and they do it for a multitude of grateful solitary viewers like me.